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Castlevania: Curse of Darkness

Platform(s): PlayStation 2, Xbox
Genre: RPG/Action
Publisher: Konami


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PS2 Preview - 'Castlevania: Curse of Darkness'

by Alicia on Oct. 22, 2005 @ 1:01 a.m. PDT

Curse of Darkness introduces players to an entirely new storyline and main character – Hector, one of two Devil Forgemasters, who had once refined his skills under Dracula. Told in true Castlevania style, this action-packed tale of betrayal and revenge takes players on a journey through an expansive world filled with formidable foes and beautifully rendered environments to the ruins of Dracula’s castle.

Genre: Action RPG
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Konami
Release Date: November 1, 2005

After 2D Dawn of Sorrow's generally positive reception, Castlevania-loving gamers have begun to cautiously look ahead to the upcoming release of the franchise's latest foray into 3D gameplay, Curse of Darkness. Building on the gameplay introduced in Lament of Innocence, the latest console Castlevania takes players back to Walachia in 1479, and three years after Dracula's defeat in the NES classic Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse.

One of the lieutenants of Dracula's army then was Hector, the Devil Forgemaster who helped create Dracula's army of monsters alongside a man named Isaac. After Dracula's fall, Hector renounced his evil ways and went off to live quietly, marrying a woman named Rosaly. Isaac would have none of them and arranged for Rosaly to be convicted of witchcraft and burned at the stake.

The game opens with Hector approaching the gates of Castlevania itself, calling for Isaac's blood. However, without his Devil Forgemaster powers, Hector is no match for Isaac at all. To get his revenge, Hector will have to reclaim his old powers and adventure through Dracula's castle and the surrounding wilderness, strengthening himself until it's time for the final showdown.

It would've been easy for Konami to turn Castlevania into a Devil May Cry clone when they took it into 3D, but they're still keeping away from that in Curse of Darkness. The combo system is strictly utilitarian, and you are never graded in any way at the end of the level. Instead, combat in Curse of Darkness remains true to the tradition of the old stage-based Castlevania games. You're fighting just to survive, and making it through the fight in one piece is your reward. To make your way through the game you can use any of what appears to be over a hundred different weapons, each of which you forge yourself using items dropped or stolen from enemies.

Weapons are broken into five different types: Swords, Spears, Axes, Knuckles, and Etc. Most weapons of a given family will share a basic tree of animations, but there are some exceptions. Light Axes and Swords have very similar animations, as do heavy Swords like the Zweihander and two-handed Axes like the Bullova. More Spears share a set of animation, as do Knuckles. Weapons of the Etc. type each tend to have unique animations, but often don't have a combo tree the way that other weapons do. What's great fun about the forging system is that you don't have to waste time looking for recipes; new combination recipes appear as soon as you find the materials. Of course, until your try a combination, you won't know the exact name or stats of what you're making.

While combos are about style in most pure action games, in Curse of Darkness they're about functionality. Each weapon has a basic combo that can be activated by pressing the square button up to four or five times in succession, each press activating a particular move. If you want to end a combo at any time, or think you can finish off an enemy with a super-powerful attack, press the circle button to initiate a Final Blow. Final Blows often have special animations depending on where in the cycle you initiate them, and generally become more powerful when executed later in a combo. Knowing which Final Blows and moves emerge out of a given weapon is vital for being able to connect with enemies, as most Curse of Darkness are frantic mass-melees against enemies who vastly outnumber you. Knowing whether to continue a combo or break it quickly can mean the difference between life and death for Hector.

The speed and sheer scale of battles in Curse of Darkness are enough to put any 3D game's camera system to the test, and Curse of Darkness's comes through with flying colors. The player can opt to control the camera manually with the right analog stick, and during combats can use manual controls or an auto-targeting systems initiated with the R1 button. The auto-targeting camera makes tracking a particular enemy in a fight much easier, but can also result in some awkward camera angles; fortunately, you can quickly turn it off to get something more natural. Our only complaint with it so far is that using auto-targeting is essential for using Hector's Steal skill and thereby obtain certain materials for weapons forging, but some of the camera angles this results in are extremely unwieldy. Still, it's a minor complaint in a camera system that is otherwise extremely manageable.

While forging good weapons and armor for Hector will go a long way toward making him survivable, it's the Innocent Devil system that you'll really have to exploit if you want to break the game wide open. Furthermore, you have to exploit it if you want any kind of reliable method of healing around. Curse of Darkness sharply limits the number of healing items that enemies drop, as well as the efficacy of those items. You can occasionally pick up healing Meat by breaking open torches, but this is a random and unreliable source of healing. What you really want is a fully evolved, high-level Fairy Innocent Devil at your side. Similarly, the two other types of Innocent Devils we used, the Golem and the Bird, were both helpful assistants in battle and exploring the castle.

Golems are best at crowd control and can open certain doors Hector can't, while the Bird-type will carry Hector over pits and is good at fighting bosses and airborne enemies. Your Innocent Devils are unlocked at certain points in the story, and you can opt to raise one from scratch if your ID happens to produce a Devil Shard. As you defeat enemies, your ID will gain experience and level up the way Hector does.

Enemies will also drop Evo Crystals that your Innocent Devils can eat. After eating so many crystals of a given type, they'll evolve into a more powerful form. There are four types, and what drops depends on what weapon Hector is using at the time. There are four evolution levels for each Innocent Devil type, and a total of four different "crown" forms. Obviously, the use of the Devil Shards is so you can evolve all four forms of each Innocent Devil if you so wish.

How you use your Innocent Devils is really up to the preferences of the player. You can level them all up, or pick one particular type of Devil to give most of the experience to in your playthrough. Some Devils also gain unique abilities when they evolve into their ultimate form. If you prefer to have Hector deal most of the damage, then you'll want to use the Fairy to keep him in top form. If you prefer to have Hector play a more passive role, then the aggressive Golem can devastate groups of foes. The Bird seems to be a middling sort of Innocent Devil, best for sniping and attacking bosses. There are three more types in the game that we have yet to see, so there's no telling how the final three will handle.

All Innocent Devils have special abilities that consume Hearts. Similarly, an ID that gets hit by enemy attacks will lose hearts. When an Innocent Devil reaches 0 Hearts, then your ID will faint until you can get some more Hearts for it. Hearts are dropped by enemies after you defeat them, or are regained when you save your game and restore your health at a Save Point. There are no easy ways of restoring lost Hearts, or Items that do it for you; defeating enemies is the only way to do it. You can have one Innocent Devil in play at any time, and can switch freely between them. There is a slight delay before an ID emerges into battle, so you have to be careful when you opt to switch. Whichever Innocent Devil you're using at a given time is the one that will get any dropped Evo Crystals or experience after defeating enemies. It's usually best to switch before entering a battle if you can, since sometimes, the few seconds it takes for the summoning animation to finish are just long enough to get Hector killed.

With the game's release less than a month away, it's safe to say that all of the gameplay details we're discussing here will be in the game's final version. The winding, expansive castle maps are also probably in their final form, as are the breathtaking boss battles. Unfortunately, we'll have to save discussion of these game elements for the final review, as there's simply too much available in Curse of Darkness to cover it all at once in any kind of detail. After all, we've barely had time to touch on the intriguing storyline, featuring some fantastic cut scenes and a guest appearance by Trevor Belmont himself. Castlevania fans have good reasons to look forward to the game's release in early November with excitement.

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