It takes determination to be a quality last boss in a video game series. Managing a single game with no hope for a sequel’s pretty easy work, really; all you have to do is face the conquering hero once, get your butt kicked, and enjoy a steady stream of royalty checks from your retirement home for geriatric helldaemons, military dictators, and assorted riffraff of dubious moral fiber. However, coming back time and time again for epic battle to the death after epic battle to the death demands a certain degree of moxie that most hooligans just don’t got, and one of the most highly decorated fiends in the field of recurring bad guys is Castlevania’s Count Dracula. Not only does he face decades of unimaginable torment in a state of semi-death between bouts against leather-clad, whip-wielding Europeans who hammer sharpened logs into his chest, but he does it with old-world style and overacted dialogue at the ready. Castlevania: Curse of Darkness provides a perfect example of this expert thespian at work. Here’s my review.
The year is 1479. Trevor Belmont’s stunning victory over Dracula only three years earlier (Castlevania III, for those of you trying to keep track of the series’ labyrinthine time line) still stood fresh in the memories of his countrymen. However, the dying curse of Dracula still gripped the land. Monsters roamed the countryside, kind neighbors turned cruel, and a blight afflicted crops and cattle alike, resulting in those gross two-headed cows everyone hears about. Even in defeat, the forces of Darkness seemed unstoppable…
Enter Hector, a powerful mortal servant of Dracula who abandoned his position as Devil Forgemaster when the atrocities he daily dealt with became too much for him. Secretly rejoining the ranks of mankind, he eventually made plans to wed a woman named Rosaly and try to find some happiness in the world. However, shortly before the ceremony, his fiancée was accused of witchcraft and burned for heresy. Discovering that the accusations stemmed from his former fellow Forgemaster Isaac, Hector decides to journey back to the ruins of Castlevania, a broken man seeking revenge or death.
Castlevania: Curse of Darkness is a 3D action RPG, similar in style to the PS2 title Castlevania: Lament of Innocence. Gameplay is very heavily combat-oriented (as one would expect from an entry in this series), and the player controls Hector as he struggles through various areas along the path to Castlevania, regaining his unholy strength along the way. The basics of combat are unsophisticated but handle very well. Attacking enemies consists primarily of repeatedly hitting the basic attack button to string together combos of normal attacks and finishing these combos at the proper moment to execute a variety of advanced moves. With four basic weapon types to choose from, this allows you to perform a sizable repertoire of unique moves using only two buttons, with aerial and defensive strikes adding just a few more. While there are much more demanding action titles out there, you will be required to pay attention to what buttons you’re hitting, and button mashing will not be tolerated.
The game’s auto-targeting system is effective at getting you to face the enemy you actually want to deal with, which is definitely a positive. Defensively, Hector can jump, cartwheel and block to avoid enemy attacks, and some of the harder fights really force you to keep yourself moving to survive. Much like Castlevania: Lament of Innocence before it, Curse of Darkness also implements a blocking system in which timing your block perfectly allows you to block any attack and often throws the enemy off balance. Especially when playing on the harder difficulty mode, the game forces you to fight strategically, dodging enemy attacks and attempting hits only when the opening presents itself.
Shifting the odds heavily in his favor, Hector can use his Devil Forgemaster capabilities in a few different ways. First of all, he can use his powers to craft weapons and armor out of the raw materials found throughout the world, hidden in treasure chests or on monsters. It’s a fairly simple crafting system that fits well with the pacing of the rest of the game. Basically, as you play, you will collect a number of materials such as bronze, steel, ceramics, etc. Once you’ve collected the components required for a recipe, it will appear in your list of available crafting options. The vast majority of the game’s equipment is made through the crafting system, with only a small number of finished items to be found lying around.
This doesn’t mean that the process is just a straightforward matter of killing the enemies that you encounter along the way until they start dropping bricks of ore, because most of the more exotic materials require use of the game’s Stealing system to acquire any significant amount of it. The Stealing system becomes available shortly after beating the game’s first boss, and what it does is allow you to attempt to steal items from enemies by locking on to them with the targeting system, getting in fairly close to them, and pressing the Steal button when the enemy is in the middle of a particular animation. This animation varies from enemy to enemy, with some being much more common than others. Stealing from Zombies, for instance, can be done during just about any moment that they’re around. Stealing from harder enemies might require knocking them to the floor or catching them in the middle of a particular attack, forcing you to get creative in order to draw out a particular enemy behavior. This goes doubly for boss fights, which are usually hard enough to really limit the amount of time you can spend trying to pick their pockets before they just kill you.
Joining Hector on his quest are a number of creatures known as Innocent Devils, which as far as I can tell are souls of the damned pulled screaming out of Hell and inserted into a variety of Pokémon-esque familiars. As Hector regains his Devil Forgemaster techniques throughout the course of the game, he gains access to up to six different kinds of Innocent Devil, each of which serves a different purpose, ranging from the Fairy-type’s support functions to the Mage-type’s almost entirely offensive magic casting.
Once you choose which Innocent Devil to use, you can control it to a certain extent. There are three settings for most Devil-types: Automatic, Manual, and Guard. When using Automatic, the Devil will attack all enemies to the best of his abilities, using special moves extensively at a cost to its own health (which is represented by Hearts). Manual also allows the Devil to act on its own, but restricts it from using any special moves until you specifically command it to. Guard causes the Devil to defend itself and Hector if he’s nearby, blocking any attack (though this defense can be broken through eventually). While there is no direct control over what your creation does, the game’s AI is decent and a clunky control scheme here would have hurt the game overall.
Each Devil-type has a number of sub-types to it as well, offering even more specialization in monster raising. As you kill enemies, they give you experience, items, and, after you find the requisite item, Evolution Crystals. There are five different kinds of Evolution Crystals to collect based off the weapon type you are currently using (Sword, Axe, Spear, Fist, or Other), and once you’ve collected enough of one kind of crystal, your Innocent Devil will evolve to one of the next possible stages in its development. Each form has its own set of moves to learn, usually unlocked through killing a certain number of enemies with that Devil out, but sometimes through less obvious methods that take some experimentation (translation: irritating random guesswork) to discover.
Different Innocent Devil forms also have widely varying stat progression. As you gain experience, both Hector and his lil’ buddy gain levels. Hector’s levels are pretty ordinary, giving you more health and higher stats. The Devils, however, have a more interactive approach to leveling. Instead of just receiving a generic boost in each of their stats, each Devil form gets a specific increase in each of their five stats, usually with a strong emphasis on one or two. Carefully managing what form a Devil has taken when it levels up can allow you to breed powerful spellcasters or unstoppable titans which can really make some of the nastier fights in the game much easier. Even though you can only carry so many Devils at a time, you can make as many as you want and store the rest for later, so feel free to experiment wildly. It’s an easy mistake to make to simply pick one or two Devils and force your way through the game using only them.
Area design is unfortunately linear, offering you occasional brief side paths but requiring you to travel one predetermined course through the game. There are definitely stretches where it feels as though you are running from room to room, mechanically killing everything there and going on to face more of the same in the next chamber, but this issue is usually not too noticeable. Enemy and boss behavior is interesting enough that each new type brings something new to the equation, and while most of the side paths are kind of pointless, some of them are surprisingly long and cleverly designed. Unlocking most of the more unusual side areas requires you to make creative use of your Innocent Devils’ abilities, providing even more incentive to fiddle around with them.
Graphically the game meets expectations nicely. The world is presented in characteristically gloomy fashion as a series of abandoned ruins and unwelcoming stretches of wilderness, and they look nice enough on the Xbox. Environments are diverse and most individual rooms usually have some unique features to them, helping to prevent the game from feeling repetitive. It’s not terribly original or creative stuff, mind you, but there’s nothing wrong with sticking to classic horror movie settings in a Castlevania game.
Characters and creatures also feel very familiar to anyone who’s ever played the series before. While there are occasional new opponents here and there, you’ll still be fighting Skeletons and Fleamen and Axe Armors most of the time, though they are well animated and splat nicely without a single moment’s slowdown detected. The cast of characters is also mostly brought back from earlier Castlevania titles, complete with leather-clad Belmont and regally garbed Dracula, though there is at least one supporting character archetype that you’ve probably never seen before.
All of the game’s plot-critical cut scenes are handled with elaborate FMV sequences, most of which are pretty but consist primarily of people talking to each other. Other less-vital cut scenes utilize the game’s actual graphic engine, usually for boss entrances or the occasional completion of a puzzle, and these aren’t so bad either even if they’re brief.
Sadly, this brings us around to the game’s biggest issue: story. Even though the narrative is presented well, with flashy visuals and some grade A voice acting, it’s still just barely enough to justify this dungeon romp. You’re handed the revenge story prologue mentioned above to start the game out, and beyond that you don’t really get too much else or develop in any logical way. There are some confusing side characters who talk in generically vague and useless riddles, and there’s a lot of shouting about unbelievably high power levels, and there may even be some inexplicable realizations about the beauty and majesty of love, but the game is still woefully short on honest-to-goodness plot. In a lesser title this would be a crippling flaw, but this is a Castlevania game and no one ever really expects much here to begin with. Something more substantial would’ve been nice, but if you enjoy action RPGs, you won’t really notice.
The soundtrack does much to help drive the game forward. Consisting primarily of spooky, organ-heavy prog rock with the occasional slower classical or atmospheric piece thrown in, it’s not tremendously memorable, but it does a lot to help set the mood. No pieces really stick out as particularly good, but they’re solid enough overall with no unpleasant areas to deal with. It’s not the best Castlevania soundtrack out there, but it’s certainly not the worst either.
Sound effects are kept practical and proper. With the fast-paced soundtrack blaring every inch of the way, there was no need to use sound for ambiance or, really, anything beyond combat, which it handles pretty well. The only real frills added on are the Easter Eggs hidden here and there, such as the craftable Squeaky Mallet and Electric Guitar weapons.
Last but not least are the game’s controls, which are mostly good across the board. The combat controls are easy to get the hang of but are involving enough that you won’t simply be hammering the attack button, and keeping track of your Innocent Devil’s actions is made as minimal as possible while still giving you some say in the matter of what they do. Camera controls were also very good, as most of your game will be spent targeting enemies, and the camera simply tracks your opponent as long as you have your target locked on. The only complaint I can think of here is that you move too slowly. In combat it’s not an issue, especially when using dodge maneuvers to jump around enemy attacks, but when hoofing it from one area to another you’ll find yourself wishing that Hector would start moving at faster than a powerwalk. This is mitigated by the plentiful teleportation rooms located throughout the world and by the ability to jump back to either a Save Room or the game’s one store with ease, but it still gets on your nerves, especially in some of the later, longer dungeons.
It’s probably not going to stand the test of time very well as any sort of classic, but I had a lot of fun going through Castlevania: Curse of Darkness. The satisfying combat will appeal to the casual gamer while the Devil raising and rare drops will keep perfectionists entertained. The unlockable game modes also add a chunk of replay value, with the harder difficulty mode option changing the game dramatically enough to make it worth running through another time. All in all I liked the game, and highly recommend scrounging it up in a bargain bin near you. Keep in mind however that as of September 2007, it is NOT compatible with the Xbox 360.