In the lead up to my recent week of vacation, I planned out a few things I wanted to accomplish. Top of the list was getting some car repairs done. I also wanted to spend at least one day with my wife driving around a nearby Oklahoma county, hunting for historical markers and eating local BBQ. There were a few odds and ends to be done around the house as well but when it came to video games, I had only one objective: begin, and hopefully complete, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. That didn’t happen, but before I even started compiling my to-do list I was already preparing a contingency plan.
This May, four years after its successful Kickstarter, I received my copy of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night in the mail. It’s a wonderful thing when a crowd-funding campaign succeeds, and even better when the organizers see the project through to fruition! I hadn’t backed many Kickstarter campaigns at the time but when this one was announced, I was in. Ever since playing Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow around the time of its release in spring 2003, I’ve been partial to the series, specifically the games produced by Koji Igarashi. Typified by nonlinear action-adventure gameplay, satisfying role-playing elements, bar-setting 2D animation, and wonderful soundtracks, his oeuvre still serves as a high-water mark for Metroidvania games, and inspiration for the dang term! Bloodstained served as IGA’s return to this type of game, about a decade after Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia released, his last similar work.
Unfortunately, the Switch version of Bloodstained, the version I opted for, was plagued by myriad technical issues at launch. Complaints of input lag and inferior visuals in comparison to the other versions of the game soured me on the prospect of jumping into it, right away at least. To their credit, the developers have been very forthcoming in rectifying the less than stellar state the Switch version released in. And by all accounts, the game itself is fantastic. So, while I wait for them to iron out the kinks and further polish Bloodstained (it’s been four years since the Kickstarter launched, what’s a few more months) why not play a Castlevania game? Considering my previous experience with the series was the 2006 DS entry Portrait of Ruin, the logical choice was to play the 2008 successor, and last of its style, Order of Ecclesia.
Developed and published by Konami, Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia was released just ahead of Halloween in North America, on October 21, 2008. Unlike most games in the franchise, the story didn’t revolve around a Belmont, the familial clan that, equipped with the magical Vampire Killer whip, defeated Dracula throughout the ages. Instead, a young woman named Shanoa took center stage. At a young age her and her orphaned brother Albus had been adopted by the Order of Ecclesia, a shadowy organization that sprung up to counter Dracula in the absence of a Belmont. As they grew up within the group, Barlowe, their leader, had concocted a method of destroying Dracula for good: Shanoa.
Unlike her brother, Shanoa had the ability to absorb the powers of her foes. Upon doing so, she could equip glyphs and gain the use of a weapon, magical ability, familiar summon, or some other perk. Three could be equipped at one time and corresponded to the attacks she’d release with her left and right hands, and a third catch-all slot. In addition to utilizing these abilities separately, Shanoa could perform a Glyph Union which offered a powered up attack or benefit. There were dozens of glyphs to collect, some received through the normal course of playing the game and others as enemy drops. Although I tended to stick with a sickle, an elemental light attack that circled her, and a familiar summon for most of the game, I frequently alternated what I used based on the situation.
The glyphs I came across had offensive attributes that fell into one of about a half-dozen different classes, and dealt damage to enemies based on their own unique weaknesses. For instance a sword or an axe would barely scrape a robotic enemy, but a lightning attack would deal massive damage. With the ability to switch between three load outs of equipped glyphs on the fly, I was able to prepare for a variety of situations without having to go back into the menus. This allowed for a seamless gameplay experience and gave me the opportunity to experiment with newly acquired glyphs without forsaking a preferred combination.
Interestingly, each use of a glyph depleted Shanoa’s MP. When I first learned this I was fearful it would be a major turnoff: that I’d always have to do a mental calculation before attacking, potentially hindering how I played the game. It may have been, if her MP didn’t automatically replenish, and promptly. The MP required of a glyph was directly related to its strength. The sickle I often used was fairly strong, but I could get in maybe a dozen swings before her MP was gone. The light attack I had used much more, but also circled her a few times before going away. Getting the most of any combination required a rhythm, based on MP usage and weapon cooldown; in this case it was sickle attack, light attack, sickle, sickle, light, etc. This combination allowed for fast-paced continuous attacking, which I preferred over sheer strength and waiting in between strikes. In contrast, Glyph Union attacks used hearts, just like special attacks from Castlevania games of the past. And just like in those entries, destroying the candlesticks that lined the hallways revealed hearts.
It was a trio of glyphs and a special Glyph Union that Barlowe had concocted to destroy Dracula. Through Ecclesia’s studies, he believed the Dominus glyph he created, again, usable only by Shanoa, would not only stop Dracula but destroy him forever. However, he apparently promised Albus the role of humanity’s savior. Upset at their master’s betrayal, Albus interrupted Shanoa’s absorption of the special glyphs. He left the halls of Ecclesia with the Dominus glyphs in his possession while she was left with amnesia. Back to square one, Barlowe retrained Shanoa and set her on the path to recovering the glyphs.
As Shanoa explored the region around Ecclesia she discovered the Dominus glyphs weren’t the only things Albus stole. The nearby village of Wygol was deserted, the dozen or so residents having been abducted by Albus. She found them bound by magic within the caves, mansions, and other local haunts around her. Unlike most of the previous entries in the series, I guided Shanoa through a variety of different areas, not just Dracula’s Castle. These locales provided a welcome diversity of environments and enemies, although I wouldn’t say the game world was larger than its predecessors. Selectable from a map, they became available in a linear fashion as the story progressed. With the exception of optional items, the completion of side quests, or just grinding levels, there often wasn’t a need to return to previously explored areas. It was a fairly straightforward game in comparison to past releases. False walls remained prevalent however, so fully exploring a map still required thoroughness.
Around the halfway point, after running into Albus a few times, Shanoa had a grand showdown with him. The results varied depending on if I had rescued every villager, which I had not initially. In my case, she defeated him and returned to Ecclesia, only to die upon using the Dominus Glyph Union. It was the game’s bad ending. During this sequence, Shanoa was given a brief glimpse of where to find any missing villagers and as it turns out, the one I missed was behind a false wall. So again, although this game was more linear than its brethren, it still required thoroughness. When Albus was defeated after rescuing all the villagers, the game continued on for another six or so hours. At this juncture, it was revealed that what previously appeared to be self-centered actions of Albus’ behalf were quite the opposite. Plot twist, the objectives of Barlowe and Ecclesia were not what the sibling pair had been led to believe!
The game’s difficulty was on display in its final half, although bosses had always been a challenge. There were long stretches of time that I explored uncharted areas without finding a save point, or a teleporter to get me back to one. Many, many times I died after accumulating enough damage from run-of-the-mill enemies and had to return to my last save. While this wasn’t pleasurable, it wasn’t all for naught. I had discovered what awaited me in those hallways and could better prepare for next time. This specific cycle was repeated over and over again when confronting bosses. Generally larger than life, they’d stomp me the first half-dozen attempts as I picked up on their weaknesses and tells. This process of trial and error eventually yielded one extremely satisfying attempt wherein I turned the tables, dodged their attacks, and mercilessly stomped them.
When things got too hairy, I’d back off the exploration and spend time grinding a level or two. The game’s RPG mechanics allowed me to power up Shanoa in this way, or by acquiring better gear from the shop in Wygol. New items became available as I completed side quests dished out by the villagers. These were fairly standard: defeat certain enemies or collect specific items, and added something else to focus on. Whatever I was doing, I was marveling at the beautiful visuals and jamming to the rocking soundtrack. Longtime composer Michiru Yamane was accompanied by Yasuhiro Ichihashi and the soundtrack was suitably Castlevania. The mostly organ-driven rock evoked the gothic surroundings I explored while standing on their own as great tracks. A couple of my favorites were “An Empty Tome” and “The Tower of Dolls.”
It’s been too long since I’ve played any of Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia’s predecessors to definitively say how it compares. All of the telltale features were present: superb action-adventure gameplay, addictive role-playing mechanics, beautiful visuals, and an amazing soundtrack. These elements formed a perfect union, resulting in an enjoyable game that felt like a work of art; this was an example of a studio at their peak. It seemed to be more linear than others, but I didn’t think of that as a negative, especially since there were still loads of secrets to find. And heck, there were a handful of unique modes available after completion that kept me busy well beyond the credits. Regardless of how it ranks against its precursors, I’m positive in asserting it’s one of the best entries in the series, and simply put, a fantastic video game.