Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Review

*Review based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game*

It can be strange how greatly things change in just a few short years. After the successful Kickstarter campaign for Mighty No. 9 in 2013, the year 2015 saw fan investment in such crowdfunded games reach new heights. Three such games even broke crowdfunding records in quick succession that very year: Yooka-Laylee, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, and Shenmue 3.

But the enthusiasm was not too last. Later in 2015, Keiji Inafune, the man behind Mighty No. 9, decided to launch another video game Kickstarter campaign (despite the fact that Mighty No. 9 was still being continuously delayed), Red Ash: The Indelible Legend. With Mighty No. 9 still having trouble getting off the ground, the Red Ash Kickstarter went about as successfully as the Hindenburg. Not only did Red Ash tarnish the reputation of Kickstarter games, but when Mighty No. 9 was finally released in 2016 to a negative reception, the once-promising prospect of crowdfunded games was further dragged into the mud. The final nail in the coffin seemed to be the 2017 release of Yooka-Laylee, which ended up being a much more mixed bag than fans had hoped for the Banjo-Kazooie successor (though in all fairness, Yooka-Laylee was a much better game than Mighty No. 9, even if it failed to live up to its potential).

Now here we are in 2019, and Kickstarter games are now something of a punchline. After the mixed receptions of Mighty No. 9 and Yooka-Laylee, as well as several delays of its own, the enthusiasm for Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night had died down considerably. Despite the flounders and flubs of previous Kickstarter games, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night lives up to the promises it made back in 2015, showing us that perhaps there is still something to the idea of crowdfunded video games.

“The enemy “Shovel Armor” is a blatant homage to Shovel Knight.”

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night was always promised to be a spiritual sequel to Symphony of the Night style Castlevania entries (AKA the better half of Castlevania). Helmed by Koji Igarishi, the man largely responsible for Symphony of the Night as well as its excellent GBA and DS follow-ups, Bloodstained accomplishes what it set out to do. It is a worthy successor to the legendary Symphony of the Night, as well as Aria of Sorrow, Dawn of Sorrow and Order of Ecclesia, and a sequel to Igarishi’s Castlevania titles in all but name.

Players take on the role of Miriam, one of the two last ‘Shardbinders’ – people infused with demonic crystals that were used in sacrifices – and must infiltrate the castle Hellhold. Fittingly with a name like ‘Hellhold,’ the castle was summoned through hellish magic by Gebel, the other last Shardbinder, who is using the castle to bring demons into the world, as a means to take revenge on those who sacrificed the Shardbinders

There are a few other details to the plot, but honestly, it gets a little confusing and lost in the shuffle. But that’s okay, considering this is a spiritual sequel to the game that gave us dialogue such as “What is a man?! A miserable little pile of secrets!” Is the story really the reason you’re going to play it?

“Hey! I know that guy!”

As you might expect, Hellhold serves as the location of the entire game (with the introductory segment taking place in the destroyed surrounding town and the ship Miriam arrives in). This is a Metroidvania through and through. And like the best games in the genre, you’ll gradually uncover more and more of Hellhold as Miriam learns new abilities, and be surprised and delighted every time you discover a previously unreachable area. The more of Hellhold you discover, the more you appreciate the genius of Bloodstained’s world design.

Miriam’s aforementioned status as a Shardbinder also finds its way into the gameplay. In what is essentially the “Tactical Soul System” from Aria of Sorrow, Miriam is able to absorb “shards” from enemies within the game. Nearly every enemy boasts its own shard, each of which will grant Miriam with new powers and abilities. Depending on the enemy type, you may have to farm them for a bit before you claim their shard, but the shards still shouldn’t be too hard to come by.

Shards come in different types, represented by colors: Conjure shards (Red) give Miriam a magic-consuming attack, Manipulative (Blue) give Miriam status/form-altering abilities, Directional (Purple) are able to be sent in different directions by the player, Passive (Yellow) – as their name implies – grant bonuses that are always active once equipped. Familiar shards (Green)  give Miriam a monster partner to aide her in battle, while Skill (clear) shards are claimed by defeating bosses or found hidden in the castle, and give Miriam new means to traverse said castle.

With the exception of the Skill Shards (which are always active, unless the player turns off their effects in the pause menu), the player can only equip one of each shard type at a time. The game’s most addictive side quest sees the player gathering materials so Miriam’s alchemist friend Johannes can level up the shards. Additionally, the more of a specific shard you have, the more powerful that shard’s ability will be. In addition, like in Symphony of the Night and its kin, Miriam can gain a wide range of different weapons – from swords and spears to firearms and shoes, to name a few – and can equip various armors with stats and effects of their own. Not only can Miriam level up and gain strength, but so too can the Familiars when aiding Miriam in battle.

“Yeah, you can customize Miriam quite a bit.”

Given the variety of weapons and shards, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a game of immense variety. You may find a particular setup or two of shards that you prefer to use over all others for your first playthrough. But Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is worth repeated playthroughs just to experience it with different ability and weapon preferences.

Admittedly, the game has its share of technical issues, with slowdowns and frame rate drops being a lot more frequent than you’d care for (though I learned only after purchasing the game that the Switch version’s technical blips are more prominent than other versions, which Igarishi and company have been addressing little by little in updates). Granted, Bloodstained is a crowdfunded game, and thus didn’t have the same level of resources as most games these days, so a few technical issues are more forgivable here, but they do become a little bothersome at times.

If there’s any other ‘issue’ to address with Bloodstained, it’s probably just in that it doesn’t really do much that Igarishi’s Castlevania titles didn’t already do. Granted, the entire pitch for Bloodstained was that it was essentially a brand new Castlevania in a time when there are no new Castlevanias. So it’s certainly no disappointment, but while Bloodstained may exude profuse quality, it does lack in freshness. Again, that’s no unforgivable sin, considering its emulating some all-time greats. But should we ever get a Bloodstained sequel (and please, let’s), hopefully it can deliver a similarly excellent experience, while maybe adding a few more features that give it more of its own identity outside of Castlevania (one of Bloodstained’s original mechanics, which sees Miriam interact with certain environmental objects by means of the player manually guiding her hand, goes sorely underutilized).

“What exactly is supposed to be reassuring about that sentence?”

Still, that seems like nitpicking, because what Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night does right, it does right in spades. This is very much the Symphony of the Night-worthy Castlevania follow-up that Igarishi promised to fans in his initial Kickstarter pitch. It’s an incredibly fun experience brimming with depth and variety, and a captivating successor to one of gaming’s richest lineages.

The idea of Kickstarter-funded video games may have lost a lot of its luster in the four years since the initial announcement of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. But with the final product living up to its lofty expectations, Koji Igarishi’s latest adventure should remind the video game world why we loved the prospect of crowdfunded games to begin with.

 

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Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Review

With a name like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, the Switch’s edition to Nintendo’s massively-successful crossover fighter certainly gave itself a lot to live up to. Somewhat miraculously, Ultimate manages to pull that very feat off, delivering what is undoubtedly the best entry in the long-running series to date. Bursting at the seams with content and fine-tuning the series’ gameplay, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate lives up to its lofty expectations, even if a lackluster adventure mode and a thin (and inconsistent) lineup of new fighters means it doesn’t quite surpass them.

Super Smash Bros. really doesn’t need an introduction at this point. The franchise has become one of Nintendo’s biggest sellers thanks to its engrossing gameplay, which combines elements of traditional fighting games with Mario Kart-esque party elements, all while incorporating sumo style rules that make it unique unto itself.

By ‘sumo style’ rules, I of course refer to Super Smash Bros’ key mechanic of sending opponents off the screen – similar to sumos throwing each other out of the ring – in order to defeat them, as opposed to depleting a health bar as in most fighters. Though with that said, the ‘Stamina mode’ first introduced to the series in Melee, in which players do deplete each other’s health, returns as one of Ultimate’s primary game modes, no longer relegated to a kind of bonus mode as in the past.

That seemingly small change is indicative of the very nature of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. This is the Super Smash Bros. that attempts to legitimize every play style for the series, and to appease every type of Smash fan. And for the most part, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate wildly succeeds in doing just that.

If you’re a serious Smash player, you can remove items and play on flat stages a la Final Destination or small stages with minimal platforms in the vein of the classic Battlefield stage, with no match-altering Final Smashes included. Players who want chaotic fun can have all items active, Final Smashes turned on, and enable every last, crazy stage hazard and gimmick. Or, if you’re somewhere in between, you can play on the standard stages with the gimmicks turned off, only allow Final Smashes by means of building up a power meter during battle, and only enable the occasional Pokeball and Assist Trophy in regards to items.

The ways in which you can customize matches are boundless. This really is the Super Smash Bros. that can appeal to any Nintendo fan. At least in terms of the core gameplay, that is.

If there is one glaring downside with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, it’s with the game’s adventure mode. Dubbed ‘World of Light,’ Ultimate’s adventure mode is mind-numbingly tedious, and simply not worth the time and effort it takes to see it to the end.

In World of Light, players initially take control of Kirby, the only survivor of a Thanos-style mass extinction, as they progress through one battle after another, unlocking the other characters and collecting ‘Spirits,’ which are won after defeating opponents in possession of said Spirits.

These Spirits are a new feature in Ultimate, replacing the series’ long-standing trophy collectibles. It’s ultimately an unfair trade. While the trophies of Smash’s past featured unique character models and gave some insights into Nintendo (and gaming) history, the Spirits are merely presented as stock promotional art from past games, and provide statistical bonuses to your characters when equipped. Spirits can grant boosts to attributes like strength or speed, or provide you with a special ability (such as starting fights with a particular item, or being resistant to certain types of attacks).

This may sound interesting in concept, but it kind of goes against the very nature of Super Smash Bros. This is a fighting series all about learning the different play styles of the various characters. So if you have Spirits activated in the standard game, it makes things more about who has the best Spirits equipped, as opposed to who played the best in any given round.

Suffice to say the Spirits find all of their appeal in the single player World of Light mode. Though even then, the game often mishandles their usage. Pulling a page out of Paper Marios Sticker Star and Color Splash, there are a number of battles in World of Light in which it is necessary to have specific Spirits equipped in order to win. If the Spirits gave you advantages in these situations, that’d be fine. But on more than one occasion you will come across a battle in which victory is impossible unless you have a specific Spirit equipped.

Another issue with World of Light is that it’s just too long for its own good. It features an unnecessary amount of branching paths, alternate routes, and  overall battles. And when it finally looks like you’re done with it, World of Light pulls a Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins on the player and extends the adventure by rather lazy means. To detract from the experience even further, World of Light is exclusively played by a single player. Super Smash Bros. Brawl’s adventure mode, Subspace Emissary, was far from a winner, but at least I could play that with a friend.

Not to mention Subspace Emissary served as a fast means of unlocking every character. But World of Light just drags on and on, with the lonesome tedium making you seek one of the many other means of unlocking the characters (thankfully, there are no shortage of options when it comes to expanding the roster). The fact that World of Light actually makes me long for Subspace Emissary could be a sign that maybe Super Smash Bros. is better off without an adventure mode at all.

Of course, the adventure mode is just a small part of the overall package, and every other mode included in the game delivers in spades: Classic Mode is more fun than ever, and includes unique challenges for every last fighter. Tournaments are easier to set up than ever before. New Squad Strikes have players selecting teams of characters and eliminating them one by one. Smashdown sees players cycle through the entire roster one at a time, with previously selected characters getting locked out after use. The variety never ceases to impress.

On the concept of variety, the biggest selling point of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is that every playable character from the franchise’s history is present. If they were playable in a past Super Smash Bros. title, they’re playable here. So those of you who missed Solid Snake for being omitted from Super Smash Bros. on Wii U/3DS, he’s back. Young Link and Toon Link can now face off against one another. Pichu makes his return after seventeen years (they can’t all be winners). The DLC characters from Wii U/3DS return. Even the good ol’ Ice Climbers have found their way back to the series, after technical limitations on the 3DS prevented their appearance in the last installments. And yes, we even get a handful of new characters joining the fray, meaning that Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has all of the character variety of each and every one of its predecessors put together and then some.

“You’re the man now, Croc!”

Speaking of the new characters, that’s where things can be a bit inconsistent when it comes to selections. Ridley and King K. Rool feel like the most meaningful newcomers, given that they’ve been in high demand from fans since Melee. Splatoon’s Inklings also make sense as they represent one of Nintendo’s contemporary success stories. And Simon Belmont feels long overdue in the third-party character department (seriously, besides Mega Man, what other third-party character even compares to Castlevania’s early history with Nintendo?).

The remaining newcomers, however, are a bit of a mixed bag. Isabelle from Animal Crossing – though a welcome addition in her own right – doesn’t exactly come across as a character fans were dying to see join the series. Incineroar feels like he could have been any randomly selected Pokemon. And the downloadable Piranha Plant just feels like a big middle finger to the fans who have been requesting their favorite characters for years. That’s not to say that these characters detract from the gameplay by any means. But for a series so grounded in fanservice, some of these character selections feel misguided.

“Evil kings from classic series are the coolest!”

Perhaps with more newcomers the more disappointing entries wouldn’t stick out so much. But with most of the emphasis going towards bringing back every past character, you kind of wish that the smaller quantity of newcomers would have translated to a consistent quality. And that’s unfortunately not always the case.

Some fans may also lament that clone characters – now officially referred to as “echo fighters” – are still present, but at least now they’re categorized appropriately, and not treated as though they’re full-on additions to the franchise.

“The colors, Duke! The colors!”

Still, it’s hard to complain too much when Ultimate boasts seventy unique characters (with more on the way via DLC. Here’s hoping some favorites make the cut). There’s simply never a shortage of characters to choose from, and all of them bring their own sense of fun to the gameplay (with the possible exceptions of the excessive amount of sword fighters from Fire Emblem, who often feel interchangeable even when they aren’t clones).

Each character’s Final Smash has also been altered this time around, as they take on a more cinematic approach. Unfortunately, while the Final Smashes look more impressive than ever, their infrequent interactivity makes them less fun than in previous installments. This was probably done for the sake of balance, which is admirable. Though chances are, if you have Final Smashes active, you aren’t exactly aiming for a balanced, competitive bout.

The stages also adhere to Ultimate’s “everything but the kitchen sink” mentality. Although there are a few omissions, the majority of stage’s from past Super Smash Bros. titles make a return (unfortunately, Brawl’s Electroplankton-inspired stage is bafflingly among them). There are only four brand-new stages in the base game: Odyssey and Breath of the Wild themed levels for Mario and Zelda, and courses based on newly-represented series Splatoon and Castlevania. That may not sound like a whole lot of newness, but more stages are planned to be added along with the DLC characters. Besides, with the returning courses, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate includes over one-hundred different locations to do battle. And as stated, every last stage comes in three different versions (standard, Battlefield, and Final Destination), so you’re not very likely to get bored from repetition.

For those who don’t always have someone at the ready for some couch multiplayer, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate also expands the series’ online capabilities. Creating online matches has been streamlined by means of creating arenas, where players can set the rules as they see fit. You can even search for specific rulesets if you want to join an arena that’s more to your play style (though admittedly, the search engine needs some work). It’s now much, much easier to set up or join an online match and play with or against Smash players from around the world.

Sadly, the online functionality still isn’t perfect. Though lag is considerably less frequent than in Brawl or Wii U/3DS, it’s still present more often than you’d like. It isn’t limited to worldwide matches, either. I’ve encountered some slowdowns in games against my friends. Again, the lag isn’t so common as to detract from the overall experience, but considering that in five years’ time I’ve never encountered any lag issues in Mario Kart 8 (whether on Wii U or Switch), you have to wonder how and why Nintendo can’t replicate that level of online functionality with their other multiplayer franchises.

Other quibbles with the online mode include some minor (but no less irritating) design quirks, such as leaving your place in cue for the next fight in an arena just to change your character’s color (let alone change your character). Or why entering the spectator stands also removes you from cue (why the cue and spectator stands aren’t one and the same is anyone’s guess). Again, these are all just minor annoyances, but you have to wonder why they’re there at all.

Of course, it must be emphasized that, with the exception of the World of Light adventure mode, all of the complaints to be had with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate are minor grievances in the big picture. The series’ signature gameplay has never felt so polished, the content has never felt this endless, and with every last character in franchise history present, Super Smash Bros. has never felt this complete.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is also a technical showcase of the Switch’s capabilities. Though it retains a similar overall look to Super Smash Bros. for Wii U/3DS and Brawl, the graphics are much sharper and more refined. The level of background detail in the stages themselves – often so small you’d never see them in the heat of battle – is a testament to the abilities of the artists behind the game. The character animations are similarly impressive, especially those with unique characteristics (such as DK’s eyes bulging out of his head when hit, Donkey Kong Country-style; or Wario’s manic, sporadic movements).

Complimenting these visuals is a soundtrack that represents an unrivaled array of video game music, featured in both their original and new remixed forms in addition to many remixes from past Super Smash Bros. installments. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s quite as many new pieces of music added into the fray as Brawl and Wii U/3DS brought to the table, but it’s hard to complain too much when the music is this terrific. Not to mention the soundtrack to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is inarguably the biggest library of classic video game themes ever compacted into a single game.

On the whole, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is an absolute winner. Its overall sense of newness may not be as prominent as the past few entries, but its inclusion of the best elements of every past installment, along with each and every last one of their characters, makes this the definitive entry in the long-running Super Smash Bros. series to date. With the exception of its egregious adventure mode, everything about Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is exploding with fun. With so many characters, stages, modes, and options, the content included in the package is seemingly bottomless, leading to an unparalleled replay value.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is not only the best game in the series, it’s one of the greatest multiplayer games ever made.

 

9

Happy Halloween 2018!

Happy Halloween everybody! Hope you all had some good, spooky fun and lots of candy.

Sorry again for the lack of a proper Halloween post – like the top 5s I did of yesteryear – I just didn’t get around to it. Hopefully next year I can do something special for one of my favorite holidays (along with Christmas).

Here’s something classy.

Again, I’m hoping to have more reviews and such done soon. And here’s hoping I can write more for Halloween come next October.

Anyway, Happy Halloween, you lovely people!

Castlevania: Bloodlines Review

In its early years, Castlevania was synonymous with Nintendo. With the exception of Mega Man, Castlevania was probably the most revered third-party franchise on the NES. In 1997, the series would move on to Sony’s consoles with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which not only revamped the entire franchise, but remains one of the greatest video games of all time.

Somewhere in between the NES era and Symphony of the Night, however, was an oddity of the series: a Castlevania title on the Sega Genesis! This lone Genesis entry is Castlevania: Bloodlines. Though Bloodlines has received praise over the years, it’s largely overshadowed by its Super NES counterpart, Super Castlevania IV.

Most people still consider Super Castlevania IV to be the series’ best pre-Symphony title, which means that both Bloodlines and the “other” SNES entry, Dracula X, are often in its 16-bit shadow. Personally speaking, I find Dracula X holds up better than Super Castlevania IV due to more fluid controls. Perhaps I’m just destined for unpopular opinions, but I also find Bloodlines to be a more enjoyable game today than its more famous SNES alternative.

In Bloodlines, Dracula is (of course) on the verge of being resurrected once again, this time by the hands of his own niece, who plans on reviving her vampiric uncle by causing mass bloodshed, which she initiates by starting World War I. A distant descendant of the Belmont family, John Morris, seeks to stop the resurrection by making his way through Europe, slaying monsters along the way. Morris is aided in his quest by Eric Lecarde, who seeks to cure his girlfriend of vampirism, after Dracula’s niece cursed her.

What separates Bloodlines from most of its predecessors is that players can play as the two different heroes. Morris is equipped with a whip, giving the game a more traditional Castlevania feel, while Lecarde uses his trusty spear, to change up the gameplay.

Not only do the two heroes have different weapons, but some of the levels include different paths depending on which character is chosen. Further character-specific exploration is performed through Morris’ whip, which can be used to swing past gaps, while Lecarde can perform a high jump with his spear.

The game works like the other traditional Castlevanias, with players simply making their way through the stages to defeat the bosses at the end. But being able to experience the game in two different ways was a nice, unique touch for the series.

Another highlight of Bloodlines is that – much like in Dracula X – the basic sense of control feels more polished than Super Castlevania IV. You can now jump while going up and down stairs, so you don’t feel so vulnerable to attack or awkward to control. The jumping itself also feels a bit smoother, though it’s still a shame you can’t change trajectory mid-jump (sure, it’s more realistic, but not exactly ideal in a game with this much platforming).

On the downside, both Morris and Lecarde suffer from the series’ infamous knockback when hit, meaning that most of your deaths will occur by being sent down a pit after being hit by an enemy. Though on the bright side, when you fall down on a more vertical level after ascending for a while, you’ll just fall back to a previous section, whereas in Super Castlevania IV such areas would suddenly become bottomless chasms after they left the screen.

The level design is a real treat, with many stages taking advantage of the 16-bit hardware in fun and unique ways. One section of the second stage, for example, sees the bottom half of the screen covered in water, with the action on the upper half being reflected in it. Meanwhile, the game’s third boss torments the heroes by spinning the tower they’re standing on, which makes for a great visual effect.

The stages are all well designed and creative, and the hordes of monsters to be found in each mean there’s plenty of action to be had in each of them. Unfortunately, at only six stages, the game is even shorter than Dracula X. Granted, quality is always more important than quantity, but you can’t help but wish there were a little more to the adventure at hand.

Still, Castlevania: Bloodlines remains a stellar installment in the storied series. The gameplay is fun and smooth, and made just a little more varied with the addition of a second character. The graphics are still impressive, with plenty of inventive visual tricks spread throughout. And like any worthwhile Castlevania game, Bloodlines has a memorable soundtrack.

It’s simple Castlevania action. But sometimes, that’s all you need.

 

6

Castlevania Judgement Review

Castlevania Judgement

Castlevania is one of the most storied franchises in gaming. It began with many memorable sidescrollers on the NES and SNES, before adopting a more explorative, Metroid-inspired style with the masterful Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Of course, being the big franchise that it is, it was inevitable that Castlevania would also dabble in different genres, though its experimentation with other formulas hasn’t worked nearly as well as other franchises, with a good example of this being Castlevania Judgement, the first fighting game in the Castlevania series, released on the Nintendo Wii in 2009.

The first thing to note about Castlevania Judgement is that it’s a 3D fighter, and history hasn’t been too kind to Castlevania’s 3D entries, especially when compared to just how beloved the 2D iterations are. Sadly, Castlevania Judgement was no exception, due primarily to poor controls, camerawork, and mechanics.

The idea of a Castlevania fighter is actually an enticing one, and at first the game looks to have a lot of promise, with graphics that were quite good for the Wii, there’s a nice (if not limited) selection of characters, and an awesome soundtrack that recreates many iconic tunes from the series’ history. But it won’t be long into your first couple of matches that you begin to notice the game’s flaws.

For starters, the game’s primary control scheme involves the Wii Remote and nunchuck, which is no problem on its own, but quickly becomes one with how the game utilizes them, and how it never meshes with the nature of the game itself.

Players move their character using the joystick on the nunchuck attachment, while the buttons on the back are used to block. Meanwhile, the majority of the characters’ moves are performed with motion controls by swinging the Wii remote. The motion controls simply aren’t well implemented, and often times trying to perform a combo only ends up with you swinging the controller around like a madman, with varying results.

Perhaps the motion controls would work better, if your character were automatically focused on your opponent, and if they weren’t coupled with a poor camera system. Unlike a 3D fighter like Soul Calibur, where the characters are always focused on one another, the fighters here move around so freely that oftentimes, when trying to perform a combo, the first move will hit your opponent and then your character will just keep going past them attacking the air, with the camera trying desperately to keep up with your character.

Castlevania JudgementThe combination of poorly-implemented controls and camerawork are what ruin the core gameplay. Though players also have the option of using Wii Classic Controllers and GameCube controllers (which are most assuredly better options), they don’t fix the camera and character issues.

With all this said, there are some small, nice touches to the game. At the start of versus matches, for example, players can select a secondary weapon to use in battle, with said weapons also being obtainable within the battlefield, and include the usual secondary items from the series like holy water, crusifixes and throwing knives. It’s a simple but welcome way to pay homage to the series traditions, as is the ability to pick up hearts to build up your power meter within matches.

Sadly, Castlevania Judgement’s respect for its heritage, along with the aforementioned visuals and music (which are, again, quite good), are about as far as the compliments can go. Along with the faults in the core gameplay, there are other aspects of the game that are just disappointing.

"Oh my..."
“Oh my…”

Castlevania Judgement has a host of modes in store, but they are nothing out of the ordinary for a fighting game. What’s a bit more peculiar is that the game’s story mode only allows you to play as Simon Belmont or Alucard from the start, with the other twelve characters (including those that are available from the start in other modes) needing to be unlocked.  And once you unlock them, you may even regret what their stories have to offer (Maria’s story – the most infamous of the lot – revolves around her insecurity of the other Castlevania girls having larger bosoms than herself, which feels ridiculously far removed from the nature of Castlevania).

Worse still, the AI in the game is wildly inconsistent in difficulty. I managed to defeat the first opponent in Alucard’s story mode with no problem (at least, no problem outside of the ones innately found in the gameplay). But the second opponent began repeatedly spamming the same combos over than over, with very little breathing room for me to block or fight back.

The idea of a Castlevania fighting game is not one that should have ended up this flawed. It’s easy to see where the potential was in Castlevania: Judgement, but in execution, it stumbles in just about everything but aesthetics and in fan service for the series. Perhaps a better idea for a Castlevania fighter would simply be to make it 2D and to utilize the same kind of fluid controls found in Symphony of the Night. Symphony already utilized moves that were performed like the combos in a fighter, if you put those same controls into the field of a fighting game, and you would have an absolutely incredible fighter.

Instead, Castlevania’s debut in the fighting genre is remembered mainly for its awkward controls and poorly-implemented mechanics. But hey, at least the music’s good.

 

3

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night Review

Symphony of the Night

Back in 1997, video games had transitioned to the third dimension. The emergence of the Sony Playstation and the Nintendo 64 ushered in new ways to play video games, and many deemed 2D game designs to be obsolete. Despite this drastic shift, there was one classic gaming series that remained defiant, Castlevania.

While the likes of Super Mario 64 showed what the new dimension of gaming was capable of, Castlevania proved that there was not only still a place for 2D games, but they could even stand tall against their 3D competitors. Castlevania accomplished this with the remarkable Symphony of the Night.

Symphony of the Night was as much a reinvention of the Castlevania series as Super Mario 64 was to Nintendo’s flagship franchise. Though that reinvention may not be as immediately obvious, as Mario made 3D gaming seem effortless, while Symphony of the Night instead showcased how much depth could be weaved into a seemingly old formula.

Symphony of the Night literally begins where Rondo of Blood ended. The game’s very first moment is the final boss from the previous game, with players taking on Count Dracula as Richter Belmont (complete with one of the most gloriously cheesy dialogue exchanges in gaming history). The game then fast-forwards four years later, and Richter Belmont has gone missing.

Alucard, the son of Count Dracula himself, travels to Castlevania in hopes of discovering Richter’s fate, and to destroy the castle for good. Maria, another character from Rondo of Blood, is also searching the castle for Richter. To both Alucard and Maria’s surprise, the castle is more alive than ever, with Dracula’s armies of monsters ready to stop Alucard’s quest.

The plot is simple enough, but considerably more character driven than the Castlevanias that preceded it. Making Alucard the main character gives the game a unique sense of urgency, seeing as defeating Dracula means he must defeat his own father. And while the voice acting is cheesy, it gives the game a kind of campy charm.

Where Symphony of the Night transcends all previous accomplishments of the series, however, is the game design itself. Symphony heavily borrows the foundations of Nintendo’s Super Metroid, setting all of the game’s events within one labyrinthian game world, emphasizing exploration and character progression in a way that wouldn’t be possible in a traditional Castlevania title.

Symphony of the NightSuper Metroid laid the groundwork, but I might argue that Symphony of the Night perfected it. Alucard is a more versatile character than Samus Aran, able to equip weapons and items in both hands, as well as armor, helmets, capes, and rings for defense. He can learn magic spells that are used with Street Fighter-like button combinations, and can gain experience points and level up like an RPG character. Alucard can learn to transform into various forms, summon familars to aid him in battle, and can learn new moves as the game progresses. Similar to past Castlevanias, he can pick up secondary weapons like throwing axes, holy water, and crucifixes, which are used with the hearts you pick up. As is the norm for the series, Alucard can only hold one of these secondary items at a time, but his main weapons and moves are so versatile, you probably won’t care.

Symphony of the NightThe best part is, despite the sheer variety in gameplay, it all works so smoothly. Aside from the aforementioned combos used to cast spells, most of Alucard’s actions are mapped to specific buttons. Both of Alucard’s equipped weapons, his jumps, his transformations, almost everything is as simple as hitting a single button (though you must hold up and hit the attack button to use the secondary items, as is series tradition). Not only is it all easy and accessible, but Alucard is one of the best controlling characters in gaming. He lacks the stiffness that plagued the Belmonts of Castlevanias past, and his fluidity of control ranks alongside the likes of Super Mario at the very peak of gaming.

Like Super Metroid, Alucard’s progressively expanding array of abilities help him access new areas of the castle and discover its secrets. It is possible to beat the game without seeing everything, but Symphony of the Night is a game that begs to be explored, and the player is rewarded for uncovering as much of the castle as they can.

Uncovering the many layers of the castle and improving Alucard’s abilities give the game an insane amount of depth. As stated, Alucard controls so well that its a joy just to move around, and combat, though simple, is immensely fun, with a large rogues gallery of extravagant boss fights serving as a great exclamation point to the gameplay.

Visually speaking, Symphony of the Night still looks beautiful. The dark, gothic character designs and grim atmosphere give the game an appropriate tone, while the fluid animations for every character and enemy (specifically those of Alucard himself) are wonderfully detailed.

Then there’s the soundtrack, which is one of the finest of any video game. The majority of the soundtrack is performed with a full orchestra, and the game has an incredibly unique blend of classic, electronic, and metal themes. It’s a beautiful, creepy soundtrack that builds on the game’s dark atmosphere. There’s not a single forgettable track to be found.

Symphony of the NightSimply put, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is one of those exceedingly rare games where all the pieces just come together to near perfection. The gameplay is terrific, the structure and design are genius, the visuals are beautiful, the soundtrack even more so, and it remains a deep experience even by today’s standards. But perhaps the greatest testament to Symphony’s brilliance is the way you can double the length of the adventure if you uncover the right secrets. The twist in which the game doubles its quest is still mind-blowing in execution, and has yet to be topped by any game.

Super Metroid may have planted the seeds, but Symphony of the Night is the game that helped them grow. With its release, the ‘Metroidvania’ genre came to full fruition, and it could easily be argued that Symphony of the Night is still the peak of the genre.

It’s one of the greatest video games of all time, and that’s no miserable little pile of secrets.

 

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Castlevania: Circle of the Moon Review

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon

Symphony of the Night marked a major turning point for the Castlevania series. By combining the traditional Castlevania action-platforming with the exploration of Metroid and added RPG elements, it effectively launched the Metroidvania sub-genre as we know it today. Though recent years have seen a reboot on the franchise that abandons the Metroidvania structure in favor of 3D action, the style laid down by Symphony of the Night continued for a decade through six titles released on the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS. The first entry in the GBA trilogy, Circle of the Moon, had a lot to prove, being the closest thing to a successor to Symphony of the Night at the time. Though Circle of the Moon remains a fun game in its own right, today it feels somewhat lightweight compared to some of its other Metroidvania siblings.

Circle of the Moon abandons the usual Belmont clan and Alucard in favor of a new hero named Nathan Graves. Nathan is the student of former Dracula-slayer Morris Baldwin, along with Morris’ son Hugh. When Dracula is once again resurrected by one of his minions, Nathan, Morris and Hugh venture to Dracula’s castle to banish the vampire lord. But upon their arrival, Dracula sends Nathan and Hugh plummeting into a pit, while Morris is kidnapped in order to be sacrificed to revive Dracula’s full power. Nathan and Hugh awake in the bowels of Dracula’s castle, with both going their separate ways to rescue their master before the sacrifice can take place at the full moon.

It’s a simple plot even by Castlevania standards, and one that has been retconned as non-canon in the series’ timeline (to the chagrin of many fans). But any excuse to traverse the labyrinth of Dracula’s castle is a good one, I suppose.

Castlevania: Circle of the MoonThe first thing you’ll notice about Nathan Graves is that he controls very similarly to the Belmonts. He is even equipped with a magic, vampire-hunting whip. Like the Belmonts, he can also pick up secondary weapons such as throwing axes and boomerang-like crucifixes, which require collectible hearts to be used.

On the downside, the whip is the only main weapon Nathan has. While the combination of Symphony’s structure and traditional Castlevania action is interesting, the lack of alternate weapons also means that Nathan’s gameplay lacks the variety of Alucard or Soma Cruz.

On the plus side, the game has an unique hook in the form of the Duel Set-up System (DSS). The Duel Set-up System takes the form of magic cards that are found by defeating enemy monsters.

There are two types of DSS cards: Action and Attribute. The action cards determine the type of magic that Nathan can use, while the attribute cards add different effects to them. For example, you can use an action card to add lightning damage to Nathan’s moves, and an attribute card that will multiply your strength by the percentage of the castle you’ve explored. You can combine one action and one attribute card at a time, for a total of 100 different combinations.

The DSS cards are definitely an interesting twist, though they ultimately aren’t as captivating as the Tactical Soul System from the later Aria of Sorrow. And they are used somewhat awkwardly, since you use them by highlighting the cards in the pause menu, and then un-pausing, as opposed to simply selecting them in the menu itself. You then activate their powers by holding the L button, which eats up magic points.

The castle itself is a decently large place, though it feels smaller than in the later handheld entries. Though it may feel bigger than it is due to Nathan’s slow movement, which makes traversing the place feel like a long process. You gain the ability to run early on, but you still have to activate it by pressing forward twice. A held button press may have felt more natural. Better still would be if Nathan Graves simply moved faster by default.

Besides running, Nathan Graves learns other moves like double jumps and wall kicks after defeating bosses, which help him access new areas of the castle. You can still gain experience points and level up, but in order to boost your Hit Points, Magic Points, and Hearts, you have to find special items hidden throughout the castle.

Castlevania: Circle of the MoonYou can pick up armor for your body and both arms throughout the adventure, as well as healing items. But they end up feeling like tacked on elements. You rarely seem to have to change your armor, and most of the items seem to help with minimal effect, with initial potions only healing twenty hit points, which quickly becomes a very small fraction of your health.

The graphics of the game have held up somewhat decently. The enemy designs still stand out, though Nathan Graves’ sprite looks simple even by GBA standards. It doesn’t hold up as well as (the still beautiful) Aria of Sorrow when played on your TV through the Wii U Virtual Console, but it still looks nice on the Gamepad. The music is catchy, though it falls considerably short of the series’ standard.

The other big drawback to Circle of the Moon is the castle itself. It just feels more straightforward and less creative than the castle found in the other Metroidvania entries of the series. And Nathan’s aforementioned slow pace only makes matters worse. It’s not terribly designed by any means, but where Symphony of the Night and Aria of Sorrow’s level structure are pure genius, Circle of the Moon’s castle just feels simple by comparison.

Circle of the Moon remains a fun game, and the adventure will last a decently long time for a handheld title. The DSS cards also add a nice twist to the equation, but as a whole it feels like a more watered-down version of the Metroidvania concept. It does deserve credit for continuing this beloved style of Castlevania and bringing it to handhelds. But it lacks the variety and depth of some of the more notable Castlevania titles of the style.

 

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