On whips and vampires

I’m a big Castlevania fan. Not in the way you might expect, though. I mean, I’m not a diehard fanboy. A number of the games have been utter crap.

Exhibit A:

But I liked all three of the NES entries, especially Simon’s Quest (I don’t understand at all why that game gets all the hate it does–I thought it was great, and still did when I replayed it a few years back). I also liked Super Castlevania IV, the first entry on a 16-bit platform. The idea of a vampire hunter was novel to me then, and was a remedy for any lingering fears of supernatural monsters that may have held on from my earlier days.

In some ways, it’s safe to say that the Castlevania series had more of an immediate impact on my real life than most games. To illustrate: when I was around 10 years old, my younger sisters and I would play “monster hunters,” a game without discernible rules wherein we’d go to our darkened basement and run around with toy weapons pretending to, you guessed it, hunt monsters. My weapons of choice? A toy bullwhip and a purple plastic “crystal” decanter full of water, which I called holy water, and would throw into shadowy corners like a bomb.

If whips and holy water aren’t ringing any bells, this video will give you the gist of it.

Like a lot of people, though, I really fell in love with the series with Symphony of the Night. I assume a lot of people did, anyway, based on the number of folks dressed up like Anne Rice rejects who turned up in a quick Google Image search I did just now.

This game was a revelation, at the time. Among the new crop of fully-polygonal 3D action games, here was 2D action perfected: beautiful, simple, straightforward platforming action; a simple RPG leveling system and equippable gear; magic spells which you cast by entering fighting-game-like button combos. It also had real voices, great environments, and a slightly new take on the go-to-the-castle-and-kill-Dracula formula. Slightly.

And a fantastic soundtrack:

In the first bevy of Castlevania titles, you play as one of the Belmont family–Simon, Trevor, later Richter–a group who, for some reason, are the only ones able to challenge the might of the evil vampire, Count Dracula. In SotN you play as Alucard, the prodigal son of the chief vampire himself (a major break from the earlier games, and also the first where a whip is not your primary weapon).

Although this Dracula borrowed a fair bit from Stoker’s version, he was far more powerful. He was the lord of a veritable army of supernatural creatures culled from all kinds of world folklore. SotN in particular offered a who’s-who of mythological and legendary creatures for you to kill.

There were other games after SotN, too. Many. I played one or two of the SotN clones on GameBoy Advance or DS (I forget which, honestly). They were alright, but lacked the charm of the original. Lament of Innocence, on PS2, was, as indicated above, awful.

But through the highs and lows of the series, it’s always had a special place in my heart. I love the supernatural, after all, and all manner of traditions connected to the concept. I love the idea of the hero who has some kind of supernatural power and uses it to combat supernatural evil.

So I was pretty stoked when Lords of Shadow was announced. And when I found out it starred Patrick Stewart I was totally sold. And it was good, in its way: a reimagining of the whole Castlevania universe, really, an attempt at an origin story (which totally dumps LoI’s weak attempt in that regard) that seemed, at least at first, totally unrelated to anything else in the series. There was no Dracula, you see. No castle.

The story is about a secret order, sworn to fight evil, etc. etc. Three of their most powerful members somehow manage to ascend into heaven (the whole thing is loosely Christian), but in so doing, they left behind the evil parts of themselves, which survived as horrible monsters. Okay, this part is kind of a stretch–a weird spin on Christian cosmology that reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of Christian beliefs, I think.

Regardless, the story is gritty and God of War-like in its execution (that’s a good thing). But I couldn’t finish it, for some reason. That’s very rare for me. I seldom start a game and invest more than a few hours in it without completing it. But with Lords of Shadow I just lost interest. It wasn’t gripping enough. It was good, and I liked the story, and I can’t now, two years later, put my finger on exactly why I didn’t finish it (although I was also in a new relationship at the time, and that was demanding a lot of my consciousness–undoubtedly a factor).

But the other day I decided, on a whim, to see how it ended. I read the Wiki, and watched videos of the various endings. And that’s what I missed: that’s what would have made it all worthwhile. The ending of the game ties it to the rest of the franchise in a way that doesn’t quite make sense, from a historical standpoint–Vlad Tepes Dracula was a real person, after all–but somehow resonates with me as a series fan despite its loose interpretation of history. Strange how, in these contexts, supernatural stuff is easier to accept than historical errors.

Anyway, what I mean to say is simply this: I am now interested in this series again. Because the upcoming 3DS entry features Trevor and Simon Belmont.

And because this:

“Skulls of the Shogun” (XBOX Live Arcade)

I haven’t talked about games in a long time, so I thought I’d sneak a quick game review in before crashing. I was looking forward to this title, but find it somewhat disappointing. It’s got some interesting mechanics, and makes the old tactical RPG formula feel like it could almost be compelling again. But it’s lacking in one major area: progression.

There is no leveling up to speak of, at least not in the five or six levels I’ve played so far (and I can’t imagine they’d wait that long to implement it in-game). This means that, while you get some new unit types, you have to play each battle with what you’re given. You can at various points produce new units of the existing unit types, but you can’t power up your existing troops at all, so there’s no way to come into a battle with an advantage. I suppose if you’re a tactical genius, you may appreciate the challenge, but I like the RPG elements that used to be a hallmark of the great turn-based games–most notably the brilliant Final Fantasy Tactics (especially the fantastic PSP port).

As always, there are good things. Skulls has a fun cartoon aesthetic and faux-Japanese voices (I think so, anyway–they’re garbled and sound kind of like the demon-god Dormin from Shadow of the Colossus). I also like the circular range of movement for each unit, as opposed to the tiles that are familiar from older games in the genre. And I love the conceit of playing as a dead Japanese warlord fighting to escape (or possibly conquer) the afterlife.

Unfortunately there’s just not enough substance–and exactly enough frustration, as the difficulty jumps pretty quickly–to keep me from really liking this one. 78/100.