Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia review
The Difficult Undead


>> Initial Impressions.

Anyone here around during the older days of gaming? No, not your PlayStations and N64s. Back before 3D polygons and well before home consoles even knew what an analogue stick was. In the old 8 bit days (and even before then) we had hard games. No hand holding here - you had to be good at gaming back then because virtually every game would happily kill you many times over until you stopped sucking and beat it. Those of you who remember may know of the roots of Castlevania. It was a hard set of games featuring guys using whips (no, stop thinking that) as you ploughed through the legions of the undead.

Fast forward to present day and the series is still charging on. Here we have another entry on the DS that intends to carry on all the elements that define the series. Don't be expecting casual gamer allowances here.

While the last few games have had a distinct anime flavouring to the appearance, Order of Ecclesia steps back to a more gothic hand painted look (albeit for the character portraits and the few game CGs - I guess making the style come through for the sprites was a little hard). It does look quite good as there is a kind of roughness to the imagery that works with the general theme. The graphics for these are superbly detailed and convey an array of emotions for the more significant characters.

The sprites for the characters in levels and the actual levels themselves doesn't have quite the same style but things do still look nice. I have a feeling that slightly bigger character sprites would have worked better to flesh out the details some more, but what we have is easily recognisable and designed well. The enemy designs range from all sorts of the usual gothic monsters of legend, and while there have been a couple of obvious shortcuts (some are just recolours of earlier monsters, for example) it gives a broad range to see. They're all animated smoothly with a range of actions, especially Shanoa who is shown launching a variety of attacks.

Level design is very strong. You have mountain passes, crumbling mansions, underground tombs, sea caverns (no, not a clue how she breathes there) and deep forests, to name a few of the areas you visit. While the game is strictly 2D, the approach lends an element of depth to the visuals that brings each area to life.

The music collection is a strong one too. There is an excellent mix of haunting melodies, melancholic scores and high tempo tracks to match the settings well. The opener is a strong energetic track that captures the mood of the series well, although it is perhaps a little short. While ultimately I wouldn't cram these tunes into a music player anytime soon they do compliment the game well.

Vocal sounds are relegated to the grunts and screams of our protagonist as she battles the hordes, although these are very effective in their execution. You do also get the grunts, snarls and otherwise inhuman sounds of the monsters that work nicely. Sound effects are implemented well, from the swinging of weapons to the buzz of spells and even the odd explosion.

I found the story to be mostly good but with one notable flaw. The overall setting is strong and things definitely start off well. An age old battle to prevent Dracula's revival involves using the fiend's own power against him. After a brief opening the glyphs need to use that power are stolen and Shanoa must hunt down Albus to retrieve them. There's a few good twists inserted in here that help maintain interest, and while at first Albus' intentions are totally unclear the whole revelation scene was handled brilliantly.

My complaint is that after the game's biggest twist the story seems to sink into the background. Granted there's not a whole lot left to the game but it seems like it just gets forgotten and even the ending felt unsatisfying. I can understand and appreciate the direction, but the final sequence was over too quickly for me. Still, that's a rather minor point.

Castlevania is strictly a 2D side scroller adventure. There are quite a few areas to visit that slowly open up as you progress that are accessed by a world map; a feature that might make travelling to areas easier but also breaks up the feeling of an interconnected world a bit.

Level layouts are mostly linear in the early parts, in that going from the entrance to the exit is practically always along the one set path. Things are broken up by the addition of optional additional chambers yielding extra goodies, shortcuts that help you move between earlier and later areas quickly, alternate exits and some of the later stages do offer alternate pathways at times. This combination of elements can help to offer a labyrinth feel as you explore each area to find your way to the next boss or exit.

The levels tend to span in all directions as well, which allows for a level of some complexity. You may have to ascend the heights or dive into the depths through all manner of ways, from the traditional platform leaping to swimming or the less common catapulting off magnetic stumps. Sometimes you can even come across hidden chests or some stage areas can be broken for items. In traditional adventure style you'll find that some routes are only accessible by coming back later with new skills too.

The top screen offers a map that slowly reveals as you visit different areas, which is handy for picking out doorways you might have missed or just for backtracking to specific locations.

Naturally these levels are filled with baddies of all kinds, and the combat is where this game shines. OoE makes use of a glyph system. Shanoa is able to absorb glyphs and then make use of their powers. There are two kinds - attack and support.

You can assign up to two attack glyphs to the X and Y buttons, and can even assign the same glyph to both buttons if you wanted to. Activating them is then simply a case of pressing buttons, and alternating buttons with strong timing lets you combo enemies (depending on the glyph setup though - some aren't built for comboing). There is a wide range of attacks up for offer too. Rapiers, swords and lances are among the close range melee moves, knives and bows offer physical ranges and then you have the spells like swirling light, freezing ice or explosions of fire. Attacking uses up MP, and while this does recharge when not using a move it prevents mass spamming of attacks.

Typically you have something for all occasions, although the game is often accommodating enough to let you use almost any combo through most of the game. Technically enemies do have strengths and weaknesses to certain elements, but it's something I was comfortably able to largely ignore (though perhaps my choice of using light and dark attacks throughout contributing to that). Glyph unions are also possible, where you can pull off more powerful attacks at the cost of hearts (confusingly nothing to do with health), which are harder to replenish but hit a lot harder. The actual attack depends on the combination of glyphs (two swords will produce a huge swords, while dark and light spells will cause a large screen-filling explosion of energy). These are generally reserved for high damage hits against bosses.

Support glyphs are less about offence and more about supporting Shanoa. You can use these to attach to magnetic stumps (and catapult off them), summon monsters to attack for you, boost stats for a while, regenerate health and increase drops. Like attack glyphs these also use MP and offer an extra layer of depth.

Switching setups around might seem like it would be a pain, but things are simplified by the glyph sleeve relic. Obtained shortly into the game you are able to set up three glyph combos and then switch between them on the fly by holding A and using the shoulder buttons.

One complaint here would be directed at Shanoa's sluggish movement. She can backroll as an evasive move, but fact is that she doesn't move particularly fast. An irritant when crossing expanses, but it can become a problem when you can't outrun most of the enemy forces. It's not broken as such but I wish she could move faster.

The enemies themselves present a wide array of dangers to deal with. Early enemies involve shambling zombies, skeletons tossing bones and the odd bat swooping at you. Later on you'll be faced with more fiercesome enemies like giant floating heads, laser firing squids and numerous enemies that are quite happy to tower over you.

Castlevania is one of those games that is truely difficult thanks to the enemy forces. Taking out individual enemies alone can be quite a challenge, but here you're often pitted against groups. Why take on just a giant skeleton with a huge club when you can also throw in dive bombing birds and sword slashing lizards at the same time. Clever management of attacking and dodging is key to victory, or else you may find yourself meeting an early end. One slightly annoying trait though is when near the edge of an area's screen it's possible to get knocked out of the area, causing enemies to full regenerate (but you obviously don't).

Bosses present their own level of challenge, as they can hit hard and fast. From giant enemy crabs to oversized earth fish and even death himself. Generally there are attack patterns to pick out but striking weak points while dodging the many attacks that come your way can be very challenging and possibly the cause of many game over screens. Certainly these are what bosses are supposed to be. Unfortunately there's no way to skip dialogue sequences so bosses that contain these will subject the player to repeating these numerous times. Suffice to say though, casual gamers need not apply.

Ecclesia also brings in some RPG elements into play. Shanoa herself levels up by fighting, although not as excessively as normal RPGs. This is not a majorly noticable aspect, but other parts certainly are.

Equipment can play a huge role too. Shanoa can equip headwear, body armour, footwear and two accessories. Most of these can be purchased at the local shop (the inventory expanding by completing sidequests) and some can be found by exploring. There are even equipment items with special properties, like reducing landing lag, increasing drop rates or sensing hidden treasure.

Shanoa can also purchase consumable items. The most common one being health restoring items, which can lessen the burden slightly (but by no means makes the game easy). Early health items tend to be rather weak but a few sidequests later and you'll have some rather strong ones.

The main quest is a fairly good length that will last a good while as you trek from start to finish. There are also some sidequests to complete, such as finding items or going to a specific location, that can offer some extra gameplay. Other extra (some of which unlock after completing the main game) involve practice trial runs that test your skills on obstacle courses, boss rush modes and a harder setting. There's a fair bit in here.

Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia has a lot going for it. If you're looking for a more challenging experience with an interesting combat setup and a rather gothic atmosphere then this game is for you.

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