Castlevania: Curse of Darkness is the newest game in the venerable Castlevania series, and it leaps forth in another bid to bring the dark world of Dracula into three dimensions. It obviously builds upon the foundations set by Lament of Innocence, while addressing lessons learned there—particularly that Lament was far too short. Curse of Darkness attempts to give the modern gamer something he can really sink his teeth into.
The series is a long-time staple of the two-dimensional platforming world, originating from that genre of jumping and fighting on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Unfortunately, the series has been luckless every time it has attempted the transition to 3D, from the horrible reputation of the Nintendo 64 iterations to the Dreamcast's mysterious Resurrection, which never saw the light of day. Konami's 2D versions, meanwhile, have continued to thrive on GameBoy Advance and now the Nintendo DS; the Playstation's original Symphony of the Night is regarded as one of the finest Castlevania games ever. I feel that Curse of Darkness is the best of the 3D Castlevania games, but I'm not sure it has completely escaped the fate of its predecessors.
At a macro level, the Castlevania history is convoluted and awkward, due to the way the game has evolved from a platformer without story (i.e. go kill Dracula), to the modern games where we expect cohesive sagas. On a micro level, this game's story, unfortunately, is also somewhat awkward. The hero, Hector, is not part of the traditional family Belmont. There is a tale about betrayal and revenge, which manages to work in themes of love and familial interests; but combined with the average voice acting and poorly scripted dialog, it didn't do more than pique my curiosity briefly. There was one good plot twist at the end in terms of characterization, but that's the only standout moment for me. My main concern, as with all previous Castlevania games, was to get to the end and beat the final boss(es). 'Nuff said.
The game is awash in swathes of gloriously gothic graphics, depicting settings which include a murky and dangerous forest, a gloomy abandoned temple, and of course Dracula's Byzantine castle. There is no fault to the visuals from this reviewer. The look is reminiscent of Lament of Innocence, where this game's space and architecture are grander in scale. Bigger is not always better, because at times the spaciousness made the rooms and corridors feel barren unless I happened to be at a spawning point for dozens of enemies. Early on it felt somewhat odd to be wandering through these vast spaces with very little life (or undeath) other than myself. The increased scale was used nicely in one particular segment that involved taking over a mounted cannon and using it to gain safe entrance to a barred fortress. It took me a minute to figure out that I could utilize the cannon, and then it offered a nice break from the melee action.
The gameplay distills to the essence of Castlevania: kill monsters by hitting them repeatedly. Battling is based on a straightforward combo system, where the number of attacks combined with the choice of weapon allowed me to perform a specific finishing blow; variety without being overly complicated. At heart this style still boils down to hack-n-slash, which isn't suited to every modern gamer. The ability to create weapons throughout the course of the game gives the system some teeth. It was always fun to combine found items and see if a new weapon would provide a cool or flashy new attack. For example, a rapier allows a finishing blow for which many spikes jut from the ground, whereas a bastard sword can send an energy blow across the room. Utilizing the various fist weapons turns Hector himself into a gracefully deadly weapon, utilizing his entire body in spinning attacks. When it comes to weapon choices, the game isn't pallid, either—the flash-fire effect from a frying pan provided a good chuckle.
The gameplay mechanism debuting in Curse of Darkness is that of the Innocent Devil, a type of monster that Hector harnesses to help him through the adventure. There are several classes of Innocent Devil, with each class having a specific type of ability and purpose. Fairy types are primarily centered on healing, whereas Battle types are powerful attack machines. Some Devils bring an extra dimension to Hector's combat by becoming part of his combo attack with a correctly timed button press. The Innocent Devils bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table, useable either via direct command or as the creature deems appropriate. Although the Mage type had some powerful and flashy effects at its disposal, my favorite was the Bird type which unleashed pain upon enemies effectively, with or without my direction.
Each Devil class can be evolved over time with guidance, the result being a specific devil with unique abilities for its type. One of this game's hooks comes from evolving each class along its growth tree, choosing which paths to follow. The specific devil types are not known until evolution into a type has occurred, so exploring the unknown provides good motivation to "collect 'em all." However, by the end of the game I didn't care to manage my Innocent Devils. After determining useful creature types over two to four Devil generations, I just wanted to get on with progressing to defeat Dracula rather than leveling up new Innocent Devils from scratch.
That brings me to the biggest weakness of Curse of Darkness. It's a well-crafted game that successfully builds upon the Castlevania lineage, and at heart it captures the basic monster-killing vibe of the series—but it didn't engross me enough that I wanted to stay sucked into its world. Running around a large space hacking at monsters just didn't cut it for me. The Innocent Devils provided variation on the formula, as did some non-strenuous environmental puzzles, but eventually the fun of hacking away and managing a small menagerie became repetitive. Even the music, which I've always found to be the standout in Castlevania games, wasn't quite as stirring this time around. In comparison, I think Lament of Innocence had more powerful compositions.
Castlevania: Curse of Darkness is a good game, and in being solid but unremarkable entertainment it perhaps finds its own curse sealed. It's a piece of satisfyingly decrepit eye candy. The gameplay carries on the Castlevania tradition of whipping bastions of undead into submission. Despite the gothic Pokémon-esque monster collection, though, there isn't anything that really makes the game stand out in my mind, other than a basic Castlevania vibe. I think the series' heart of hack-n-slash still feels best in the well-defined 2D environments. Although this title can be considered the best 3D entry in the series, I was hoping for a game that would haunt me after I played it, and other than the challenging final battles, this is not the case.