A few years ago, when prognostications of doom suggested that traditional gaming as we knew it was about to be supplanted, relegated to a niche status due to the industry's economic realities, growing consumer indifference, and the fact that our console suppliers were failing to pull in new customers, there were more than a few people who believed that the burgeoning cell phone scene had something to do with it. After all--its values overlapped with everything the aging gaming populace had come to desire: Smaller-scale games that could be played in shorter bursts; more-simple titles that tickled old-school sensibilities and conjured up feelings of nostalgia; the exciting prospect of wireless connectivity; and affordability, which is always important to people with ever-expanding responsibilities.
Even though such prophecies never came to pass--as gaming consoles successfully transitioned to the new era despite many casualties, and conventional portable gaming became all the rage due to its adopting of the aforementioned values--cell phones indeed became a viable platform for games. It wasn't long before even major companies such as Square-Enix, Konami and Capcom were seriously looking into the quickly evolving market and testing its waters by delivering to the chatty masses classic titles as once played on our NESes, Master Systems and even those technologically superior, like the PC and PS2. As we can attest, their research yielded positive results, as even our famed Castlevania franchise has since been implicated in the movement, with at least four iterations of its early standouts available for download on multiple cell phone models.
The question wasn't if whether or not people were pining to play their favorites on the go and on an admittedly resolution-challenged devices--it was if they were prepared to take the platform seriously enough to where it could convincingly provide sanctuary to unique titles from series married specifically to what core consumers considered real gaming systems. In 2007, despite much in the way of protest, Konami answered with a resounding "yes!"
The fruit of such labor is Castlevania: Order of Shadows, created by Konami's western mobile division and supervised by Koji Igarashi, the main series' director. To draw such emphasis is to note that Order of Shadows is not a canon entry into the series but rather a unique tale of bravery filed under the category of "gaiden," which in video-game terminology suggests that an adventure such termed is unfolding within an alternate timeline, a parallel dimension, or an event sequence they can't be bothered to explain. In short: Konami wanted to introduce into its mobile catalogue a unique Castlevania title, a low-risk endeavor but nonetheless one unprecedented due to the decision to allow a group of its young western developers to put their own spin a series whose high number of previous entries had all been produced in Japan. It's with great exuberance that they present Order of Shadows, which is available across a number of mobile platforms in North America and Europe.
Without the tightly bolted chains of overarching canon choking their creative efforts, the developers were free to structure the adventure as they pleased, a creative license that was exploited only up to a point. That is, Order of Shadows, like the other modern titles, has its own encompassing subplot: A group of Dracula-worshipping goons calling itself "The Order" is looking to resurrect the Dark Lord not only to find leadership but to siphon off of his very being in pursuit of their own selfish interests. Their leader is Rohan Krause, a man with a sordid history and an ambiguous relationship with the Belmont clan and especially Desmond Belmont, the star of Order of Shadows. With the help of his sisters, Dolores and Zoe, Desmond must grab hold of the famous (but apparently neutered) Vampire Killer whip and set off toward Castlevania, where he'll have the opportunity to thwart the The Order's plans and of course solve other soon-emerging mysteries. His sisters, who are in charge of the main investigation, will pop up every now and then with clues and words of encouragement, advancing the storyline courtesy of short cut-scenes.
It's admittedly difficult to review a game created for cell phone platforms each boasting dissimilar specifications, which do in fact effect its performance and overall aesthetics, so I'll instead stick to the basics and focus on its main mechanics. Unaffected by cell-phone model is its design philosophy, which combines the tenets of old-school 2D platforming with the open-world map structure seen in the more recent adventure-RPG titles; you'll by such measure breach five fully explorable castle areas, each initially presented as if it were a "stage," and by defeating their boss guardians earn access to the next area, this course of action repeated as such until the whole castle is yours to navigate with none in the way of obstacle.
Desmond at first commands the leather-whip form of the family heirloom, which will only be effective in the early going. If he hopes to combat future dangers, he'll have to collect new weapons and items by extinguishing candelabras and slaying enemies, filling his inventory to its brim; sub-weapons are placed in specific locations, which requires full castle navigation for those who hoard as such. Desmond's arsenal includes advanced whip types (the flame whip and Vampire Killer), which will replace the main weapon; a sub-weapon collection that entails artifacts old and new (like the derivative throwing cross or the new-style platinum blade); alchemy-based powers such as lightning attacks and Dracula-style fireballs, which will become available after Desmond procures a special bracelet; and a number of healing items. To use any of the items from the latter three groups requires that they be "equipped" in the inventory as his second option. In the meantime, Desmond can collect big and small hearts, which replenish varying portions of his self-restoring magic meter, which is used to power sub-weapons.
Full castle exploration depends upon the acquiring of special relics, which as always supply the hero with the trademarked maneuvers such as the backdash, quick slide and double jump; these will be needed if Desmond hopes to negotiate his way into and around previously inaccessible pathways. Too, due to the ever-increasing number of dangers and progressively tougher foes, he'll need to up his physical status (attack power and damaged absorbed) plus statistics (stamina, intellect, strength and defense) by earning experience and thus gaining levels, which are limited to ten. Leveling up happens naturally if you take care to vanquish the enemies as they appear, though you may be tempted to bypass battle altogether and pay the price for it later, as considerable is the difference between the castle's front-line foes and the larger beasts who patrol the haunt's nerve center. It's all a matter of sparing a few extra seconds to mow down the game's assortment of minor enemies--a rather limited cast composed of older foes like zombies, skeletons, fleamen and Medusa heads plus those newer, like witches, minotaurs, and giant ghosts--before assaulting the handful of boss creatures that includes the bullish Order Knight, the obligatory giant Twin Bats, Medusa, Rohan Krause and the Dark Lord himself.
The castle, broken up into five sections, seems straightforward but in reality isn't quite so linear--there exist at least two alternate routes that land Desmond in separate locations depending upon his choice to exit a screen from a higher or lower platform. It seems odd that leaving a screen from one of two close-in-proximity escape points (which are placed mere inches away from each other, really) can lead to wholly separate, self-contained landscapes, which will certainly throw off first-time players who won't even realize there was a choice until they run into an unbreachable barrier and are forced to turn back. The use of alternate routes doesn't jive with Shadow's very basic stage design, wherein almost every screen consists of high and low paths or split passages featuring none in the way of distinction between those that converge in the same location and those that divide into freestanding castle areas. The level design is otherwise restrained, testing the player with only basic platforming, standard stair-climbing, and sequences where Desmond must deal with strings of powerful enemies in one burst--endurance runs best handled by those who took care to collect special items like "Invulnerability." There's little to none in the way of clever gameplay conventions, big ideas, or impressive platforming scenarios, to put it simply.
How the game is visualized is dependent upon your cell phone model, the most competent of which displays an increased resolution, more-detailed character sprites, clearer backgrounds, and slightly better animation. Order of Shadows' sense of decor doesn't produce the most interesting setting you'll ever encounter, nor does it exude the atmosphere necessary for a patented Castlevania experience, but it looks pretty good for a cell phone game and isn't in any way embarrassing. The characters, that is, are actually well-rendered if you view them using a phone with high-end specifications. Those open to the experience will notice some borrowed graphical assets from classic titles like Simon's Quest and Symphony of the Night, which serve as at least nice distraction from the mundane environments.
The MIDI soundtrack, composed by Vincent Diamante, was given care and is quite decent; original tunes like the adventure-starting Daring Assault and the Inner Sanctum's Covering evoke the desired mood--a sense of excitement or a feeling of dread--while remixed classics work hard to lend Shadows the perception of being a true series title. Helping such an effort, as a nice extra, is the "Classic Music" option, available after the game is cleared once; switching it on replaces the normal area themes with tunes ripped directly from (or convincingly recreated to match those from) the original Castlevania. The sound effects, which seem to only be available for lower-spec versions and can only be switched on if the soundtrack is turned off, are an odd assortment of lone percussion-instrument beats (drum beats, mainly) and echoing, fading bleeps--and this is only when they decide to actually play. The version I'm reviewing had no such sound options, its events unfolding to complete silence, the characters' every action muted. I don't know how to quantify the lack of sound effects when their absence is probably for the best, nor can I explain why they exist only in lower-spec versions. Maybe the options menu had a "split path" I missed.
The five-hundred-pound pink gorgon in the room--the bane of any cell phone game--is of course the control scheme. Mobile phones, with their clicky keypads and one-handed grip-position, are not the ideal platform for games that require precision, quick response, and the simultaneous pressing of two buttons; Order of Shadows is certainly a victim of the platform's limitations. Desmond can be moved right and left with the 4 and 6 buttons, respectively; whip using 5; toss sub-weapons using 9; jump using 2; and crouch using 8. The problem? 2 and 8 also function as the means to climb up and down stairs, which creates a control-conflict reminiscent of stairway hiccups in the original Castlevania; the most common nuisance is Desmond's propensity to become temporarily frozen in place on a stairway immediately after swinging the whip, vulnerable to the enemy characters whose projectiles and physical attacks also cause him to freeze in place. There's no invincibility time granted, so an immobilized Desmond will continue taking hits until the enemy/projectile finishes passing through him. In contrast, he smoothly tosses and stabs sub-weapons (like the Muramasa blade), mid-step, without even the slightest pause, which makes you wonder why he couldn't be programmed to do the same with the whip.
None of this suggests that combat on the ground is any spring picnic. No--the clunky Desmond moves as if he were a file cabinet with legs. As it were in the case of stair-climbing, swinging the whip while standing or crouching causes the same temporary freezing, making the whip useless when he's surrounded by groups of enemies. You could argue that this is the incentive needed to put to use the game's many sub-weapons, but guess what? Sub-weapons, when utilized from a grounded position, also cause freezing. Now, why would they function smoothly on the stairs but with lag while on the ground? Don't expect the sisters to come up with any solution to that one. Jumping, too, has its issues: For one, you must continue holding 2 and the directional button (4 or 6) if you want to complete a full leap; letting go of either button mid-jump will cause Desmond's momentum to instantly halt--a quirk that can potentially wreck the platforming aspect and inhibit your ability to effectively clear large gaps. Too, you can't reverse the polarity of a jump--your only option to turn and face the opposite direction, which itself causes Desmond's momentum to halt. Finally, pressing the Right Soft Key gives you access the game's pause screen, which entails the inventory, the options menu, a help screen, and a quit function; the setup is hardly intuitive, but it works well enough.
To speak of Order of Shadow's challenge-level would be redundant, since I'd be essentially repeating the control scheme's deficiencies, which mask the developers' intended trials and tribulations. Defeating any enemy, be it a minor enemy or boss, is simply a matter of moving to within a whip's-length of the target, striking quickly, then retreating a bit before repeating this process--if you can do so without being pushed the screen's boundary and forced to exit; outside of abusing sub-weapons, which rapidly deplete the magic meter and are thus limited, any other strategy will result in certain death, since the controls are nowhere near refined or competent enough to handle this, a reflexive action-oriented game. You can't hope to win slugfests against the latter bosses, whose offensives include heavy projectile fire whose evasion requires accurate jumping on your end. If that isn't enough to strike fear into your heart, then you're probably the type who enjoys poking your eyeballs with needles while watching Kevin Costner movie-marathons. I can't say I've ever played another game where the best bet for success in conquering a game's ultimate evil is having on-hand thirty hamburgers to cover for an inability to leap even a simple fireball attack.
If it's any motivation, you will be rewarded for dredging your way through Shadow's languorously paced but thankfully short campaign. Made available after clearing the game is Hard Mode, in which enemies appear in greater number and are generally more resilient. Directly tied to Hard More is the addition of "Unlimited Items," which as plainly stated packs your inventory with all normal weapons, sub-weapons and alchemy scrolls plus an infinite number of recovery items. Most interesting, as mentioned earlier, is the unlocking of "Classic Songs," which work their magic to add maybe a hint of meaningful aura. While none of this serves to make the game any more playable, it does supply you the means to fully explore its world in a more relaxed manner and with the accompaniment of some legendary tunes.
If you've read to this point, you're probably under the impression that Order of Shadows is your typical run-of-the-mill, middle-of-the-road cell phone game and not really worth your time. It's difficult for me to say one way or the other, because I struggle with the question "What makes for a good cell phone game?" Is Order of Shadows the best of a spoiled bunch, or is it actually the standard--the best a game of this type can actually be? To be fair, I feel, I can't accurately judge Shadows by this criteria, so I ask instead, "Is it fun?" Well, not really. It's slow, sluggish, and controls like a tank rolling uphill. Had it not been tagged Castlevania, I wouldn't have given it a second look.
Companies protective of their franchises don't attach the term "gaiden" to a project for no reason--they do so to distance themselves from the effort, as Konami has done here. While I don't blame them for this tact, I also can't fault the game's young developers, who must surely feel that they did the best they could with a platform that simply isn't suited for traditional gaming.