Ask any gamer “What is the greatest series in the history of gaming?” and you’re sure to hear many answers. Mario, Sonic, Zelda, Final Fantasy, Mega Man, Ice Climber–ok, maybe not Ice Climber, but you get the idea. Another name that you are most certain to hear is Castlevania. Spanning seemingly 613 games across 411 platforms, Castlevania is certainly one of the most long standing, and most beloved series in the history of videogames. Konami recently released the newest chapter in the vampiric saga, Castlevania: Curse of Darkness. Does it stand up to the lofty standard that Symphony of the Night and (more recently) Dawn of Sorrow set before it, or fall into the darkness like the N64 titles. The answer is somewhere in between.
The game picks up right where Castlevania III:Dracula’s Curse left off. Old Drac is dead, but in his wake he left a curse on the land that caused normal townsfolk to start acting all crazy-like. Amid this chaos, Hector (the character you portray) is attempting to avenge the murder of his wife at the hands of Isaac. Both of you were former charges of Dracula, and you are the only two mortals with the power of Devil Forging. Isaac flees before you can exact your revenge, and you begin to follow, but as Admiral Akbar would say “It’s a trap!”. You see, Hector gave up his forging powers when he stopped being Dracula’s bitch, and you’ll have to regain them if you want to follow Isaac and gain your vengance.
What is Devil Forging, you may ask. Well, think of it like the M.A.G.s in the Phantasy Star Online series. You create “Innocent Devils” that have different abilities, strengths, and weaknesses based on their type. For instance, the Fairy type can heal your character, specialized ID’s like the Bird type grant special abilities, and the Battle type is good at, obviously, baking and cleaning house-..I mean battle. Like the M.A.G.s in PSO, the ID’s can develop and evolve based upon your gameplay habits. Using different weapons changes the branching evolution of your ID. Although the evolution of your ID’s isn’t as developed as I would like, it certainly provides an enjoyable distraction and an RPG-like element to the game.
Gameplay is pretty standard hack and slash fare. Basically, you will advance through different areas of the castle, fighting enemies and gathering items. Fans of the series last 3d iteration, Lament of Innocence, will find the gameplay relatively similar. Your character does level up now, although the fact that attribute points are automatically distributed with no input from the player takes away from the feeling of importance most RPG’s generate from leveling up. Kill enough skeletons, and find the right keys, and you will eventually fight a boss. Boss characters are generally well designed, and the cut scenes that flesh out the story are well animated. The story itself is good, if a bit over the top. Control feels relatively tight, there are some issues with the jumping and combat often degenerates into pushing the same button over and over again, but other than that there are no game breaking control issues.
Graphically, to put it bluntly, this game is mediocre at best. It doesn’t look like any attempt was made to optimize the experience for X-box. The character and enemies are well designed, however they are balanced out by horribly ugly, bland, lifeless environments and a whole lot of draw distance issues. Often it is impossible to see 20 feet (in game) in front of your character, due to a sheet of dark fog. Of course, it’s not like your missing much past that fog, as it’s likely another bland room using the same textures as the last bland room you were in. I guarantee that every gamer that plays this game will say the words “Haven’t I already been here” several dozen times during the course of the adventure. There really are no visible landmarks to many of the connecting areas, and while the in game map is pretty good, it doesn’t make up for such repetitive textures. There are some minor annoyances with the jerky camera as well. None that really spoil the experience, but things like a sharp jerk upward when the character jumps rather than a smooth scroll. While this doesn’t really effect the gameplay, it does serve to further accentuate the visual deficiency of the game.
The audio in the game is very nearly the antithesis of the visual side. The background music is varied, and well done, and truly lives up to excellent standard that former titles in the series have set. Voice acting is also very good, fitting in to the story as well as the general conception that vampires and all those related in any way to vampires are vocally dark, foreboding, and generally over the top. The sound effects are typical action fare and, while solid, don’t really set the world on fire.
All in all this is a solid, if flawed, entry in the Castlevania series. For players who enjoy the series, specifically Lament of Innocence, the game is probably worth a purchase. For those of you who don’t particularly care about the Castlevania legacy, and are just looking for a new action title, Curse of Darkness is worth a rental just to experience the ID system and the engaging storyline. Just don’t expect visuals on par with what you are used to on the X-box. As a fan of the series, I hope that they can get the visual issues ironed out for the next 3D trip through Transylvania, so I can marvel at the gloomy interior of a haunted castle instead of wondering how the in hell in ended back up in this room again.