For almost two decades now, Konami's seminal Castlevania series has been a vivid example of just how far the Dracula mythos can be stretched. Their "anything goes" motto in regards to expanding on the original source material has been a staple ever since the series first emerged in 1986 (then called Vampire Killer but later retitled for its released on the Nintendo Entertainment System [NES].) Since that time, the various designers that have helmed the series have taken the story and concept of Dracula and tempered it with a myriad of bizarre liberties. It has been mixed with bits of various mythologies from around the world, been given a dose of science fiction here and there, and, most unforgettably, doused with liberal amounts of pop-rock and goth-rock music. The result seems so familiar by now that for most gamers it probably fails to register as what it is: a remarkably weird pop-cultural anomaly. Where else could an androgynous knight in 11th century Romania fight Medusa with an electric bullwhip to the strains of a techno soundtrack all for the sake of saving his Japanese bride?
Only in Castlevania: Lament of Innocence, the newest installment in the now classic series. It's been a long time in coming, but Lament marks the first time the series has been ported to the newest generation of consoles, and, in some ways, marks the series' first real foray into the world the three dimensions. Previously, the series had a somewhat lackluster introduction to 3D on the Nintendo 64 (called, imaginatively, Castlevania 64) a venture that garnered almost unanimous negative criticism. Now, after several years of lying low, the Castlevania series has finally returned to give 3D another chance, this time on the Playstation 2. And while it doubtlessly fares better than its ill-fated predecessor, it still suffers a number of curious faults most of them, ironically, growing out of its calculated desire to do the opposite of Castlevania 64 at almost every turn.
Lament of Innocence is set during the Crusades and involves the exploits of Leon Belmont, a knight recently returned from a successful campaign in the East. In what might seem like a pathetic clich, his beloved is kidnapped and taken to a mysterious castle in the Romanian wilderness, to which he goes, of course, to save her. For reasons that can't quite be explained here, he ends up with an enchanted whip and a series of magic items that are his only weapons against the monsters within the castle, a place dominated by the dark powers of a vampire named Walter. Yes, Walter. Terrifying, no? Dracula is nowhere to be seen at first, but that's because Lament is, after all, designed to be the origin story of Dracula according to the Castlevania version of the mythos. It dedicates itself to retroactively explaining all the core conventions of the series, both in terms of story and gameplay. While this may seem gimmicky to some, I personally find it very interesting. This trend can be seen in almost all the most recent incarnations of classic videogame series, as if with the maturing standards of videogame storytelling game makers feel compelled to justify the hokey conventions that define yet date some of the older franchises. In Lament's case, the origins of the Belmont Clan's famous whip are explored at length, with results that are predictably boring. Better faring are some cute explanations of the Castlevania formula itself that cleverly rationalize some of its more repetitive elements, such as the purpose of "levels," "bosses," and even the kidnapping of the token female at the game's beginning. All these set the stage for a game that is, in some ways, a deliberately modest attempt to get back to the roots of the series: a straight-forward trek through a spooky castle in which the player fights through hordes of monsters with a whip and little else.
That isn't to say that Lament doesn't add some nice variation to the mix. Similar to traditional Castlevania games, players have essentially a series of stages to go through before they can finally face Walter. Lament manages to strike a nice middle ground between linearity and open-endedness. The main gate and courtyard of the castle itself can be visited at any time. From there the player has access to a series of additional areas that are self-contained and can be explored at will. Each of these areas has their own look and personality, as well as various hidden nooks and crannies to discover in addition to the basic task of reaching and defeating the boss. Throughout these areas players can upgrade Leon's abilities by gathering items and fighting enemies. By equipping magical relics and learning new, athletic moves through combat experience Leon evolves over the course of the game into demon-slaying martial artist with a nice set of elegant yet deadly tactics at his disposal. This, combined with the sensible castle design, paves the way for a genuinely balanced and enjoyable experience
Or at least it seems like it should. I'm sure Lament of Innocence looked great on paper, and indeed if you separate out its elements they all seem like good ideas. It's basically incorporating all the concepts (non-linear castle exploration, upgradable character, etc.) that worked so well in the latter 2D installments of the series and transporting them, virtually unchanged, to 3D. But this is a mistake. What made for good exploration in 2D doesn't necessarily work in 3D, and while it seems smart on the surface to avoid the design decisions of Castlevania 64, Lament actually shoots itself in the foot by failing to realize that perhaps it should have tried to correct some of its predecessor's mistakes rather than try to avoid them completely.
Lament's biggest problem is that, unlike Castlevania 64, it basically takes the castle design of its 2D predecessors and does little more than flip it on its side. Instead of running along corridors and fighting undead monsters from a side-view, players now look down on the character from a top-view. Functionally, that's the extent of the change. Otherwise, it's the same as it was in 2D, which means that the repetitive "corridor, room, corridor, room" pattern of the 2D Castlevanias remains intact. In the 2D games this wasn't a problem for two reasons. First of all, the simple up/down/left/right navigation of 2D made walking along corridors effortless. And second, because the view was from the side there was a much greater opportunity for dramatic vistas and other background visuals to give the spaces personality. In Lament, however, these two key advantages of 2D gaming are lost. In an effort to prevent confusion in combat, the designers have placed the camera almost always at a high angle, which means that about 70% of the time the player is looking at the floor and not much else. This might not have been so bad if there was at least an option to move or manipulate the camera in some way, but there isn't. This results in many ridiculous moments where, if players wish to get a sense of what a room looks like, they have to jump around like a kangaroo. However, the ultimate disappointment lies in the loss of the epic, romantic scenery that was so prevalent in previous games of the series. Lament occasionally tries to make things more interesting by angling the camera slightly upward towards windows that have striking backgrounds, but the overall feeling of claustrophobia is inescapable. This is all the more noticeable because of how tedious navigation can be. The camera reorients itself every single time Leon enters a new room, which makes quick navigation impossible, since the player is required to look at the map every few seconds to find out which way Leon is facing. This also isn't helped by the fact that there are lots and lots of corridors, many of which seem to have no purpose except to make the game longer. Say what you will about Castlevania 64, it at least made an attempt to reinvent the geography of the series into believable, logical spaces. Although the puzzles players were forced to solve in it were stupid and agonizing, the layout of the world itself wasn't just a carbon copy of 2D Castlevania but an attempt to improve things by designing buildings more like real spaces and less like mazes. If the makers of Lament of Innocence had bothered to notice this, they might have been able to combine the superior aesthetic and combat of this game with the sensible architectural ambitions of its predecessor. Instead, we have a game that feels less like 3D and more like playing a 2D Castlevania sideways.
It's a shame, because otherwise the game is excellent. The combat is exceedingly well-done, combining spot-on play control with a nice sense of variation. In terms of style, Lament handsomely retains the lush, romantic (and erotic) character designs that have been such a welcome addition to the series in recent years. The same goes for the music, which is as rich and emotionally compelling as videogame scores get. And the story, while fairly simplistic, manages to work its way around to a surprising conclusion that nicely puts the whole series in perspective. If it just weren't for the awkward castle design and camera that hinders exploration for the sake of improving combat, Lament of Innocence might have been a better-than-average game. As is, it represents somewhat of a mixed bag, a mass of good and bad ideas that vie for dominance as the experience alternates between genuine fun and genuine tedium. While in the end I had enough fun that I don't regret playing it, its many flaws leave a paling impression that feels completely needless, yet calculated in its effort to avoid association with its faltered legacy.