Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness

I must say outright that, while I have a lot of love and nostalgia for the N64, it is like meeting an old friend who has still not matured. This is completely understandable as 3D was still a new thing and while some games had an easier time jumping to this dimension, such as Rayman and Mario, others had bigger problems. Castlevania has become one of the prime examples of controversial 3D-titles next to Sonic, and their jump started here. However, the N64 game simply titled Castlevania (which makes me appreciate the 64 end-titles for the system’s games) got an expanded version known as Legacy of Darkness less than a year after its release. It introduced more levels, expansion-pack support, slightly refined controls, and two more characters. That means we got four stories to tackle, four campaigns to play through, more bosses and levels to talk about. FINE! LET’S DO THIS!

One place can hold many legends and clichés

So we have four main characters with individual stories. The first story will involve the man-beast Cornell or, as he is better known, The Blue Crescent Moon. He returns to his village engulfed in flames and is infested by Dracula’s minions. Searching for his adoptive sister Ada, all he can find is her pendant. Using his beast-senses, he catches her scent and leaves for Dracula’s Castle in order to save her from being sacrificed for Dracula’s return. On his journey, he meets many characters including one named Henry, who one day will return to Castlevania as a playable character to save the lost children, though his impact is honestly more admirable than noticeable. In 1852, 8 years after the Blue Crescent Moon’s encounter with the dark forces, the heir to the Belmont clan, Reinhardt Schneider, and a young girl with magical powers called Carrie Fernandez, sense the powers of Dracula are being awakened and set out to the count’s castle to vanquish him.

LION

Yes, there are four different characters and thus four different stories. It all has gotten more connected to the real world with clear timelines and the location of Transylvania, making it have a more serious tone. This shift from the more imaginative and lighthearted tone of the previous installments can also be seen in the theming of the story. While the plot is simple and won’t go in any grand direction, it does contain a lot of mature setpieces, such as dealing with the fear of mortality, and sacrifices due to religious beliefs. It is well made and interesting, providing a good sense of adult themes being tackled respectably and believably.

Though this mature and realistic theming does not go for all parts of the story. There are some clichés being met, with Cornell having a rival who only wishes to be the strongest and thus allies with the enemy, and a character named Malus who, by his name alone, should already be a red flag. It does not come of as bad necessarily, but I do wish the theming was overall stronger to provide a more consistent narrative when it is presented so strongly. The dialogue as well is well-written with good introductions to each storyline and the characters have clear personalities and good hearts. Reinhardt is the warrior of the light who wishes to save mankind, Cornell is a Bruce Lee-inspired character who will do anything to save his loved ones, including becoming a beast himself, Henry is a lighthearted and determined lad after seeing what good can achieve, and Carrie is young and innocent, but goes beyond her capabilities to save the world. All are strong characters for different reasons; be it inspiration, the need for courage, or belief in the good, which is a nice touch.

Reinhardt

Sadly, where you travel to is also not entirely sensible. The best example is the first stage which is a boat you will climb into, only to get off later. It is not moving, just stationary, and the same can be said for multiple levels that try to add more to the overall world, but the tone can also be off. I am perplexed when I witness the mentioned clichés with the more serious tones or optional NPCs that have died, but also when I see motorcycling skeletons in a time where these vehicles did not exist, especially not with this design. It might try to break up the dark tone, but it is very hard to do so when inhabitants are going into depression and murder due to what they witness. It creates an uneven tone, though still provides an intriguing story that, while light on content, does enough to be serviceable. Just not much more than that.

Story Score: 5/10

Mostly what you would expect

So what do you do with your first step to 3D, when you have both created a new genre with Metroidvania, but are also known for you linear adventures? A linear action adventure game was the answer for this game, which honestly is not a bad compromise. All four characters have different ways of fighting, so let’s go over their small, but significant differences. Cornell has one long-ranged attack that can be used while stationary, and one claw-attack that is useless against enemies, but can be pulled of while running. Similarly, Reinhardt uses his whip at a distance which makes him stationary, and a knife for short attacks while running, Carrie has chakrams for short ranged attack and can charge a magical attack that homes in on enemies, both usable while running, and Henry uses a six-shooter which can be fired while running as well as a shortsword while on the move. There is also a slide-move for all characters, but I found it useless.

Lavaland.jpg

All characters have subtle differences in their combat-abilities, which does make certain attacks useless and characters unbalanced in terms of power, but all are at least enjoyable to try out. Though since Cornell is the star, he also gets one more ability in the form of transforming into a wolf-man, which makes all of his attacks stronger and himself faster in general. However, it can’t be turned off once you decide to activate it and will consume all his crystals, which are used for subweapons we will come back to later. The button for this transformation is located on the L-button, so you will never accidentally press it, but it is odd that you can ‘t turn it off as while powerful, it drains the counter for crystals fast.

In breakable items like torches and by defeating enemies, you can find health-restoring items, cleansing potions for status-effects, money, and sun and moon cards. I will come back the significance of money and sun and moon-cards later on because I want to focus more on the combat-abilities of our heroes. Inside item-holding constructions and enemies, you can also find returning subweapons, and power-ups for your main weapon, which can be upgraded two times for more strength and reach, and are lost on death similar to the earlier titles in the series. The subweapons of choice are holy water, axes, crosses and knives, each taking a specific amount of the crystals you have gathered depending on their strengths. All can be powered up to level 3 by picking up the same subweapon and will provide significant differences, such as a powered-up axe will provide a lightning-strike and knives at level 2 will provide explosions. However, picking up items must be done manually and while it is good for not picking up subweapons you don’t want, it makes collecting other important items a chore. Why not make just the subweapons pickable, as all other items are stored in your inventory and can be used at will?

knight

Now for the actual combat. It is decent with an auto-target for hitting the enemy you are facing, compared to before where it was just the closest one in general. It works okay, but that is the nicest thing I can say about the combat honestly. It has an uninteresting mechanic since the enemies are easily dealt with and boring in their approach, which does not work when it is a huge part of the mechanic instead of being just an obstacle for platforming, like in earlier entries. The bosses as well can be terrible as many are simple and not interesting to fight, with some you can simply just spam attacks on and hope for the best, especially since you heal after the fights. I can remember two fights that were alright thanks to their huge attacks and abilities to dodge mine, making the manual lock-on useful, but that is about it. I was also shocked when a couple could easily be dealt with within 15 seconds.

Platforming is still present, but this is also a mechanic that has not translated well into 3D. While it is miles better than the original N64 release with terrible platforms that did not at all incorporate the distances our characters can reach with their jumps and a moving camera, it is still terribly annoying. The stiff jumps make many parts leaps of faith and levels are still not designed fully around our characters being so limited in their moveset, with plenty of traps and instant-death pits. You can’t turn quickly either and descending from platforms is hard to do and time-consuming. Frankly, some do take the limited abilities of our characters in consideration, but those instances are rare. You can, at the very, least grab ledges, but you got to hold A for it too, making me wonder why it is not automatic. When would you not hold on for dear life?

Trapped.jpg

While the adventure is a linear one, there are many levels where you can explore to find additional items or devices for progression. It can involve some backtracking, but it is done with obstacle-courses in mind, providing some variety or at least enemies to fight which can be, at best, mildly entertaining. Though pulling levers and finding keys hidden, while never obscure, becomes a poor way of padding out the game. It is minor, as the backtracking or exploration is not a huge part, but an annoyance nonetheless. Also, there are plenty of instances that can only be triggered by the time of the day. This is where the sun and moon-cards come in as the game operates on a day and night-cycle that changes as you play, making certain events happen at specific times. This is a neat aspect actually for finding hidden goodies, but when it comes to story-progressing elements and not knowing what you have to do, it can be needlessly time-consuming. Adding to the tedium is the fact that two characters can get bad endings if you take too long, making it feel unfair. At least there are plenty of savepoints if you are unsure on what to do, and there is a vendor where money can be used for purchasing items for helping you get quickly to your next destination, but this is still a drag.

The levels themselves, however, vary between interesting stages and rage-inducing trials. Some of the better ones are a simple platforming-challenge where you are set on a straight line and must time your jumps, or the maze where you must find your way out while avoiding enemies chasing you, but there is an abundance of terrible ones. Navigating over linear pathways with the floaty controls, a fetch-quest involving a bomb that explodes upon any enemy-attack or even by jumping, repetitive layouts, and traps that have instant-death pits.

These are the worst offenders and it is a shame there are so many problems with Legacy of Darkness. It is an ambitious game that tries to mix two genres in 3D and pay clear tribute to its predecessors. However, by not polishing the jumping for a 3D setup and make the combat just as dull, with even some bosses being worse by taking two hits to kill, it becomes uneven. When you are tackling a new dimension, you must neglect design ideas from the 2D-era to create something new. At least none of the campaigns are too long or overstay their welcome, despite the irritations, clocking in each between 3 and a half to 3 hours. Except for Henry’s as his short campaign is only 30 minutes long. Though no matter which one you tackle, you will feel every second.

Gameplay Score: 3.5/10

Even horror has different genres

I am intrigued that Castlevania’s first entry in the 3D realm tries to provide a more realistic look, while still provide a colorful and imaginative setup. There are plenty of varied, mythical monsters such as a hydra, giant skeletons, and, of course, vampires, all being huge in size with details or characteristically unique in their style. While the chainsaw-wielding Frankenstein monster and motorcycling skeletons are hard to swallow, these are the only creatures that did not fit in well and all others are appropriate and interesting. Some even, like the spiders in the underground sewers of the castle, can provide some frightening and unsettling moments, which is impressive for a game from this era, that is not trying to directly scare the player.

Crystal Caves

The areas have a great atmosphere to them, with realistic looking set pieces. I love how creative it all is, with my favorite being the castle with a small garden of white roses painted red with blood, and the clocktower with gears and traps everywhere. This provides a wonderfully surreal and dark tone to the world, and the fog used for masking the system’s capabilities is used to great effect for adding to the immersion. Trees falling over after being hit by lightning and seeing the weather and the day changing subtly, are just the icing on the cake.

This is where Legacy of Darkness shines ironically enough: in its dark atmosphere. It is a depressive world that wants you to be invested, and I love how well it is presented, without going for outright frightening the viewer, just make them uncomfortable. The in-game cutscenes also are well animated and I love the scenes showcasing what powers our characters have, despite how I wish they were this nimble in-game, and the small amount of voice-acting is decent and provides a good introduction for the adventure you are in for. The sound-effects of wolves howling, your attacks flying through the air, and rain pouring down from the sky, are wonderful and immersive.

Ritual

It is all done with clear quality, but what is such a sad turn, is the music. It is not bad, far from it. It provides many familiar and new tunes, creating an engaging track with a lot of beats to remember and I love that some tracks have gotten longer notes and a more symphonic tone for making them more atmospheric. Bloody Tears, for example, is now more ambient because of this and is played with an organ, which is a great change. However, these tracks are still rhythmic and sadly don’t match the darker and more atmospheric worlds, compared to the colorful and the classic artstyle. It is a mix that really does not match and it is a terrible shame when all is done with such great quality.

What is also interesting, is that when the track is gone, the game can also resort to being quite empty, which creates an odd contrast. Maybe it was made to make you feel more lonely and alone, but it does sadly not work well as it makes the game just feel empty and lacking when there is no sound to speak off other than your feet connecting to the ground. One additional aspect that Legacy of Darkness offers, is the choice of high or low res with the expansion-pack, but it is basically picking between lesser of two evils. High res provides better visuals, but at the cost of a framerate that can be terrible, and low res offers the opposite. A middle-ground option would have been nice, but whatever you choose, you will get an interesting mix of quality visuals and sound.

Presentation Score: 7/10

Will you be the morning sun to vanquish the evil night?

While I have talked about the four campaigns as a main part of the game, you actually unlock each one after you play them in order. At first, you only have access to Cornell’s campaign, then you unlock Henry’s, and then Carrie’s and Reinhardt’s stories, which can use optional costumes and will take you on the adventures presented in the original Castlevania for the N64 with some differences and additions. Carrie and Reinhardt can have two different endings depending on how many in-game days you took and this, alongside the plenty of issues mentioned in the gameplay-segment, means the experience can range from decent to frustrating. Henry’s short story is a simple exploration game where you have 7 in-game days and takes about 30 minutes to beat and is a nice extra. The problems of the main game are still present in all campaigns sadly and going through many of the similar areas will provide a sense of unfavorable deja-vu, especially between Carrie and Reinhardt. However, there is enough unique content to make you interested in new playthroughs and the atmosphere and serviceable stories are interesting to witness. Beating them, however, can still be a questionable goal.

Extra Score: 5/10

Verdict

This is a perfect example of two things: how being too connected to the days of 2D can ruin the jump to 3D, and that you must have a clear mindset of what you are getting into. If you grew up with the N64 and can get past aged controls for the sake of an atmosphere, you will find an enjoyable adventure that has pacing issues, but is definitely ambitious. Nowadays there are plenty of other 3D horror-themed games that aren’t necessarily meant to make you scared or being a survival, so this might be hard to recommend for a general audience. Really, it does not matter if you are a fan of the series, but rather a fan of the console it was released on and think seeing the transition from 2D to 3D can be interesting. If other games and the controller for the system aged like fine wine to you, then definitely consider this lost game. For others, this might be too sour to swallow.

50/100

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