Reviews// Castlevania: Curse of Darkness (PS2)

I Vant To Suck...Your Blood!

Posted 10 Feb 2006 13:43 by
Dracula. He's a pain in the neck, isn't he? Ho ho, how funny are we? We could've said arse, but we don't think the Prince of Darkness really swung that way. He was always such a solitary fellow...Anyway, as one of the most famous fictional monsters in literature, you'd think he'd get a better rep in the media. Sure, he's been in everything from films to cartoons, to spoofs and comics since he first appeared, but everyone seems to just want to capitalise on his blood-sucking nature.

That didn't change when he became the headlining villain in Konami's Castlevania for the MSX and NES. In fact, he was a proper hard bugger, sending armies of skeleton soldiers and all sorts. Over the years, Castlevania has been a series known for excellent hack-and-slash 2D action - easy to get into, menacing to master. Or even get close to completing sometimes. Lord knows how many times we almost cried ourselves to sleep as kids: not because the scary nature of the game got to us, but 'cos we couldn't understand why Belmont had to be as fogey and slow as he was, especially against that Dracula chap.

As fast as we could shout "Belmont, you bell end!" for the tenth time, half of our lives had passed away and the Castlevania series had gone 3D. What's up with that? What happened to the precise 2D gorgeousness we were used to? Although the N64 games were a bit hit and miss, the last PlayStation 2 outing was actually pretty good, playing as great grandaddy Belmont. In Curse of Darkness, the story takes a different direction, as you're no longer focusing on the family's struggle against Dracula (although there is an appearance by Trevor Belmont, seeing as the game is set close to Castlevania III) but rather two guys who happened to be serving under the vampiric one before he copped it. You play as Hector, a Devil Forgemaster who basically decided to pick flowers rather than sculpt devils for Dracula. Shortly after Dracula bites the silver bullet, Isaac (a former 'colleague') believed Hector betrayed his master and in return sends his loved one to die in a witch trial.

So revenge it is, then, as you return to face the rather Voldo-esque Isaac in an attempt to destroy his face. From then on, you're thrown into the action as you chase your bitter enemy throughout a seemingly abandoned castle. Except for the familiar skeleton warriors and mermen that is. The locations are certainly varied, throwing in gothic moody landscapes, mountainsides, aqueducts and ruins. Funnily enough, if it weren't for the backdrops you probably wouldn't think much of the graphics. The cut-scenes look good enough, but as soon as you get in-game, you realise that they've been a little bit unkind to Hector's model aesthetically. When moving around and dodging enemy attacks, it becomes a different story as the animation is fairly good.

When you're running around admiring the view though, the limitations of Curse of Darkness become apparent. Rather than being able to roam freely, you're restricted to a particular map direction - usually forwards. It wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the fact that invisible walls are absolutely everywhere the developers don't want you to be. If you find a fountain, you can't jump in it. If you see a cliff, you can't teeter on the brink and fall off it to your demise. You can't even hit the candles on the walls in classic Belmont style, or jump up onto the sides of a bridge to do a circus-esque tightrope walk along it. The level design is all very organised in structure - there's no freedom to do much else other than run forward and cut up a few wolves.

That said, the main gameplay focus of the Castlevania series has always been in its simple hacking and slashing action, not in Zelda-esque exploration. And action is what you get for the most part. Control of Hector is comfortable with the PS2's Dual Shock, with lock-on buttons and guard moves assigned to the triggers and attacks set to the face buttons. You have one major - and pretty much only - attack button, which is a shame because it seems so shallow to be hitting one button all the time to essentially knacker your opponent in one combo. You also have a button for special combos or a final attack, but these are rarely exploited. When you're surrounded however, you can jump out of the way of a bust-up, or you can guard an assault. Then you can deal them a counter uppercut which will usually fix them for a few seconds. You can even dodge using the jump button while guarding. This kind of battling is quite enjoyable, as you think on your feet during a bust-up and watch each of your enemies to see if a gremlin is preparing a sneaky stab in the back while you stab another in the head. Or groin. It's this kind of combat system that really impresses in Curse of Darkness, where a group of enemies won't just stand there while you take them on, one by one, slowly. If you happen to die, it can get annoying, but you know you only have yourself to blame for being piss-poor.
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