|By Zach Patterson||Tuesday, 30 Dec 2008|
A surprise to no one, another Castlevania DS game was released this year. What was a surprise, however, was that several of the recent typical Castlevania conventions were tossed out the window. Instead of basing the game entirely around Dracula’s castle, this game mostly takes place completely away from it. Instead of one continuous map that recalls the standard Metroidvania gameplay, this game is separated into levels that are as simple as one straight forward area, or a mini-sprawling map area. Also, the game doesn’t feature any Belmonts, has tons and tons of new sprites (which honestly is a small miracle considering how many have been recycled in the past few games), and an entirely new weapon system (Glyphs). But does it make the game better?
I’d have to argue that while I like most of the new stuff, there’s also a bunch of drawbacks to this game that are more prominent due to the more linear nature of this Castlevania. But before I get to that, here’s what I liked.
For one, the graphics and art are beautiful. Thank God they went back to Ayami Kojima, because the portraits are suitably more beautiful and mature looking. Additionally, the game is full of brand new sprites and creative new bosses that are well animated as well as menacing. Also, certain new areas of the game are simply great to look at. The village has intricate moss growing around the entrance and detailed houses, while the library area in Dracula’s castle is probably one of the cooler places in any Castlevania game, with books scattered everywhere that kick up as you run across them.
Additionally, I like the change of pace with level-based gameplay. It lends itself extremely well to portable gaming, in the sense that you never get too confused where you need to go, and it allows the developers to make a ton of widely varying areas without trying to make sense of it in a castle setting. Instead, here, you can have a 5 minute woods area, a half-hour subterranean area, a light house built essentially for a boss battle, etc. It keeps the game fresh. Finally, the game compromises at the end and gives you the largest area of the game, a new Dracula’s castle (which is by far the smallest one in modern CV’s yet, but it still takes a few hours to get through all of it). To go along with this change, I find
extremely handy to have a central town hub to go to when you need supplies or when you need to save (or to take new quests from the villagers). It’s nice to have safe area to just kind of wander around and talk to people, and it certainly breathes a little bit of life into the universe around Castlevania, even if the villagers and their voices are a little ridiculous. I should also note that it’s a nice bit of fan service to include a Castlevania II-esque town as the central area.
The gameplay of course is very similar to the other games on the DS and GBA, which is a very good thing. The controls are smooth and responsive, and pretty much perfect for an action platformer like this. I like the new Glyph system too, as it is uncomplicated in its conception (equip two weapons, one primary, one secondary, and an elemental or assist item in a third slot that can be combined as a unioned devastating attack that eats hearts) but allows for some fairly diverse mixing and matching of abilities, which lead to various effective and not so effective results. The game also has a fierce difficulty on many of its bosses. However, this is a good thing, because they aren’t unfairly tough and cheap. Instead, it forces you to learn their patterns and use a variety of different glyph setups until one proves to be effective.
That’s about where the positives end for me. I feel like there are a lot of nagging problems that could have been easily fixed in the last half of the game. The game just starts off pretty promising and then after you get to the battle that triggers the bad ending, the game feels very incomplete. For one, the story isn’t that great to start with (it seems like a side story to the main story arc), and once you reach Dracula’s castle, the story all but falls apart. I mean, they take away the supporting story characters for the most part and it just becomes “KILL DRACULA”. And the ending is about as unsatisfying as possible. Dracula spurts some generic dialogue about how he can’t be defeated, and spoiler, he dies. End.
To add to this unsettling feeling, Dracula’s castle, normally a wealth of interesting areas and secrets, is about as boring as possible this time around. Aside from the aforementioned Library area and the cool fire/shadow effect that highlights the one area, it’s completely unmemorable. Worse, there are quite a few areas that seem copy-pasted to extend the castle with just a few different enemies to make it slightly different. This is also used in a few areas outside of the castle, which is frankly lazy, if you ask me. The game is also short, with a bulk of the time spent before Dracula’s castle, and then less than a third of the game in the castle itself. I took my time and did many side quests and still barely topped 10 hours. 10 hours isn’t exactly long or short (I noted Aria of Sorrow was 7 hours in my review of that), but the game feels short by the end. The final two bosses are put very close to each other, and there’s no real sense of accomplishment at the end.
Speaking of the final two bosses, what happened to the challenge here? The game goes from kicking your ass on bosses to pretty much letting you off easy on the two most important battles in the entire game against series icons. The difficulty wangs all over the place, and in the end, becomes far too easy. Dracula doesn’t even have a demonic second form, and can be defeated in less than a minute without you taking damage! And you can make it even easier by messing around with a few of the glyphs and getting overpowered combinations that can do anywhere from 500-1000 damage per hit.
Additionally, while I loved the town hub area, it made it far too easy to stock up on potions and use as a crutch to survive tough parts of the game. Instead of rewarding smart battling, it allows you to have a “Get Out Of Trouble Free” card. I found myself becoming lazy and running past enemies or just letting myself get hit because I had a ton of Magical Tickets to get back to the town and save my bacon. Also, the villagers are a great thing to add to the game, but each one could have used many, many more quests. Some had three, one, or none. And some of them were insanely easy, and some of them were so incredibly obscure that I didn’t bother. They would ask for an item that an enemy drops and
would give no information on who drops it or where, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to kill hundreds of enemies hundreds of times just to get some rare item drop so that they can give me some pointless item stocked in the item shop.
And that leads me to another point, something I really wish would change in Castlevania games. Please, stop with the rare drop items and random ability drops. I feel that if you kill an enemy, you should get their goods. At the very least, don’t make it so tough that you have to seek out items that increase your luck just to have a 1 in 100 chance that some stupid fish is going to drop an item. It’s a waste of time, and I just end up missing tons of neat stuff in the game because I don’t know what items that enemy might hold. I think the worst is that glyphs can be acquired from enemies, but many of them seem completely random as to when you will get them, so you could miss tons of cool weapons and assist items because you didn’t beat an annoying hammer armor enemy 40 times.
Finally, the music. I couldn’t fit it in anywhere because it just didn’t do much for me either way. On one hand, I really dug some songs like “Gate of the Underworld”, “Tower of Dolls”, “Dark Holy Road”, and some of the variations on classic CV themes, but a good portion of it was fairly standard, appropriate stuff that never really stood out.
So when it comes to making a final evaluation on the game, I find myself torn. I mean, this and the other two DS Castlevania games are easily some of the best games for the DS. Tight gameplay, good music, good replay value, and smart, semi-non-linear game structure. However, Portrait of Ruin added a bunch of new twists to the standard CV theme, and as such, more was expecting of Ecclesia. I have to applaud Konami for taking some risks and changing up the standard gameplay conventions a bit, with some nostalgia driven level-based areas, more RPG elements, a central hub with villagers, and trying a bit of a story departure. On the other hand, I don’t feel like they fully realized any of these ideas, and the result is an ambitious game that comes up a bit short and feels a little rushed. And I’m not going to throw Ecclesia under the bus for some lame storytelling and the item issue when every other game is guilty of it in the series, but it still needed to be mentioned. In general, it’s another great game for the DS that’s worth your money, but I feel it is one of the lesser modern Castlevania games.