Full Review: Next up on Celebrity Look-alikes, it's Leon Belmont and Heather Mason!
In many ways, it's stunning how the Castlevania franchise has evolved since the early days of the NES. What was once a straightforward action/platform game that was infamous for being tough as nails from beginning to end evolved into a Metroid-esque adventure game, most famously the PlayStation classic Symphony of the Night, that has become the standard for a Castlevania game. However, there was one small troublespot (unless you count Simon's Quest, but that game rocked and you suck if you think otherwise), and those were the ill-fated 3D entries into a series that had never left the 2D element that made it famous. While neither Castlevania 64 nor Legacy of Darkness were bad games, they paled in comparison to such classics as Dracula X, Bloodlines, or SOTN. Another 3D CV game was in the making for Dreamcast (Ressurection), but that ended up never seeing the light of day.
That hasn't stopped Konami from trying its hand at 3D again, with the latest PlayStation 2 release, Castlevania: Lament of Innocence. Obviously, many feared that LoI would end up falling into that mediocre category alongside the Nintendo 64 outings, but thankfully, Konami has mostly delivered a great action adventure game that might seem shallow on the surface, but is littered with depth for those who look to find it. No, it's not the second coming of SOTN (and let's just forget a chance of that happening, SOTN was a once-in-a-lifetime stroke of genius that will probably never really be surpassed), and it does have a few problems that will turn off some, but Lament of Innocence is a worthy game to the Castlevania name, and one of the better pure action games on the PlayStation 2
Lament of Innocence goes back to the origins of Castlevania, setting the stage for all the predecessors and fully explaining just why the Belmont has a bone to pick with vampires and Castlevania itself. Taking place in the 11th century, Lord Leon Belmont is a decorated night, working for the Church and protecting it from heretics, heathens, and monsters that threaten it. While the Church is more interested in dealing with the heretics and heathens, the monster presence has grown stronger, and eternal night has seemed to overrun the land. Lord Leon's betrothed, Sara, is kidnapped by what eventually is revealed to be a vampire who lives in a castle within the eternally dark forest ? a castle known as Castlevania.
However, as this is the time of the Crusades, the Church has no interest in fighting monsters at the moment, and refuses Leon's request to attack them. With no other option, Leon gives up his title as Lord and heads into the forest to save Sara and bring an end to the eternal night. The story itself is actually pretty decent, with a couple very cool plot twists towards the end of the game (and yet one I was 100% sure of didn't, nice sorta-curveball by Konami). Early on, Leon gains a very useful friend, a man named Rinaldo who has been living in this forest in his cottage, helping out anyone who dares enter Castlevania and fight the lord of the castle (for personal reasons that could be considered spoilers). He is vitally important, not only because he gives you the Whip of Alchemy to fight monsters, but also because he is also a shopkeeper who has plenty of important items to sell to you that aid your quest. Believe me, you will make numerous trips to visit Rinaldo throughout the time of play.
The interesting change to Lament of Innocence is how it's a very tight combination of classic Castlevania gameplay, along with a touch of the SOTN-influence, injected with a dose of combo-based whip-assing (as opposed to ass-whipping) and a near overload of secret areas. Instead of having a huge-sprawling castle you can travel through, the entire area is spit into 5 separate hubs, each containing a different level for Leon to tackle. All of them are available at the outset, and you may take them in any order you choose, making for a very non-linear experience. This also makes backtracking a little less painful, since you will need to visit areas again to unlock other items and whatnot. Once all 5 levels are cleared by defeating the bosses, the path to the final area is unlocked. There is also an optional hidden area that you can access right away, but you just can't do anything with yet, until you find a certain item that unlocks a brutally tough non-storyline boss fight. The RPG elements that SOTN first introduced to the game are gone, instead replaced by hidden heart, magic, and life items that strengthen these elements.
It has been said that Devil May Cry was a perfect adaptation of Castlevania in a 3D world, and obviously Konami believes this too as Lament has much influence from Dante's first quest. It's not a total copy of DMC, but the 3D platform elements and emphasis on combos are straight from DMC. At the outset, Leon barely can use his whip for just basic moves, but as he learns, new and cool techniques are unlocked for his use ? combos that are incredibly useful for wiping out the challenging boss encounters late in the game. On the same token, while there are no death-defying jumps that can kill Leon, there are a few difficult platforming elements to break up the straight-out action (and many times the two are combined to drive you batty) a la DMC. The result is a game that is much deeper than it appears on the surface, as the variety in combos and the reactions of different enemies makes for unique fights fairly consistently.
However, there's more than enough elements that help LoI stand out and excel on its own. Leon can collect numerous relics and orbs, all of which are tremendously useful in the game. The orbs are unlocked after killing a boss, and they work alongside your traditional sub-weapons, enhancing them into deadly projectiles. Each orb has a different effect on the weapon, and all consume different amounts of hearts. There's also the relics; these are the main magic system. Collecting different relics, from a White Bishop relic you buy from Rinaldo that you use to increase your defense to the well-hidden Incense Pot that slowly regains your health.
Collecting magic points is as easy as blocking. Yes, blocking. With a perfect press of either of the right trigger buttons, Leon can deflect opposing attacks, which build up his magic meter so you may use these important relics. When you collect a MP upgrade, however, it does fill up your meter all the way, yet when you head into one of the many save rooms, the magic isn't refilled at all. As such, Lament of Innocence pretty much forces you to learn how to properly block to have as much magic as possible ? and yes, you will need it.
There's one last batch of items to collect around the castle ? equippable accessories. Many of these actually fall off enemies, but you can acquire very useful tools that make you stronger as your health goes down, or regain hearts as you take damage. Some increase the chances of critical hits, while others increase your attack or luck (for grabbing hard to find relics or accessories). While the lack of experience points to acquire might mean fights are unnecessary, they do grant the chance to acquire these useful items.
Really, secrets are the name of the game in Castlevania, as it's always been since SOTN. Many of the best weapons and items are locked away in hidden areas that are difficult to find unless you jump around or check all over each room you visit. Spending time searching around instead of blowing through the game is a due reward that makes finishing the game a tad easier (and believe me, you'll need all the help you can get at the end of the game).
It's all really tied up well by intuitive, useful controls. The face buttons are all used well, with Leon's 2 primary whip attacks (weak and strong) close together, along with the buttons to jump and throw a sub-weapon nearby. The only thing I'd change is activating magic ? holding block and pressing circle isn't as intuitive as it could be ? perhaps making the L triggers kick in magic would have been a better idea. The inability to control the camera is a bit disappointing, but it's ieasy to get used to despite it being a bit uncooperative in points.
All is not perfect in the land of vampires, however. On the contrary, there are some bothersome flaws with Lament of Innocence that drag the game down a bit. First off, the real-time item window is a pure pain in the ass. No longer can you pause, select an item and use it, nor can you even equip different orbs or relics at your own pace. Instead, you have to navigate a cumbersome set of menus using the right analog stick or d-pad to find what you want to change, while your enemies are imagining how your flesh is going to taste with peppercorn sauce on it. The idea in general is fine, especially for using potions and whatnot, but when changing items around in the heat of battle, it's just too unintuitive for it to work properly.
There's also the issue of difficulty. As Castlevania is totally non-linear and access to all 5 main levels is readily available, it's compensated by none of the levels really being tougher than another, with the exception of boss battles which go from brainlessly easy to a tactical mind-game. It's all pretty transparent and as such the plane of difficulty advances very quickly once the main 5 levels are defeated, since the final area is a total 180 in terms of challenge. It's not easy by any stretch, but there just isn't a whole lot of difficulty progression from level to level to give you the feeling of advancing through the game.
The final big problem is one that will turn off many, many people ? the repeating rooms. While each level is pretty different, ranging from a garden to a theatre, all of them are overloaded with similarly designed rooms that only manages to get you lost and wear out the Select button accessing the map to see where the hell you actually are. There's a lot of empty spaces and empty rooms, and even when you find rooms loaded with enemies, chances are it will still be familiar territory. There is some unique rooms to fight in, but they're typically the hidden areas that are tough to discover right away. While it didn't bother me a whole lot personally (as in, I didn't get bored of the same rooms again and again, since the actual gameplay itself was good enough), it is a bit distressing to see the lack of variety within each level. Hopefully when Konami gets around to the eventual sequel to LoI, they'll spend more time making a majority of the rooms a bit more unique.
At the end of the day though, Lament of Innocence is a Castlevania game, excellently brought into 3D. It's definitely not as good as Symphony of the Night, but it is superior to many, many PS2 action games and has enough gameplay depth, secrets, and crazy rewards to last a long time. The deep combo-based fighting engine and relic/orb systems give you numerous ways to tackle pretty much every enemy. The flaws are definitely existent and hard to ignore, but the great gameplay and awesome atmosphere more than make up for it.
While the level designs can get repetitive after a while, the graphics are still dazzling and some of the best you'll find on PS2. Leon himself is modeled very well, even if he looks eerily similar to Heather from Silent Hill 3, in terms of facial expressions and body language ? plus like many CV games lately, dude looks like a lady. Despite it, Leon has a load of animations that flow gracefully and realistically as he whips his whip around and sends the undead to bed without cookies and milk. It's all portrayed in beautiful fashion, true poetry in motion. But you could expect nothing less from Konami, a company who never has many problems with great animations for their characters.
The levels themselves are dark, gothic, and pretty creepy, complete with some of the best texture work on a console that's not known for good texture work, and ominous lighting and darkness in some hidden places. It's a smooth 60 FPS and never wavers even when there are enemies all over the screen attacking Leon. The repetitive level designs themselves do knock the graphics down a tad, but it's unquestionable that what you do see is brilliant and smooth, creating one of the best looking PS2 games of this fall. The camera is occasionally uncooperative in some rooms, but for the most part it's something you can deal with, especially as you get used to the game itself.
As you might expect, the soundtrack in Lament of Innocence is wonderful. The usual mix of classical orchestrations, with the odd rock theme or techno beat is present and it's just as good as its ever been, with some tunes tipping a hat to Symphony of the Night and even Aria of Sorrow from the GBA, as a song from that awesome game is reprised in Lament. The whole theme of dark, gothic orchestrated music only adds to the atmosphere the graphics visually describe in each hub and level.
While not as bad as SOTN's cheeseball voice acting (which was probably the only real problem with that game), the acting in Lament of Innocence is pretty substandard. Overacting and bizarre pauses are fairly common, and many of the lines spouted are pretty lame ? but hey, I'd expect nothing less than what's pretty much the equivalent of a B-movie vampire horror flick. Otherwise, the soundtrack, mixed in with wacky voices and by the numbers sound effects that are barely audible compared to the epic music make for a good to mind-bogglingly great audio experience in Lament of Innocence.
Unfortunate flaws aside, Castlevania: Lament of Innocence is an excellent action game, and a worthy entry to the Castlevania legacy, and the first great 3D Castlevania game. Deep gameplay and a great presentation offset the boring level design and interface quirks, which outshines everything else in the game. It might not be as good as a couple of the old 2D games, but on its own, Lament of Innocence is a great game, and manages to still feel like Castlevania in the 3rd dimension. As such, the latest Castlevania game is a great step in the right direction, and its only a matter of time before Konami fixes the troubles with Lament and delivers a game that obliterates all other 3D action games in its undead path.