Castlevania: Judgment (Wii) review
"Why would someone bother mastering the art of knocking someone into the air, canceling out of a ground-based combo to follow-up with an air attack and then come down with a crushing to finish things off when just waving the Wii Remote around in circles while holding the 'B' button proves equally effective? This game was made for old-fashioned button mashers."
As two warriors circle on a crumbling castle rampart, dark clouds swirl overhead and chains of lightning tear across the distant horizon. The two combatants have come from distant locations that span time itself. Now they dance the dance of death. Grant, a haggard warrior with scraggly hair and ragged clothes that look to have been torn to shreds by the howling winds, lurches to the side. His movements seem almost drunken, yet plenty of enemies have made the mistake of assuming that in the past and now they lie buried in unmarked graves. His opponent is Maria, a... little girl with... a fuzzy bunny tail and... a snow-white... owl.
That was going to be a dramatic opening paragraph. Really, it was. Instead, it proved that sometimes things just don't turn out like they should have. Case in point: the first Castlevania title to hit Nintendo's sensational Wii platform.
Perhaps you already have a checklist formed in your mind: platforming action, a labyrinthine castle, experience points, a melodramatic subtitle, an effeminate male battling through a variety of gruesome beasts with nothing but a whip for company... Normally you could plan for all of that and be right on the money. Perhaps you can even say that's how things 'should' be. Put such thoughts aside, though, because Castlevania Judgment isn't much like that at all. Instead, it's a fighter with bizarre baggage hanging from its back side like a fuzzy bunny tail.
Certainly, Dracula's castle is still on-hand to serve as the focal point. Gears grind in the clock tower, mist drapes the courtyard and stained-glass windows adorn the highest walls. Waves splash against rocky cliffs, flaming liquid bubbles deep within the structure's bowels and so on and so forth. You could argue, in fact, that the whole setting has never been more spectacular. The level of detail is astounding and the surprisingly dynamic arenas only add to that. One stage finds a monstrous bone dragon soaring in arches over the battlefield. It's a thing of beauty even if you don't still remember the old games where such monsters were no more than a few sprites. Another location features swinging pendulum blades and spike traps that burst through holes in the floor to skewer the unwary. Even with the complete change in genre, this feels like a Castlevania game... and yet it doesn't.
The premise feels like something straight out of a bad horror novel, just as fans of the franchise have come to expect, so that's not the issue. Some sort of mystic being has gathered together thirteen warriors of both light and darkness. Now they'll all fight it out in an alternate dimension where the impossible is possible. Dracula has come and gone like a moron caught in a revolving door, but this might be the chance to put him in the ground forever. Likewise, it could be the opportunity--if you prefer the evil perspective--to slaughter the best of that pesky Belmont clan. In short, everyone gathered here has a reason to fight, fight, fight!
Combat itself is mostly a mixed bag. The controls and the general flow of things are both fairly simplistic. You have multiple schemes at your disposal and can even go with a GameCube controller if it suits you. Battles take place in limited arenas that you can dance around as you see fit, sort of like PowerStone meets Soulcalibur. Aside from a camera that doesn't quite follow if you need to view things from a different angle, there's little reason to complain about the presentation. The attacks available are just fine, too. Each character can use weak or powered attacks, can jump about the area like a gazelle with a sugar rush, can find and use sub-weapons such as daggers and holy water or can even build up energy to unleash an insanely powerful special attack. There also are rolls and cancels and just about everything else you've heard fighting fans talk about if you've accidentally stumbled into an arcade.
The problem--finally we get to that in concerete terms--is that even though all of that depth technically exists and is waiting to be used, it's not put to particularly good use. Why would someone bother mastering the art of knocking someone into the air, canceling out of a ground-based combo to follow-up with an air attack and then come down with a crushing to finish things off when just waving the Wii Remote around in circles while holding the 'B' button proves equally effective? This game was made for old-fashioned button mashers, as well as the new breed of gamer that Nintendo has in mind when it warns us all to give ourselves room to play. Anyone who has ever utilized Maria for two minutes wouldn't dream of arguing otherwise. She racks up combos like a jock collects hickeys.
No doubt sensing that they still had some work to do if they wanted to build a compelling game around that system, the developers tried to add some lasting value by beefing up the available modes. In addition to a standard 'Arcade' option that remains a staple of the genre even as arcades disappear throughout the world, there's the usual 'Story' mode. You start with two characters and play through one plot strand at a time to unlock more. The issue is that no single story has much substance. Alucard talks to Aeon (the fellow who created this dimension) at the start and to Dracula at the end, but everything in between is just standard insults between combatants. Maria spends as much time marveling at the boob size of her opponents as she does fighting them, and so on and so forth. If this is what the beloved Castlevania characters are really like when given voice, most players would probably prefer that they shut up and go back to being sprites. That's unfortunate when the only other reason to play through the numerous stories is so that you can collect accessories for your fighters... like fuzzy bunny tails.
The game's final chance at redemption comes in the form of a 'Castle' mode, which is where it feels the most like typical Castlevania fare. You're presented with a map of gate icons linked together. Each represents an objective. Completing one allows you to continue along the branching diagram. There also are random encounters if you decide to backtrack to a save point for a health refill, so that briefly the game feels more like an actual adventure. Objectives often aren't limited to just straight-up combat, either. Sometimes you'll have to gather a certain number of items, or flip switches or fight with various handicaps. Unfortunately, such diversions tend to be annoying rather than interesting. Losing progress to something stupid like a pit you didn't know about (courtesy of the camera) is more frustrating than it really should be. The mode is therefore interesting, but hardly thrilling.
The same can just as easily be said about the project as a whole. Even if you were just running from one point to another during the early days, there was something special in the old Castlevania games that here is missing. Castlevania Judgment pays homage to that rich heritage, but it doesn't go far beyond serving as polished fan service thanks to the general lack of focus. Overall, it's another experiment with the franchise that most gamers will be quite content to avoid. Try it if you love the series enough to ignore some odd missteps, but otherwise steer clear.
Staff review by Jason Venter (January 14, 2009)
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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