"Try not to stare as you walk through a chapel and see some benches upright, some tossed to their sides, and still others draped by cobwebs. Everything looks so tremendously organic. There's also a lot of color variation. Even though textures are reused throughout, they're all so good that it doesn't really impact anything in a negative way. Even better, there's good variety from one locale to the next."
The first time I met a member of the Belmont clan, it was in a game that didn't need a subtitle. His name was Simon, I believe, and he was off to kill Dracula for reasons that eluded me. After that, I didn't really get back to the series in a major way until Alucard showed me the ropes on the Playstation. Suddenly, I was captivated all over again, but in a larger way than ever before. From then on, I resolved to play each Castlevania title, as I was certain they would all be good. And for the most part they have been, except for Castlevania on the Nintendo 64. The first attempt by Konami to bring the franchise into the 3D era, the game was a moderate flop. It had some good moments, but mostly I wished Konami would just stick to the 2D roots.
Then the announcement came: development had commenced on a next-generation successor to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, arguably the best game in the series. The director was going to be the same. Surely, I told myself, Konami had learned from its mistakes and would make a sprawling 2D platformer like no other. Alas, they had not. And so it is that I've just finished around 16 hours of play with Leon Belmont, the original member of the famed clan to moonlight as a vampire hunter between odd jobs. Yes, it's three-dimensional. Yes, it has some serious problems as a result of that fact. But is Castlevania: Lament of Innocence as much a disappointment as its 3D predecessors? Not by a long shot. If Konami has to continue down the 3D road, this is a very good step in the right direction. Allow me to explain why.
When you first turn the game on, assuming you don't anxiously press the 'start' button to skip preliminaries, you'll be greeted with a very eerie prologue. Leon Belmont, a nobleman fighting in the Crusades for the Church, has earned a name for himself as an invincible warrior of sorts. Along with his friend, Mathias Cronqvist, he leads his soldiers to one glorious victory after another, all in the name of God. But when they return home from one mission, they find things have gone seriously wrong. Elizabetha, Mathias' wife, has perished unexpectedly. The man is stricken with grief, and soon confined to his bed. Meanwhile, Leon Belmont continues with his missions, until one day he finds that his betrothed, a young woman named Sara, has been kidnapped by the local vampire. Mathias is anxious to assist, and tells Leon the only way she can be saved is if Leon faces the fiend. So begins the story. As you may have noticed by now, Castlevania: Lament of Innocence is a prequel.
Once the story has begun, though, it doesn't just stop so suddenly as you might have come to expect from the series. Periodically, you'll discover new details about the characters. Leon of course learns a lot about himself and vampires, but he also learns a great deal about an old man named Rinaldo, who has reasons of his own to hate vampires. There are other characters, too, and plot twists. True, you should see most of them coming a mile off, but it's still nice that Konami went the extra mile to properly tell how the whole Belmont saga began.
The way the story is told is also impressive, at least to a degree. Each of the characters in the game speaks his or her lines. You don't have to read a word, just listen to them as they discuss the things that float their boats. Sometimes, there will be a lengthy bit of dialogue right before a battle and, given the nature of a game like this, you'll die in the battle. Thankfully, Konami set things up so that you can easily just try again, and press the 'start' button to skip through all the chatter. You're not even penalized with a lengthy load screen.
Speaking of load times, they're really quite manageable. Rather than load up huge areas, the game just reads what it needs to for the corridor you've entered. Passing from one corridor to the next takes perhaps a second or two, and there's no need for a load screen as Leon's figure blurs and you pass to the next challenge. Little things like this are appreciated.
What isn't appreciated, however, and what does the most to sabotage an otherwise stellar effort, is the camera. The corridors in Castlevania are spacious, for the most part. There's room for all the monsters you've come to expect, and they stomp merrily over the crumbling stone walkways. Leon even has room to move around them. With that said, you might expect that the roaming camera would do a fine job. Alas, it does not. You have absolutely no control over it at any point in the game. There literally is no button to control the viewpoint. The most you can do is adjust your playing method a bit, and figure out how to get the camera to slide into the most favorable position. However, there are large sections of the castle that you'll never see. I suspect Konami never even bothered rendering them.
Suppose you walk into a room. There's a beautiful stone column at the center, with statues on each of its four sides. At least, I think there are. You see, I really can't say for sure. No matter where you walk in the room, the camera never really swings about in such a way that you find out what's on the other side of that pillar. I have a sneaking suspicion that Konami never even bothered rendering any architecture for that portion of the room. And really, why should they? You never get to see it.
The good news is that although the camera is enormously frustrating, it almost never becomes a fatal flaw. When fighting bosses, you almost always can see just what you need to in order to survive (with the exception of Medusa). When leaping from one platform to the next, you only rarely will have to try more than once because the camera wasn't following correctly. There are even some rooms with bottomless pits, but falling into the abyss only means restarting at the door, with no life lost (even in the last area). This much, at least, is definitely appreciated.
Related to the camera issue is the map issue. It's somewhat easy to get turned around, and so you will constantly find yourself consulting the map. This is partially because there is no on-screen map in sight (even for the room you're currently exploring), and partially because things sometimes look a little too similar after you've spent the last minute or two running around a room defeating all the enemies. Once you bring up the map, you'll find that it's quite helpful, with a good indicator so you can know what rooms you've explored (it looks like something out of Phantasy Star Online, or perhaps the .hack series) and how they are laid out in relation to one another. But when the map comes up, there are still problems. Tilt the left analog stick anyway and the map will start to spin. It serves no real purpose; things are better if you just move it up and down or zoom it in and out. For some reason, perhaps due to my playing style, I always found the map rotating just out of alignment. It looks horrible, and it's almost impossible to adjust back to the way it was. This happened to me time and time again. Most irritating.
The final irritant is the system through which items are used. While it's true that you can press the 'start' button to explore what items you have at your leisure, you can't use any of them or equip anything from that screen. Instead, you have to use the direction buttons on the controller, or the right analog stick. Then you have to cycle through a clunky menu and equip things that way. Suppose you're in the middle of a battle. You have to run around, cycling through the menu and finding the item you want, then using it from there. It's very similar to the system in Kingdom Hearts, and it works no better for Konami than it did for Square. Even worse, Leon might not gulp down that potion for several seconds if he's in the middle of an enemy assault, which means he could be dead before a drop of the potion (or a crumb of the shortcake) touches his lips.
And, well, that about takes care of the bad news. The thing is, there's a lot of good news, too.
First and foremost is the fact that the game is just gorgeous. It's true that visuals are hardly a reason to play a game, but when they do so much to add to the atmosphere as they do for Castlevania: Lament of Innocence, I can't help but pay attention. The rooms of Castlevania are intricately detailed, and it's obvious that a lot of care went into this aspect of the game. Try not to stare as you walk through a chapel and see some benches upright, some tossed to their sides, and still others draped by cobwebs. Everything looks so tremendously organic. There's also a lot of color variation. Even though textures are reused throughout, they're all so good that it doesn't really impact anything in a negative way. Even better, there's good variety from one locale to the next. Leon will find himself in a giant opera-style theatre, a beautiful garden, a laboratory, and even the castle's waterways. They're all familiar locations to those who have played Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, only now they look much, much better. Every once in a while, I found myself stopping and thinking to myself that they had done a wonderful job of rendering things in three dimensions.
It's not only the environments that look so good, either. Leon Belmont will face over a hundred different monsters. While most of these will make reappearances with different names and color schemes, there are still a surprising number of individual character models. More impressive are their ranges of movement. The shadow wolf is a good example. It oozes out of the ground, a moving pool of liquid shadow, then materializes into a wolf shape. Let it roam around long enough and it will either pounce you or spew fire. Then you take it out and it falls in a heap, yelping, before bursting into flames. And that's just one monster.
The whole time your eyes are feasting on the sights, your ears are throwing a party of their own. The Castlevania series has been known (almost without exception) for its music, and this time around there's little to complain about. Each of the seven areas you encounter has its own theme music, and there are also tunes reserved for the game's credits, for heated battles, and so forth. While the number of unique tunes isn't so impressive as one might hope, the quality is definitely there. I particularly liked the fact that there's a lot of good instrument variety, and some of the music does wonderful things with a piano.
Sound isn't limited to the music and voice acting, either. You'll hear thuds as hammers hit walls, the scrape of sharpened scythes as they brush against stone, and the moans of your dying opponents. If you have surround sound, it can sometimes be fun to walk slowly in a circle, just to hear the sound moving from one speaker to the next, making the experience all the more immersing.
And of course, all of this is just the icing on the cake that is gameplay. As you might have guessed from screenshots, Castlevania: Lament of Innocence owes a lot to Devil May Cry and Rygar: The Legendary Adventure. It's really more like the latter than the former, but with a whip instead of the pizza-shaped thing. Leon Belmont can swing it around in quite a number of ways, too. When he first starts, he'll just swing in an almost random manner. Soon, though, you'll defeat a few enemies and learn new skills, and he'll be whirling it about like nobody's business, setting up combos and so forth. Despite the often faulty camera, Leon is seldom truly at risk of losing himself in the midst of a swarm of enemies.
In fact, a swarm of enemies is often just what he's looking for. You see, Konami implemented a strange new feature. When you hold the 'R' button down, Leon will put up his arm defensively, and can absorb most blows directed his way from the enemies in the area. If he times his block just right, he gets a boost to his magic meter, and can then use any equipped Relic items for special skills, such as temporarily improved defense or offense, or perhaps even flame magic. He can't block every attack an enemy might throw his way, but the majority of blows from an enemy can easily be brushed aside. If he runs into a more powerful opponent, then he should still block, and can press the 'X' button and a direction to jump out of the way. It takes a while getting used to the setup, but you'll be very familiar with it by the time you fight the final boss.
Speaking of the final boss, you can likely reach him in under 10 hours. That's because, like its predecessors, Castlevania: Lament of Innocence doesn't force you to collect every item in order to see the closing credits. The castle is quite a monstrosity, with enough rooms to drive a fellow insane. Not all of those rooms show up immediately. You'll need to visit most of them, but there are also chambers that are completely optional. They don't show up on the map until you discover them for yourself.
Discovery plays a major role in the game. I can't really think of a 3D title that does a better job implementing exploration, at least not on the Playstation 2. The castle you're exploring feels like a real building, and rooms connect logically. The only problem I found is that some of the hidden areas are just a little more out of the way than feels appropriate. It's possible to spend two or three hours looking for one hidden room and never find it. I'm proof of that. However, as all such rooms are completely optional, the 'flaw' somehow manages to work in the game's favor.
The thing is, you'll likely have finished the game in well under the 16 hours I mentioned at the start of this review. I just happen to suck. Which brings me to another point: this game isn't quite hard enough. Interestingly, you can choose how you want to explore the castle. There's basically an entryway, then you go and choose the magical stone elevator that takes you to the desired area. The game doesn't really say which place to explore first, and so it is that I explored the stages in truly inverted order. Even so, I was able to find most everything on my first trip through, and I beat the boss. It was difficult, but I did it. After that, everything was cake, especially after I hunted down the health extensions and such.
Another sign that the game is too easy is the fact that I wasn't even all that attuned to the special item system by the time I beat the game with 98% of the corridors explored. It's a truly wonderful system and will do a lot to make things easier for you, but I didn't even use it to my advantage. I only saw the 'Game Over' screen a few times, too, mostly when I was fighting one of the bosses before I should have. I'm not saying this to brag. I'm saying it because I'm willing to admit that I suck at action games, and still I didn't have as much trouble finishing things up as I should have. I'm used to games of this nature giving me trouble. The fact that the developers stripped the ability to build levels by defeating enemies had me concerned at first, because I always relied on that before. Here, there's no need.
The silver lining is that you still can have one heck of a time. Like I said, you can pick the order you go to the different levels in, and you can avoid hunting down every last Relic. There are plenty of ways to challenge yourself. Even better, there are plenty of added ways the game will challenge you. Complete it the first time and you can play through as a special character, or you can go through another time with tougher enemies. Konami was definitely thinking about how to extend the gameplay.
In the end, Castlevania: Lament of Innocence succeeds. It's got a lot of problems, such as the extremely faulty camera and the associated irritants. It's not as long as some would like, nor is it difficult enough for some. But when you forget about those flaws for a minute, the fact remains that the game can easily pull you into its grasp and keep you there for 10 to 20 hours. When the credits roll, you'll likely feel quite satisfied. The bottom line is that any fan of the franchise will feel right at home. It's an extremely good value as a weekend rental, and almost as good a deal if you decide to make a purchase. Now let's just hope they're already at work on a sequel.
Staff review by Jason Venter (October 25, 2003)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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