In our last look at Castlevania: Curse of Darkness, we explored the basic premise of the game and got an initial feel for its combat- and exploration-based gameplay. Now we've delved deeper into Konami's latest vampire-hunting romp, and found that the various components of the game have been nicely fleshed out as we've battled further. The game has also done a good job of dropping hints about its rather oblique storyline, which when we last left off, had former Dracula crony Hector pursuing the devil forgemaster Isaac through old Drac's ruined castle. There's obviously some kind of bad blood between the two, not least because Hector's beloved Rosalie was apparently put to death under false accusations of witchcraft, a fact which Isaac seems to make light of.
We've encountered some new characters as we've continued, including a strange fellow in a top hat who seems to know everything about Hector but can't actually interfere in his quest. We also ran into none other than Trevor Belmont, the hero of Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse (the NES game to which Curse of Darkness is a sequel of sorts). The legendary vampire hunter engaged us in a rather heated boss battle, one in which it quickly became clear that we had no chance of winning. But after realizing Hector betrayed Dracula's forces of darkness, Belmont grudgingly pledged his allegiance, and we're pretty sure he and his whip will figure into the story again, later down the line.
As we played further into Curse of Darkness, we were impressed by the complexity of the weapons crafting, the combat, and the innocent devil upgrade and control systems. But one thing at a time, sheesh! You'll begin your quest equipped with only a basic short sword. As you progress through the castle, you won't find any new weapons--you'll create them yourself. Many enemies drop component materials, such as bronze, aluminum, and so on, and you'll be able to create weapons in four categories: swords, spears, axes, and fist weapons. Not long after, you'll also be able to create helmets, armor, and special-effects accessories from the same basic items.
This crafting system has been easily accessible so far--you don't have to track down recipes for new weapons, since the new weapons will become available on the crafting menu as soon as you've gained the right items to make them. You won't actually know what the new item will be, however--the name is simply represented by a row of question marks until you create it--so some experimentation is required. Furthermore, you'll generally get the items you need for a given weapon just by exploring and fighting, so you don't have to spend lots of time grinding through random enemies looking for that one item you need. Yet the system leaves open the possibility of superpowerful weapons that can be created from rarer components, which we expect to see in the final game.
After you've crafted an arsenal of powerful weapons, you've got a lot of combat options. Each of the four weapon types--again, swords, spears, axes, and fist weapons--has a different general move set, and specific weapons in each category behave differently in terms of speed, power, and so on. You've got a regular attack button and a "finishing move" attack button, and between the two, you can set up a wide range of combos and special moves. For instance, when using a sword, you can attack twice with the regular button and then hit the finishing button on the third strike to throw your weapon like a boomerang, scoring multiple hits. Four presses, on the other hand, will make you spin around and slash multiple enemies around you. Spears, however, are predictably much slower than swords, so you'll get a whole different set of moves out of the other weapon types. You can get a good number of combos out of just one weapon, and since it looks like there are going to be dozens of weapons in the game, that translates into a lot of fighting flexibility.
Strangely enough, the type of weapon you use will determine how your innocent devils develop as you continue your quest. You'll pick up evolution crystals from some downed enemies, which will advance the current devil toward its next evolutionary form. There are two kinds of crystals, red and blue, and the weapon you have equipped dictates what kind of crystals will drop. There are essentially two development paths that branch off from an innocent devil's initial form, and after the devil evolves into either the red or blue form (gaining new abilities and upgraded power in the process), you'll be able to further control its development along that path by governing the color of crystals you collect. Luckily, the game provides you a diagram for each devil that will let you chart its progress and plan out how you want it to evolve next.
Curse of Darkness isn't the most ambitious game on the PS2 from a visual standpoint, but the game works from a solid aesthetic base and runs quite smoothly, which is certainly the most important trait in a hardcore action game like this. We'd like to see a little more variety in the level design--some areas tend to look a little too similar, making it easy to get lost--but the game does feature a handy map that helps you find your way. Curse of Darkness is due out on the PS2 and Xbox at the beginning of November, so keep your eyes peeled for a full review at that time.