Simon Belmont has come a long way since his first 8-bit appearance on the Nintendo back in 1986. It's been 22 years since this franchise made its debut, and Belmont's battle with Dracula continues in Castlevania Judgment. Veering away from the 2D action platformer that the series is known for, Castlevania Judgment is a 3D fighting game, complete with over-the-top finishing moves. We've had a couple of opportunities to crack Simon's whip back at the Electronic Entertainment Expo and the Tokyo Game Show, but now we can delve further into the gameplay modes to play with the cast that has been handpicked from previous Castlevania games.
Koji Igarashi, the producer who has worked on the franchise for the past 10 years, has stated in interviews that he doesn't view Castlevania Judgment as a fighting game, but as a "3D versus action game." Despite what he says, it still looks a fighter, but it's a very simplistic one. In short bursts, the Wii Remote controls are decent, but if you're looking for precise timing and long-term play (because it can get tiring), using a GameCube controller or Wii Classic Controller is also an option--as well as a welcome one.
You'll have the opportunity to see whether the Wii Remote works for you when you play through the tutorial and try to nail the combos. The lessons are split among beginner, intermediate, and advanced so you don't necessarily need to master the advanced moves before jumping right into it. Using the Nunchuk, you control your character's movement, while the C button allows you to jump and double-jump, depending on the character. You need to shake the Wii Remote to execute a normal attack, so you can imagine how much shaking you're going to need to do. Shaking it continuously will yield a combo, and you can hold the B button for a more powerful attack or the Z button to execute a move that can't be blocked. The Z button is used to guard when you're not on the offensive, but because you can't move while you have your guard up, the other option for avoiding an attack is to dodge by shaking the Nunchuk.
The fighting mechanics aren't complicated, considering each character will bust out with his or her specialty move with the same set of button presses and waggling. Your "Super Finisher" move--which comes with an animated cutscene that you can't skip--can be activated with one button, as long as your skill gauge is full. There are no fancy combinations to remember, and it really boils down to which character's skill set you enjoy the most. The hulking Golem is ridiculously slow, but he can take a whip in the face better than anyone else. We liked using Maria because her owl would allow her to float in the air for a short time, which enabled you to control her while she attacks. For the whip-wielding characters, such as Belmont, once you unleash your combo, you better hope you hit your target; because if you miss, you're leaving yourself completely defenseless. Carmilla, a character who received quite a makeover, handled well and was quite nimble in her killer stilettos. The lack of clothing might have something to do with her quick movement and flexibility, but regardless of that, she had some powerful attacks, reeling in her enemies from a distance. What doesn't work well, unfortunately, is the camera, which seems to have a mind of its own. There are times when you are completely blocked by objects in the area or your opponent. The areas can be fairly large, so it's not very helpful when your view is being obstructed.
To give the game that Castlevania feel--instead of being another gothic-themed fighter--you'll have familiar-looking subweapons to use, such as daggers, holy water, axes, a cross, and a stopwatch. Using these subweapons will cost you hearts, which can be picked up in stages by breaking open barrels. There are several game modes as well, even though most of them require you to do the same thing--defeat your opponent. There's a Story mode for each character, which allows you to learn more about each one, as well as unlock new characters to play. If you don't want to deal with the talking, the Arcade mode pits you against the computer, and you'll simply fight one opponent after another. Castle mode is a series of objectives that you need to meet as you traverse through Dracula's domain. You'll have to meet requirements, such as performing a 6-hit combo or defeating your opponent using your subweapon. As you progress, you can customize your characters with the unlockable items and accessories you gain. You can play against a friend in Versus mode or go online using Nintendo's Wi-Fi Connection. If you're really good, you can see how long you last in Survival mode, which is where you try to take out as many people as you can without losing.
We already saw Simon, Alucard, Maria, and a few others the last time we checked out the game. We are now able to complete the character roster after spending some time playing with the rest of the human and nonhuman cast. They include: Grant Danasty (Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse), Trevor Belmont (Dracula's Curse and Castlevania: Curse of Darkness), Sypha Belnades (Dracula's Curse), Carmilla (Castlevania II: Simon's Quest), Cornell (Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness), and Golem (Castlevania: Rondo of Blood).
It might surprise Castlevania fans to learn that the character designs are done by Takeshi Obata, the artist for the manga series, Death Note. Simon sheds his rugged appearance and barbarian boots to go for something a little more revealing, as well as elaborate. Obata's anime art style is very apparent in all the characters, giving them a more elegant (and slightly feminine) feel. Simon might even sport a classy, baby-blue top hat because you can customize your character with accessories from the main menu. Each stage offers a unique experience, especially when there are stage hazards to avoid. The clock tower is surprisingly roomy, given that you're running on top of moving gears, and the torture chamber is full of traps to avoid. If you want an even playing field, you have the option to turn the special effects off. The levels, for the most part, are sinister and gloomy, which is fitting for the Castlevania universe. The opening cinematic is very well done, and it's too bad that the rest of the animation that we came across didn't look like it. The music was enjoyable, setting the tone and atmosphere with a mix of haunting melodies, as well as triumphant tunes, all riddled with mystery. Music tracks and artwork can be accessed through the gallery as you unlock them.
Castlevania Judgment is certainly a different take on the beloved franchise and one that hopes to appeal to a wider audience. The simple controls will make it more accessible, plus the character designs are detailed and attractive--as long as you're not too hung up on how the characters looked before. As an added bonus, if you own Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia on the DS, you can also unlock a couple of characters automatically. Be sure to take a look at our gameplay videos to see how the action unfolds. We'll be checking out the game in greater detail once the game ships on November 18.