While the long-running Castlevania series continues to thrive on Nintendo's portable gaming systems, it's still having problems coming into its own on consoles, if the new Castlevania: Curse of Darkness is any indication. Like 2003's Lament of Innocence, Curse of Darkness attempts to preserve the look and feel of the classic 2D side-scrolling Castlevania installments, and it succeeds to a certain extent. The game has a solid combat system and some interesting new spins on the formula that give depth to the action. However, the variety you'll see in the gothic environments is purely superficial. The gameplay boils down to hours upon hours of running through corridors and killing the same monsters over and over...which isn't necessarily as boring as it sounds, but it's not exactly a thrill ride, either. Curse of Darkness includes a lot of the building blocks that could have made for a great 3D Castlevania game, but it's noticeably missing some key ingredients--namely, variety and challenge.
Castlevania games experienced a renaissance with 1997's Symphony of the Night, which took the series from its roots as a side-scrolling action game and transformed it into a much more open-ended action adventure game, featuring an excellent blend of action and role-playing. Castlevania has followed that game's template ever since, down to how the main character of virtually every installment has resembled Symphony of the Night's pallid, white-haired Alucard. Curse of Darkness is no exception, casting you in the role of pallid, white-haired Hector, a devil forgemaster who once was one of Dracula's lieutenants but has severed his ties and abandoned his powers. Dracula is dead, but all is not right with the world. A curse has caused the land of Valachia to become infested with monsters. But Hector isn't concerned about that--he just wants revenge against a fellow devil forgemaster named Isaac, who apparently killed Hector's beloved. Isaac lures Hector to their former stomping grounds and goads him to recover his forsaken abilities, because without them, Hector could never pursue, much less defeat, his rival. So what's in it for Isaac? The main characters are brought to life through some excellent voice acting, but the story in Curse of Darkness mostly takes a backseat from there, coming back into play only for a few minutes at a time, in between hours of monster killing.
If you've played a recent Castlevania, you know the drill: You must explore a large, winding map while fighting lots of bad guys, gaining experience points, finding better equipment, learning new abilities, and vanquishing the occasional boss. Curse of Darkness complicates this formula by introducing an item-crafting system, allied creatures called "innocent devils" (these guys are the hallmark of devil forgemasters like Hector and Isaac), and much greater weapon variety than what was found in Lament of Innocence. Hector is proficient with all kinds of different weapons, and you may execute weapon-specific combos with whichever one is equipped just by hammering on the X button. What makes things interesting is that the B button is used for combo finishers, and depending on when you use a finisher in a combo and what weapon you're using, the effects will be different. Generally speaking, the weapon attacks animate nicely and have a hefty, solid feel to them, which is really important, since almost all the time you spend with this game will be in combat.
Hector can also execute quick evasive maneuvers that make him invulnerable for a split second, which is a powerful and essential ability. And on top of all that, he may even steal stuff from his opponents, which doesn't seem to fit with his personality but helps make for good gameplay. Each opponent will become vulnerable to stealing at specific times, such as when recovering from one of its stronger attacks, which is when you can swipe some good loot. It's a well-designed system, and it helps to offset the fact that most of Curse of Darkness is rather easy if you just fight straight through. Overall, the combat is fast and responsive, though the lock-on targeting system is wonky, forcing the camera perspective to do crazy things. Luckily, the lock-on system is entirely unnecessary for most combat situations, though you can only steal from a target you've locked on to.
As for the innocent devils, they're actually kind of like Pokémon, if you can believe that. You'll find these little creatures hovering near you and helping you fight. They'll also earn experience points from every kill, like you do. Defeated foes drop evolution crystals, and after you pick up enough of these, your creature will transform into a stronger version and will pick up new abilities soon after. Different evolution crystals drop depending on which class of weapon you're using, so you can theoretically explore this system to find the strongest possible forms of each type of creature. It's nice that Hector doesn't have to fight alone, although the innocent devils don't look particularly interesting and don't have personalities, which means you won't grow attached to them. But you'll surely use them, especially since each type of creature also has an important power of some sort. For instance, golem-type creatures are strong enough to open heavy doors, while imp-type creatures let you sink into the ground and slide through narrow gaps in walls. So in Castlevania tradition, once you find these guys, you'll be able to revisit previously explored areas with new powers to uncover hidden secrets.
Hidden secrets in this case often take the form of raw materials. As a forgemaster, Hector is capable of crafting his own equipment, which can easily and quickly be done at any point via a menu option. You'll often find raw materials from slain monsters, and as you discover new materials, you'll automatically gain new crafting options. It's exciting to be able to quickly whip up new swords, spears, axes, fist weapons, and armor pieces on the fly, though in practice, the crafting system is functionally the same as just finding new weapons and armor. Still, the ability to combine weapons with new materials to make even stronger weapons is pretty satisfying, and having to make tough calls about how to apply your best materials is interesting.
It's just too bad that so many of the game's weapons aren't useful--or rather, there's no good reason to bring them into play. You start out with a short sword and will soon grow accustomed to the well-balanced fighting techniques it provides you. Many of the larger weapons you can make, such as spears, have a high strength rating but are terribly slow. Meanwhile, many of the swords are effective under any circumstances. So, you'll find yourself safely ignoring many of the weapons in the game, unless you want to go out of your way to fight with one just because it looks cool or because you like the idea of it. For what it's worth, you'll still have fun crafting them, though. As a by-product of this issue, you'll probably end up developing your innocent devils using sword-type evolution crystals, without any real regard for the alternatives. If certain enemies were more vulnerable to some types of weapons than others, maybe there would be more incentive to experiment.
To its credit, Curse of Darkness doesn't take place just in a labyrinthine Dracula's castle; it takes place all around Valachia, so you'll venture through swamps, mountains, valleys, temples, and much more. This is a great idea in theory, as by now, Castlevania fans probably find Dracula's castle to be a pretty predictable setting. Unfortunately, the world of Valachia is terribly bland. All the different environments are little more than just window dressing. For example, you'll be running through the same corridors and boxlike rooms over and over and over (thankfully, there's a good map feature to keep you from getting completely lost). The outdoor environments are unconvincing because they force you down a clear, straight path, so they might as well be dungeon corridors. As you play through Curse of Darkness, you can't help but hope the level design is going to throw something interesting at you sooner or later. Sadly, it doesn't--unless something interesting to you is a room in a clock tower where you need to repeatedly hit a giant drill bit in order to raise a platform. Compounding the problem, Hector's running speed really isn't that fast. Therefore, the game is filled with these times in which literally all you do is sit there and watch him run from one end of a corridor to the other.
Also, there really isn't much in the way of enemy variety. For instance, in the final stages of the game you'll be fighting mere variations of the very first monsters you encountered in the beginning, because the same monster types get recycled over and over and over throughout. That's a real shame, since what's always been so great about the 2D Castlevania games is the amount of variety thrown at you in terms of the stuff you have to fight. None of these enemies are particularly inspired, either, unless you think having to run around behind a shielding opponent and hitting it in the back is inspired. Enemies sometimes come at you in large numbers, but they're still all fodder, easily falling prey to your rapid slashes while your innocent devil helps keep you healed.
Yes, Castlevania: Curse of Darkness is a cakewalk. Well, most of it. The difficulty level will be completely trivial--not just at first, but most of the way through--if you're remotely experienced at playing 3D action games. You'll probably even beat most of the bosses on your first try...that is, until you start nearing the end of the game, when, all of a sudden, it turns hard. The difficult battles in the final stages of Curse of Darkness are fairly fun, but they stand in jarring contrast to how mindlessly easy everything leading up to them is. It makes you wonder who this game is really intended for, since Castlevania fans won't appreciate how the vast majority of the monsters are total pushovers, and less experienced players probably won't be able to finish the game. Then again, it's likely you'll just lose interest in the game somewhere along the way, because apart from the boss fights and maybe a couple of other moments, all the content just feels like filler. At least there are some unlockable extras awaiting those who survive the final confrontation. These extras include a "crazy" difficulty mode that puts you up against higher-level enemies, which draws out all the fighting. And there's also a second playable character, who plays a lot like Hector but with fewer options.
The visuals don't help matters much, and it's not that they're bad. As mentioned, Hector looks quite good in action, and some of the scenery and bosses are impressive. The game also maintains a nice, smooth frame rate for the most part. But the unimaginative enemy design and simplistic environments definitely detract from the presentation. In fact, without the telltale damage numbers flying around whenever an attack makes contact, you'd be hard pressed to distinguish Curse of Darkness from any other generic action game. It's too bad that the beautiful concept art featured on the packaging just doesn't survive translation to 3D. The Xbox version looks noticeably sharper than its PS2 counterpart, but that just serves to make the lack of detail stand out more. Curse of Darkness does sound great, though. The variety of excellent, rousing music throughout the adventure does a lot to alleviate the monotony, especially since the music plays over all the brief loading sequences that intersperse the game's bite-size areas. Castlevania fans will instantly recognize the style of the different tunes as being unmistakably that of the classic games in the series, even though the compositions are new. Likewise, the sound effects during battle are very well done.
However, a fine soundtrack and a few noteworthy qualities aren't enough to make Curse of Darkness recommendable, considering its problems. It's really a shame, because the underlying mechanics of the gameplay are well designed. Plus, it's great that the game attempts to expand the scope of the traditionally claustrophobic settings of most previous Castlevania games. But through whatever attempts it makes to improve the experience of playing a Castlevania game in 3D, Curse of Darkness failed to improve on the most serious problem of its PlayStation 2 predecessor, which was that it suffered from the same sort of completely bland level design. As a result, the 12 or so hours it takes to finish Curse of Darkness feel like an eternity. Castlevania fans will probably find that this game gets off to a very promising start, but the good first impression simply wears off before too long.