For whatever criticism there is to levy against Koji Igarashi and his crew for their handling of the series, there's one thing for which they should be credited: In spite of their series' projects being designated limited resources and a "budget" status, they've been able to persistently release good-great games for our consoles and handheld systems. However, when we look to our calendars to find that it's 2005 going on 2006, more than a decade after consoles have introduced their brand of consumer to the world of three dimensions, we still find ourselves with the same ol' dilemma: In repeated attempts, Konami has been unable to deliver to its rabid followers the definitive 3D "Castlevania" title to stand alongside its contemporaries whose three-dimensional exploits have since become legend.
Even Koji, himself, took issue with the N64 titles, which were haphazard in how they presented the universe that their 2D prequels worked overtime to trademark, and he in 2003 offered in response his vision--Castlevania: Lament of Innocence, which as a finished product was an unrefined amalgam of Symphony of the Night's dogmata and several mechanics borrowed from other popular game-series. We were treated to a good game that much like the N64 entries suffered from a severe case of personality disorder. Still, there was potential embedded within, Koji recognized, and the crew was anything but ready to give up. So they recruited developers from other sectors within Konami and with an added workforce got to work on a direct follow-up, which comes to us in the form of Castlevania: Curse of Darkness for the PS2 and Xbox.
Most curious, as a derivative 3D entry, is Curse of Darkness' placement in the series' not-well-established lineage. That is, it's positioned as a storyline follow-up to Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse (thus the recurrence of the word curse). This is a surprising use of creative license, but, really, it's not so much when you consider Koji's documented affinity for the NES classic. It's through the use of this nostalgic property that Koji wants to create instant intrigue in telling us the story of a man named Hector, a "devil forgemaster" whose life events are somehow related to events remembered from Dracula's Curse. Dracula was killed, we know, but he did not pass from this world in silence; as a parting gesture, he afflicted upon Europe his enigmatic curse, which in three years time had devastated the land. While currently Trevor Belmont investigates these matters, other events fester.
It seems that Hector, once a chief servant to Dracula, has betrayed the Count and has gone AWOL from the hierarchy of his dark forces in favor of seeking a normal life. His troubles begin when his former friend and fellow forgemaster, Isaac, blames this defection and betrayal for Dracula's defeat at the hands of Trevor Belmont and company. In an act of vengeance, the arrogant Isaac uses his power of manipulation to orchestrate against Hector's wife, Rosaly (accused of witchcraft), a sham trial whose result sees her execution by a burning at the stake. Hector, who has since renounced his enormous powers, is helpless to prevent her death. Even then, Hector, now himself revenge-mad, vows to hunt down Isaac at all costs and extract vengeance on behalf of his deceased wife. By giving in to his anger, though, Hector finds himself as a pawn in a game where Isaac looks to humiliate his former friend by goading him into forcible remission. The reality is that Hector must willingly regain his powers, which formerly brought him shame, if he hopes to face Isaac on even terms and follow through on his promise. Eventually, you figure correctly, other erratic, ominous figures will become involved, and an even grander scheme will be revealed.
As the player, your job is not one unexpected: You'll take control of Hector, whose fight mechanics and persona very much mimic those of Leon Belmont, and guide him through several areas of Vallachia (a variant of "Wallachia"), Romania, in his mission to regain all of his powers and confront the flamboyant Isaac in his place of hiding. Considering that Curse of Darkness reuses its engine, Hector is of course modeled in the mold of Lament's aforementioned Leon Belmont: The quick and ferocious Hector at his base attacks with only his fists; though, it's through the combination of a governing RPG system and his propensity to craft new destructive armament that Hector will begin to break beyond these early limits and eventually reach his potency peak. In contrast to Leon, who gradually learned new techniques, Hector will upgrade his fighting ability mostly early on through the location of special artifacts, which will supply him advanced skills like the quick-step evasion and the perfect guard.
The RPG system works as expected, wherein Hector will tear through the game's assortment of enemies to gain experience and thus higher-level status; it's nothing out of the norm. However, of much deeper impact on the system will be the game's process of "forging," on which Hector will rely to gradually become more of a match for enemies that will be perennially growing in power. While, as mentioned, he begins with his fists as the only offensive measure, Hector's status will soon change as he comes into possession of and equips one from five weapons types--swords, axes, spears, knuckles and "special," each assigned several combo attacks that you can pull off by inputting random taps of the buttons "square" and "circle" (dubbed the "Final Attack" button because its push decisively ends any combo with a finishing blow). Disappointingly, combos for weapon types are formula; for example: While, say, several axe-type weapons may appear different cosmetically, they all function the same in terms of combos.
In order to forge any new weapon, Hector will have to gather the necessary elements (metals and other material, each with their own level of rarity) that are either found hidden in random locations or, more abundantly, conveniently dropped or protected by specific enemies; in the case of enemy safeguarding, Hector will have to use his "stealing" ability to wrest from enemies their most prized possessions when they finally leave themselves open--a procedure that changes in difficulty according to the enemy and its attack methods. Hector can then combine elements and even existing weapons/items to forge newer, more destructive fare. This extends to defensive gear, which covers three separate bases: Head, Armor and Accessories (of which you can equip two and then later three under special circumstances). The equipping of weapons and armor, more than level-gaining, is crucial to the raising of stats. Though it's mostly up to him to grow this arsenal, it should be noted that Hector can also purchase armament, along with the obligatory healing items, from Julia's shop in the Balijhet Mountain region.
The other part of the equation is Hector's ability to forge Innocent Devils (a process known simply as "Devil Forging," for which Hector is titled), which serve as helpers akin to the "familiars" from past games. Once Hector frees from stasis a new devil-type, which at birth is sure to be rather weak, he can switch it on and begin evolving it by feeding it Evo Crystals, which are dropped exclusively by slain enemies. The catch is that Hector can control the color of crystal being dropped by slaying enemies with certain weapons (an enemy will drop only a red crystal when slain with a sword-type weapon, for instance), which is important because the evolving of devils is not linear and rather controlled by these crystals; that is, each devil-type has a branching multilevel chart by which its evolution process is mapped. It's up to you, then, to decide which path of evolution you'd like the devil to follow by using the appropriate weapon type(s) and thus collecting the colored crystals of choice; you never quite know what a mound of humanoid-shaped stone will become, but you're likely to be surprised when it ends up morphing into a monstrous golem or, on the other end of the spectrum, a fearsome samurai. While the standard devil has five fully evolved forms, you don't have to take it to this extreme--you can prevent further evolution to, say, a level-three devil form by switching off its ability to absorb crystals.
When present on the field of battle, a devil will attack in its own unique way, by through its mere presence somehow bolstering Hector's stats, and like Hector gain levels through the earning of experience (Hector and the currently selected devil will split the experience for every enemy destroyed). As it gains levels, it will learn new attacks and techniques that could be vital to the adventure's completion (though, the necessary techniques will be learned automatically through the finding of a hidden items). Level-gaining, it should be understood, is wholly separate from the process of evolution, which doesn't really affect the gaining of levels except to limit the number of new attacks learned; that is, a devil form on the left side of the chart may need to fully evolve before it learns its most powerful attacks. Though, if you find that you're unhappy with a devil in its current form because it lacks certain skills, you haven't lost your chance--when a certain amount of enemies have been killed under the supervision of a devil, it will create for you a "devil shard," which you can take to Julia's shop and incubate to form a new, unevolved devil of the same type. By the time you near adventure's end, you'll potentially be able to store in your inventory eight devils of any type or any level of evolution; those devils you don't currently need plus any shards can be stored in Julia's shop and be left to her care.
A devil's course of action can be somewhat controlled through the selection of modes. On "Auto Mode," a devil will attack however it sees fit without regard for its energy meter, which is in part drained through the use of some special attacks or techniques that it's sure to overuse. In "Command Mode," it will use basic attacks and only resort to using special moves when urged to do so. In both cases, you can control which enemy your devil will attack by using Hector's lock-on ability. Finally, in "Guard Mode," it will parry against attacks and, depending on the devil selected, surround itself within a Guard Ring, wherein Hector will also find protection. While it's not necessary to ever fight with the assistance of devils--to, rather, reserve their services for only mandatory scenarios--they'll without a doubt make your life much easier as they overwhelm foes.
It's with all of these advantages that Hector will have to scour ten huge areas in search of his intended target. Unlike in Lament of Innocence, where Leon was confined to the claustrophobic innards of Walter Bernhard's castle with its "portals," Hector will through sheer stamina explore the countryside far and wide, from an abandoned castle to a temple to an aqueduct to a forest and even to a town, which we haven't seen since the adventures of Richter. The formula, while obvious, has some convention: He'll travel through those famed "rooms," solve some unique puzzles with the assistance of Innocent Devils, demonstrate his expertise at firing turrets, tangle with randomly paired foes, battle bosses in natural succession, and garner newfound powers and use them to backtrack and discover entrances to new areas. In this sense, Curse of Darkness' world is not as compressed as its predecessor's, but clearly exhibited is what I'd call "controlled non-linearity," where there exists the illusion of free reign, but you will in reality never be anywhere you're not supposed to be.
Still, something has to be said for this: Curse of Darkness' terrain is so considerable, in fact, that it'll prove to be a larger impediment to Hector, and moreover the player, than any foe or challenge encountered game-wide. Lament of Innocence was heavily criticized for its reliance on the theme of similar-looking rooms connected and bridged to using other similar-looking rooms (or "safety halls," as I called them); while it wasn't the rule, this was done to a point where the player was sometimes hardpressed to even know where he or she was without the assistance of the map. Who knew that Curse of Darkness would see this as a direct challenge and in response take it to a whole new level? Curse of Darkness absolutely overwhelms the player with one similar-looking "room" after another, regardless of shape, to where there's hardly any noticeable change of decor or distinguishable mark by which to set your course; there are so many pointless uses of split paths that you'll often run back to discover that they all wind up leading to the exact same place, which will make you wonder about an ulterior motive ("Was this done to pad the game's length?"). Encompassed is barely any sense of stage interactivity, which only serves to make it so much more obvious when there is a wall or obstruction that can be cleared away.
Dracula's castle, alone, sets the record for most similar-looking room-connector scenarios faced in succession with a number somewhere in the forties; I'm not sure--after a while, I stopped counting out of embarrassment. It's not even the volume of these rooms that's the problem--it's their sheer size. It takes only ten seconds to cross the largest of rooms, true, but when you consider that areas consist mainly of dozens of rooms linked together incoherently, it could take excessive amounts of time to run through an area when all you want to do is uncover maybe one of its secrets. And don't think for a second that one warp point per area is going to make a difference; there's a lot of territory here, and you're certainly doomed to several revisits and run-throughs. Hector will eventually find markers, which can be placed on the map for quick reference, but this doesn't decrease the mileage factor. It helps, I guess, that the majority of big secrets are mercifully placed in proximity to warp points.
Adding to the frustration is the game's torrid use of loading times, which you face between each and every exit and entrance made; these last five-ten seconds and can completely remove you from the game and become infuriating when your destination is thirty rooms ahead and no warp rooms are in sight. (Correspondent Sam Mills notes that the load times for the Xbox version are much more tolerable if in places nonexistent.) The problem is obvious: We needed more in the way of tall vertical-based rooms (or anything out of the norm) to compensate for the derivative design they envisioned; instead, as a result of attempting to translate a 2D-style feel into a 3D setting, neither dimension is presented all that well. Considering Lament's most prominent flaws, I expected more out of this formula the second time through rather than an even weaker base built upon it.
Still, in coveting what worked so well for the series' classic titles, the developers do a good job of maybe distracting from fervent design deficiencies by keeping you busy with a lot of action and violent hijinks. Curse of Darkness' combat system, like Lament's, is a joy to explore, and going absolutely berserk on foes with an array of lightning-quick martial arts and exaggerated weapon types is a almost guilty pleasure. The system is somewhat refined in that you'll be rewarded for learning its intricacies and applying to it your own discipline, but because of Hector's sheer speed and tenacity, there lingers the element of much-less-appealing button-mashing, on which he can rely to clear away the most considerable enemy clusters. Hector, you could say, is a bit overpowered in comparison to Leon Belmont. In that sense, the enemy encounters, which are frequent and quickly grow monotonous in their lack of opponent variety, are merely time-passers as you dredge through the large areas. You'll want to battle enemies to gain experience and pick up random items (also, some enemies must be defeated before certain doors will open), yes--but their designation is only that of "obstacle," which is a 2D tenet but hardly appropriate here where you've gone out of your way to create a deep fighting system as one of the game's draws. If it's Street Fighter II-like thrills you seek, forget it; only the bosses, which are more realized as fighters, will be more apt to provide you with challenging combat and then some.
There's clearly an excess of moves and offensive opportunities of which you may never take advantage, which is indicative of the series growing more and more complicated where more simple ideas are begging to be applied. Curse of Darkness is surely guilty of catering to hardcore-gamer needs. However, it earns points for rightfully abandoning some of the things that Lament did wrong, like the scattered sense of platforming, the application of old, weak gameplay clichés (like "switch-hitting" and "key-finding," which if present are dressed up nicely), and instances of a fixed camera; everything is kept grounded and true to the series' "action" roots. This is important because the camera system, over which the player has total control, isn't perfect and sometimes has trouble keeping up with what is a speedy hero and action that is prone to wildly hectic shifts. The developers seem to realize this, which leads us to a predicament with which I take issue: There are instances where they purposely use the camera against you; a certain enemy will, for instance, quickly dart to a new location and attack from behind knowing that there's no way the player could spin the camera around with such haste. The lock-on ability will help correct this, but there's more to consider--you may not want your devils attacking the same target, for instance. Things can get sloppy in a hurry.
I've never been one to care much about breathtaking visuals where a sense of atmosphere and authenticity is more desired, but it's not difficult to observe that Curse of Darkness' doesn't quite match the graphical pizzazz of Lament of Innocence, which had its share of stunning sights (like the entrance, appearance of, and movements of Medusa in her giant-head form). Its textures and overall look are too dark and dingy, and created is a sense of depression rather than the wonderment we remember from gazing into the depths of, say, Symphony's shadowy catacombs. When there's a problem in the "amount of similar-looking rooms in faced in succession," as discussed, it really does extend to the game's presentation, and this does nothing to quell the sense that this world is plastic and boring, which is sad considering the game to which its a direct sequel; as you push onward, you have nothing to look forward to but the same decor you've experienced countless times before. This is not to say that Curse of Darkness is a bad-looking game, which it certainly isn't, but it never screams to me "Castlevania" or makes me feel like I'm in the universe I once found so intriguing.
Faring better are the character models, which are all nicely constructed and filled to the brim with animation and that vicious disposition we expect. It's a quick-moving game (at least in mechanics), and thus the action, in accordance, is fast, lively and flows with a certain rhythm. The jaunty explosions, fluid loss and particle effects are very much appropriate for the level of violence being displayed. Some of the larger enemies, you'll find, are a little blocky and sometimes unintentionally ugly in appearance, but that's OK because there are always so many enemies present on screen that it's hard to notice unless you stop and stare at them, which probably won't be good for Hector's health. (As usual, blockiness is less of an issue in the Xbox version.)
Curse of Darkness cheats heavily in that it reuses existing models again and again to present newer enemies, but this has attached a pretty clever quirk; that is, enemies are named for their level. For instance: You may early on encounter a weak Skeleton Lv.1, but you can't relax when you encounter this very same enemy later in the game in the form of a tougher Skeleton Lv.38. This benefits the player, who by judging the enemies' (even bosses') level designation should realize on which level he or she should be. Disappointingly, while through this arrangement it has one hundred and forty-six enemies, it in terms of "type" has much less than Lament of Innocence, from which it already borrows a majority of its foes. It makes up for this in one way: It has much more in the way of interesting, personality-filled boss characters, who intimidate in their own respective ways.
While Lament's soundtrack was certainly high in quality, it didn't do much to invoke from me an emotional response. Curse of Darkness' assortment of music has a much bigger challenge in front of it, as it's meant to enhance and enchant what is a rather dull setting. On its own, I find it to be an enjoyable score featuring some memorable tunes like the pulse-heightening Balijhet Mountains, which echoes through the game-area of the same name. The Abandoned Castle, in the tradition of introductory themes from recent games, starts the adventure out with a bang. While it's tough, still, to be drawn into the game's world through only the force of sound, I can't fault the composer, Michiru Yamane, whose tunes are very catchy and sometimes your only source of pleasure as you dredge through the larger game areas. Applied to a more inspired landscape, in maybe a 2D setting, this soundtrack would feel more at home. It certainly does its best here.
The sound effects, as expected, are equally visceral and work well to define the insane action contained on a screen that's hardly fit to hold it. Hector grimaces, grunts and shouts orders as he unleashes his fury on the vile enemies, who in turn taunt, gasp and scream in agony as their fate is sealed. Also featured is voice acting for the main characters whenever they converse in the excellently produced CGI cut-scenes that help continue along the game's plot. The voice work is topnotch, especially in the case of the slithery Isaac, but maybe a little bit over the top in some places, which wasn't received well by those who thought Leon Belmont to be repellent. Even then, Curse of Darkness is an aural feast from beginning to end.
Curse of Darkness' challenge-level is a strange animal in that it's an increasingly difficult game whose balance is in question. As mentioned: The minor enemies don't put up much of a fight; though well equipped, they don't seem all that interested in actually prevailing but rather lining up to be mowed down in large clumps. You can dodge their attacks all day and they certainly won't adapt. This is strange because it does nothing to promote the game's fighting system beyond simple button combinations, which will be of no use to you against the bosses, who really test your mettle regardless of whether or not you're on an appropriate level. If you don't have a strong grasp of the system by the time you reach the Garibaldi Temple, you'll be repeatedly torn apart by bosses like Trevor Belmont and Dullahan, who are deftly skilled.
Another area of imbalance is the programming of the fighting-based Innocent Devils, who if left on their own can pretty much do all of the work for you. Even the lowest-level battle-type devil can plow through a large group of high-level enemies or even a boss without much of a problem. One time, I watched, idly, an evolved battle-type, a Corpsey, absolutely tear through Count Dracula as I stood by and wondered, "Why am I even here?" There are instances where devils don't stand a chance (like against the Legion boss), but this is a rare occurrence. It makes your life easier and can be a lot of fun to witness, yes--but it can take away your sense of control and make you feel useless, especially when the I.D. presence is an integral part of the game, whereas "familiars" were always purely optional.
Curse of Darkness is a Koji production, so you can expect your weight in extras. After clearing the game, you can unlock as a playable character Trevor Belmont, who controls similarly to Leon Belmont though there are some significant differences in terms of fighting style and sub-weapon use. Also opened will be the "Crazy Mode," which is a more difficult mission for Hector. Through the defeat of all of the bosses, including those secret, you can unlock the "Boss Rush" mode, which is the usual marathon battle against all of the game's major guardians. And there's also the sound test for those who like their listening uninterrupted by those pesky game noises.
Furthermore, you can always go back to collect, evolve and manage all of the devil types and put them to the test against the bosses and whatnot, and you can dabble in the game's weapon-forging to try and create everything possible. Trevor's unrelated mission is a nice distraction, too, unique in its handling of power-ups, more difficult through its limitations, and even more action-oriented than Hector's campaign. There's nothing here that's out of the ordinary, nor is there anything that comes close to matching Dawn of Sorrow's superbly done "Julius Mode." Still, they do succeed in supplying a semblance of replay value.
Before we can even judge its success in terms of three-dimensional exploits or lack thereof, we must first look at Curse of Darkness for what it is: A project with a lot of big ideas and aspirations that fell short due to a clear lack of execution. The developers show that they have all the moxie in the world, but they simply don't have the resources to establish several strong concepts in place of the two or three ideas that are getting the most attention (like the Innocent Devil evolution and weapon forging). New ideas are good only when you first solidify the base on which they stand, and Lament of Innocence's shaky foundation needed more bolstering. The forging is a fun convention, but its omnipresence fosters a clear inhibition that seeps over Curse of Darkness' landscape, which leaves us only with endless repetition as a game-wide theme; it's the same enemies fought in the same (or similar-looking) locations with the same moves and always the same result.
For what it is, it's another solid entry that doesn't do much to alleviate fears that the series is continuing to move in a direction where soon only the most impoverished will feed. I did feel compelled to keep playing, despite the endless repetition, because the story kept me glued and I was hoping to see some big-time references to Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse. What I found out was that Curse of Darkness doesn't really think too much of its world. Trevor's token appearance just wasn't enough. Where were Grant and Sypha? Why don't I recognize any of these locations? Where are all the enemies I remember, like the Skull Knight King? Reusing Lament's assortment of enemies rather than affording the game its own further distanced the experience. I mean, I don't remember fighting Orcs in Dracula's Curse. I was actively rooting the game on, but it was content to deliver to me only the world as populated by Hector, Isaac and their weird friends.
With your purchase, you get a good game that will provide you over twenty hours of activity. In terms of standing alone, its gameplay is better than advertised, but I profess that its full enjoyment is dependent on your will to spend a load of time with it before you can fully appreciate the entire package. Is it worth it? Well, you'll first have to entertain this question and others like it: Is the full evolution of all Innocent Devils in itself reward enough? Did you enjoy locating all of the hidden "chairs"? (Like the furniture-collecting in Harmony, they don't give you real reason to complete such tasks.) Is the process of weapon-forging worth the tens of hours you'll spend repeatedly running about huge, frustratingly large areas searching for rare elements?
With the next generation looming, we've been promised future entries into this fine series. Though, I suspect that when the next 3D installment is announced, the crew will still be left with the same challenge: Trying to nail the concept of "Castlevania in 3D." Castlevania: Curse of Darkness, nonetheless a good try, still isn't it.