Konami is throwing its support behind the Nintendo DS with a number of games due out this year, chief among them a new Castlevania from series maestro Koji Igarashi and his crew. We got to take an exclusive early look at the game recently, in the form of its playable E3 demo, which let us experience most of the first half hour of the game. Castlevania DS serves as a continuation of the last Castlevania effort on the GBA, Aria of Sorrow, so the storyline picks up some time after the end of that game. You'll again take control of slightly effete hero Soma Cruz, who was revealed to be the reborn figure of Dracula in the previous game. Soma's one of the good guys, though, so he's resisted the devilish urgings that go along with being the reincarnation of evil.
The problem is, as long as Soma's around and not turning to the dark side, nobody else can be Dracula either. There's a maniacal group of cultists, led by the priestess Celia Fortner, that isn't too happy about this fact, so it's bent on both taking Soma out and finding a new host for Dracula's return. Luckily, Soma finds that in this time of peril, he's regained his dark powers from the original game. As a result, he sets off to yet another sprawling castle to battle a malevolent host, stop the cultists, and save his own neck.
Castlevania on the DS seems like it'll be pretty heavy on storyline, if the first 30 minutes of the game are any indication. The opening cutscene was set in a city street, and it featured Soma speaking with Mina Hakuba, the Hakuba Shrine keeper's daughter who appeared in Aria of Sorrow. Other returning characters during the demo included enigmatic figure Genya Arikado, the salesman Hammer, Julius, and Yoko Belnades. The cutscenes featured large, nicely rendered character portraits, and they appeared pretty frequently during our short demo. It's nice to see Konami continuing the storyline and revisiting the characters from the last game, especially since the exploration-based Castlevania games have traditionally been entirely self-contained.
In fact, if you've played any of the recent games, starting with Symphony of the Night and moving on through Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance, and Aria of Sorrow (whew), you'll be quite familiar with the basic gameplay mechanics in Castlevania DS. You'll explore the disparate sections of the labyrinthine castle, all while fighting increasingly powerful and grotesque monsters, collecting new weapons and armor, and generally becoming more of a badass as you raise your level and find new special abilities. Just during the first few minutes of the game, we picked up a short sword, claymore, large mace, and some better armor by killing random enemies. Meanwhile, the game maintains the previous entries' role-playing-game trappings by assigning numerical values to all your stats and equipment.
As important as it is to keep yourself outfitted with the best equipment, it seems like the multitude of special abilities you'll collect will often be your most important offensive and defensive elements. The abilities were referred to in the demo as tactical souls, and they fall into three categories: bullet, guard, and enchant. Bullet abilities are similar to the traditional special weapons from past Castlevania games, such as the holy water, boomerang, and axe, in that they generally involve a projectile of some type. Guard abilities seem to impart defensive or noncombat abilities. In fact, one ability, armor knight, let us spin a large spear around in a circle so we could hit any nearby enemies, while another, called flying armor, let us glide down slowly when we jumped. Both bullet and guard abilities consume mana when you use them, which is a resource that recharges slowly on its own and can be replenished more quickly when you pick up hearts. Finally, enchant abilities seem to be entirely passive. The only one we found, called golem, upped our strength stat. Most of the regular enemies we fought in the demo dropped tactical souls at one point or another, so it seems like it'll simply be a matter of killing enough of each type of enemy before one randomly drops its unique skill.
So how does Castlevania take advantage of the DS's unique properties? The action takes place on the lower touch screen, while the top screen shows a map of the castle by default. This might seem like an obvious use of the DS's second screen, but having the map visible while you're actually moving around in the castle is invaluable at times. You can also hit select to switch to a status view that shows you all of Soma's current stats (as seen in the new screenshots). This view also features a nice info display on the enemy you're currently fighting. Furthermore, throughout the game you'll collect seals that require you to draw various cryptic shapes on the touch screen to defeat bosses, open sealed doors, and so on. Finally, you'll be able to teleport between certain hot spots on the map by tapping those spots with the stylus when you find an appropriate teleporter. We barely got into the game by the time the demo ended, so we're curious to see what other unique uses Konami's dreamed up for the touch screen.
The DS has respectable 3D capabilities, so maybe you were disappointed to find out that Castlevania DS will be 2D in the style of its recent predecessors. Once we got our hands on the game, though, we decided we were perfectly fine with the game's unapologetic adherence to tradition. While the presentation is fundamentally the same, the graphics have improved in subtle ways. Soma and many other sprites feature much smoother animation than we've seen in the GBA games, and some of the enemies we saw in the demo were downright huge. There's also an impressive degree of parallax scrolling at work in the background, and the game generally feels more animated and alive for all these minor improvements. We even noticed the game has a full-motion video intro if you let it idle at the title screen long enough.
So far, we're quite impressed with Castlevania on the Nintendo DS, not least of all because it will obviously reprise the successful formula that's been at work since the resplendent Symphony of the Night. While it's obviously similar to its forebears, the game's noticeably superior presentation and unique use of the DS's capabilities should help to provide some newness if your interest in the series has waned. The game is currently scheduled for release this fall, so we'll bring you more in the intervening months.