Castlevania: Curse of Darkness
Castlevania is one of the longest running videogame series' which, to be frank, has faired a lot better in two dimensions than it has in three. Makers Konami seem to have struggled, like other developers, to successfully emulate the quality of their games in tandem with technological advances. The most famous example has to be Sega and the world's most famous hedgehog, Sonic. Some of the 2D games that he has featured in are arguably the best that have ever been created, but the majority of 3D games just haven't felt right, a situation highlighted most recently by the sublime Sonic Rush on the Nintendo DS. Bearing this in mind, nearly ten years after the first 3D Castlevania and a few since 2003's Castlevania: Lament of Innocence, have Konami managed to make Castlevania: Curse of Darkness an essential purchase? 'Unfortunately not' is the almost instantaneous answer to that question, after just a few minutes play.
Before letting loose on the reasons why that is, a little information on the storyline, an area in which the Castlevania series rarely disappoints. Curse of Darkness' whimsical central character is a chap by the name of Hector, a Forgemaster and previous ally of Dracula. The year is now 1493 and Dracula is dead (he was killed in Castlevania III), however a curse he set onto the land of land of Valachia before he was hunted down and murdered continues to ravage the European countryside. Fed up with Dracula's heinous ways Hector leaves Castlevania with his wife for a more peaceful life among humans. Tragically, his wife is later accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake. Hector discovers that it is a fellow Forgemaster, Isaac, who has directed this terrible event, prompting him to return to Castlevania and exact revenge. Heavy stuff.
Curse of Darkness plays out like a fairly straightforward Action-Adventure game, challenging the player to explore the given environment, solving puzzles, battling enemies and strengthening Hector along the way. To Konami's credit they have attempted to further the well known formula by introducing little floating companions for Hector in the form of Innocent Devils. These are partially independent creatures that assist Hector in a number of ways (opening chests, heavy doors and squeezing through small gaps etc.), as a way to reach previously inaccessible areas. In addition they also attack enemies, gaining experience and developing in stages that give them new abilities when reached, so there's the chance to mess about with the inventory to figure out the best combination of their attributes. Their skills differ depending on what weapon Hector wields and all of his weapons can be upgraded and combined, too.
That's pretty much all of the good, the rest isn't bad, just, well, a bit boring, and disappointing as a direct consequence. Firstly, the combat system, even though you get the feeling that you're giving the enemy a fair old thwack, is weak. Every attack except an optional finishing combo is executed by continually pressing one button. Furthermore, although combining weapons is a bit of experimental fun, the bigger the weapon doesn't necessarily mean much of a bigger impact, so a lot of the time you needn't bother.
With so much scope for unreality in a game like Curse of Darkness, it's a shame that enemy design also seems to be under par. Werewolves, skeletons, ogres, ghouls, you know the score, they're all here in overwhelming abundance and all about as exciting to battle as watching paint dry. Room after room after room is filled with waves of identical foes, all animated well, but programmed with the personalities of a plank. Yes, they're undead, but their behavioral traits needn't have matched!
The environments are varied, from inside the castle walls to outside in the woods and valleys, but you'll never get lost. This isn't just because of a discoverable and reliable map, because even outdoors you're forced on a linear countryside path with little chance for exploration. There's a fair amount of ground to cover too, though covering it can seem like hard work. Part of this is due to Hector's annoyingly slow running speed, something that pressing harder on the analogue stick won't help accelerate. Thanks to this, just running from one end of a corridor to another can seem a chore, allowing you to hold the control forward with one hand and checking back every once in a while in between eating your dinner to see if Hector's reached the door on the other side yet. He probably hasn't. To top it all off, Curse of Darkness' world is plain bland throughout, not helped one bit by the gloomy setting.
In all, this, the latest 3D version of the fondly looked-upon Castlevania series is an underwhelming experience. It has its moments, including the nicely implemented Innocent Devil feature, as well as some strong voice casting and a classic Castlevania-sounding electronic music score. However, none of this really adds anything exciting to a game that plays averagely at best. Let's hope Konami's next effort can match a standard that the series surely deserves. Until then, God of War or Devil May Cry 3 are better bets.