What we have here is a series that has come to a crossroad. Even though a three-game stop on the popular Game Boy Advance resulted in a certain amount of success, it's clear that the self-imposed limitations of Konami's 2D formulas were the cause of stagnation, a crisis of creativity that it wasn't prepared to or willing to overcome. Thus, it was inevitable that the company would instead ship its franchise back over to the world of consoles for another shot at tackling the realm of three dimensions. The original attempt, spearheaded by Konami Computer Entertainment of Kobe (KCEK), failed in the eyes of consumers due to the questionable quality of its two N64 offerings, and the division has since shut its doors.
This time, the task lay in the hands of Koji Igarashi, the series' current director, and his friends from KCET, the so-called Dracula X team that began making its mark with creations such as Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night before bringing us the latter GBA titles, Harmony of Dissonance and Aria of Sorrow. Now, the group has again come forward to offer its take and try its luck in succeeding where Castlevania 64 and Legacy of Darkness fell short. More importantly, after four games in five years, they're given what is the perfect opportunity to define to us what this series is, in 2003, and what it wants be.
To us they present Castlevania: Lament of Innocence for the PS2, the twentieth unique entry into the series and the one they've assigned to represent the true genesis of the Belmont clan and its eternal battle against evil. "Forget Sonia Belmont even existed," they say. Instead, welcome Leon Belmont, a knight of the Church and the origin of the Belmont family's chromosomes. His story: Our friend Leon has recently fallen on hard times--his closest friend, Mathias, has suffered the loss of his bride and has become bedridden from the growing anguish; monsters have begun mysteriously appearing in his domain, and he's been forbidden by the Church to fight against them; and his betrothed, Sara Trantoul, has been kidnapped by a vampire who resides in a forest of eternal darkness. Renouncing his title for the sake of not disobeying the Church's orders, Leon must now hurry to the vampire's castle to rescue his beloved and by extension, hopefully, solve the mystery of the monsters' growing presence.
Koji and his team feel that the best way to present Castlevania in 3D is to take it back to its roots. By that definition: Lament of Innocence largely abandons goal-oriented adventure in favor of pure room-to-room action. KCET strips down its perennial RPG system to but a few armors and accessories, it brings back the standard Belmont arsenal--sub-weapons and magical items alike--and it focuses heavily on fast-paced combat over exploration. In these terms, you should expect Leon's quest to be linear despite the option to tackle the initial five stages in any order you so please. They try to pass it off as open-ended by supplying the ability to escape from a stage whenever you please, but it is all straightforward to the end. While Lament has mixed in some puzzle elements and even some side objectives, they're limited to but a few instances in deference to continuous action.
To stay somewhat consistent with the recent GBA titles, KCET provides a "system" of collecting orbs, numbering seven, to enhance Leon's five sub-weapons in different ways. Mainly, Leon can pull off thirty-five different magical attacks by combining the multicolored orbs with the five sub-weapons; this results in anything from needle barrages and laser fire to deadly rotating shields, slicing crescent-kick attacks and devastating, fiery explosions. Story-wise, this does a good job in explaining to you how the family came to possess such capable magical ability--you get the sense that this Belmont clan will grow to be one formidable group.
Otherwise, you can collect and put to use a number of relics that assign to Leon certain quirks. Really, it's what you make of them. While temporary stat increases could be helpful, and leaving a residual trail of flame as you run is a nice effect, the relics are largely uninteresting, and only one of them, the wolf limb that affords Leon a dashing ability, has real value. Even then, its existence is aimed more at map-filling than it is toward aiding you in your quest. Coming off the brilliant "Tactical Souls" system from Aria of Sorrow, where they executed a gameplay idea to great success, you'd think that KCET would have a better understanding of the relationship between collectibles and their relevancy. Instead, it's like they unnecessarily added increased inventory into what is a pure-action experience just because it was expected.
Leon's mission is to use the castle's portal room to travel to and clear the five initial stage areas in order to break a seal and gain entry into the upper half of the castle where the final boss awaits. The quick and agile Leon has at his command a leather whip, which will grow to have both elemental power and increased storyline significance, and five typical sub-weapons. Leon can use the whip to dole out either a strong attack (forceful yet predictable) or a weak attack (quick-hitting but insufficient), and he must use the two in combinations to truly stifle enemies. For instance: Two or three weak attacks in succession will freeze an enemy just enough to set it up for a strong one. Also, Leon can guard against attacks using his enchanted gauntlet, a defensive maneuver that's twofold--while blocking attacks, it absorbs and harnesses their power as magical energy that refills his meter; this magic power can them be applied to the orb system and his use of relics. Furthermore, Leon can double jump right out of the box for easy accessibility. Too, Leon can collect HP-, MP- and Heart-Up symbols to increase his meters' capacities.
You're not alone in your quest: You can leave the castle at any time to find Rinaldo Gandolfi in his cottage at the base of the surrounding woodland. Like the merchants found in past games, he'll buy and sell weapons, power-up items and gems, and he'll share valuable information and insight that will help continue along the story. His items don't come cheap, so you'll have to engage in many battles in order to collect coins and money bags if you hope to utilize his services. While the castle holds the majority of the important items, you can be sure to find special relics or exclusive armor and accessories at his shop.
In order to use any of your magical items, including your orbs, you'll have to utilize their real-time windows. That is, you can't pause the game to select, equip or use an item--you must instead use the right analog stick and the "L" button to open up windows and scroll to the category of concern while in the heat of battle. You cannot use the whip during this time, and your character will freeze momentarily while the item's effect takes hold. Needless to say, this can often lead to disastrous results when you're under attack from the game's most formidable enemies. However, sorting effectively will decrease frustration--you can pause the game to organize the lists so that you'll have a better chance of quickly finding a needed item when you open a real-time window.
There are other sometimes-serious gameplay problems here. Mainly, camera angles continue to be a nemesis. Like in the oft-compared Devil May Cry and Rygar: The Legendary Adventure, Lament works on a fixed camera system. You have absolutely no control over its direction--in most instances, its position is static, and it only zooms in and out depending on the characters' proximity; in others, it instead positions itself to get the best vantage point of the action. The latter instance is rough because the camera will sometimes lose sight of the action and show only Leon, who will now be extremely vulnerable to attacks he can't see coming. This is more prevalent during boss fights, where the camera is prone to wild shifts. Less frequently, you'll encounter camera problems when the game turns to platforming: It can be difficult to judge distances and guide Leon accordingly, especially when he has to use the whip to latch onto poles and fences while in midair. Though the problem is limited to but a few places, and there are no do-or-die jumps, it's no fun to have to sometimes attempt the same jumps over and over again plus the progress entailed therein.
Another problem involves navigability: It's not that moving about the castle is difficult--it's that you're destined to return to each stage area more than once, and you'll have to run through an entire area to reach one certain destination, which could be anything from a secret room to one that holds only a simple potion. And then you'll have to run all the way back out. Because the stage areas are so large, you can wind up throwing away half-hours at a time for nothing. In a game whose theme is fast-paced action, you shouldn't be hit with such a blatant attempt at length-padding. Warp rooms would have been a nice addition to speed things up.
Where Lament truly shines is in its combat system. Anyone who has played the aforementioned Rygar will notice the similarities, only Lament has it beat by a long stride. At the most basic, you can use Leon's strong and weak whip attacks to string together several combos while of course guarding against attacks with his gauntlet. But as you experiment with the whip and the gauntlet during intense battles, you'll learn advanced whip combos and defensive maneuvers. Soon you'll be walking on air while reeling off multiple slashes, tossing foes all around like tops, spinning like a human tornado, and dodging and blocking even the most deadly of striking blows and projectiles. It can be so much fun to beat up on groups of hapless enemies, satisfying in a way that even inexperienced button-mashers will relish. Though not as deep as the one found in Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the targeting system gets the job done--you won't have to worry about foes sneaking up from behind since none of the combos leave Leon standing idle; and if a given foe is somehow defeated by the first step of a combo, Leon will immediately turn his attention to another and continue the already launched assault.
Lament of Innocence is just too simplified otherwise. The RPG system is in terms of statistics so useless that it's a wonder why they even put it in there. I've never seen any of Leon's stats move in any direction no matter what I equip. Have you been poisoned or cursed? So what--you'll get over it in a matter of seconds. I've never really had any use for RPG elements in action games, anyway, but still--this is just half-baked. When you combine this with the application of the orbs and relics, which I called "unnecessary," you wonder if it's just old habits dying hard. If nothing past the fighting system is going to be essential to the gameplay, instead existing only for "coolness" factor, then why bother?
Let me put it like this: When the game sticks to action and elevates its combat system to the forefront, it's a joy to play and it excels; when it tries to do anything else--and by this I mean puzzle-solving, extended platforming, Shadowgate-like interactivity, etc.--it falls really short. This clear lack of direction is a sign of almost fatal indecisiveness. Go in a new direction or don't.
In terms of "real"direction, Lament of Innocence is one of the better-looking, more stylistic games for the PS2, or for any console game for that matter. It moves at a blazing speed, maybe only slowing down a bit during the more chaotic boss battles, and the characters are sharp-looking, convincing and well-animated in their movements and fighting maneuvers. Leon, like Juste and Soma Cruz, is a victim of the encompassing yet sometimes damaging art direction, but he's still the sleekest fighting machine around. KCET very clearly wanted the enemy selection to mimic those found in previous titles, most notably its own, and have it translate well to 3D, and they did a fine job. You get a nice selection of familiar yet inventive, colorful and sometimes very large foes. While they cheat often and reuse existing models over and over again, there's enough difference in theme and attack methods to compensate. The even more impressive boss models, which are often huge, are a tribute to their effort. Medusa, the Forgotten One and Death will remind you what it's like to feel suppressed by old-school-themed boss creatures.
Lament also features a lot of cut-scenes involving the main characters, and these, too, look first-class, highly produced and polished (even though one or two of them is overly long, like the mission-opening scene that lasts over eight minutes). While KCET's successive games continue be excessively Symphony-like in concept, it always amounts to a good presentation, with well-organized menus and an abundance of information about everything tangible.
The only problem with the graphics, and this is more a product of the gameplay, is that things get really repetitive. The areas are made up of those famed "rooms," many of which look exactly alike. Furthermore, the game quickly overuses a pattern of "combat room," "safety hall, "combat room," "safety hall"--soon everything starts blending together, and the size of the areas don't help to minimize the redundancy. I'm sure that I'm not the first person to tell you this. To counter the design, I suppose, you can find large area maps (which are mostly incomplete to accommodate hidden rooms), flat diagrams that can be rotated, tilted and zoomed both in and out; you can also collect different-colored markers to place on the maps for reference points. Even then, the repetitive area structure will cause you to become lost and confused, regardless of whether or not you have maps and markers.
I'm kind of torn about the music. We're definitely dealing with a high-quality soundtrack as crafted by the now-heralded Michiru Yamane, and its individual tracks are certainly memorable. What I was expecting was for the music to do a job that the graphics couldn't: Provide me with an atmosphere that screams "Castlevania." In a transition from 2D to 3D, a reminiscent or typical musical score was the key to making it a lot smoother. I never got that feeling. You don't need to rely on old favorites, no, but Lament's soundtrack just doesn't match the action and instead simply feels more like an exhibition of Yamane's talents. While some familiar tunes are recycled, they're never prevalent: Vampire Killer is intertwined into the credits, and the Aria of Sorrow corridor theme and Castle Dracula from Symphony play when you battle bosses with the first secret character. I do hear a hint of the Super Castlevania IV castle keep theme when on the second floor of the Pagoda, but it's by then too late. This is all opinion, of course, since I would never deny the soundtrack's excellence.
I would have to classify the rest of the game's sounds in the overused "appropriate" category. It's not a copout--everything just sounds as it should. As the action gets more and more intense and heightened, the sound effects become more and more violent--it's a beautiful thing to hear. All characters have their own extensive set of voice samples and they employ noisy, grandiose death sequences, and still the game moves smoothly while all of this is going on. Voice-overs heard during cut-scenes are also well acted, and while no one ever cuts these displays any slack, they're well-produced, with great work from whomever acted for Rinaldo and Walter. The good voice-acting is needed, because Lament tells a very good story over its duration. While sometimes corny, the characters actually sound like real people talking to each other and not like those pro-athletes who make cameos in movies.
They put themselves together an intuitive control scheme. You have your weak and strong whip buttons, one for jumping, and another for throwing sub-weapons. The right analog stick and the "L" buttons control your real-time windows, and hitting "R" plus "O" activates relics. The buttons are conveniently mapped out and accessible in all situations. The real-time windows are a little tricky, as discussed: There's always a strong chance that you'll be on the run when you need to use an item, so you may get panicky and start opening windows and using items you were trying to avoid. This can be costly during a battle, and it'll take some getting used to. And, as with any game that relies on button combinations, you'll have to learn to time the whip strokes to make certain combos work. If you mistime single strokes, it'll foster a sense of unresponsive controls--your button-taps must be precise if these combos are to be utilized to their fullest. If the controls fail otherwise, it's because of the camera. When it changes its vantage point, the controls change with it. One second you're running straight ahead, and the next you're fading left and losing sight of the enemy. The targeting system helps to temporarily nullify the shift-happy camera and keep you in line offensively, but it won't help your efforts when you're executing dodging jumps or running away to seek better positioning.
The game's challenge returns to a more traditional scheme. Since you don't gain levels, any increasing challenge is based on enemies that are naturally tougher than the ones that come before them. You can travel to any of the five areas you please, but you may find that one is presenting a bigger challenge than another, so you'll have to navigate them in a preferred order, to gain sufficient enough fighting abilities before returning to the problem areas. In any order, you'll find the boss battles to be consistent--all of the bosses are pesky, resilient and hard-skinned. A typical boss starts with a long blue meter, and when that's cleared away, its now-yellow meter must be cleared to destroy it. (We know that Koji drew inspiration from Street Fighter 2 for his Symphony characters, but he also seems to be a fan of Final Fight.) The bosses are again creatures of habit, but learning their patterns doesn't always assure victory because, yes, they can mount superman comebacks with last-ditch mega-assaults. The last boss will become infamous for this. With that said, even though you're allowed to stock up on potions and such, bosses will provide a strong test regardless.
Lament didn't forget to bring along its bag of extras, either. You know the drill by now: Finish the game with the main character to gain access to a secret one. Lament, actually, has two secret characters, but the second of which is hardly worth the effort to unlock. You can play again on a hard level, too, called "Crazy Mode," wherein you can't hold as many items and there are more enemies piled into each stage area. Also, when you reload your saved game file, you can buy an item from Rinaldo's shop that opens up a sound test on the title screen, and you can access the ultra-hard "Boss Rush" mode near the castle's portal room. In addition, you can try to attain 100% castle-map completion and battle secret bosses to find otherwise unobtainable items.
In the end, I don't know that I can call Lament of Innocence a "good base" for the series' trek back into the realm of 3D. What KCET did well, it did very well, but, unfortunately, Lament also became a collection of some old, bad gaming cliches--finding keys to open doors, hitting one switch to activate another, major last-minute comebacks by weakened bosses, a wacky camera system, a bevy of useless items, and so on. And, please, can a Konami game for once ask me to restart from a save room when I die instead of making me watch a death sequence, wait for the title screen to display, find my save file, select it, wait for it load, get out of the save room, and get back to where I just was? Do they know how frustrating that is?
I liked its combat system, true, but I'm not sure that this is what Castlevania is supposed to be about. As for the rest of the package? It's almost as if they came up with a good system of fighting and then tried to plug the holes with, again, half-baked elements inspired by Rygar, Devil May Cry, Zelda, Final Fight, Metroid, Shadowgate and whatever else they could find. On its own, it's a good buy for those looking for pure action and a game that rewards your increased fighting skill with memorable boss battles--I enjoyed it on that level. Though, if you're looking for a game that reinvents Castlevania while conjuring up memories of past greats like Simon's Quest, Dracula's Curse, Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night, this isn't it.