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Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (DS) artwork

Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (DS) review


"My appreciation for Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia never really hit its peak until, after beating the game twice, I went back and tried to play a game in the series that I previously loved (Dawn of Sorrow) only to find the experience hollow, simplistic, and dull. The Castlevania series has survived up to this point by sticking to a pretty routine and unchanging formula, which is fine when the formula in question works. (See also: Zelda.) This newest DS entry is probab..."



My appreciation for Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia never really hit its peak until, after beating the game twice, I went back and tried to play a game in the series that I previously loved (Dawn of Sorrow) only to find the experience hollow, simplistic, and dull. The Castlevania series has survived up to this point by sticking to a pretty routine and unchanging formula, which is fine when the formula in question works. (See also: Zelda.) This newest DS entry is probably the riskiest thing Konami has done with the series since Symphony of the Night set the standard all those years ago. It’s a slippery slope, but while I could rattle on forever about the game’s various missteps (and I will), Order has forever changed my perception of what a Castlevania game can be, and should be.

From a glance, Order sticks with the basic action/platformer design that has earned the series its success throughout the years – take a look at a couple of the game’s screenshots and it would appear as if nothing has changed, but as the familiar phrase goes, looks can indeed be deceiving. Moving the basic combat to two buttons (instead of just one) is the first indication of where Konami’s priorities were in the development of Order. Our heroine, Shanoa, exclusively uses magical spells called glyphs as a means of attacking – but then, most of them take the form of weapons anyway, the only difference being that all of the glyphs drain her magic power.

Don’t worry – your meter recharges in an instant. This system is merely in place to merge weapons and spells into one universal battle system, and to bring it to the forefront of Order. In theory, the system works very much like the soul-collecting element of the Sorrow games. Most glyphs are absorbed from fallen enemies, and the vast majority of them aren’t required to progress the storyline – they’re merely conveniences. But where Order draws the line between itself and previous titles in the series is the length to which combat becomes the center point. Devoting two buttons to combat means Shanoa wields one glyph with each hand, and nailing the little tricks – like dual-wielding the same glyph, and alternating between the X and Y buttons to attack twice as fast – is what will divide the skilled Order players from those who don’t make it past the first couple of bosses.

I’m not gonna pussyfoot around the subject here: This game is hard. Very hard. In keeping with Castlevania tradition (albeit a tradition Konami seems to be neglecting more and more these days), the bosses will make a regular point of kicking your ass, yet even the regular, day-to-day enemies offer an unrelenting challenge, to the point that abandoning the respite of those precious save rooms and venturing forth becomes something of a gamble every time: How long will it be until your next chance to save? And are you equipped to last that long?

At times, Order’s almost unsympathetic regard for the player’s well-being can become overwhelming. You’ll often be confronted with an enemy who’s too tall to jump over and powerful enough to kill you with only a scant few hits, and who packs too large a health meter to make the “kill him before he has the chance to attack you” strategy effective. Then he’ll back you up against a wall, giving you no choice but to fight… or he’ll deliver such a devastating blow that he’ll knock you into an adjacent room, forcing you to re-enter and start picking away at his massive health meter all over again. Oh, and don’t think for a second that loading your inventory with healing items will make a lick of difference. You can only carry nine potions at once, and they restore so little of Shanoa’s health bar that by the end of the game, you could chug every potion in the vicinity and still not be in perfect shape.

It’s not long before the realization sets in: This is just how Order is. Grinding for experience, while helpful, won’t really cut it in the long run. A full mastery of Order’s battle system and all of its nuances is what’s required. Weapons, for example, are separated into categories – slashing, stabbing, bludgeoning, etc. – and each of your foes has a different weakness, so you’d better have a pretty good understanding of which weapons work best against which enemies. And the bosses… oh man, the bosses. They’re old school in every sense of the word, forcing players to rely mostly on trial-and-error just to comprehend the almost dance-like pattern with which they must avoid their enemies’ attacks, and the horror sinks in when you recall that you’ve got to inflict actual damage on these monstrosities in the meantime. I’ve played my fair share of Castlevania titles and I can honestly say the first boss in Order is the only one throughout the entire adventure that didn’t kill me at least once. For a series that derives so much of its presentation from the horror genre, it’s high time I started actually feeling intimidated by my opposition.

Portrait of Ruin experimented with a level-based game structure that suited the title well, dividing key points of the game into separate stages while using Dracula’s Castle as a sort of central hub. Order takes it a step further, basing its structure around a world map, with each level more clearly divided. The Castlevania games have been utilizing the familiar “Metroidvania” design for quite a while now, so it’s quite jarring at first to backtrack to such a seemingly archaic approach, but it works in Order’s favor. Exploration has been downplayed to keep the player focused on the action at hand. The levels themselves are straightforward and rather plain, and little more is required. The regular encounters keep things interesting enough as is. It’s not a seamless transition by any means, and examples of Order’s inconsistent pacing are easy to name. One level, set in a forest, can literally be described as a horizontal line, and here’s the map if you don’t believe me. One level begins with a boss battle; another is devoted entirely to its own boss and nothing else. It’s a mess, but that’s irrelevant. You won’t care because you’ll be too engaged by the utter intensity of every single battle. For all of its inconsistencies, the design works, and I would’ve encouraged Konami to stick with it until the end.

But they didn’t. I guess old habits are hard to break, and the prospect of a Castlevania game without a Dracula’s Castle-style dungeon as its centerpiece would have been too much to ask. So, two-thirds of the way into making the series’ most engaging title since the great Symphony itself, Konami chickened out and went the safe route.

In what appears to be a growing Castlevania tradition, Order boasts a “fake” ending that’s bound to leave players cold and dry granted they haven’t fulfilled the requirements needed to see the game through its real finale. (Thankfully, you’re given a visual cue that might save you an unwanted trip to GameFAQs.) The problem is that the real finale is none other than the infamous Dracula’s Castle itself, but watered down and shoehorned into the game as little more than a glorified final dungeon. You see, up until this point, Order has pretty much run the course of many full-length games already; building a castle equal in scope and intricacy to any of the post-Symphony games of the series would have been too much. Instead, Konami tried to re-introduce the exploration element into the series after slyly turning the tables, further rupturing the pace of an already awkwardly designed game.

It’s here that the boss battles take a turn for the worst as well, sliding well past the region of “challenging” and slowing comfortably to a halt in “unfair” territory. One boss in particular (whom I’d describe as a dragon made of, um, darkness) hammers the player with a constant string of lethal blows and gives them very little space in which to stay alive, only to up the ante halfway through the fight and double up on attacks, one combination of which is literally impossible to avoid because it requires the player to be in two places at once. Another admittedly sounds epic, and should have been: A monstrous centaur, so large that only a fraction of its body fits onto the screen at once. Its only weakness is an eyeball on the back of its head, and getting there is a four-staged process that has you crawling under its legs and climbing up its tail for a winning shot. Exhilarating, but Konami takes it too far, first by planting a couple of automatic crossbow turrets on its torso, then giving the player a window of only a few seconds once they’ve reached the top before getting knocked back to the ground. It’s too much. The game, up until now, has desensitized me to its overwhelming difficulty, but this is where it crosses the line.

Though my biggest complaint about Order is one that won’t even apply to most people: That the promising Albus Mode actually compromises what makes the game work so well to begin with. It’s become common practice with Castlevania to offer a secondary character to those players who complete the main adventure once, and part of the fun in taking control of Julius or Richter was in abandoning whatever combat gimmick the game in question offered, giving you a chance to admire the design in its most basic form. But with Order, the combat is the game. Replacing it with a couple of overpowered ranged attacks does offer some momentary thrills, and I’ll admit to experiencing an almost sadistic pleasure in absolutely tearing through the bosses that I once considered a nightmare. But taking away the combat aspect and focusing your attention on Order’s inconsistent and choppy pace isn’t the approach this game needs.

Of course, most people only play these games to beat them once… but then again, “most people” would probably give up on the game before finishing it in the first place. “Most people” probably won’t even live to see Order’s version of the notorious Dracula’s Castle. The game appeals to a very specific taste, in which players benefit from mastery through repetition. If memorizing a boss’s attack patterns for upwards of an hour – all the while getting repeatedly, and mercilessly, brought to your end – doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time, then turn around and walk away. I had a great time with Order, but I can’t guarantee you’ll feel the same way.

Rating: 8/10

Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (February 11, 2009)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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zippdementia posted February 11, 2009:

As usual, you seem to have no trouble painting an amazing picture of what it would be like to own and play this game, leading to a remarkably helpful review.
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Suskie posted February 11, 2009:

See, that's the kind of comment that'll have people wondering if you're my alt. But thanks! I've been brainstorming this review for a while but it took several attempts to work it into something coherent, so I'm glad it worked.
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sashanan posted February 11, 2009:

Ooh, nice review. And comforting to know that it wasn't just me in trouble with the two specific late game bosses you named. I got cocky after beating the fan named Giant Enemy Crab early on that everybody complains about, not realizing that was really just the beginning.
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Suskie posted February 12, 2009:

Blackmore should have been a really intense (in a good way) fight if only for how claustrophobic it was, but the second half was really too much. I've beaten him, obviously, but I'm still convinced that certain combinations of his attacks are impossible to avoid. (Unrelated: Firefox doesn't think "combinations" is a word? WTF?) Eligor wasn't necessarily unreasonable, but bringing him down required you to work at a very slow, deliberate pace to avoid excessive damage, and it was really punishing to spend ten or fifteen minutes chipping away at his health only to die at the last second due to some careless mistake.

It's really those two fights that disrupt the otherwise awesome Boss Rush mode. Because really, the majority of Order's bosses are spectacular.
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INDITYNUB posted February 12, 2009:

Bonjourno dear friends! I was reading about for a while and now i'm registered:)
Hope i'm welcome here
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arkrex posted February 13, 2009:

There's a sneaky way to beat Eligor that doesn't involve a backside attack. And Blackmore is pretty much a Shmup-type boss in that his attacks are relentless and he speeds up like crazy towards the end; but once you have his patterns down, he's so damn predictable.

That's what I dislike about the bosses in OoE. To me, they are intimidating, but way too stiff and robotic.

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