Fun to play, but a lot of recycled territory. Hey, are you SURE Hector's not Alucard?......
One of the things about the Castlevania franchise is that you'll see tons of the same monsters that populated previous games. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but don't look for anything earth-shattering in that regard. Environments are well-detailed and quite gorgeous, not to mention there's a lot of them; you're traversing across the land of Valachia, which takes you through creepy forests, isolated towers, aquaducts and sumptuous palaces - but when all's said and done, these are familiar places to the fans. Even Hector himself looks eerily like Alucard from Symphony Of The Night, or Soma Cruz from Harmony Of Dissonance. Very beautiful, but we've seen it before. Hm, mermen and zombies and Attack Armor...check. Creepy castle...check. White-haired sexy protagonist....check. Okay, now why were we playing this, again?....
What makes the game worthy of a playthrough is a few nifty little talents Hector offers the player. As a Devil Forgemaster, he will occasionally find a "newborn" Innocent Devil (henceforth referred to as 'I.D.'s') that will serve him and provide him with certain skills. For example, a Fairy-Type I.D. is needed to open any treasure chests and will heal him during battle (a terrific savings on potions and serums), a Bird-Type is required to glide to certain areas that you can't reach by foot, and a Golem-Type can open heavy doors. Some of them will even go kick butt for you (there were a couple of rooms I just let my Phoenix drop Exploding Caltrops on everything in sight and I kicked back for the show!). There's several different types, and you can evolve them into stronger, more talented forms with Evolution Crystals. These are dropped by enemies, and depending on the weapon Hector uses, different types will cause different type evolutions. Just to add to the giggles, after a certain amount of development each I.D. will 'drop' a new Devil Shard that you can take to the forge and create a new I.D. It's definitely fun to try out different weapons and see which way they take you with your I.D.'s, and you even have a handy little graph that shows which weapons you've used to evolve the ones you already have, so you don't have to worry too much about repeating yourself. If you're partial to one and don't particularly want it to evolve to a new form, you can "turn off" the crystals so that your I.D. won't gain anything but experience points.
Another new ability is you can also steal from your enemies. By using the target feature, you wait for a certain point when it turns purple, then press a button to grab the goodies. This does manage to mix it up for the player - some enemies are most vulnerable for Steal right before an attack, while others may need to be stunned, or have their backs turned to you. For the most part it's a good way to gain new items for your forge, which brings up the next point....you get to forge your own weapons and armor. Defeating enemies will often result in dropped raw materials, which you can then combine to make your basic weapons. Those in turn can be further refined by re-forging with new materials. A few materials are rare, so you probably won't complete the game with a full selection, but there's plenty of stuff to make (one of my favorites so far - a nail-studded baseball bat that has Hector standing in the batter's position and smacking his adversary across the room in a home-run swing. It's a very slow attack, and so far only useful if I'm fighting zombies, but damn, it's fun!) It's also a handy way to come up with some extra cash for picking up potions and items, although once I got past the first hour or so I really didn't find any reason to have to buy any potions.
The gameplay handles pretty much like any 3-D action title - use the left joystick for movement, the other for camera movement. Locking on to an enemy keeps the camera facing them, but every once in a while it would zoom up into an awkward closeup position, basically leaving me fighting blind. This wasn't excessive, and it's nothing action-adventure fans haven't dealt with before, but you'd really think SOMEBODY could fix this stuff by now! And one thing I do like about the weapons is that there's a tangible difference from weapon to weapon....while swords will usually be your all-around weapon of choice, you'll find some are faster, some do more damage, some are just plain clunky. It's more than just a different look involved. Response time is right on track, although you will probably have to juggle through your inventory to find the weapon that best suits the enemy at hand.
If I have one real gripe about the game, I'd have to say it's the difficulty level. Once you pick up the knack of knowing the right weapon for which monster, the general playthrough is disturbingly easy. It's even worse if you have a fighting-type I.D. with you - you hardly have to swing at anything. You can pretty much move complacently through the levels, even trouncing a few bosses offhandedly....then things suddenly kick up about six notches and you're struggling for your life. I REALLY think they could have done a better job with the 'toughness curve' there. Fortunately a well-developed I.D. can make all the difference, so be sure to have at least high-level one at all times.
Overall, despite my groanings over the difficulty levels and the repetitiveness of the stock monsters, I still found this to be a worthwhile play. It has a nice tone to the story and settings, and the music is very well-matched to the pace of the game. Castlevania fans should enjoy this installment of the storyline, just don't expect to be amazed by anything fresh.