If history is any indication, it would seem as though Castlevania titles were meant to come in threes. There were three NES titles, three Game Boy titles, three Dracula X titles, three GBA titles, three loosely chronicled KCEK-produced titles, and considering the rate of releases surely the eventual continuation of sub-series and themes left lingering. Completing the latest holy trinity is Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, the series' third Nintendo DS entry and the successor to two topflight adventure-RPGs that failed to break the mold but managed to attain greatness thanks to their patented fast-paced, fun-to-play action and their sheer amount of extra content. The question is, then, "How does Order of Ecclesia, the culmination of their efforts, measure up?"
Following the trend set by its DS counterparts, Order of Ecclesia continues to de-emphasize the role of the Belmont clan, relegating the family of legend to merely a point of reference, in order to build a chronology that doesn't overplay the Dracula-versus-Belmont card for this, a series already saturated with creativity-stifling formulas. Our focus, instead, is on the period post-Symphony of the Night, where the Belmonts have gone missing but still evil forces persist; several factions begin appearing in reaction to this emergency, their only intent to fill the void.
One such company is Ecclesia, an organization created for the very purpose of eradicating Dracula in the event of his untimely return. Ecclesia's main practice is that of sorcery, a form of which they call "Glyph Magic." This will be of greatest use to Shanoa (only the series' second leading heroine), who upon absorbing the power of Dominus, a supreme Glyph Union resultant of their research, will stand as the ultimate weapon against Dracula. Due to an unforeseen case of infighting, the ceremony is interrupted by Albus, the company's chief researcher who was trained from birth to harness Dominus but moments before the ceremony informed of his illegibility; enraged and seeking answers from Barlowe, Ecclesia's founder, Albus suddenly steals Dominus for himself, though termed unfit to bear it, and quits the order before escaping to an unknown location. His act of treachery disrupts Shanoa's channeling phase and leaves her unconscious, her memories and emotions wiped away; several weeks pass before she awakens to this cold truth and is presented only one option: Hunt down the now-mad Albus using whatever remains of her senses and recover Dominus before it's too late.
By subscribing to the theory of addition by subtraction, Koji Igarashi and his now-familiar staff wisely abandon Portrait of Ruin's halfhearted team concept in favor of the more traditional, more concentrated one-hero venture. I say this not to commend them for this tact but to suggest that the current formula, which they're unwilling to supplant, pigeonholes their efforts to where anything that strays from the norm is doomed to drown in the overly complicated sea of RPG-based systems and mechanics. It's for the best that they focus their efforts within the limited scope of this formula and simply save any innovation for a time when they're ready to try something new, should we ever see such a day.
Shanoa's solo act is at its core one standard: She'll have to battle increasingly resilient enemies to boost her experience and thus gain levels; she'll acquire armor by gathering currency and purchasing items from a shop or via enemy droppage; and she'll collect the max-up vials that augment her HP, MP and heart meters. Where Order of Ecclesia differentiates itself, though not to any high degree, is in its Glyph System, using which Shanoa can channel magical energy from enemies, statues, and other coffers and transpose them into weapons; in the case of the more stubborn enemies, Shanoa, like Curse of Darkness hero Hector, must study their movements and actually steal their powers by waiting for a visible signal (a demon charging energy between its claws, for instance). Glyphs can be assigned to the three attack buttons (Y, X and R) named as such: Main, Sub and Back. Main and Sub share the same allotment of weapons, which allows the player the option to (a) have equipped two of the same weapon or two weapons from the same class, or (b) pay tribute to the classic titles and equip a striking weapon with one from the sub-weapon class (axes, daggers, etc.); if the weapons complement each other in any way, the player can pull off quick combos by correctly timing his or her button-presses.
Back weapons, assigned to the "R" button, form a list of random abilities that entail unique accessibility maneuvers (like Magnes, which allows Shanoa to latch onto magnets and use the field's resistance to toss herself long distances, and Paries, which allows her to move within certain walls), the summoning of helpers, transformations, stat-boosts, and others not easily categorized. All attack glyphs are powered by Shanoa's magic meter, which is always in the state of replenishing itself; the more potent the glyph, the more magic it drains. By pressing "Up" plus either the Main or Sub attack button, Shanoa can pull off a heart-consuming Glyph Union, which is Ecclesia's obligatory super attack; a Glyph Union is said to be unique to the equipped weapon trio, an impressive boast quickly tempered by the reality that there exist only a limited number of super attacks, since most weapon combinations share the same effect.
The Glyph System, while in previews purported to be something entirely new, is altogether similar to the Sorrow titles' "Tactical Souls" System. While the Glyph System is well-implemented, and the number of weapons is controlled to where a large amount of experimentation is encouraged, Ecclesia's system falls short in comparison due to its overt sameness and its constrained usability--the emphasis on managing the magic meter, which always seems short in supply, leads to continued scenarios where Shanoa is left drained and unable to attack, thus left to parry for sometimes prolonged periods. Understressed by its genre classification is that Ecclesia is in practice an action game; anyone familiar with the genre will testify that its basic tents don't include stalling by aimlessly sprinting back and forth or quickly moving between rooms to reset the enemy positioning, in fear of direct confrontation, while thinking up ways to avoid combat altogether. There are literally no useful attacks that don't require magic, which demands that Shanoa show a certain amount of restraint.
Relics are in short supply, as there few to find and the mission begins with most already inventory-held; those present include the slide and back dash, while future additions entail accessability-granting artifacts like the Ordinary Rock, which allows Shanoa to double jump, and the Serpent Scale, which affords her free movement in water. Proving it to be a theme, Ecclesia is an exercise in constraint, which I can only hope is a sign that the developers are ready to phase out these increasingly unnecessary systems.
Once trained in the basics of glyph consumption, Shanoa exits Ecclesia set on hunting down Albus in an adventure that continues to unfold as she moves from area to area as selected from a world map. This is a departure from the norm, where the heroes are confined to only a castle, and allows for the adventure to spill over into classic set pieces like forests, mountains, mansions plus other exotic, creepy locales. One such area is Wygol Village, your typical video-game town and site of all commerce. At first barren, the village will repopulate as Shanoa rescues its habitants, almost all of whom have been kidnapped by Albus for unknown reasons. Liberating these villagers is important, because it's a component necessary for game completion--not to ignore that these needy folk are the purveyors of "Quests," which are optional errands Shanoa can run and for her efforts procure some highly desirable items (sometimes sent directly to the shop and available for a fee, as if you haven't already done enough).
The map areas, though still captive to the familiar "rooms" mechanic, come in varying sizes (some straightforward to the end, some branching any which way, and others highly intertwined) and with a clear theme; joining the mist-filled woodland and snowy mountains are those like the watery channels as populated by wild sealife, the prison-type residences as patrolled by knights and monitored by very active searchlights, and the Skeleton Cave, whose every resident is by rule a skeletal antagonist. Only after clearing an area by reaching its exit point will new paths open; you can then at any time reenter the area from its starting or exit points (of which there can be many, considering that the scripted path sometimes requires that Shanoa return to previous areas to explore new terrain and discover alternate exits). There's no real congruity in terms of objective--some areas have bosses guarding their exits; some have bosses stationed in unexpected places; and others are simply there to be traveled.
This new approach to stage design has drawn comparisons to Simon's Quest, which was all about establishing a new gameplay formula and differentiating itself by providing an atmosphere distant from its prequel. It doesn't quite work in the case of Ecclesia, which is still reliant on an aging blueprint and just doesn't feel like anything new despite the attempt. What does occur, perhaps by accident, is in a nostalgic sense the marrying of old and new; as laid out, the areas come to function as "stages," which in classic titles had to be cleared if the player hoped to make progress. Indeed, Ecclesia's self-contained map locations are the closest we've been to revisiting the old school, which professes that it may be worth the effort to further study and utilize this convergence of design philosophies. It's just too bad that the developers fail to seize the opportunity to create more unique scenarios and instead fall back on repeating area themes to such a large degree (out of seventeen, almost every area has its rearranged cousin).
It's yet again this sense of redundancy that holds a series title back from visual excellence. It's a fine-looking game, as is always the case, but its stale, unimaginative level design fosters room after room of overused textures, boring landscapes, and not many in the way of interesting background events (nothing like Harmony's whirling clouds, Aria's chaotic twilight zone, or the previous DS titles' towns, which featured parallax scrolling). One memorable area is the castle's Underground Labyrinth, where due to fiery illumination projected from camera view the characters cast large, eerie shadows that dominate the cave walls. "But this effect is borrowed from Symphony of the Night!" you say. So what? It maybe distracts from the reality that every other room in this place is designed exactly the same. Dracula's castle has to it only seven real locations, saving the best for last, you'd think. Not really--despite some spiffy scenery (like the waving surfaces of the Castle Entrance's inner halls and the Library's purely-paper composition), it's so much more of the same that we can almost probe into the poor, suppressed level designers' minds to sense that the only "glyph" being sucked away is their will to live.
There's by now an emerging pattern to the creation of enemies: Take one-third of Symphony's cast, each time subbing in a dozen or so reserve players, and toss them together with newly created, somewhat incompatible adversaries. The good news is that the mix this time works well--at least better than it did in Dawn of Sorrow--because the newer creations (like the Grave Digger, Evil Force, and the giant skeleton warriors) are of matching quality and in some cases steeped in Symphony's influence (Double Hammer and Weapon Master, for instance, are natural members of the "Giant Brothers"). Surprising additions include the lizard men, taken directly from Circle of the Moon and the N64 titles as proof that these titles truly are canon (and that former KCEK staff members are still active participants in series happenings). More so than in the previous DS titles, though, Ecclesia's enemy cast is populated with recycled character models to where even the pool of unique creations is lacking in number (there are many similarly drawn demons and a whole bunch of enemies that are merely palette swaps of those encountered earlier).
Still, the designers must be credited with creating an all new assemblage of bosses--thirteen in all and twelve of them unique--avoiding the temptation to take advantage of similar development environments and bring us more of the previous Symphony and DS bosses, instead concocting memorable newcomers (like the tower-climbing nemesis Brachyura, the Bomberman-inspired Wallman, and the monstrously huge Eligor) who come to lend the game some semblance of unique identity. All animation is expectedly excellent, the characters' active motion fluid, their anxious idle movements evidence of their soon-to-be-unleashed potential energy, and their attacks interesting, creative and explosive.
Ecclesia's soundtrack is standard fare. It's not the best collection of works we've ever heard, but the music works to set the intended atmosphere--a subdued sensibility inviting of investigation and an air of mystery permeating about the game's ever-unfolding landscape. Unfortunately, this results in the lack of any real standout tunes outside of Ebony Wings, a high-energy castle theme that does well to provide a sense of impending danger and panic. In that sense, the music improves progressively but never hits a high-water mark. Cheering us up is our obligatory retro theme Tower of Dolls, an Akumajo Dracula X68000 standout that echoes through the gear-filled corridors of the Mechanical Tower. There's also a special treat in the form of collectable CDs, each representing a single tune from the original Castlevania; a CD can be activated at any time and upon selection will replace the default background music.
A true standout quality is the game's use of sound effects, which are great in number; a bulk of the sound-design effort was obviously focused in this area. Thanks to a large library of sounds and voice samples, characters are more lively than ever, their actions supplemented by distinctive grunts and battle cries, fierce weapon-strikes, agony in reaction to damage, radiating ambiance, and all flavors of disturbing howls and shrieks. In terms of storyline interaction, Ecclesia's main characters certainly set a record for measure of chattiness, with cut-scenes that drag on for far too long and a story whose deciphering requires a degree in madness. It reminds me of a Matrix movie, where for several hours people speak in dueling riddles when an actual point could be made in about twenty seconds. While it would be fair to criticize the game for its lack of voice-acting, in light of the storytelling device's strong presence in the recently released The Dracula X Chronicles and remembering its prevalence in Symphony of the Night more than a decade before, its absence, here, is most likely a necessary evil considering the length of the cut-scenes and the limited patience of the portable-gaming audience.
Already efficient at delivering highly serviceable control schemes, the developers had little reason to stray from the well-laid paved. Anyone who has played a recent title should know what to expect: Well-mapped button-assignment, smoothly transitioning action, and a superior level of precision that provides the player a sense of total control. The only difference is that Ecclesia's action is in comparison slower-paced--Shanoa's running speed feels somewhat sluggish, especially when stopping to make a quick turn. Too, weapons have attached to them more lag time, even for those quick-striking; you'll sometimes hurry to deliver a secondary strike and come up with nothing, not realizing that the original attack's animation hasn't yet completed despite the appearance of such. The only real wrinkle is the assigning of the Glyph Sleeve function (pressing the R button while holding down A), which allows the player to quickly switch between three separately equipped glyph trios; while making the switch is in theory quite simple, it's in execution rather difficult when decisions must be made in haste--a player may be prone to hitting the wrong buttons or the failure to hold down "A" long enough. It might be a sign that (a) too much is going on and (b) these machines have a limited amount of buttons for a reason.
Not that it's a topic even worth exploring deeply, as the developers through their very design have revealed their opinion of such, but it should be said that Ecclesia eschews the DS' trademarked functionality; touch control, which played increasingly smaller roles in the two previous titles, has no presence here--not even in the arbitrary process of selecting gameplay modes, missions, and inventory-screen items. The only remnant is the unimaginative, yet still very appreciated, upper-screen dual display of map screens and statistics (as swapped by pressing the "Select" button).
The game's most polarizing element is its challenge-level. Ecclesia is by far the most challenging of all the modern portable titles, which says a lot when such a group includes the beastly Circle of the Moon. Longtime gamers enjoy a good challenge and the reward of meeting it, and Ecclesia is right up their alley. Overwhelmed newcomers and lapsed gamers, however, might sample an hour of the action, feel a sense of repulsion, and resort to the always rational "booking a flight to Japan to hunt these guys down." Our problem is that Shanoa always seems to be underpowered even against the most minor of enemies; leveling-up is of utmost importance if you hope to endure, but how can you be successful in this endeavor when the enemies are so tough that the process entails an always-present sense of despair--that one mistake could cost you several minutes of work? Bosses (like the infamous Brachyura) have so many HPs that the battles tend to persist for prolonged periods, made more distressing by the fact that death is but one well-placed projectile away. Who wants to spend ten minutes inflicting thousands of points in damage only to have his or her energy meter wiped away in three seconds? It's just too difficult to be fun; I'd equate its every predicament to being weaponless in a survival-horror game, in reaction to which you'd have to ignore the enemies and simply rush to the next room, hoping to survive.
More than ever, you'll be forced to study the enemies' behavior, learn their patterns, and respond in kind; when dealing with the HP-loaded bosses, this will require patience and much repetition, for recklessness leads only to quick death. Even in forming a strategy, less-seasoned gamers will be intimidated by Ecclesia's demanding of quick reflexes; knowing a boss' attack-pattern is only half the story, you see--you'll still need to react with considerable haste to its combos and follow-up attacks. Helping to alleviate some of the pain are the enemy weaknesses; as per its RPG nature, Ecclesia's enemies are vulnerable to certain elements (a water-inhabiting enemy susceptible to lightning, or a fiery enemy weak to ice glyphs), which can make quite the difference. A good High Potion or two won't hurt--but don't expect to find many.
It's worth your persistence in that an effort made to complete the mission will unlock the game's hidden treasures--the usual assortment of extras. Available are all of the modes accumulated over the course of the previous games, including Albus Mode, the typical freeplay mission; the Boss Rush mode, which this time features only two levels; local-wireless and Wi-Fi play, home to the item-swapping Shop Mode and the player-versus-player Race Mode; and the always dependable Sound Mode. Albus Mode, compared to Shanoa's super tough mission, is a big relief; it's fun to play as a hero who's always capable, if not a bit overpowered, and Albus' mission, though governed by a less restrictive RPG system, provides a pretty fair, more naturally progressive challenge. None of Ecclesia's extra modes are really all that memorable, each bettered by a previous incarnation, but they do their job well and are worth exploring.
Judged in a vacuum, Ecclesia is a quality product and overall an enjoyable experience. Some new concepts are introduced, there's a lot of content, and it's certainly well-made; its storyline, while beholden to the series' brand of wackiness, is interesting and helps to define "the era of the missing Belmont" as introduced in the previous Portrait of Ruin. What haunts Ecclesia, and other adventure-RPG-based entries in the modern series, is that looming specter called Symphony of the Night, to which all of these games are compared in light of borrowing its award-winning formula. Not one of them comes close to matching any of its most celebrated characteristics, and they as a result suffer in image. The logical solution, if they hope to escape the shadow of big brother, is to invent a new genre and wow us with the creative, the spectacular, and the unprecedented.
Taken for what it is, Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia is your average assembly-line product. You knew it was coming before it was ever announced, and you knew exactly what it would be when it was revealed. We're after seven years still running the same treadmill with no sign of a power outage. Put simply: This formula is well past its expiration point, and continuing to reuse it, in games played on either portables or consoles, will result in the series' continued decline. It's time for something new.