"Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia is a really good Castlevania game, and among the best games on the DS. "
You've got to hand it to Dracula. He's died at least 20 times in the same number of years and always comes back for more. Sure he wants to bring the world into chaos, but if it weren't for him we wouldn't have legions of monsters to fight. And I, for one, couldn't be happier.
Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, is the newest in a long line of "Metroidvania" games where you explore a giant castle, slay demons, and collect their powers. This formula has prevailed for over a decade and that's really no different here. But when a formula stays the same for so long it runs a risk of stagnating. It's the slight tweaks that keep things unique and separate one Castlevania from the next, so allow me to focus on those in detail.
The most initially striking thing about Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia is that this is the first Castlevania game where you play solely as a woman (as opposed to its predecessor, Portrait of Ruin where you switched off playing as a man and woman). I'd like to say that this is a revolutionary step in the series and helps bring a female perspective into gaming, but I won't, because it's not. The story here is horribly forgettable and Shanoa is little more than a palette swap for any number of vampire hunters we've controlled over the years. As much as I love these games, they all have essentially the same plot (hint: Dracula is the bad guy). All the twists can be seen a mile away and the dialogue is the worst kind of anime cheese. Though, lets be honest, looking for a good yarn in a Castlevania game is a bit like looking for a good gelato stand on a volcano.
Castlevania games are all about slaying demons, and in that way, the most notable change to the game's combat is the new glyph system. For the first time in a Castlevania game, you play as a sorceress, so every attack uses magic. Your magic meter increases over time and generally fills up after only a few seconds. This change is thoroughly underwhelming though as you'll likely have one weapon glyph (i.e. a sword, axe, etc) equipped which won't use up much magic, as well as a spell glyph. You can also have a "back glyph" equipped which will do things like increase your stats, summon a familiar, or turn you into a cat. You can also use special attacks, which consume hearts, as well as equip three different glyph setups at once. You may occasionally run out of attack power for a moment or two, but in essence, this really isn't much of a change from what we've seen before. The difference is that you have slightly more customization (say if you want to have 2 spells and 0 weapons equipped rather than one of each). It's a nice addition, but hardly an all-new way of playing.
The other noticeable change in Ecclesia is the addition of a world map. No longer is the entire game set in one castle, but rather you select your levels from a map ala Super Mario World. This may sound like a huge change, but it really isn't, as you'll frequently have to go back to earlier levels with new powers in order to access previously unreachable areas. The difference is that there's a bit more variety on display than we've seen before.
For example, there are a handful of levels that are an incredibly linear journey of moving left to right (or sometimes the other way around) through a straight hall of forest. These stages are immaculately placed gauntlets that you need to conquer to move on. Sure, you could place this in one giant castle, but then it would be frustrating to have to backtrack through it all again. This new approach mixes the modern Metroid-style Castlevania with the older level by level approach, and it's all the better for it. It's also an excuse for some truly unique level design. My favorite being an early level set at a lighthouse where the level is bite-sized, but solely exists to stage a boss battle against a, dare I say, giant enemy crab. In other words, these bite-sized levels rarely ever wear out their welcome and help keep things fresh over the 20-plus hour journey.
My favorite thing about Ecclesia is its fantastic, sadistically challenging array of bosses. Make no bones about it, these buggers are tough. This is easily the most challenging Castlevania game since Circle of the Moon and probably even harder than that. To put things in perspective, the in-game clock said I'd beaten the game at just over 11 hours, but I know I played it over 20. Thus, nearly half of the time I spent playing the game was on unsuccessful attempts, usually against the bosses. But the brilliant thing about them is that they're all fair. Each one has a specific tell before each attack and learning to recognize their behavior patterns and experimenting with which glyphs to use is a lot of fun. Sometimes they'd kick my ass for a solid two hours, but I was rarely bored as I'd continually mix up my strategies until I found one that works. They mostly all look awesome to boot, including one particular baddie late in the game that takes up nearly four screens.
Half the draw of these games is their art direction, and on this level Ecclesia does not disappoint. The game looks fantastic. The environments range from mechanical turn-of-the-century towers, to stormy seas, to desolate wastelands, to a giant, multi-tiered castle. There is perhaps a tad bit of repetition and it's maybe not quite as astounding as Dawn of Sorrow's more cohesive take on the legendary Dracula's castle, but what's here is still very good. I especially liked the wide variety of creatures. Ranging from such diverse horror clichés as Leatherface and Frankenstein to the invisible man, they all look brilliant.
The audio doesn't measure up quite so well. The music isn't quite as great as some of the more haunting tunes from earlier Castlevania's, but it is diverse and there's even an option to use the old NES soundtrack if you find a secret item. The voice acting is rubbish though. Truly awful dreck. The villagers who you rescue will say things like "Whoa!" and "'tsup?" in an exaggerated California surfer dude accent, and don't even get me started on their idea of what an Italian chef sounds like. After Symphony of the Night I can't help but wonder if Konami hires bad voice actors on purpose for nostalgic reasons. Either way, an absence of voice-acting would be much preferred in this case.
Though Ecclesia makes several minute changes to the formula, not all the changes are for the better. As much as I liked the option to toggle between 3 different glyph setups on the fly, I would have preferred only having 2 and being able to switch at the touch of a button (ala Dawn of Sorrow's X button). Here, you have to hold A and use the shoulder buttons to scroll through your different setups. As much as I tried, I lacked the mental capacity to memorize which equipment setup I had on which slot. Doing this while trying to button juggle, made real-time glyph switching more cumbersome than it needed to be. But this is nitpicking really.
"Ecclesia" also employs the Castlevania trademark of arbitrary secrets that must be discovered in order to unlock the second half of the game. The game at least does a good job of dropping hints once you achieve the "bad" ending (which in this case is actually a game over, so as not to confuse people who may think they've beaten it), but some better hints would have been appreciated.
It's been a series tradition for a number of years to let you play through the game a second time as a different character, and sadly, Konami has generally not done a very good job of this. The bonus characters can never use equipment or gain new weapons (as otherwise they'd play exactly like the main character), and as a result, these modes always feel half-baked. The lone exception to this was in Dawn of Sorrow where you would swap between three different characters with a slightly new story, and face an all new final boss. It is truly disappointing that Order of Ecclesia's bonus mode lacks any new content and doesn't even make a lick of sense as at one point you'll be fighting a clone of yourself with no explanation given whatsoever. Still, the main quest is so satisfying and there's an unlockable hard mode for that. Thus, the fact that Konami really dropped the ball on this alternate mode doesn't hurt the game that much, though it is a missed opportunity.
Ultimately, Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia is a really good Castlevania game, and among the best games on the DS. The environments and creatures are some of the best looking in a 2D side-scrolling platformer. The combat is surprisingly deep. The challenge is there. The controls are spot on. And it's a lengthy, well-paced adventure to boot. Sure it has flaws. The script and alternate bonus mode are both forgettable and it doesn't improve upon an already terrific formula in every respect. Though it may not reinvent the wheel, it doesn't need to. The Castlevania franchise is a bit like Dracula himself. It never ages, never learns, but remains an eternal source of dark delights.
Freelance review by Jeffrey Matulef (November 06, 2008)
A bio for this contributor is currently unavailable, but check back soon to see if that changes. If you are the author of this review, you can update your bio from the Settings page.
If you enjoyed this Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!