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Castlevania: What Now?

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 launched yesterday. While I don’t have a review of that because I’d rather drop deuces than $60, I’m going to discuss the demo, and the series in general. Where can it go from here? How old is Castlevania, exactly, and can I get it for Atari?

I’ve been observing MercurySteam’s reboot series from afar, by reading wikis and watching my friends play the games. I wasn’t a big fan of the gameplay direction for Lords of Shadow (though Mirror of Fate looked interesting), but they’ve definitely tried hard to take the story places, which is more than can be said for the rest of the games. I also have to laud Lords of Shadow 2’s contemporary setting, a daring gambit that should have been tried before (and more seriously than the brief flirtations in Aria and Dawn of Sorrow).

Still, I didn’t particularly enjoy the demo for Lords of Shadow 2. I didn’t care for the simplistic absentee combat or platforming, a cookie cutter formed by yet another mold that came before. I loved Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and the original Devil May Cry, and could probably enjoy God of War if I ever get around to playing it. “We stand on the shoulders of giants,” an aphorism that Shadow of the Colossus took literally to great effect. Along with others that followed it, which they took to poor imitation.

What is a pan, but a miserable pile of olive oil?
What is a pan, but a miserable pile of olive oil?

This includes Lord of Shadows 2, as it saw fit to make Dracula scramble about a gargantuan humanoid war engine within the first ten minutes, because it wanted a spectacle; that’s how the formula goes. While doing this, the game saw fit to reference dialogue from Symphony of the Night (you know which lines, I’m sure), because why not? Even though there’s absolutely no context, and no reason but to prove that this is indeed a Castlevania game. Or that the developers felt some fanservice was necessary; in which case, they fell upon their own sword by evoking memories of a game that fans consider better. We stand on the shoulders of giants, just before we slay them and tumble from the sky.

Throughout the whole demo, I felt like Lords of Shadow 2 thought I was an idiot. There were many camera takes that lingered too long on objectives, and showing me the same rivets over again as if I had immediately forgotten how to dismantle the war engine after the first time (thanks to the assistance of a boss who was too gullible to take as a serious threat). These gave me the impression that the developers thought people wouldn’t know how to play the game, and they weren’t inventive enough to think of ways to point out important things besides grabbing the camera and shoving it at an object, which interrupts gameplay. It’s decisions like this which make me believe developers don’t have any respect for the player, seeing as they put into the game the equivalent of a backseat gamer.

It’s just a demo, but it didn’t do its job. I have no interest in picking up Lords of Shadow 2 after this, even though it apparently opens up into more of a Metroidvania style. If I’m going to play a 3D action game about vampires, I’d rather put my time into Legacy of Kain.

 

The Polygon Ceiling

“Die, Zordon! You don’t belong in this continuity!”
“Die, Zordon! You don’t belong in this continuity!”

One thing Castlevania fans love to do is lament how bad the 3D games are. Some like the N64 titles. I never played those. I did play the PS2 games though, which weren’t terrible but also weren’t good. The Lords of Shadow series is probably better just on the relative strength of its level design. There’s a very brief platforming section in Lords of Shadow 2 which showcases more thought put into the details of the castle than anywhere in the PS2 games with their boring, empty environments. You know you’ve been whipped when you have no more level detail than Dynasty Warriors. And your game doesn’t need to render the player beating up dozens of men at 60 frames.

Those in search of a good 3D Castlevania game need to look at a different sequel coming out next month. Your true prophet goes by the name of Dark Souls II. This series marries the difficulty of the classic Castlevania games with the interconnected setting and open-ish progression of the Metroidvanias. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dark Souls was inspired in part by the Castlevania series. Maybe the lead gameplay designer was a fan and thought “How would I do a 3D Castlevania?” Ultimately, From Software nailed it better than everyone else that tried.

 

Lead, or Follow

Hideo Kojima observes his team at work on <em>Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes</em>.
Hideo Kojima observes his team at work on Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes.

Konami knew that Castlevania was going to end up like Mega Man if they didn’t try something. They were right to take the series in a new direction with Lords of Shadow, but I don’t think a clear derivative is what the series needed; it derived from the wrong thing, even as the PS2 games tried to emulate Devil May Cry’s combat. Now, whether or not Lords of Shadow 2 left room for a sequel, it’s up to unit sales to determine what happens to the Castlevania series after this.

More 2D games? Okay, I guess. I’m not sure how you can do the same thing for 15 years and keep it fresh, but Castlevania fans would still eat up another 2D Metroidvania if it were competently done. I know I don’t mind playing those games. I’d prefer not to have any more direction from Koji Igarashi; he did well with the 2D games, but he never strayed from his formula. We’ve seen quite enough from him and it was generally a good ride.

Another 3D reboot? If it takes a few lessons from Dark Souls, sure. Tough but fair combat based on distances and patterns, excellent atmosphere, and a storyline that doesn’t get shoved into our faces with lengthy exposition and cutscenes. It needs platforming too; unfettered, jump-driven platforming. Not the parkour-on-rails we’ve been seeing since Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, as other game designers gazed in wonder at its platforming and completely missed the point.

But furthermore, a Castlevania game needs to preserve certain Castlevania elements rather than cast them aside. We should have whips and familiar subweapons; we should have platforming in the midst of Medusa Heads. You can tweak the gameplay however you want, as long as you keep the things that identify a series. I feel the series’ original premise has grown stagnant (what wouldn’t after 30 years?), but perhaps there’s one more place to explore with Castlevania if Konami can find a visionary director.

 

Armen

Armen has a writing degree and actually works in the game industry. Huzzah! In addition to video games, he also enjoys books, studying history, and a stein of mead.

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