Castlevania (season one) – Review

castlevania

Castlevania fans have had a hard time in recent years, as the venerable game series has been left to gather dust by owner Konami. Thus news of a Netflix-produced animated series stoked excitement, particularly once it became clear the show was intended for “mature” audiences and would not hold back on blood and gore. Castlevania’s subject matter has tried-and-tested appeal, and the successful blueprint for atmospheric gothic anime has been well-established by films like Vampire Hunter D. What could possibly go wrong?

First impressions are promising: Castlevania looks really, really good. The characters and settings are well-designed and animated, and if the aesthetic is somewhat hackneyed, that can be forgiven considering that it’s paying homage not just to a game series but to an entire genre. That said, much of the season’s four episodes are set in a generic medieval town, which is a bit disappointing considering that most Castlevania games are set in some version or other of Dracula’s castle. Indeed, apart from the names of the characters, and Trevor Belmont’s whip, I didn’t find there was much here to distinguish this as a Castlevania series: if they changed the names it would have been a pretty generic anime horror.

Having announced a Castlevania ‘series’, I think a few eyebrows were raised when the show was released and it turned out to be four episodes long, clocking in at about 100 minutes total. That’s really more the length of a movie, and the ‘episodic’ structure felt a bit phony. In particular, episodes two and three naturally segue into each other, and the ending of episode two felt rather abrupt. More problematic is that the ‘season’ finishes in an unsatisfying way, as the ‘conclusion’ is anything but and just sets the stage for future episodes. Netflix has inevitably announced that Castlevania has been ‘renewed’ for a second season, but it all feels completely pre-planned, and fundamentally cynical. If there was ever any doubt about a second season (clue: there wasn’t), it wouldn’t have ended as it did. Netflix knew there would be a lot of hype about the show because of the name alone, so they served up a laughably short first ‘season’, enabling them to spread a wafer-thin story over twelve episodes, when one feature-length movie would have sufficed.

But what really condemns Castlevania is its awful script. Set in a fictionalized C15th Europe, Dracula’s human wife is burnt as a witch by evil Christians, so he decides to wipe out the local population in retaliation. The only person who can stop him is Trevor Belmont, a cynical young outcast aristocrat and the last surviving member of the vampire-hunting Belmont clan. Trevor is an unappealing lead, not motivated by anything other than alcohol, and constantly complaining about having to rescue ungrateful peasants. Most of the inhabitants of Wallachia are portrayed unsympathetically, either as cringing cowards or as perverts who have sex with farm animals. It’s a singularly charmless script, and one that’s devoid of any humour, wit or passion.

This is made even worse by the voice acting, which ranges from indifferent to downright awful. More than one character suffers from dreadful mumbling, to the point that we had to turn on the subtitles to follow what people were saying. It’s not limited to one character, which suggests it was a technical problem or a production decision; if the latter, god knows what they were trying to achieve. Belmont’s voice acting is infuriating, as he rushes through sentences, fails to enunciate his words properly, and tails off inaudibly. But the worst of all is the villainous Bishop of Gresit. I don’t know what they were trying to achieve with his voice, but it doesn’t work at all. You can barely make out what he’s saying half the time. Considering how much work goes into creating the visuals for something like this, it beggars belief that the audio would be so incompetently directed and edited.

It used to be the case that licensed video games were guaranteed to be terrible. Cynical publishers would acquire a well-known license and use it to market a crap game, relying on name recognition to get people to buy a shitty product. Here that dynamic is reversed. Visuals aside, Castlevania is a pathetically lazy, cynical and low-effort attempt by Netflix to use a well-regarded video game franchise to generate interest among a certain demographic. Don’t encourage them. Do yourself a favour, and give it a miss.

3/10

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (GBA/Wii U) – Review

castlevania

The Game Boy Advance was blessed with a wonderful games library, including no less than three full Castlevania games. The only one I played back in the day was Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance, and while I enjoyed it at the time I found myself frustrated by the darkness and obscurity of the GBA’s screen. We’re relatively spoiled now with bright, HD smartphones and iPads, but when the GBA was released 15 years ago, it was a challenge to get an affordable handheld console to power semi-decent colour graphics at all. The result was that most GBA games were constrained by what now feels like a tiny, dark screen, which often didn’t do justice to the artistry of the game designers.

The Wii U Gamepad is the perfect way to re-live GBA games such as Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow. Its screen is much bigger and far brighter than the GBA’s, meaning the graphics are much clearer and you can see a level of detail that would have been missed on the GBA itself. Castlevania games are known for their atmospheric environments and distinctive enemies, and Aria of Sorrow is no exception. As you explore Dracula’s castle you’ll traverse a number of varied areas, and the background and architectural detail is often impressive. Enemies hark back to other Castlevania games as well as classic horror books and movies, and the models are well-drawn and expressively animated. The same goes for the main character, charismatic bishounen Soma Cruz, as well as the surprisingly large cast of NPCs you meet during the adventure.

There’s another reason the Gamepad is the perfect way to play Aria of Sorrow, beyond the enhanced graphics. I found that my HD TV suffered from a bit of input lag when playing the game on the big screen. This is not an issue for most of the relatively sedate or turn-based RPGs I play these days, but it really matters for something like this. Aria of Sorrow is an action-adventure RPG with a lot of platforming, and accuracy and timing is quite important. Even if it doesn’t cause Soma to die, it just doesn’t feel quite ‘right’. Plus, playing it on the Gamepad screen means someone else can make use of the TV, which is a bonus.

Aria of Sorrow is a ‘MetroidVania’ game, a term which refers to the design of a large, 2D gameworld made up of different rooms (some very large), which gradually open up as you defeat bosses and acquire new abilities. Aria of Sorrow is reasonably well paced, for the most part, with your journey punctuated by a number of boss fights and occasional scenes of dialogue and exposition. You’ll spend most of your time exploring the castle and fighting monsters, slowly leveling up and increasing your health and magic pool. Soma has the ability to absorb the souls of monsters he defeats; monsters will randomly drop ‘souls’ which Soma automatically collects, and which you can equip to access new attacks or defensive moves. There are a lot of souls to collect, and although many of the special moves are very gimmicky, it’s fun and sometimes amusing to try them out. The drop rate seems fairly generous, and I never had to spend more than a couple of minutes grinding for a particular soul. You can also find a variety of different weapons in the castle, mainly swords, spears, whips and so on, which can increase your damage, range, or attack speed. All in all, there’s enough variety in the combat system to keep your attention, and you’ll probably find yourself switching out weapons and souls with some frequency.

One of the main reasons to experiment with your load-out are the boss fights. Aria of Sorrow throws a number of inventive bosses at you, with some interesting mechanics. Some of the bosses are quite cheap–for example, using near-screen filling attacks which it’s hard to dodge–and the game has something of an ‘old school’ feel about it in that regard. This can become frustrating, and I imagine I’m not alone in having a lower tolerance for these kinds of encounters these days. Still, there are those who enjoy the experience of defeating borderline unfair bosses, and Aria of Sorrow never made me give up in frustration.

As well as pretty decent graphics, Aria of Sorrow features a robust score, with some catchy themes that have a real 16-bit flair to them. On the whole, the production values are quite high, but the Western localization might raise a few eyebrows. Although the dialogue is by and large fine, some of the enemies and weapons have names that were somewhat lost in translation: Kali becomes ‘Curly’, Scarmiglione is ‘Skull Millione’, while the spear Longinus becomes ‘Ronginus’ and the demon Rubicant the vaguely suggestive ‘Lubicant’. Aria of Sorrow’s story is fairly predictable, but well told, and Soma Cruz is an appealing lead. There are multiple endings, and completing the game unlocks the option to play through the story as a new character, but that’s probably for Castlevania completionists only. Most players will probably make do with just the main story, which at ten hours or so is just about acceptable value for the £6 and change the game will cost you on the Wii U eShop. The Castlevania games are discounted occasionally and I picked Aria up for under a fiver at Halloween.

Aria of Sorrow was very well-regarded when it was released back in 2003, sometimes spoken of as one of the best games on the GBA. Personally, I’m not so sure it has aged that well, but it’s still a good example of the MetroidVania formula from a time when the franchise was still more or less in its heyday. These days, regrettably, Konami shows little interest in Castlevania, although longtime series producer Koji Igarashi is working on a crowdfunded spiritual successor, Bloodstained, due out next year. Anyone interested in playing a Castlevania game other than Symphony of the Night could do a lot worse than Aria of Sorrow, and the Wii U Gamepad is almost certainly the best way to play it.

7/10