[Review] Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia

JP title: 悪魔城ドラキュラ 奪われた刻印

Order of Ecclesia, also known as The Last Good Castlevania Game Before Things Went To Shit, is, ironically enough, also quite possibly one of the best in the series. It’s my personal favorite, at any rate. And it came out NINE years ago, if you can believe that.

Boy, do I miss this franchise something fierce.

Opening:

In the distant past of 2008, before the Age of Erotic Violence, before the franchise was given to some western team that decided to turn it into an awful, QTE-infested God of War ripoff, and before Konami decided to just flush the whole fucking thing down the toilet… there was Castlevania. Good Castlevania. Worthwhile Castlevania. You explored complex castle-labyrinths brought to life through beautiful pixel art, battled foul skellingtons and werewolves and Medusa heads, got skewered on spikes in clock towers and tackled all sorts of tricky bosses, to say nothing of all those pieces of roast meat hidden in breakable walls.

I’m aware that this gameplay style lives on, especially in indie circles, and there have indeed been other games in the same vein. “Metroidvanias”, as folk call them. But you have to understand: an imitation is not what I want. Ever since 2008, there has been a gaping, Dracula-shaped hole in my heart that no game has been able to properly fill. “B-But Gare!“, a voice in my subconscious speaks up, “What about Lords of Shadow, Gare? It’s a Castlevania, too!” Okay, #1. Stop talking in my head. And #2. Don’t you dare imply that Lords of Shadow is a Castlevania game (or even a good game, for that matter) unless you want me to drown you in your own piss.

All jokes aside, it pains me to admit this, but Ecclesia was essentially the beginning of the end, and no matter how hard I clutched my crosses and holy waters like a good little boy, praying every single night for a true successor to grace us on the 3DS… that miracle never quite happened. And before any voices feel the need to run their non-existent mouths in my head again, yes, I know, and you can kindly fuck off with Mirror of Fate. I never played it, but I’ve seen it in motion and I’m confident that I don’t want it.

Either way, let’s move on. Taking place in the 1800s, OoE takes us to a land without the Belmonts, a world where mankind needed to look for alternative methods to keep the forces of darkness at bay following the disappearance of the legendary vampire hunter clan. And so (brace yourself for the title drop), the Order of Ecclesia was born, its goal to eradicate Dracula once and for all with the help of an all-powerful magical glyph, the Dominus. This is where Shanoa, our young female protagonist comes into the picture: chosen by her master, Barlowe, to be the bearer of Dominus, she would rid the world of Dracula.

So basically, instead of the usual premise of “here’s a fucking whip, son, go kill vampires” we get “here’s some magic tattoos, lass, go kill vampires”. On a more serious note, the plot is serviceable enough for a game like this, and though I personally would’ve liked to see Shanoa’s backstory fleshed out a bit more for a stronger emotional impact, the storyline is ultimately not what you boot up a Castlevania game for, so there’s no point dwelling on it too much. Ecclesia, by the way, also ditches the previous DS installments’ anime-style character art in favor of a more serious, painting-like look that ends up being a far better fit for the game and its tone. Shanoa in particular looks badass as all hell and she’s pretty much my favorite Castlevania protagonist in terms of character design.

When it comes to gameplay, the glyph system is at the core of Ecclesia. By holding down “up” on the D-pad, you absorb any glyph in the vicinity and by doing so, learn the spell/skill contained within. Glyphs come in all sorts of varieties: some enable you to summon various types of weapons (axes, rapiers, bows, and so on), others teach you elemental spells, but you’ll even find ones that allow you to call familiars to your aid or temporarily boost one of your stats. The list could go on, but to boil it down: everything you do in this game, you do through glyphs. They are your lifeblood. And seeing how all your weapons are magical in nature and not actual, physical armaments (think of them like the Bound Weapons of the Elder Scrolls series), each of your strikes costs MP, and if it runs out, you won’t be able to attack for a very brief period until your mana regenerates. In layman’s terms, you can’t keep spamming shit forever.

Now, the way glyphs work is that you can set up three of them at the same time: you bind one to the X button, another to Y (these will be your two primary attack glyphs), and the third one (usually a passive/support/utility glyph) to R. You can even use the same glyph more than once, so, for example, if you put your sword glyph to both X and Y, you’ll be able to dish out rapid strikes by quickly alternating between your button-presses. Or you can put a spell on X and a melee weapon on Y. Go crazy. Experiment with various combinations.

Early on in the game, you’ll also unlock the ability to switch between three different glyph setups on the fly, which means you can register up to three different glyph builds and rotate between them in battle as needed. And trust me, you’ll have to do this, as different enemies will be weak to different damage types: skeletons will fall much easier when struck by a mace, while spirit-like beings will usually be allergic to magic, and so on. It’s a very neat little system with many possibilities and potential play styles, and it’s why Ecclesia, in my opinion, is absolutely rock-fucking-solid in the gameplay department.

A choice piece of sage wisdom from the local chef.

Ecclesia introduces yet another notable change: it doesn’t exclusively take place in Dracula’s castle. I mean, don’t worry, the castle does make an appearance and you do explore it eventually, as is tradition, but the first, let’s see… two-thirds of the game will have you traveling all across the land, visiting forests, caves, creepy mansions and various other outdoor locations. Even the bottom of the sea.

Your base of operations, so to speak, will be Wygol Village, a cozy little hamlet; it’s initially deserted, but becomes gradually populated by villagers you rescue along your travels. Said villagers also task you with various side quest, and while I’d recommend doing at least a decent chunk of them for the rewards they entail, the quests themselves are not particularly riveting, to say the least. There are a few mildly entertaining exceptions (taking photos of rare monsters, playing hide and seek, etc.), but the majority fall into the “bring me 5 of this item” category. It was, nonetheless, pretty amusing seeing Shanoa, bless her soul, travel all over the place to sketch drawings for a senile old lady, rescue kitty cats from trees and even catch a mouse at a little girl’s behest. She’s the best oneesan, I’m telling you. The best. Heart of gold.

I could’ve done without that piece of information, but thanks for the nightmare fuel, anyway.

Anyway, I got distracted there for a bit, so let’s get back on track. The bottom line is that I didn’t mind this new approach to exploration, but I did have certain gripes with it: some of the outdoor areas, for instance, are really quite simplistic, and a few of them are even recycled/color-swapped variations of previous areas using the same assets, which is frankly one of the cardinal sins of level design as far as I’m concerned. And just in general, the overall structure and aesthetics of some of these outdoor locations felt a little lackluster to me, almost like the team was saving most of its ideas and creativity for Dracula’s castle at the end of the game. The castle itself is, naturally, not nearly as huge as the ones visited in other CV titles, but it’s still fairly big, boasting some decent variety and one of the best BGMs in the game.

Oh, and another thing. This is probably the most challenging Castlevania out of the three DS titles, and I loved it for that. Like, if you’re completely new to a given area, and especially if you haven’t really played a CV game in a while, just getting to the next save point might prove to be a trying task, and you’ll likely be making sweet, sweet love to your “return to town” teleport item until you gradually learn the lay of the land. Enemies hit hard, can have nasty move patterns, and (of course) healing items are both scarce in the wild and fairly pricey in the shop.

In this heated battle,  Shanoa faces off against Rusalka, the boss of Somnus Reef. She keeps shouting something or other about a “route”.

Ecclesia’s boss fights, too, were notably tougher compared to its predecessors: I definitely feel like I suffered more Game Overs in this game than the other two CV titles on the DS. Having said that, I never really found the game to be unfair. Every defeat was ultimately my own fault. Victory is really just a matter of learning the boss’s attack patterns and finding the right tools for the job: you’ll soon realize that even bosses that seemed agonizingly frustrating at first can be toppled with just the right strategy, equipment, and glyph setup.

So yeah, Order of Ecclesia is a solid and highly enjoyable addition to the series, and is one of the finest titles in the DS’ library. That’s not to say the other two DS Castlevanias (Portrait of Ruin and Dawn of Sorrow) are bad, of course. Honestly, if you like this type of game, you can’t really go too wrong with any of the three, but Ecclesia will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s just too bad it ended up being the last specimen of its kind.

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