About time to hang up the whip.
Sometimes I imagine Konami waking up and stepping to the mirror for a little self-worth pep talk to get through the day. After all, its ‘80s rival Capcom released Mega Man 9 and was subsequently showered with masturbatory praise for its daring creativity, which is like rolling a fat kid onto Oprah’s stage and calling him a hero for being fat in public. Where I’m from, we call that "one too many Twinkies", but if we're going to get in the habit of rewarding overindulgent repetition with monikers of bravery, then Castlevania is freakin’ Charles Bronson.
[image1]Like that stoic, mustachioed icon, the 2D Castlevania titles swaggered through the decades, churning out classic after classic with the same basic formula, but at least Bronson knew when to hang up his guns. Ecclesia tries to impress with yet another new combat system, a vista of fresh locations beyond the castle walls, and upgraded levels of monstrous badassery, but I can’t shake the feeling that the golden years have already passed.
Even the Belmonts are sitting this one out. Presumably, they have been corrupted, although the perpetually retconned timeline makes as much sense as foreign-dubbed episodes of LOST. Filling is the covert organization known as the Order of Ecclesia. Our alluringly gothic protagonist, Shanoa, harbors the unique ability to absorb and call upon Glyphs, manifesting them as weapons and magical attacks. After the ritual to imbue her with the ultimate anti-Dracula Glyph is interrupted by the jealous Albus, Shanoa is stricken with that quintessential ailment of gaming – amnesia.
It could have been a split-personality, a sun allergy, or even rickets, although that might make platforming a little difficult. But no, Shanoa is a video game character, so that means amnesia is easier to catch than herpes at a ‘60s-style love-in. It gives her a good excuse to seek out new Glyphs in her quest to track down Albus, but it also makes her completely unempathetic. She’s cold and lifeless, responding to conversations with the articulate fervor of a goldfish. If she doesn’t care, why should I?
For an emotionless witch, Shanoa seems strangely invested in the well-being of the local villagers. In order to find her way to the castle looming on the horizon of the end-game, she’ll need to track down the villagers and free them from the magical restraints of Albus. It’s a treasure hunt that sends her beneath the ocean waves, through a dilapidated prison, and over mountain peaks. What a commoner is doing in an undersea cave is beyond me, but at least it’s a welcome change of scenery. To show their unbridled gratitude, they selflessly send you on a series of fetch quests to gather materials that can be crafted into new armor and accessories, which are generously purchased from the store. Yeah, thanks a heap for that.
[image2]Like it’s post-Symphony of the Night predecessors, Ecclesia is platforming-action infused with an ample dose of role-playing. However, if you never played Final Fantasy or rolled twenty-sided dice in the shadowy mildew of your parents’ basement, Ecclesia is not intended for the newcomers, and it might even be too much for some veterans to handle. I have a few years worth of Dungeons & Dragons sheathed in my mithril/mythril belt, and even I am confused as to what determines my sword fighting abilities. Is it Attack or Strength?
The early bosses rival those found in the latter stages of previous installments, although these tests are ones of patience and perseverance over skill. One such battle takes place in a claustrophobic tower against a giant crab. It has three main attacks that can’t be dodged until you discover the one safe place to stand for each strike through trial and error. Factor in multiple stages of combat as you climb the tower and you have at least seven probable deaths and reloads to look forward to. In my case, it was about twelve.
Where a lumbering giant once seemed like a threat, Ecclesia sees fit to arm that giant with a massive pillar and attach a flame-spewing dragon for good measure. Every enemy has strengths and weaknesses relating to types of Glyphs, and Ecclesia assumes that giving Shanoa the ability to hot-swap three different sets of Glyphs is a good excuse to litter the screen with enemies. Never mind that the enemies all attack at the same time, and cheap shots abound. They have no qualms about nailing you in sections that force you to the edges of the screen like George Bush on a segway, or trapping you in corners and mercilessly beating you to death. Is a single second of invulnerability after getting hit too much to ask for?
Even the visuals seem intent on making life as difficult as possible for the lovely Shanoa. Ecclesia sports some of the best graphics to date for the series, although Konami seems to have forgotten that we need to see what’s attacking in order to combat it. It’s oppressively dark and gloomy with a muted color palette in all but a few places. The shrub-like Une blend right into the background foliage, grey apparitions hover overhead in equally grey fog, and murders of crows meld into the dead branches of trees. I don’t even want to get started on Ecclesia’s penchant for invisible enemies.
[image3]It isn’t until the latter half that Ecclesia hits the familiar stride of the series, if only because of Shonoa’s upgraded arsenal. If you explore the maps as you should and return to previously impassable areas, you’ll acquire a hefty collection of Glyphs in similar fashion to Dawn of Sorrow’s souls. Some are mundane, like swords, bows, and flame attacks, while others call upon familiars to fight for you or allow you to transform into a bat-like succubus, and all get stronger with repeated use. At that point, you can stop treating every enemy as a potential death sentence, and start tearing through the legions of the damned like a two-ton battering ram.
Over time, I found myself enjoying the intensity of combat, the familiar mixture of platforming puzzles, and the “gotta catch ‘em all” mentality of Glyph-hunting. While the difficulty level is tuned to obnoxiously high levels, Order of Ecclesia is still a decent outing for the most sadistically skillful fans. Just don’t expect the refined inspiration that made Dawn of Sorrow or the GBA entries such memorable classics. It saddens me to say this as a diehard Castlevania devotee, but I hope that this has been the final hurrah.