It's been years and most of an entire console generation since one of the great franchises in videogame history has seen the light of day on a major console. The Castlevania franchise's undead second life on the Game Boy Advance (GBA) was successful enough that it is surprising to see Konami try to leave the comfortable crypt of handheld gaming. Since the Nintendo 64 titles were reduced to critical dust, it makes sense that the new entry in the series, Castlevania: Lament of Innocence, is a tentative toe-dip into the potentially deadly running waters of 3D (Okay, I'll knock it off with the vampire references, I swear). As Matt notes, Konami was not likely to try and recreate the 3D levels seen on the N64, even if that means that Lament is considerably less complex from a design sense, and that the giant non-linear areas are smoothed out and the item system is simplified as well. To attempt to compensate for this, the action interface of the game has grown more complex, with the main character capable of numerous combos and special attacks. The special attacks are worth a special mention, as they truly manage to recreate the feel of the original Castlevania special weapons while adding enough flexibility to create an enjoyable control scheme that, like the best fighting games, manages to be both accessible and deep.
So, why isn't Lament an unqualified success?
First of all, the camera is, as Matt mentioned, mildly troublesome at the least and a full-on tear-your-hair-out game-killer at the worst. I will admit I am not usually a fan of non-manual camera systems, and the cameras that mainly rely on static angles like those in Devil May Cry, Resident Evil and Lament practically make me break out in hives. The aspect of this particular camera system that I found most aggravating was that when the player enters a room, the camera is focused on the player's entrance. This causes two bad things to happen. Firstly, since the camera is viewing the avatar from a head-on perspective, it's pretty hard to get a sense of what the room might look like and what enemies it holds. Secondly, since the camera takes the head-on view no matter what door was used, and considering that there are multiple doors in most rooms, it becomes frightfully hard to maintain a coherent mental image of the level. For those of us who do not relish checking the map screen after going through every door or fighting every battle, becoming lost is just a matter of time.
As for the level structure, I did not find the room-corridor-corridor-room nature of Lament as annoying as Matt did. At worst, I was only bothered by the lack of real platforming elements. Although there are some vertical sections in the game, Lament feels very flat, which is a jarring change from every other installment in the series (with the exception of the first two Castlevanias).
What I did find quite annoying were the "secret" areas scattered through the levels. Those players who have embraced the exploration-heavy mechanical themes of the post-Super Castlevania titles will be especially irritated by the level design, simply because it's a tease. Yes, Lament is a switch from the recent Castlevanias in that it is almost entirely about smashing through a level and then toppling some boss. But it's not as though a linear game is inherently a bad game and, linearity and all, Lament is an average-to-above-average 3D action game. So what's the problem? It's the addition of the secret areas that disrupts the level design by drawing attention away from the linear level goals. It would be excusable if there were more to them, but these areas are neither expansive nor difficult enough to sate the appetite of those who are used to the comparatively large and mysterious game worlds offered up in the GBA Castlevanias. Instead, they serve only to remind the player of what the game does not have. It's a picture of a roast (or a roast squash, depending on one's preferences) held before a starving man. But there is hope here. The hope is that by creating a no-frills but fully 3D Castlevania game, the development team will be better prepared to create something more sprawling and ambitious. The groundwork is definitely there, ready to be whipped (ha!) into shape.
Although the non-linearity has gone by the wayside, Lament of Innocence isn't a complete detour for the series. Rather than using the Castlevania mythos as an excuse to make another cookie-cutter sequel, the development team has taken both the aesthetic and mechanical foundations of the series to create a game that both looks and feels like Castlevania. It might not be anything new under the sun and it may not satisfy the hardcore fans of the franchise, but it is a decent action game that's laid the groundwork for something more pleasing to the children of the night (Couldn't resist, sorry).