If, three months ago, you had said to me that I’d actually, completely and utterly enjoy playing a Castlevania game, I would have told you to get fucked and go and boil your brain . But when some reviews came rolling in saying “If you like previous Castlevanias then you’ll hate this” my curiosity was piqued. “Perhaps they have released a game that was actually good”, I thought to myself. And lo it came unto pass that yes and verily MercurySteam have managed to create a genuinely awesome and particularly brilliant Castlevania game.
As far as I can tell they accomplished this task by looking at all the other Castlevania games and deciding that they were all just awful grindfests, with sucky rudimentary platforming and work-a-day boring combat. Throwing all that away they went with a Ninja Gaiden Sigma/God of War style brawler with strong, strong Uncharted 2 overtones. The difficulty tends more towards Ninja Gaiden side but manages not to extinguish your will to live. Also Shadow of The Colossus called and it wants it’s boss fights back. It shares other things with SofC but more on that shortly. In addition, because JJ Abrams was allowed to and because all franchises are now legally require to undergo the treatment, this is a complete reboot of the whole Castlevania mythos.
The gameplay is solid and well executed, the combat always seems fair and even handed and if you’re beaten it’s always because you weren’t good enough rather than because the computer cheated or something glitchy. While the combat is pretty complex, and isn’t just button mashing, it does suffer like Bayonetta or God of War before it, from eventually just boiling down to the one or two combos that are effective (Direct Heavy Combo and the Guillotine IIRC). The upshot is that you’ll purchase all the combos with the in game currency and you’ll likely only ever use about three of them. Which makes you wonder why they are even in there. And the blocking, you can block. Time the block right and you get to do some high damage ripostes except it’s really tricky if the camera isn’t in close enough to make out what is going on. The alternative is just to roll out the way of harm, you can just as easily fight with a strike-roll-strike-roll strategy, in fact it’s probably easier and more effective, which in turn might make you question what the block is for (except for that one boss fight where it’s essential). All that said there is a really satisfying rhythm to the combat once you’ve got it down and it’s really fun to play. Later on though, the final two super, special combos do have slight game breaking qualities. The Ultimate Light Combo, operates pretty much as a ‘Press button to win’ action, spamming mobs for massive damage and healing you. By the time you’ve unlocked the hardest difficulty level, unlocking that combo is not far behind and it makes the hardest difficulty setting easier than the previous one without said combo. Odd.
And that’s not all! There is plenty of platforming fun breaking up the combat sections (or maybe combat breaking up the platforming sections). The platforming takes on the Uncharted 2 model of crawling around hyper-realised bits of scenery with only a single (usually) path available,. Much like Uncharted 2 it’s pretty linear and seldom requires any skill to execute, it sure ain’t Super Mario Galaxy. But what elevates, what could be rather boring, to something engaging is the way in which inching your way up the face of a rotting cathedral is an integral part of the world and the game’s atmosphere, it’s part of lonely air that draws you in to the world. One thing that is a little too hand-holding is that pretty much every object you need to interact with gets highlighted with a sparkly white glow so you can’t miss it. Yet there’s maybe only two or three points in the whole game where you might actually need this help, you can’t work out where the next ledge is or whatever, but in the main it detracts from the graphics by adding a computery layer to an otherwise very real world. And it removes any puzzle-like challenge from the platforming, as you always know which way the next ledge is. That said it is used to great effect for some of the boss fights, which would be simply baffling without it such as the colossus style boss fights.. Roughly half of the main bosses are Shadow of the Colossus style Titans, you have to climb up the them being careful not to be shaken off and then stab them in a series of sensitive magical sweet spots (you know what I’m saying lads). They are framed as boss battles in the game but in reality they are by far the most interesting and engaging of the platforming challenges in the game. If you liked them in SotC then you’ll likely enjoy them here.
Wait! There’s more! So much more. The game is literally full of new things and variety. Hardly a level goes by where something new isn’t thrown out there, usually never to be seen again. Bored of fighting on foot? How about horse back fighting races? Bored of killing things, here’s a tabletop turn based strategy game to master. Logic puzzles? We got ‘em. The game is constantly throwing out new things for you learn and do, there’s always something new round the corner to hold your attention. And it’s used to great effect to constantly alter the pace of the game and prevent it from becoming one long monotonous stretch of the same-old, same-old. Even after completing a level more is thrown in, you’ll need to revisit some levels with new powers to collect one or two items and each completed levels gets a bonus challenge added. And the challenges themselves are pretty varied from time trials to completing the puzzles in the minimum number of moves to assorted combat challenges. They’ve simply packed a vast amount in. It’s kind of amazing.
By and large the whole game displays and incredibly degree of polish and attention to detail. The music and graphics and playability are superb. The graphics are especially note worthy, very much in the same vein as Uncharted 2; arguably not quite as “real” looking but always beautiful or striking to look at. Both the graphics and the camera work in the game display a real talent for cinematography and they really work to give the game real sense of scale and, in many places, solitude. The mostly static camera is used to smartly frame scenes and while it is occasionally a bit annoying during combat, I can more than forgive that given how well it’s used as a framing device. It’s clear that a lot of thought went into how the game is presented visually.
The only places the polish feels lacking is in the dialogue and the story and they probably only feel lacking in the face of everything else. In a lesser game you’d probably not notice. First up though, the dialogue; by and large it’s completely fine, in the game all the cut scenes are good. However… prefacing each level is a brief speech and/or summary narrated by Patrick Stewart and these are appallingly written; terrible, hacky, melodramatic, over-the-top nonsense so bad that on occasion they are all but unlistenable. They get a bit grating to say the least. And Patrick Stewart’s soliloquy at the end is painfully awful to listen to, I’m pretty glad his character was bumped off so we didn’t have to listen to more of it. Secondly, the story; as computer games go personally I seldom need much more motive other than “Kill the Evil Things, Go! Go! GO!” and the story doesn’t provide much more than that and that’s fine. Until, that is, you get to the ending which is very clumsily handled, you get the big reveal, shock!, “it was him all along”. Golly gosh! I will have to fight them. But No! You never have to fight the game’s big bad guy, which would have made narrative sense. They just kill him off mid cut scene and replace him with a new bad guy. A bad guy more bad than the games bad guy could ever be. And who is badest of them all? None other than Satan. Ok. Fine. If we must. But it might have made a sliver of narrative sense if it had been foreshadowed in any way at all at any point. It’s a pretty big WTF moment and not at all the tension raising reveal I’m sure they were aiming for. I appreciate that it’s a call back and nod to some earlier Castlevanias but really? Afterwards the game does have a pretty intriguing epilogue that sets up one or more sequels and that is well worth sticking around for.
One thing that is definitely worth noting is the atmosphere the game builds. Almost uniquely it has an all pervading sense of melancholy and solitude. Just about everything in the game is marshalled towards this effect. The music has a bitter sweet air. The appearance of the world itself has an epic and lonely feel to it. You are, more often than not, the only person in any given level and, especially during the platforming sections, it’s just you on your own on the side of some vast mountain or castle. The platforming sections are often used to give you quiet contemplative breathers to counterpoint the hectic monster fights. Contradicting myself a little, even Patrick Stewart’s pre-level filler helps to really build the sense that this is one man’s desperate, lonely struggle and possible descent into madness. It all comes together to give the game a very interesting and almost unique tone to the game. The only other game that readily comes to mind with a similar feel is the superb Shadow of the Colossus.
When it is released I’ll definitely pick up the sequel.