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Reviewed: Castlevania: Curse of Darkness
Author: Michael Ahlf       Date: December 2nd, 2005
Page: 2
One of the dirty secrets at Konami is that the series creators would much rather be creating titles in 2D, because that's what they did for so long, and it shows when they give us titles like Aria of Sorrow and Dawn of Sorrow, which stand as beautiful titles even when relegated to the tiny screens of the Gameboy Advance and Nintendo DS.

Unfortunately, the series creators were obviously phoning Curse of Darkness in, or at least the level designers were.

It's not that Curse of Darkness is all bad. The very first innovation to the series it gives us is the possibility that followers of Dracula can actually be redeemed - unlike Alucard, who's always been turned against his father, this title features a lieutenant named Hector who willingly turned his back on evil and abandoned his powers, leaving Dracula's army much weaker that it could be. In revenge, his counterpart had his wife murdered, and so three years later, Hector finds himself returning to the castle to seek his revenge.

The characterization of enemies and their locations is beautifully done, as well. In-game cutscenes show us beautiful, sinister moments between a monk named Zead and the entity calling himself Saint Germain; Isaac is not just another lieutenant, he's clearly completely mad; Dracula's just beautiful to behold. Score one for prerendered cutscenes as well, since the graphics of the game are decidedly sub-par, sacrificing polygon count to try to fit the game onto the PS2's aging hardware.

Musically, the game's fantastic, mostly because the designers took and re-mixed tracks from previous beautiful Castlevania scores. Here, you'll find bits from the original Castlevania; there, a piece out of Castlevania II; turn down the next corridor, and you've got music from Symphony of the Night mixed in with Rondo of Blood.

The design team also came up with two absolutely brilliant game mechanics, and one mediocre one to augment them. The first is the weapon forging system; scattered throughout the game, or available from enemies, are all sorts of "ingredients" for weapons. Get the right ingredients, and sometimes forge an earlier weapon as a base, and more and more advanced weaponry (as well as some particularly silly items, like a baseball jersey and kabuki mask) can be created for Hector to wear.

Sadly, only the weapon equipped actually changes Hector's model, which is a real shame, because it'd be an incredibly funny sight to see a vampire running through Castlevania wearing a baseball jersey, kabuki mask, and armed with a kendo stick.

To augment the weapon system, the designers came up with the game's so-so mechanic, the "steal" system. While it's a great thought, stealing from enemies, it only works when locked on to enemies with the camera lock-on system, and only during certain points in their attack animations, which is fine and good until some of the later enemies which have absolutely ridiculous timing required.

The crowning glory of the additions, however, is the way the designers augmented the Familiars system originally found in Symphony of the Night. Through the game, Hector encounters "Forges" where he can release powerful "Innocent Devils" (really, Familiars) which help him on his quest. There are Fairies, Birds, actual Devils, "Mages" which look like Orko from the old Masters of the Universe television show, Golems, and "Pumpkins" (don't ask, you don't want to know). Familiars gain experience with Hector, and learn new abilities in various forms when certain criterion (walk a certain distance, kill a certain number of enemies, etc) are met. To advance a familiar, Hector needs to "feed" it the crystals dropped from the use of certain weapon types; only certain versions of each familiar have the special abilities necessary to open up some hidden portions of the game map and reveal secret items, which has a severe downside if you get the wrong one by chance; since the secret areas are tuned to the same challenge level as the outside rooms, most players returning to unlock them and get 100% map completion will find them woefully underpowered and full of "secret items" that they've long ago passed the need for.

Sadly for the game, the graphics aren't that great; Even on the Xbox, where the textures are cleaner and progressive scan does its thing, the PS2's inability to push enough polygons for all those monsters shows, as too many enemies are decidedly blocky, and even Hector's character model needs work.

Curse of Darkness also suffers from the worst curse any game can have; completely uninspired level design. In Lament of Innocence, there were at least a few platforming puzzles to go through, with whip-jump sequences to reach higher floors or elemental whip bosses. In Curse of Darkness, even these rudimentary attempts at platforming are gone, and Hector battles enemies in two basic areas: flat, bland hallways with no obstacles and flat ramps with no obstacles. It's almost enough to make fans of the series cry. Dracula's Castle is the most obvious of all; not even an attempt at making exploration fun, the game designers basically gave up at this point, and it's just a tightening spiral of rooms with enemies, every third room having a "gate" making players waste their time beating up the room's enemies before they can continue.

Leave this one on the shelf, and maybe Konami will take the hint and allow the series designers to make the games they really want to make, for a larger platform.

Added:  Saturday, December 03, 2005
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf
Page: 2/3

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