Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia

I haven’t got much Millage out of my DS which has started to collect more dust on it than my old tiger electronics power ranger game. A lot of the titles on the DS didn’t seem to appeal to me and while the console did have platform games, the more experimental titles, visual novels and pokemon titles seem to take up more shelf space in stores than any noteworthy platformer. The platformers usually available were either any given Mario reiteration seen dozens of times before or gimmicky titles such as Cooking Mama that do little other than to fortify  my gaming ennui. Meaning the DS rasion’d’etre for being part of my videogame collection was to satiate a Castlevania itch that the handheld itself didn’t have enough Castlevania games to help scratch.

I know it is largely unfair to throw the baby out with the bathwater, when there are loads of great titles that I have yet to play through, with great titles experimenting away from traditional gaming formulas  like ghost trick, and those sort of games aren’t inherently bad (in fact they are very good) but not quite in the same category as the solid platformers Nintendo were renowned for, beyond that dungaree wearing plumber. I am also aware that the technology available in the DS should veer away from 2-D titles in favour for games that cater to the capabilities of the machine itself and the interests of the current gaming crowd, yet a staple of Nintendo’s handheld systems is to include solid platforming titles. With a system that could better replicate the experience of the classic Super Nintendo platformers better than the Gameboy Advance could, it seems like a no brainer to also include a multitude of  platformers that replicate a genre  that arguably put Nintendo on the map.

What was to be salvaged from what little platformers were available were the three Castlevania games; Dawn of Sorrow, Portrait of Ruin and Order of Ecclesia. While Dawn of Sorrow is considered the best of the three, much so that its totemic influence usually overshadows the other two, and Portrait of ruin is solid at its core but admittedly the weakest, the one you never seem to hear any accolades for is Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia. This is surprising considering it’s the second strongest Castlevania games on the DS.

Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia takes place in the Castlevania timeline right after Symphony of the Night where a lull from any threat from Dracula has taken place resulting in little traces of any noticeable vampire slayer from the Belmont clan to take up arms should Dracula rise again. In the Belmont’s stead,  organisations have formed to research methods to counteract Dracula’s return and find effective means to combat him should his return come to fruition. One noteworthy organisation being the Order of Ecclesia, which utilize the powerful magic of the Glyphs known as Dominus, a magic that is replicated from Dracula’s power in order to be used against him and destroy his remains in order to prevent his resurrection. Shanoa is the game’s heroine chosen by the order to be a human vessel for the Dominus, a position that the order’s member Albus feels he is better suited for. Before the ritual of fusing the Dominus to Shanoa is complete, Albus steals some of the essence of Dominus, and steals the three glyphs necessary to complete the ritual. While only having a fraction of the Dominus’ essence absorbed and with the ability to absorb other Glyphs, Shanoa is tasked to find Albus and return the Dominus glyph to complete the ritual.

The first stark aspect of the game that deviates from the prior two instalments is the visual asthetic of the character design, and overall game , that attempts to revisit the old more adult design  reminiscent of the art style by Ayami Kojima. This is a refreshing return to form, considering the lush gothic visual overtones known in the prior titles was nixed in favour of  the newer “anime” standard instilled in Dawn of Sorrow and Portrait of Ruin . I assume this abrupt deviation to an anime aesthetic was intentional to muster in newer more impressionable fans , and used anime influenced art styles to cater to younger audiences perhaps detracted by the more adult presentations of the erstwhile titles.

The environments in game also have a distinct design that, despite being set in the 1800s, has a very baroque style (mainly emboldened in Dracula’s castle), and sets itself apart from any other castlevania which are far more gothic. The graphical presentation is also very polished and boasts one of the best on the system. Even with the 2-D graphics the DS console itself has more than enough processing power to render non static backgrounds with some 3-D textures that are seamlessly incorporated into the 2-D foreground. These textures are non-intrusive and at times would not be easily discernible as 3-D upon first glance.

The enemy roster is also noteworthy and while the game includes memorable creatures from Symphony of the Night, it also includes new monsters into the mix. Each different monster has more distinctive elements to them particularly in their stats. One of the most noteworthy elements of this game is how each creature has resistances and weaknesses that are affected by weapon Glyphs and magic elements. These stats however are not just slight effectors but have a lot of gravitas to them, which seems more apparent than the prior instalments. This prevents players from curb stomping enemies with the highest attack rating weapon they have on hand and require them to interchange particular weapons over others in order to take advantage of weaknesses. Simply resorting to the strongest weapons can be ineffectual to enemies such as the Tin Man and Automaton,  making collecting varied Glyphs a much needed aid, rather than an added extra task  reserved for completionists.

Which moves on to the core innovation of the gameplay, the Glyphs. Each Glyph is its own weapon or magic ability that you can equip one each in the left and right hand.  This includes the stable weapons such as knifes, axes, rapiers and hammers, but also elemental magic like fire, ice, light wind and even things such as beam weapons.  The game also includes the union attack, which you combine both glyphs equipped to Shanoa into one deadly attack. The game also includes a massive variation of Glyph union combos with different Glyphs which, while some don’t always work, most do have their own unique effect and ability and is effective against certain types of monsters. There seems to be more of a need to find new Glyphs from each area and monster as opposed to being a novel inclusion and encourages players to search and explore each level to find a variation of Glyphs to make game progression smoother.

One of the first mistakes during my first playthroughs is that I thought that simply grinding levels would make overcoming particular stages and bosses easier overall. This wasn’t the case as I found myself stuck when fighting particular monsters and bosses as I only had a few weapons on hand and did not bother to search for weapons and elemental spells that were effective against these aforementioned creatures.  However upon my second playthrough where I took the time to search each level for new Glyphs I found that encounters with monsters and boss battles, were much smoother and felt less of a travail and struggle than my initial playthrough.

Glyph sleeves are also a very useful tool which allows you to conveniently switch between three pre-set Glyph equips, allowing the player to change to a Glyph set up swiftly to accommodate particular enemy resistances without cumbersome Glyph management through the menu screen.  This feature would have been nice if it was implemented in some way for armour and accessory equipment so the player is not required use the menu screen every time they want to boost the Glyphs abilities with a respective equipment load out. However the execution may have been difficult provided that most of the available buttons are used up.

The quest lines are a nice addition however with the exception of one or two pieces, most of the gear rewarded are quickly side-lined by incidental gear found along the way that surpasses the pieces obtained by quests, and therefore give quest obtained gear very little lasting value. There are quests that unlock new potions and items to cure particular ailments, however besides that items do not feel weighty in their value or do not confer decent enough statuses for them to be given any longevity or use in your equipment set. Some Quests like the photo quests from marcel do give a decent reward of money and are useful for items such as the miser ring which increases your stats depending on how much money you have.

The level layout is also very different from the previous games, where most of the first three quarters of the game takes place outside of Dracula’s castle. While this attempt to vary the formula and setting of the game is commendable in itself, the execution still has room for improvement. At its core the level designs do work and are fun to traverse, however the problem comes in exploration where each level is way to linear. Most each individual level can be completed fully from one single run and while there are certain parts that are gated until you have a specific item such as the Ordinary Rock, these are only a few instances, which usually consist of an item or two being unreachable, as opposed to an entire section of the stage being blocked off. Most levels themselves are linear corridors that unless you’re finishing the last part of an item quest or now have the relic item to access a particular i area, you will probably never have to see most of these levels again.

The level themselves are also very short which perhaps the biggest criticism of the game. Even when unlocking the true end levels of the game, the game feels way to short and with the exception of grinding levels and Glyphs, the game won’t take more than a few hours to complete.

Overall the game delivers the full Castlevania experience in spades, improving on Portrait of Ruin and also providing a challenge that will even take the more jaded veteran players off guard.