Following 2003's excellent yet under-rated Castlevania: Lament of Innocence on the PS2, Konami returns to Dracula's mythic castle with the release of Castlevania: Curse of Darkness on the PS2. COD continues the last title's 3D approach, with the challenging gameplay and intuitive controls players have come to expect from the series. Curse of Darkness features a deeper storyline and enhanced RPG elements for your character. The most interesting addition are the Innocent Devils which fight alongside you, giving the gameplay additional strategy and depth. The series' typically brilliant production values, gorgeous environments and beautiful soundtrack are impressively realized, but do the mechanics and gameplay live up to the Castlevania legacy? Read our review and find out.
Most Castlevania adventures have centered on the Belmont Family's eternal battle against Dracula, placing them in a seemingly never-ending struggle against evil. Curse of Darkness changes this model and introduces an entirely new protagonist, Hector. He worked as a Devil Forgemaster under Dracula himself, refining his skills as they years went by. As Hector slaved under Dracula's command, he became disillusioned by his master's ideals and fled Dracula's castle Vallachia. Determined to live a more normal life, he left Dracula vulnerable to the attacking Belmont clan. After the Belmonts defeated Dracula, a new curse was released once three years had passed. This curse was released upon Dracula's death and infected Europe with plagues of pestilence, heresy, and violence. During these plagues, Hector's fellow Forgemaster, Isaac suddenly appears. Isaac blames Hector's defection for Dracula's defeat and vows to inflict revenge. Isaac sets up Hector's wife and she perishes after being executed during a deadly witch trial. Seeking revenge, Hector sets off to return to his former home of Vallachia to kill Isaac. However, Hector has forsaken the powers he's learned, and must explore the old castle. Gradually, he discovers he'll need his evil powers to survive since the castle is completely subsumed and twisted by dark magic. He finds it's been over-run by terrifying creatures and monsters who are aligned with Dracula's evil spirit. Fortunately, he'll find unlikely allies who are also fighting the demonic forces who will help him along the way.
While it seems like the plot is vastly different, Curse of Darkness is the spiritual successor to Lament of Innocence on the PS2. The look and feel of the game is quite similar in a number of ways, with a slightly more open structure that allows the player to have more freedom of movement. The game's maps are easier to navigate, and the controls are more intuitive, making for a better flow to the gameplay. One of the main criticisms leveled at Lament of Innocence was the fact that the game emphasized action at the expense of character building. The developers have addressed many of these problems, and have created a much deeper character development system that allows you to make a much deeper connection with your character. The enhanced character system also gives the player many more options in creating your weapons and performing your spells. As you play through the game, you can level up and earn new powers and spells by defeating enemies. You'll also be awarded experience points which make your character even more powerful. This system lets you character's powers in a more flexible way than before. In addition, Hector can use several types of weapons during the battles. Curse of Darkness also implements a more elaborate combo system that allows you to attack enemies in a number of different approaches, allowing you to fight in your own style. As you progress in your mission, you'll be able to purchase new special attacks and moves, making the combat more varied and interesting this time around.
The most interesting addition to the Castlevania series this time around is the player's ability to develop allies out of demonic forces; these are called Innocent Devils, and are usually incredibly faithful to the player. In order to create an Innocent Devil, you must first collect a Devil Shard, then go to an area of the castle where Dracula's energy is contained. Once these have been created, players can use these new allies to help them evade traps, solve puzzles and defeat enemies. Players can use these moves by collecting hearts scattered throughout the castle. Each time you make an Innocent perform a move, it consumes hearts. Once all the hearts have been consumed, they cannot perform any more moves. You can also enhance the Innocent Devils as they go along with new skills and abilities by collecting evolution crystals. Players can have more than one Innocent Devil in their collection, but can only use one at a time. The Innocent Devils are quite handy and make an interesting addition to the gameplay mechanics, making Curse of Darkness feel more like an RPG than a traditional Castlevania game. In addition to battling standard foes, players will also face a number of hidden areas and traps as well, which should increase the challenge. Curse of Darkness' level design is more refined than the last game, with players navigating the castle's many corridors and rooms much easier, and faster this time around. The maps are relatively straightforward, which means you won't have to spend as much time backtracking. Curse of Darkness will also feature an increased number of unlockable elements, including additional weapons and items. Players can use and collect a variety of these items and can use the extensive inventory system to keep track of their players' stats and attributes including health, attack power, resistances, and other key elements. Additionally, you can keep track of the ID's in your inventory. You can also use the menus to use, equip, and combine items. The menus themselves are well-designed, making them intuitive to navigate and use. This added complexity is welcome and doesn't get in the way of the action that much. This added depth increases Curse of Darkness' replayability and longevity, addressing the last game's short length and lacking selection of items.
The standard array of demons, zombies, and skeletons await you during the battle, but there are also a variety of tougher foes. During each level, you'll will face a variety of boss creatures during their adventure, including the Mintotaur. He can attack these foes alone using his standard attacks or use special items such as spells to defeat them even faster. However, don't forget about the Innocent Devils to assist them during these confrontations, sparing you some of the damage. This further enhances the game's RPG-like feel and adding a layer of strategy to these battles. Players will find both the character's standard hearts and their HP displayed onscreen, which should make tracking their progress much easier. You can also select from a variety of weapons and spells using the d-pad, allowing you to access your items seamlessly during battles, helping the gameplay flow much smoother. The gameplay is well balanced between these elements and Curse of Darkness features the trademark action and adventure gamers have come to expect from the series. The controls are excellent and intuitive, allowing you to attack quite easily, with plenty of real-time action oriented battles that will keep your blood flowing throughout. These added RPG elements increase the depth but don't hinder the action giving players plenty of flexibility during the battles without making things overly complex. This portion of the game proves that the series can evolve without losing the essential elements that made this series so successful over the years.
Going back to the legendary Symphony of the Night on the PS1, the series has been renowned for its rich aesthetics and beautiful design. Curse of Darkness carries on the Castlevania tradition with style with the sumptuous production values that give COD the beautiful, gothic appearance players have come to expect. The evocative, gothic look that's dominated the series most recent installments is very much in evidence here. Players will find beautifully rendered environments, with elaborate light sourcing, brilliantly designed creatures and smooth animation that really puts them into the world. The third-person perspective with a fixed camera system worked well in Lament of Innocent, and this installment continues the trend, though the more dynamic camera system gives the player a better view of the action. Curse of Darkness features more extensive use of cut-scenes and voice-overs, adding to the atmospheric adventure. These lend more drama to the backstory, further immersing players into the game. The intensity of the game is impressive throughout, with the action unfolding at a relentless pace, with little slowdown in evidence. The visuals are impressive but Castlevania games have also become known for their memorable soundtracks. These compositions include some of the most evocative scores in gaming, going back to Symphony of the Night and even the NES classics. With Aria of Sorrow's legendary composer Michiru Yamane on board, the accompaniment here is superb, with a richly textured score that evokes the ominous fear and impending doom that the protagonist faces. This is one of the best Castlevania scores to date, making Curse of Darkness sound as fantastic and elaborate as any in the series. The only let-down are some of the voice-overs, which seem a tad overplayed in parts. However, this doesn't detract from the overall experience.
While the production values are typically amazing, the gameplay is what makes Castlevania: Curse of Darkness a memorable experience. It might seem to be a slightly refined version of Lament of Innocence on the surface, dig a little deeper and you'll find some fairly interesting changes this time around. The more recent titles in the series have featured some RPG elements, and the addition of the Innocent Devils only adds to the role-playing aspects of the series. Creating and managing these creatures adds a lot of depth to the game, increasing the player's options. The majority of the gameplay remains focused on the action, however. Playing through the game reveals tighter, more fluid controls that make it much easier to battle to fiendish forces of evil. COD's plot is also a bit more interesting this time around, since playing as the bad guy gives things a different feel. While the game doesn't have the polish or classic feel of traditional 2D Castlevania games, Curse of Darkness closes the gap significantly. Konami deserves a lot of credit for refining and tweaking this installment, making this one the deepest and most challenging 3D Castlevania title to date.