Release Date: Fall 2008
Three-dimensional Castlevania games have always been a bit lackluster than their 2-D counterparts. While Symphonia of the Night or Dawn of Sorrow are considered among the best games on their respective systems, Lament of Innocence and Castlevania: 64 are generally held to be mediocre at best and borderline unplayable at worst. There's just something about the trip into 3-D that makes Castlevania lose its magic. Perhaps this strange curse is what made Konami decide to make the first Wii Castlevania title into something completely different. Castlevania: Judgment isn't anything like the recent Castlevania titles, nor is it an action-platformer like the NES-era games. Castlevania: Judgment is a fighting game, as completely bizarre as that sounds.
The sparse plot details are fairly simple: An unknown force is seeking to control the world, so heroes and villains from various Castlevania titles have been thrown together from space and time to figure out exactly who or what is trying to take over the world … and since Dracula himself is one of the playable characters, we can probably rule him out. Characters announced so far include iconic hero Simon Belmont, Rondo of Blood's version of Maria Reynard, Alucard Tepes, Dracula himself, and while their designs have not been shown yet, Dracula's servant Death and Order of Ecclesia star Shanoa have also been confirmed to appear as fighters. The flimsy story line is mostly there as an excuse for you to use Alucard to beat the living daylights out of Simon Belmont, but even an epic story wouldn't be much without the gameplay to back it up.
Castlevania: Judgment's battlefields are large 3-D environments more easily compared to games like Ehrgeiz or Power Stone than a traditional fighting game. The E3 demo included two environments in which we could fight. The first was a graveyard outside the ruins of a church, and it represented what was probably the more interesting of the levels. Various destructible objects were scattered around the environment, which could be taken apart for various power-ups, including hearts and weapon upgrades. Additionally, the stage was home to a swarm of zombies that would occasionally pop up to harass the fighters. If a zombie got too close, it could not just lower their health but actually damage one of the fighters with poison. Konami has promised that NPCs like the zombies will not be uncommon in the final builds, so I think it is safe to suspect that certain popular Castlevania foes will be making a showing, even if they're not playable characters.
The combat in Castlevania: Judgment is simple and easy to control: You wave the Wiimote to attack and use the Nunchuk to move. All of your simple movement commands are bound to the Nunchuk; the analog stick moves, the Z button blocks, the C button jumps and waggling the Nunchuk causes your character to do a dodge roll away from attacks. Attacking sounds simple enough, but different button combinations switch up which moves you do. Holding B while swinging the Wiimote activates special attacks, which are influenced by where and how you're moving at that moment. Standing still may cause Maria to unleash a flaming Suzaku Kick, while moving forward makes her drop a Genbu Turtle Shell onto the enemy for huge damage.
In addition to your regular moves, you've also got two other forms of attack. Super attacks are powered by a classic fighting game super bar, and when your bar reaches the maximum, you tap the d-pad to unleash the attack. If it hits, you get a rather lengthy cut scene of your chosen character dishing out the hurt on the enemy. Classic Castlevania subweapons also provide a powerful, if limited, tool to your arsenal. At the start of each match, you can pick which subweapon a character has equipped, ranging from holy water to crosses to axes, each with their own unique properties. In the fights, the A button activates your subweapon, which takes up a few hearts and fires the subweapon at the enemy. Holding down the A button charges an Item Crash attack, which is a substantially more powerful version of that subweapon. It's simple and effective, while being one of the attacks that really retains the Castlevania feel.
There were three playable characters available in the E3 demo, all of whom had rather different play styles. Simon Belmont was probably the least flashy of the characters, with his focus on whip combos giving him a solid combination of range and power. From what we saw in the demo, his biggest advantage seems to be that he's the only character with access to the very powerful Cross subweapon, which had a devastating Item Crash ability. Maria was probably the most useful of the three, with a wide variety of elemental-themed special attacks that combined well with each other, and a very high speed. Her greatest weakness was that she didn't take a hit that well, so evading enemy attacks was a must. Finally, Symphony of the Night star Alucard rounded out the trio, functioning as sort of an in-between in regards to Simon and Maria. He had both powerful magic and strong melee attacks, but didn't quite match up to either of the other two as far as pure power went, instead focusing of versatility, although his Summon Soul spell was devastatingly powerful in the right hands. The only other character announced so far, Dracula himself, was unplayable, so gamers will have to wait until they have Castlevania: Judgment in their hands before they can find out what he plays like.
It's difficult to discuss Castlevania: Judgment without addressing the new character designs. You see, as part of their revamp of the franchise, Judgment is also having each character in the game redesigned by the manga artist Takeshi Obata, best known for his work on the Death Note franchise. The result is something that has left most of the Castlevania fans a bit cold, and I'm afraid I can't really disagree with their opinion. Obata's redesigns are sort of awkward and don't really resemble their original characters in the least. Simon Belmont, for example, now appears to be Death Note's protagonist Light Yagami wearing something from YMCA's wardrobe, and would not be instantly identifiable as Simon. While his in-game graphics are slightly closer to Belmont's original design, it's still quite tone-breaking, even for the Castlevania titles. However, ignoring the designs, the graphics in Judgment are good, if not great. The animations are smooth and fairly fluid, the environments are nicely detailed, and the character models are not bad at all, if completely unidentifiable as their respective counterparts. Iif you can get past the new designs, Castlevania: Judgment is full of a lot of amusing little Castlevania in-jokes and references that are sure to warm fans' hearts.
Castlevania: Judgment is probably not going to turn out to be the game for which the Wii Castlevania faithful have been waiting. Despite everything, it doesn't really play like a Castlevania title, and the character designs make it difficult to get the same sense of crossover fun as one would from Super Smash Brothers. The good news is that if you can get past the general lack of Castlevania, the game itself is pretty fun. The control scheme is easy to learn and has enough intricacies that it should take even hardcore gamers a good while to master. The Castlevania-inspired battlegrounds actually do retain some of the series' trademark feel, and there's a lot of fun to be had in levels where the arena in which you're fighting is just as dangerous as your opponent. Assuming that there are no major changes between now and Castlevania: Judgment's release date, we can assume that it will be a fun, if not particularly faithful, Castlevania-themed party game, and hopefully hardcore fans will be able to get over all the differences to have a bit of fun.
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