Genre : Action
Release Date: October 31, 2003
Pre-order 'CASTLEVANIA: Lament of Innocence': PlayStation 2
People at E3 were calling LoI “Dracula May Cry”; I, for my part, referred to it as “Devil May Whip,” because I’m that much wittier. It was available in a short playable version, where you destroyed a few skeletons with Leon’s whip and subweapons before going up against a truly impressively animated rock golem. It generated a decent amount of buzz, but was overshadowed by the larger titles at the show.
I’m a big Castlevania nut. I have no idea really why, aside from the fact that the series contains one of my favorite NES games (Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse), my favorite PSOne game (Symphony of the Night), and I regard Aria of Sorrow as the single best reason to own a Game Boy Advance. It’s one of the Grand Old Series of gaming, and while it’s had its missteps--Legacy of Darkness on the N64, the strangely bland Harmony of Dissonance for GBA—it’s still a remarkably consistent series from a developer that’s long since proved its worth.
I informed Rainier early on that he would be the victim of an unsolveable crime if Lament of Innocence came across the WP desk and I didn’t get it. Rainier was nice enough to ignore the explicit threat and actually send it to me. Unfortunately, I think he might’ve had the last laugh on this one.
Lament of Innocence is set a thousand years ago, during what is implied to be the Thousand Years’ War. The Baron Leon Belmont—the first of his family to become a vampire hunter—is a decorated war hero, one of the leaders of his band of knights along with his friend, the talented strategist Mathias.
When Leon’s bride Sara is abducted, Leon is forced to choose between saving her and his duty. He chooses her, forsaking his title, his lands, and his sword, running unarmed into a forest where the sun never rises, which surrounds an ancient castle.
An alchemist at the edge of the forest, Rinaldo, offers to help Leon rescue Sara. He gives Leon a whip he’s enchanted with alchemy, and a similarly magical gauntlet. The former is a more effective weapon than any sword, against the demons and undead that prowl the woods; the latter serves as a shield, deflecting attacks and absorbing magical energies directed against Leon. Thus equipped, Leon goes into the castle alone, to find Sara, and to destroy the vampire who’s taken her.
This is a new Castlevania, reinvented almost from the ground up. It bears a lot of the trappings of the old games, in that you’ll be wielding a whip and the old familiar CV subweapons—a silver throwing knife, an axe, holy water, a cross—against a wide variety of monsters that haunt the castle. Many of the trademark Castlevania enemies are here, such as a dozen varieties of skeleton, the Flea Men, mermen, succubi, flying demons, and lizardmen, but many are redesigned from their earlier incarnations. Mermen are now vicious monsters which can take quite a lot of punishment, unlike their cannon-fodder descendants, while Flea Men attack in hooting swarms.
The similarities to previous games in the series, such as they are, end there. Leon is incredibly mobile, boasting a doublejump, an aerial heel kick, and the ability to catch onto railings and poles with his whip. When he whips something, he can go into a simple combo string on them, ending in a rushing wind blast that knocks them flat; as the game progresses and you destroy your opponents, Leon learns quite a few variations on that central theme. For example, in later combos, Leon starts off with three whip strikes, snags an opponent’s leg to bring them closer, knocks them skyward with a geyser of wind, and ends the string with the rushing strike.
To defend himself, Leon can block with the R1/R2 buttons, which will deflect up to three incoming attacks before he’s “guard crushed.” If he blocks a monster’s magical attack, clearly identifiable by its purple glow, Leon will gain MP, which can then be spent on the use of magical relics. (In this build, there are apparently only two relics in the entire castle. I have no idea why.)
The castle in this game is divided into eight areas, five of which are initially accessible from the castle entrance. To enter the last stage and fight the vampire Walter Ebenhard—note: not Dracula—you must collect five orbs from five bosses, each of which lurk in those five stages: an alchemist’s lair, ancient catacombs, the aqueducts deep under the castle, a haunted theater, and the moonlit ruins of an outdoor garden.
Each orb you collect can be combined with your subweapons to create new effects. Oddly, there’s no one subweapon-orb combination that breaks the game, unlike past outings; the closest, at least through the halfway point of the game, may be the Energy Gazer, a wave of explosions generated by the blending of holy water with the Blue Orb. (Terry Bogard, this is your lawyer. Call me.) These subweapons use Hearts instead of magic points, which tends to balance things out to some extent.
The presentation is, of course, superb. Konami knows graphics, and always has, ever since Lifeforce on the NES. The environments in this game are almost tangible; walking down an ancient hallway, with dust motes floating through the moonlight that comes in through the stained-glass windows, I was able for a moment to believe that I was there. Ayami Kojima’s trademark character design is in full effect here, and while it isn’t for everyone, she is the person who defines Castlevania’s characters’ look: pretty women, prettier men, horrible demons.
You’ll love the music, of course, although it’s jarring that the background tracks, for the first time, have a bit of a techno influence. Of all the times to hear a sampled orchestra, I wouldn’t’ve expected it in this game. Voice-acting? Enh. It’s adequate, but unremarkable, despite some of the lines the actors have to deliver.
The end product is an extremely fast-paced, pretty game that doesn’t look or feel like its 2D forebears. That’s largely a good thing, but there’s still one big question left to answer. Castlevania, in 3D, is largely defined by the two titles on the N64, the notorious Legacy of Darkness, which really does deserve all the crap it gets, and the lesser-known Castlevania 64, which doesn’t. Does Lament of Innocence overcome the problems those two earlier games had, and go on to be an enjoyable gaming experience?
Well, no. No, it really doesn’t.
I’m playing a beta version of the game. With six weeks to go ‘til the game’s released, a lot could change. I’m hoping a lot changes.
The gameplay’s pretty tight, although occasionally frustrating; with no invulnerability window after being injured, and with Leon’s frustratingly long recovery time after attacking, you’ll find yourself getting bumrushed by hordes of enemies fairly often. When Leon’s being knocked from monster to monster like a bleeding pinball, unable to block or attack because he’s still in hitstun, you’ll truly know what balanced gameplay isn’t.
LoI compounds the issue with a real-time item system, which forces you to run through menus with the right analogue stick even while you’re being torn apart by ogres. What’s worse, it’s very easy to bump the right analogue stick during gameplay and use an item without meaning to; I’ve managed to undo an hour’s progress through a dungeon, past hordes of monsters, by accidentally teleporting back to Rinaldo’s house.
Speaking of the right analogue stick, here’s the thing that really gets me about LoI, above and beyond everything else: you have no control of the camera whatsoever.
It’s a testament to the game’s room design that much of the time, you won’t need it. The camera swings around to follow your motion, so you’ll usually be able to see whatever you’re running towards. You’ll still wind up fighting enemies you can’t see, or dealing with a platforming sequence or puzzle that’s only difficult because you can’t reorient the camera to see where you’re going.
There’s a lot about the game that I just don’t get, above and beyond those two factors. Why does Leon have statistics if there’s no real way to modify them? Where are the other relics and keys, so I can explore the rest of the map? Why does one of the bosses get a free hit on me, to the tune of 200 damage or so, every so often?
I’ll still be looking forward to the retail build of Lament of Innocence, but warily. There’s a lot of potential in this title, but it has quite a few flaws that need to be ironed out before I can honestly recommend it.