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Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia [Nintendo DS] – Review

Castlevania Order of Ecclesia - Nintendo DS - North American Box Art

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. Continue reading Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia [Nintendo DS] – Review

Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin [Nintendo DS] – Review

Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin

When I talked about Fallout Shelter last week, I began by considering it in a vacuum. Without partners playing too, it grew to resemble a chore more than an enjoyable escape. I feel like taking the same approach with Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin but for a different reason. In a vacuum, this game is practically the pinnacle of the 2D action-adventure genre. The addictive blend of action, exploration, and role-playing elements that the series is known for, still make up the core experience of this game and pair well with new additions. Level design remains fresh throughout, in part due to the top-notch audio/visual qualities and varied surroundings. The reasons to continue playing after completion are immense as well, but, this is like the fifth Castlevania of this style I’ve played, and while they’re individually superb, they elicit less exhilaration after each completion.

Per usual, the animation was top-notch.
Per usual, the animation was top-notch.

When it was released for the Nintendo DS in late 2006, Portrait of Ruin was joining an already extensive collection of similar Castlevania titles that had released relatively recently. Koji Igarashi and his crew at Konami differentiated this game in a few ways, most notably, by focusing on two characters instead of one. The plot centers on Jonathan Morris’ quest to quell Dracula’s uprising amidst a war-torn Europe circa 1944 with his partner Charlotte Audin. He resembles the typical Castlevania protagonist in many ways while she is a spell caster with a growing repertoire of spells, another series staple.

I could freely switch between the two at all times and this allowed me to dabble with both combat styles – weapons with him and magic with her. These two styles were vastly different in execution and perhaps because of my familiarity with previous entries, I stuck with Jonathan. When not actively controlled, the partner was still useful. They would automatically attack on-screen enemies, albeit with little intelligence. This was beneficial in dealing with enemies but it proved most worthwhile in drawing enemy aggression towards the partner, allowing me to attack from behind. Outside of combat, the duo was put to use in progressing past a few (generally half-assed) puzzles. The most memorable of these had both characters riding motorcycles and tasked me with switching between them in order to make sure neither was knocked off by various obstacles. It was a fast-paced puzzle that made me stop and think of a viable solution, unlike most others.

The game had a limited number of NPCs, but each was integral to the plot.
The game had a limited number of NPCs, but each was integral to the plot.

Additionally, the game was distinguished by the variety of locales Jonathan and Charlotte traversed. Now, the primary setting was Dracula’s Castle (naturally) but much of the duo’s time was spent exploring the paintings strewn about, a la Super Mario 64. In keeping with the series, these maintained a gothic design. They transported the pair to the streets of a bombed-out European city, a nightmarish circus, and many more unique backdrops that would’ve seemed out of place as disparate areas of the abominable abode. The series has always attempted to segregate Dracula’s Castle with diverse milieus but this is the best example I’ve seen.

Although Jonathan’s quest was to banish Dracula’s Castle, that vile vampire wasn’t an issue until late in the game. While the castle had arisen because of the agony and hatred within humanity during this period, another vampire took advantage of the castle’s powers for his own agenda and prevented Dracula from reviving. That vampire, Brauner, ultimately worked towards the same end goal of humanity’s destruction, but did so out of the hatred he felt for losing his daughters during the First World War. Brauner was able to harness the power of Dracula’s Castle through his paintings. With assistance from newfound friends and through the evolution of a subplot or two, Jonathan and Charlotte were successful in cleansing the castle of Brauner’s influence and ultimately dealing with Dracula and his ilk.

Some sections of Dracula's Castle may look familiar to veterans of the series.
Some sections of Dracula’s Castle may look familiar to veterans of the series.

There were plenty of reasons to keep going once the story was finished too. Exploration and the mapping of Dracula’s Castle has been a core component of the series since Symphony of the Night, and this game doesn’t disappoint with its 1,000% MAP COMPLETION RATE! That number is perhaps artificially high because of the multitude of paintings, but there is a lot to explore nonetheless. Moreover, there were many collections to complete such as obtaining all items or filling out the bestiary and mastering each sub-weapon, powering them up in the process. These are customary features for the series but also available were sidequests from one of the duo’s associates. I believe this was a first for the series and I had completed maybe 15% at game’s end after passively trying, so there’s much to do on that front.

Two more sets of playable characters could also be unlocked and both changed gameplay dramatically. The environment remained the same with both but the equipment and magic customization was backpedaled completely and a story was basically nonexistent. One pair of characters was a throwback to the classic days of the series with a focus on sub-weapons and the legendary whip, Vampire Killer. This duo was overpowered and playing with them felt like I was in “God mode.” The other duo utilized the touch-screen exclusively. The touch-screen was integrated into the game elsewhere but I literally never used it. The execution with these two was actually very intriguing and their individual means of attacking required different touch-based actions. A Boss Rush mode was also available after completion as well as a co-operative mode (multi-card only).

The duo had access to super-powerful co-op attacks that drained their MP.
The duo had access to super-powerful co-op attacks that drained their MP.

Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin has all the staples I’ve come to expect from the series as well as a few differentiating features. The core of these, a focus on two characters, helped to freshen the formula but it was probably the variety of settings that kept me most entertained. Not to mention the accoutrement found in the various collections to complete, sidequests to beat, and unlockables to try out after the plot had wrapped up. The more modern backdrop and the twist on the classic premise were appreciated as well. I think this is probably the most complete Castlevania I’ve played of this style, but I don’t think it tops Aria of Sorrow for me. That was my first foray into the series and each one I’ve played since has been chasing that experience. They’ve all been outstanding, but like the saying goes, I’ll never forget my first, and I’ll forever be comparing successive entries to it.

Castlevania: Lament of Innocence [PlayStation 2] – Review

Ayami Kojima, the artist for this and many other Castlevania games is self-taught. What talent!
Ayami Kojima, the artist for this and many other Castlevania games is self-taught. What talent!

Castlevania: Lament of Innocence was released on this day eleven years ago. It marked the franchise’s return to 3D, after a pair of reportedly underwhelming N64 titles. This title also marked Koji Igarashi’s first attempt at doing so, after helming many lauded 2D Castlevanias (Circle of the Moon not among them). It didn’t surprise me when I found this game to be very similar to the GBA and DS games that I adore. The formula of those games was transposed into the 3D action-adventure genre, although at least one key gameplay element was omitted, making for a less addicting game.

But you're Death. Aren't you already dead?
But you’re Death. Aren’t you already dead?

On top of that, the combat system implemented here lacked much depth. This didn’t bother me too much, although it also didn’t encourage me to explore the full repertoire of the game’s protagonist. But, that leads to one of the facets that drew me into this game and the franchise in the first place – the stories and settings. The Gothic settings and character designs are second to none in the video game realm. This game serves as the chronological origin for the franchise so it’s a key game in that regard, and even with a small cast of characters, I found it to be entertaining and worth my while. It only took me six hours to complete, after all.

As I mentioned, the formula that the 2D Castlevanias are known for was completely lifted and applied to the 3D action-adventure genre, with a few exceptions… That formula – the “Metroidvania” formula – is often noted for its extreme backtracking tied to character development. Neither of those elements was on display in this game, much. There was a fair dose of backtracking, but this was generally confined to each unique area. Character development also wasn’t a focus.

The HUD would display much information. It wasn't overly crowded though.
The HUD would display much information. It wasn’t overly crowded though.

The castle that the protagonist was exploring served as a hub to about six other remote sections. There wasn’t much tying these stages together, besides a foreboding sense of trouble. Even the association puzzles that I infrequently came across didn’t cross boundaries. Character development of abilities wasn’t a hindrance to my exploration either, so this was somewhat unique among the more recent entries in the franchise. Exploration was limited, and very straightforward. Thankfully, the castle itself was basically a character; granted one with dissociative identity disorder.

Composed of about six distinct areas, the castle was diverse, but always atmospheric. The Ghostly Theatre, the Anti-Souls Mysteries Lab, the Garden Forgotten by Time, you might intuit their ominousness from their names. When they weren’t recycling the same hallway or large room that hosted a group of enemies, they were fun to examine. Especially when coupled with Michiru Yamane’s fantastic soundtrack. The Castlevania games are host to some of the best video game music, and this one didn’t disappoint. In fact, there were a handful of songs that I had to download to listen on their own.

Guarding was crucial to this game. It negated all physical damage dealt.
Guarding was crucial to this game. It negated all physical damage dealt.

The game’s combat lacked much ambition, especially in comparison to some of its contemporaries, namely Devil May Cry. The basic combat centered on light and heavy combos with the franchise’s traditional whip. Also at my disposal was a small amount of magical buffs and the classic sub-weapons from the original Castlevania. I was content to mash the heavy attack button through the entirety of my playthrough, and this was very effective. It didn’t have to charge up much and the increased damage dealt was always worth the effort.

I refrained from using magical buffs, as I only had access to one until I was near completion. Plus, I didn’t find the one I had too helpful. On the flip side, the sub-weapons were a highlight. Four of the five were directly from the original Castlevania, but they were more than a nostalgic throwback. They provided many opportunities to deal ranged damage, and each had many variations. These variations were fun to experiment with and allowed me the opportunity to explore that aspect of the combat system, unlike the lackluster whip combos that were gradually learned.

On the whole, the game's difficulty curve was fair. Maybe a little easy, but there were some tough spots too.
On the whole, the game’s difficulty curve was fair. Maybe a little easy, but there were some tough spots too.

What made this game less addicting than its handheld brethren was the omission of any role-playing elements. I’m specifically thinking of Aria of Sorrow, where the player character could level up and equip a plethora of weapons. There was nothing like that in Lament of Innocence – and the infrequent health/heart boosts don’t count; nor do the three other whips. Instead, any sort of character development was done strictly though the combat system, which as I mentioned, lacked depth outside of the sub-weapons. RPG elements were commonplace in the franchise at this point, so I have to wonder if their omission had to do with the transition to 3D or a focus on simplicity for the origin story?

Lament of Innocence serves as the origins for the franchise, or it did before Lords of Shadow. I believe that’s another “universe” however. Taking place in 1094, the game sets up the eternal struggle between the Belmont family line and Dracula. The amount of exposition was minimal on the whole, with lots at the beginning and end, but little in the middle. The cast of characters was also small, but each is given much screen time as a result. I have nothing but praises for the narrative, definitely a highlight, and well worth experiencing for fans of the franchise.

The cross was one of the sub-weapons.
The cross was one of the sub-weapons.

Most of the narrative was told through dialogue between Leon Belmont and Rinaldo Gandalfi. The former was the protagonist, obviously, while the later aided those who sought to defeat Walter Barnhard, the vampire antagonist. Leon entered Walter’s immense castle in an attempt to rescue his betrothed, Sara Trantoul. It initially seems as though Walter captured Sara to draw a foe into his castle – to hunt Leon, more or less – but in a twist, it’s revealed that he was being used by a surprising character, forcing the Belmont family into a future of vampire hunting.

Well, now you've done it Leon.
Well, now you’ve done it Leon.

Castlevania: Lament of Innocence proved to be a solid effort at transitioning the franchise into 3D, again. I was disappointed by some of the gameplay elements, but enjoyed others. The combat system on the whole was a little dull, although the sub-weapons were a nostalgic callback, and fun to experiment with. Exploration was also a little dull, despite the castle’s diverse composition. The lack of much RPG influence was perhaps my biggest knock against this game, but I still enjoyed my time with it. Perhaps due most of all to the well told story and mysterious cast of characters. Castlevania: Lament of Innocence is a worthwhile adventure for fans of the franchise or genre, but it’s not the best of either.