When I think Castlevania, I think of exploring a big nasty castle, gradually piercing its stony armour by uncovering hidden treats and upgrades through the slaying of nasty undead skeleton warriors and bats and, well, plants; I think of platforms, puzzles, and a bit of RPG-style item-management to keep the Donkey Kongs at bay.
Within about an hour of plopping Castlevania: Curse of Darkness in the PS2 then, I went outside (ho noes the sun my lovely vampiric skin oh wait it's February phew etc.) and bought Castlevania: Lament of Innocence, the last 3D Castlevania effort, and of course then it dawned on me. When the men and women of Konami think Castlevania, they think of a big, boring long train of the ungrateful dead blocking doorways; they think of skeletons, and then more skeletons, and mashing of the square button to make skeletons vanish. With some RPG bits to keep Dante at bay.
So then, cast aside any lingering expectation that this will be like a 2D Castlevania. Once again it's all very combat-focused. You play as Hector, an annoyingly earnest young silver-haired individual who once betrayed Dracula and now finds himself gunning after a former lieutenant, Isaac, and killing everything that stands between the two of them. It's worth noting his erstwhile relationship with super-vamp because it helps explain his key ability: he is a Devil Forgemaster, which basically means he can make sexy swords and axes and take control of "Innocent Devils" (aka "demon buddies") while he goes around clobbering skeletons and annoying fat trolls with flaming arrows.
And so, instead of gradually probing further into the depths of one big castle, expertly applying new tools and tricks and enjoying lots of lightbulb moments as you remember to go and explore that dead-end from ages ago which you now have the capacity to explore (sorry, I'll stop reminiscing now), you get to walk down very long corridors in various castles, temples and along similarly dark Eastern European mountainsides smashing all sorts of nasty creatures and deadites in the face. You can simply mash square (or A if you've got an Xbox I expect) to do various simple combos, but you can also do uppercuts and subsequently mid-air juggles, and there's a circle-button finishing move that allows you to vary your approach by making use of it in different contexts, and with different killing tools.
Demon buddies (might as well be "Poke-demons", actually) add the occasional new ability when you happen upon them, and either trundle along clobbering their own business or doing something similarly aggressively passive, or react to commands issued by navigating an intuitive little on-screen menu using the d-pad and triangle button. The first demon buddy, for example, is good for picking up dropped loot and opening magically sealed chests while you're busy taking care of business, but also adds some useful healing abilities should you want to actually call on him/her/it/I-called-it-Kinki.
The next one is called Franks, I think, but after he demonstrated the movement animations of somebody trying to run up a hill wearing clown shoes, and particularly given he's got an array of pink rods built up on his back, I renamed him Gemspack - anyway, leave him be and he'll beat people up, but you can also direct him to guard you and so on. As you go on, they level up of themselves and gain new abilities as a result - something which you're given some control over, despite not really knowing what impact a particular choice of direction will have. Ultimately, a bit like the way Kameo seems very excited about new toys for all of ten minutes after forking them over, Curse of Darkness likes to give you demon buddies who work particularly well immediately afterward and then gradually diminish in consequence despite supposed growth.
But, in all honesty, you're probably going to care more about the forging, and that's where the game actually has the potential to hook you. The combat's certainly not offensive in any way, with a reasonable range of attacks and an effective dodging technique, not to mention enemies with sensibly readable attack patterns; indeed, it's also worth noting that while it does use the surely-we're-done-with-this-now approach of making you kill a certain amount of enemies to proceed, it won't repeat the trick on the same door twice. But it's seeking out rare materials in chests, and using the timing-based steal technique during battle that allows you to customise and derive the most enjoyment. It gives the combat and map-scouring an air of individuality - in the same way that the old-days Castlevanias' patterns of discovery were pretty uniform, but varied enough to sustain the illusion of actual exploration; it's this that replaces the Metroid-style relationship between item-hunting and making progress.
In other words, it's all very chop-chop-chop, but it uses collection and RPG-esque inventory management to keep things interesting - anybody who liked Lament of Innocence, Chaos Legion, Crimson Sea, anything like that, is liable to feel quite at home with it all.
Unfortunately, anybody for whom the prospect of spending countless hours slashing with just a few new swords to liven things up - in other words, those of us who loved Castlevania for the castle, not the equipment - is going to find it a lot easier to fixate on the game's problems, of which there are a few.
For a start, visually it's all a bit goth-overflow. It doesn't even have the gothic dollhouse look of Devil May Cry. I know the PS2's a bit creaky these days, and there's only so far you can go with "castles", but it'd be nice if they'd actually gone that far; even the biggest rooms here seem a bit cramped with boring architecture and fogging within buildings. Obviously, it being Castlevania, there's lots of plotting a route with a map (lord how I missed the DS's dual screen solution to this), but surely we can do graphics such that I don't have to refer to a map after a disorienting battle to actually work out which of two doors in a single room I haven't been through yet.
Plus of course it's repetitive by design. You hack, you slash, you make some weapons, you hack, you slash, etc. There's exploring, but it's more like going to the supermarket and realising they do actually have McCoy's salt and vinegar after all up near the customer info kiosk; it's not discovering a whole new special circus-themed supermarket hiding behind the frozen peas like it was in the old days.
So, to make it clear without peas, the point I'm making is that if you look at how Metroid made the transition from 2D to 3D and think "it could be like that!" then you're in for a very long, dark, boring, long, boring, dark disappointment. Worse - if you're actually fine with this set-up, you're going to think the skill level's too low. Really, you're only compelled by the yearning to find the bits you need for new toys.
And I wasn't yearning, frankly.
Now, you're probably going to have read enough and scroll-wheeled far enough down to think I'm marking this low because it's not a platformy exploration game, and I am, but don't go away thinking I've done that because I prefer one genre to the other.
What annoys me here is that Castlevania was always doing several smart things at once and this one, conversely, is founded on a presupposition that pandering to the klepto sword-swinger niche is all Konami needs to do. Stripped of certain things, it's a pretty ambitionless genre game template that's hardly likely to create any new fans, and feels, as was the case with Lament of Innocence, like a game that used to be a better idea until it got cut down. But where LoI gave rise to hope that things would change next time, Curse of Darkness feels like confirmation that, actually, what happened was Konami looked at what Castlevania was, tried to imagine how that would work in 3D, gave up and then just grumbled a bit before making a straightforward hackandslash with an inventory system.
In other words, it's good at what it's doing, but we'll all have a right to be hacked off with them if in a few years time the 2D stuff vanishes completely and all that remains is another Curse of Darkness.
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