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David Low
11 Apr, 2006

Castlevania: Curse of Darkness Review

Xbox Review | Will you Rondo or Lament?
For a series approaching it's 20th year, it seems strange that Castlevania should be having an identity crisis. The first PS2 outing of the series, 2002's Castlevania: Lament of Innocence was a fun action title, but it was a short game that showed a lack of ambition by the developers, and it's level designs were well below par for a series famous for it's environments. Lament also lacked what many fans had come to expect from the series, such as the RPG elements of the 2D 'Metroidvania' games on Nintendo handhelds, and the platforming and 3D exploration that were already well developed in the excellent Nintendo 64 Castlevania games. It did, however, show promise, and the combat engine was a decent enough core upon which a great sequel could be built. Now Konami are back with Lament's follow up in Castlevania: Curse of Darkness for PS2 and Xbox. Is it the fulfillment of the promise of Lament of Innocence, or will Dracula win a second round?

While Castlevania: Curse of Darkness is a development of Lament's engine, story wise, it's actually a sequel (or side story) to 1990's Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse. Exactly how many of this game's intended audience will have an intimate enough knowledge of a sixteen year old NES game for this to mean anything, we're not sure. However, it seems all is not as well as we were led to believe in that game's ending - after Trevor Belmont and pals defeated Dracula, a curse was let loose on the land. You play the story of defector from Dracula's ranks named Hector, who when he was working for old Vlad was a 'devil forgemaster' – which basically means he can collect and control monsters called 'Innocent Devils' which can assist him in battle (damn Pokemon, why does everything have to be about collecting monsters these days?). Hector's girlfriend was killed by another devil forgemaster names Isaac, and Hector wants revenge, so he must traverse the land to re-aquire his power before he faces Isaac, who must be defeated for the curse to be ended. A few other characters pop up during the quest, including Trevor himself, and while the cut scenes look ok and are all well voice acted, it's all pretty dull really, and never interesting enough that you'll want to play just to see the next bit. And it really has nothing to with Castlevania III at all, since it ignores pretty much every major plot element and setting of the NES classic.

Castlevania used feature Conan-inspired warrior types. Now it's an S&M party.

Castlevania used feature Conan-inspired warrior types. Now it's an S&M party.
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Many elements of Lament of Innocence have been carried over directly to Curse of Darkness. It's still a room by room affair with loading between each, the same floating arrows show which door you came from, and the map screen looks identical. Hector moves and jumps just like Lament's Leon, and while Hector doesn't have Leon's magic whip and fights primarily with swords, the action is pretty similar. Combat has been simplified from Lament's fun whip combo system - instead of two types of attack to combo with, there's now only one, as well as a 'finishing move' button which unleashes a more dramatic (and weapon specific) extra shot at the end of a combo. It's understandable that the designers wanted to make every weapon unique, but unfortunately no weapon in the game works as well as Leon's whip did, and basic combat boils down to mashing one button most of the time. On the flipside, a huge complaint about Lament of Innocence was the fixed camera, which made the game feel even more claustrophobic then it already was. Curse of Darkness has addressed this by mapping camera control to the right stick like most third person action games – though frustratingly you still can't look upwards. To go with a free camera is (as usual) a Zelda style lock on system, which works ok for bosses, but not very well for a crowd of regular enemies. The lock-on is particularly annoying when playing the game on an Xbox, since it has two less triggers then the PS2 controller that the game was designed around. The lock-on has been mapped to the black and white buttons, which are just not accessible when you're busy whacking the attack button.

Gone from Lament is the silly 'real time item use' system, and in it's place are a bunch of RPG style gameplay systems, mostly ripped from other Castlevania games. First of all, like all the 'Metroidvanias', Hector levels up when fighting, which at least adds some motivation to fight enemies when you don't have to. At certain points in attack patterns, you can use a new 'steal' command, which adds another challenge to boss battles if you want to grab whatever rare item the boss has. As well as the usual gold, beasties drop chunks of metal and other materials that 'forgemaster' Hector can fashion into new weapons and armour, just like in Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow. But the biggest new feature is the addition of the 'Innocent Devils', which are an extension of the 'Familiars' from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Basically, Innocent Devils are monsters that Hector can summon at any time to follow him around and assist in battle. There are a variety of different types that are similar to RPG character classes (fighting, healing, magic etc), and they gain experience points with Hector as long as they're summoned. These creatures grow and evolve as they level up, learning new abilities that can help Hector pass certain obstacles, as well as blindly fighting for you in battle. Innocent Devils take damage from their own health bar (which is fed by the classic Castlevania hearts), but all damage they do is credited to both you and them for experience. You can have as many as you can find and spawn (they reproduce), and just like an RPG or a Pokemon game, keeping a well balanced party is the key to success. It's all a bit strange, and not very Castlevania (where much like Metroid, it's almost always been about the lone hero), but works ok from a gameplay perspective. Overall, the combination of these RPG elements and simple combat is quite fun, and has some depth there if you want it.

For some stupid reason, Trevor's whip glows.

For some stupid reason, Trevor's whip glows.
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So, engine wise, Curse of Darkness takes one step back and three forward from it's predecessor, and the basics for a solid game are here. But moving on to level design, things go south, fast. The number one criticism of Lament was that it's level designs were flat, repetitive and uninspired. Some of the graphics looked very nice, but after the 10th identical looking hallway filled with generic looking enemies, even the biggest fan of the combat system was bored by the setting. For the sequel, the only place to go was up. Or so we thought. Most of the areas in Curse are outdoors rather then in a claustrophobic castle, but the same repetitive level design philosophy is still 100% evident. Almost all areas are basic corridors and rooms, it's just that the walls are dressed with trees and rocks instead of paintings and windows. Invisible walls are everywhere to stop you from going outside the rectangle, so every environment, no matter how 'open' it looks, feels incredibly limiting. To be fair, it isn't as flat as Lament - there are a few slopes to climb, and the environs are more varied then the simple thematic differences between levels of it's predecessor. But it actually manages to be more repetitive.

The back of the game box proclaims that Curse features 'the biggest 3D Castlevania world yet'. This is rubbish, both Nintendo 64 games' worlds were bigger in every fair way of measuring them, and the size of Curse is due to cutting and pasting identical chunks of level over and over and over. Even the exploration elements of Lament are gone - Curse pretends to feature Metroid-like gameplay (i.e. you gain upgrades that open new areas), but it's almost totally linear - every time you get a new ability, amazingly, the place to use it appears around the next corner. There are often ten seperate sections within an area that look identical, and the few branching paths that there are can lead you in circles unless you consult it the map quite often. It would still be ok if there were a large variety of enemies, but the game falls short here too. The enemies are generally well designed, and some Castlevania classics return for the fans who missed them from Lament's rather generic bestiary. But there's really only about one area's worth of enemies, spread out throughout the whole, repetitive game. You fight the same skeletons in the first area as in the last area, they just have a higher number next to their name. It's all very frustrating that the pieces of a great game are sitting here - they've created a great engine, they just need to stick an actual game in it. It plays less like a full game, and more like a fan mod. The basics are there, it's still fun, but it doesn't feel like a completed product.

Sometimes the huge variety of scenery and enemies borders on the sublime </sarcasm>

Sometimes the huge variety of scenery and enemies borders on the sublime </sarcasm>
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Curse of Darkness would be a reasonably good looking game were it not for the repetitiveness. It's not up to the likes of Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry 3 on a technical level, but the art design is nice – Hector looks good and is well animated, and on the whole the other characters, enemies and bosses are good too. And the environments actually look great the first time you see them - but when you've passed the same house twenty times, the lustre of the nice art design fades. Sonically, Curse is well below par for a Castlevania game, but still decent compared to many other action games. Castlevania was once renowned for it's incredible music, with catchy tunes amd intelligent composition, but the series has been slipping recently. Generic synth/goth/j-pop/cheese metal has returned after Lament's decent orchestra/techno soundtrack, and while electric guitar is welcome back into the mix, it would be better if something more interesting was done with it then power chords beneath an underdeveloped harmony. The soundtrack certainly isn't bad, but apart from a few good boss themes, none of it is either memorable or musically clever. Sound effects are quite good, with different sounds for every weapon, and while the story is pretty average, the voice acting is very good.

There are some nice details sometimes though

There are some nice details sometimes though
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Overall Castlevania: Curse of Darkness is a decent action game with some well designed RPG elements thrown in. It's quite fun to play in sessions of about half an hour, and it's actually worth picking up if you keep this in mind. But play it for any longer in one session, and what ammounts to doing the exact same thing over and over may get to you, probably enough that the frustration overtakes that fun. Lament of Innocence had obvious flaws, but showed potential and was fun in it's own right. Curse of Darkness feels like squandered opportunity, and while it still has it's moments, that sinking feeling of what could have been is deeper this time. The handheld Castlevaniatitles continue to go from strength to strength, yet the definitive 3D iterations remain those from last generation. As they look to the next generation, Konami has a question to ask themselves about the console Castlevania games: can we do better?
The Score
All the elements of a decent game are here except the level design. That, however, is unforgivable for a game with exploration based goals.
Looking to buy this game right now? PALGN recommends www.Play-Asia.com.

Related Content

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Castlevania: Lament of Innocence Review
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Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow Review
02 Nov, 2005 Classic 2-D platforming with the Dark Lord and a whole lot of soul.
3 Comments
8 years ago
disappointing indeed. Thank goodness for DS!
8 years ago
I've got Lament and it's hella boring aye..

No way am I getting this....it looks exactly the same!
8 years ago
Tried it in a game shop.... very dull.
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  Pre-order or buy:
    PALGN recommends: www.Play-Asia.com

Australian Release Date:
  Out Now
European Release Date:
  Out Now
Publisher:
  Konami
Developer:
  Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo
Players:
  1

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