a review of Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia
a videogame developed by konami
and published by konami
for the nintendo DS
text by Ario Barzan
A point comes, during Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, where you’ve waded far enough into Dracula’s castle, and two extra dungeons are unlocked on the world map. One of them is the Large Cavern; the other is the Training Area. If you’ll reminisce on 2006’s Portrait of Ruin — not too long; your head might start to hurt – an additional area became available when you explored something like 800.00% (not a joke) of the castle. The sentiment was nice, though the implementation was kind of depressing in how Dawn of Sorrow’s sizzling bosses were slapped in, among an array of other contextually abused sprites, with the dull sound of clay hitting a wall. Going back even further, Circle of the Moon had its Battle Arena stocked full of hard-hitting monsters, culminating in players’ acquisition of the “Shinning Armor.”
The Training Area is the most fiercely, tightly designed place in a Castlevania game since Rondo of Blood (the Large Cavern is all right — I do enjoy the exclusive knight-like enemies). A basic set of elements are established – cylinders of fire, floating platforms, spikes, magnetic bits you link onto and use to slingshot yourself around – and the stage proceeds to mix them up in compact, smart, honest-to-god platforming challenges that do not tolerate bullshit. It’s a shocking feature in a series that’s so long been headed by “I grew up loving Castlevania, so Konami thought I would be the best guy to take charge” producer Koji Igarashi, a man who has become synonymous with Accessibility (a.k.a. spearheading pretty games that require little learning or input on our end of things), and attending game conferences with a whip.
The little miracle that the Training Area represents is the reality that someone out there has shown faith in our ability to deal with hardship. The problem it represents – well, it’s the same as Super Mario World’s Special Zone. There are men, somewhere in the world, who say that everyone needs to “see the game’s ending” – yes, even your quadriplegic cousin thrice-removed. And there you go. A legion of consumers must beat a game to get to not even what they want, perhaps, but only a taste of what they want. This argument for directness isn’t in favor of elitism: it’s in favor of history and common sense, where everyone once had to beat Super Mario Bros., and did, and enjoyed the hell out of it, and still enjoy the hell out of it. That we’ve regressed into a world where we need to be told how to press the action button (Ecclesia does, indeed, pull this shit off, and it’s part of the reason the game’s beginning of the worst of any Metrovania/Hemorrhoid/etc.), and where we need to “earn” noble design, is . . . curious, to say the least.
So I’m going to say this: get rid of the whole “mega difficult dungeon” deal, Konami, and just implement all of your ideas into the real stages. Don’t worry about not having Special Prizes for us. Really, it’s queer how we go through these things, are rewarded with some ultimate armor/spell, only to realize that these super-rewards have no application . . . because we just bypassed the game’s very pinnacle. At least World of Warcraft has a purpose behind the power-lusting action of plumbing caves’ and buildings’ depths to acquire equipment and gain levels – it’s so we can move on to the next place to get more equipment and gain more levels. In Ecclesia, by the time players reach a dungeon’s end to pick up a new suit of armor, it feels like walking through the rain in our Armani tuxedo to purchase a differently colored tuxedo. And the name — I mean, “Training” Area? What are we training for?
With this in mind, though, know that Order of Ecclesia is scientifically and mathematically the best game Iga has produced. Whether that means anything to you is up for discussion. It is not the most “loving,” nor the most “exquisite,” yet it is the most consistent and cognizant, the most edible without being the most hollow. If you are looking for an experience, Symphony of the Night is still where to go. If you are looking for a compact game, you might want to try this. It’s not heaven on Earth, but it has a bite and tang that’s been absent in the series for longer than a decade.
I still have to admit a fondness for a lot of the projects Igarashi’s been a part of. My eyes are wide open to the structural ****ation of Harmony of Dissonance, though that game’s queer, buzzing ambience is such an unmistakable presence in the swarm of titles released in the past decade that I can’t help loving it (in a vaguely pathetic way). Igarashi’s games aren’t fundamentally bad; they are, in fact, good games waiting to be realized, and it’s with a confused frustration that I’ve witnessed these slightly charming, but latent, things be released, time and again, their potential for rollicking success hinging on a check-list of Lilliputian-sized adjustments. Aria of Sorrow was the closest Konami had gotten to making a heck of a little game, and a lot of people did, and do, view it as the modern Castlevania, the one that most visibly stripped away preceding baggage. It’s been said before that you don’t require a core-excellent product to be met with “success”: you just need momentum. With even a minor bit of scrutiny, it’s not hard to see that Aria of Sorrow’s castle is pretty vanilla, and that the challenge, though raised, is microscopic. We are not free from apologetics. Still, the thing as a whole moves with such a brisk, room-to-room, click-clack rhythm, it’s hard to not appreciate it as a tangible pop song.
Order of Ecclesia doesn’t ask you too often to apologize for it. It makes a horridly strong case for not being played in the first thirty minutes (and halfway through), all the more unfortunate since we, being modern individuals, are Humans With Things to Do. One can at least say that most people want a game that gets better, instead of worse, even if a lot of them don’t realize they think so. Like the last Castlevanias, you get expository, clunky, dull exchanges between characters. After the necessary shit goes down – a character’s rebellion against the founder of the supposedly anti-Dracula cult you are a part of (I just explained the plot!) – you’re given a pointless test to prove your street cred against a few skeletons. And off you go to a monastery, practically a case study for Castlevania Cancer (vacuous boxes with harmless skeletons, bats, and zombies (don’t forget to hit the candelabras for single gold coins!)), followed by a forest, which is a flat plane backed by pine trees and passive enemies. If anything good can be said about either, it’s that they are short, and that the forest has kickin’ music.
From then on, the game does a two-and-a-half-stars job of rebuilding and redeeming crumbles and stumbles. There’s a breezy trek across boxes and logs suspended in water, interrupted by flying fish, mermen, and sea urchins. There’s an aggressively stocked island prison where getting caught in spotlights will summon a super-powerful enemy, where spear guards make a case for having their older-than-the-Internet sprite reused, and where a giant skeleton boss transcends its predecessors by being blest with an intent to kill. There’s a series of aquatic caverns with poisonous, road-blocking, monster starfish, swarms of heat-seeking spirits, and persistent, curling oarfish. In other words, Ecclesia starts making demands and stops being so motherly.
Take the shorter environments that function more traditionally and contain no teleporter rooms. You can’t get to a certain point, return to the entrance, exit, stock up on potions at the store, then return and re-teleport to the mid-point teleporter. Essentially, these are do-in-one-visit-locales. Accessed by a world map, stages oscillate between brief jogs and medium-sized setups that act as leaner Metro-maps. Splitting acts up into these quick bites, the game has an easier time breathing. Adding to this directness is a lessening of save rooms, not just in the mentioned stages, but as a whole. Prior to Ecclesia, it was as if Konami were inserting save points after a general number of rooms, and not going by what actually happened in those rooms (which, often, would’ve meant having one or no save points at all). Ecclesia shows that players can, indeed, come to an angel statue with appreciation.
When things initially shoot up in difficulty, you think you can just treat the game how you treated the others, getting knocked about by a dozen monsters and shrugging it off because you know you’ll come to a save room with half your health if you’re extra lazy. I was doing that very thing in Ecclesia, and lost my accidental erection when I actually looked at my health bar and saw it limping around the “you’re probably going to get killed in the next second” zone (at the same time, I acquired a mental erection when I realized that the game was treating me with respect). The challenge is weirdly subtle. Upon reflection, it does not seem hard; it’s within the moments that you actually play, and within the moments that you stop concentrating, that the game kicks you behind the knees and throws you down the steps. Basically, the challenge is “always there,” like how the challenge is “always there” in Bloodlines, and you are equipped with the moves to groove.
The true stars of Castlevania have never been the Conan-esque warriors or bishounen battlers – they’ve been the idiosyncratic monsters. Yet, in the current mold of things, we have been superheroes in a world of beautiful do-nothings. Modern Castlevania has become about action that looks good, or abilities that feel good only unto themselves, rather than about action that feels good in a relational context. Ecclesia reacts to this, your avatar’s capabilities, by increasing the aggressiveness of returning sprites, and making the new ones transcend buffoon-isms. There is a new, joy-like friction of doing an L-button back-dash and jumping in mid-cartwheel while pulling the D-pad back in the initial direction to deal with a tall gravedigger heaving out a kick (reminiscent of Street Fighter III’s Q), and then twisting your body to use your scythe to kill a homing Bitterfly couple. Once a relic to let you get by a lone underpass, the slide becomes a constant just-escape for shiff-ing below the hides of hovering enemies. A number of encounters thusly take on Rondo of Blood’s boxing match spark where punchy dodging and bashing takes precedence over killing a well-animated beast whose “special” attack you never see because it’s a sloth. When combined with two other factors – the sheer number of enemies thrown your way, and the harsh, but not too harsh, damage dealt – Ecclesia can, and will, become ferocious.
It’s not the same as the last game throwing eight Axe Armors your way so you could see them pseudo-ceremoniously crumple in three multiple-hit swings of your whip, or dumping a pack of knife throwing midgets into an annex where getting hit by their barrage of knives is a given. For one, Ecclesia is in tune with critters’ living quarters. The placement, in certain cases, make greater sense than Symphony of the Night, a game that really defined itself by its ecosystems. Like, why were there plants in the library? If you see one in Ecclesia, it’ll be sprouting in a swamp. If you see a jellyfish, it won’t be in the air, but in the sea. If you see a possessed sword, it will be in an armory-centered stage. For another, the game does not lazily torrent you with a crowd of clones, but has you juggle several types at once: swooping birds, midget men, and a bipedal lizard. Contending with these mixtures in matching settings lends Ecclesia a goopy ambiance.
Circle of the Moon had a decent survivalist approach by abolishing the shop and making you rely on enemies’ drops for supplies, encouraging careful runs through environments. If an enemy relinquished a potion, it was a twinkling mini-miracle that lessened the burden. That a player would possess literally fifty suits of leather armor halfway through the game, but have no way of selling them, however, was a weird oversight. Harmony of Dissonance brought the shop back, if only because it could, and it was more self-defeating than ever since a) the game was fiercely easy, and b) you could only sell rare jewels, a pointless limit when you could enter a room, whip a candle for a four-hundred dollar money bag, exit, and repeat the process until your eyes rolled into the back of your head (note: sending out a request for a twenty-minute recording of someone doing such, making sure to check their gold status every time they pick up a bag: we will put it on the site (maybe) for a “KleptoVania” feature).
Though there is a shop in Ecclesia, the potions assume a preciousness they’ve lacked. Regular potions heal a minor fifty health points, and you’re limited to carrying nine. You’ll need to satisfy a villager’s request if you even want the store to stock high potions in the first place (wary of this application, since said quest involves grinding), and their price is exorbitant in a game where monetary generousness is low. I had half a million gold when I beat Dawn of Sorrow; I finished this with something around a tenth that amount. Super potions cost thirty-thousand – and environments never have digestible objects setting about, waiting to be scooped up.
Either of the last two DS titles’ have held conceptually interesting bosses — a Paul McCartney look-alike who would absorb, and copy, whatever magic attack you used on him. Of course, we chucked a skeleton bone, and then proceeded to crouch next to him and attack as he threw bones clear over our heads. Or an Egyptian queen who cast a spell to make the male protagonist turn against the girl. Ideally, you’d just fight the queen with the girl and “teleport” the dude out when the boss wound up the attack; most of the fight itself, however, was waiting on either end of the room for the nonchalantly strutting queen to appear, slapping her a few times, and alternating your hang-out. Either game also had very thrilling bosses, highlights including a laser-breathing dinosaur zombie in a claustrophobic chamber, and the dynamic-duo-ism of Death and Dracula. There are probably two or three lame bosses in Ecclesia; the rest are masterfully composed beasts of engaging patterns. That the game has the humor and wit to match you up against one seemingly immortal boss, who dies in a single “hit” after you’ve figured the puzzle out, puts Ecclesia’s big-timers among my 2D favorites. Some people might complain that they have “too much HP,” and to that I say, “You aren’t utilizing what the game gives you.”
What the game gives you is the Glyph System ™ – silly contextually, but close to great tactilely. Instead of actual weapons, Shanoa, Ecclesia’s protagonist, equips “spells” to her right and left hand (more fuel for the ragers’ “Iga is sexist” bonfire), and a third glyph can be assigned to the R-button for, say, a statistical boost. The glyph system represents a solid bundle of well-dones. Any attack, now, will drain your magic bar, which doubles as stamina. When you put this alongside the right/left-hand concept – press the according buttons rhythmically for a perpetual one-two-one-two-etcetera combo – the game puts you in this interesting position where you juggle conservation (don’t attack too fast, or you’ll have to build your stamina back up) with fierce, rhythmic bursts as the moment allows. It was already sort of cute how Dawn of Sorrow let you devise independent sequences for attacking, such as equipping a samurai sword, jumping up in the air, striking at the apex of the leap, again a split-second before landing, using your point of impact as an opportunity to slice right after the preceding attack, and punching the secondary button to get in two simultaneous, stronger swipes. Here, Ecclesia says that you will do better, but also have more fun, if you can understand the specific timings of glyph combinations and let loose at the right times.
What I’m saying is that the bosses have “too much HP” if you ignore the game’s dynamic. There’s something smile-worthy in figuring out the sweet spot underneath a giant’s barrage of punches and letting loose a storm of chunky, timed swipes after otherwise timid tactics.
In predictable fashion, video game reviewers mistook Dawn of Sorrow’s soul level-ups as a “refinement.” In truth, it was unnecessary kleptomania. When a glyph is absorbed in Ecclesia, barring several joke-types (level up “Fidelis Noctua” (side note: why not just name the glyphs as what they are? really, the titles are some serious Harry Potter refuse) for more owl buddies), you get it as it is, and that’s mighty nice. There are still a few too many glyphs, though the idea isn’t indebted to the Sorrows’ “everything has a soul to suck!!!” maxim, and only has a quarter of the bestiary relinquish glyphs – not to say that that is the only way to acquire them, thanks be to god, since areas’ particular nooks do house glyph-harboring statues (whatever that’s intended to mean). The worst thing about enemy-centric glyphs is that most, yes, do rely on an arbitrary, invisible number within the game’s code for appearances. The best thing about enemy-centric glyphs is that a few can be gained manually: pay attention to an opponent’s behavior to get a heads-up on when they start to cast a spell – use that knowledge, next time, to preemptively press up on the D-pad, suck the spell away from their arms, and gain it as your own. It’s funny, it’s little, and it’s tangible.
Before I get to Dracula’s castle, I need to mention what garbage it is how players gets to Dracula’s castle. At this point, where the “false” ending and “real, special” ending has become such an unspectacular trope (bro-tip: it’s not a secret once it’s an expectation), the limits separating one from the other are at all-time highs of stupidity. For god’s sake, the game doesn’t even pretend that you’ve beaten it: you get a literal GAME OVER screen. There is nothing satisfying about grinding to meet a completely unrelated mandate (like how you needed to equip three specific souls in Aria for Soma to magically realize he was Dracula) to get on with it, already. Cut it out, Konami. It’s not charming – it’s a flow killer. It’s being forced to read an issue of J.A.M.A. from cover to cover after we order food from a Chinese restaurant to receive that food (to explain myself: I had empty time to spare during my commute).
And what about the villagers? None of their “quests” are very fun. Exploiting the widespread affliction of OCD, there are the game designers who know shit-loads of people will do something if something is given to do, and so they employ to-be-filled spaces to taunt one into filling them. Ecclesia’s quests are dull errands. The deal goes like this: rescue a person from a stage’s annex and they, perhaps impossibly, return to the village (I like to imagine a fetishistically detailed version of this game where the little girl swims from her room to the surface of the level). When you revisit the village, those saved will be in Their Place, waiting to be talked to. One of the men asks you to bring him metal so he can make you armor – but when you return, he doesn’t give it to you: he makes you buy it in the shop (he does give you a couple thousand gold, though). Another errand, requested by the fat cook, requires you to get “merman meat.” But the mermen don’t drop mermen meat – so what the hell does? These half-woman, half-fish monsters. This type of task encourages grinding on everything until something clicks, and it’s irritating nonsense. Yet another is the children’s mother who complains that the local birds are bothering her. She asks you to kill thirty of them. Be still, my beating heart.
Ecclesia’s castle, then, may not be the reward everyone expects after devoting efforts to monotony. I, however, give it a thumbs-up for what it does to pacing. Since you enter Castlevania with almost all of your required abilities, the escapade becomes a comparatively propulsive experience. Meandering lock-and-key hunts fizzle away; momentum and survival are the focus. There’s an uncommon shimmer of quick, pleasant wonder, a fittingness of the interest in uncovering an undisclosed map with the action of general linearity.
Castlevania’s contemporary habits have caused some people to label the games to dungeon crawlers. There’s little wrong with a dungeon crawler, when it’s done right: the problem is that good dungeon crawlers are about stamina, planning . . . the danger of low health after coming to a new room. As such, the simile only extended to the surface of Castlevania: you were killing passive things that made numbers go up in vacuous mazes. If they “might as well” have been “dungeon crawlers,” the games contained little to no sense of progression or empowerment. Dracula’s Castle is where Ecclesia reflects the labeling in an oft-positive fashion –- where you will be far from a known save point and unaware of where the next is, and where the uncertainty of what lies in wait combats with the desire to keep going. And maybe you will keep going and just survive . . . or maybe you’ll screw up and die. Maybe you’ll be too worried, and use a magical ticket to escape to the village and purchase several relevant items. It’s a strange feeling to experience in Castlevania, this position of actual respite and abbreviated bouts of planning.
My gosh, it would’ve been nice if hard mode were available from the get-go. Playing on HARD, one can feel like a demigod or the most vulnerable thing on the planet, without feeling cheated when the latter position is assumed. Areas take on a new, tauter context where you’ll craft microscopic plans in your head just to get by single rooms. That forest stage, normally a contributor to Ecclesia‘s tepid as heck opener, transforms into a ruthless exercise in crowd control and thinking on your feet. I could recite, bit for bit, how I overcame the skeleton cave (I won’t (being so literal would get boring in words)), in the same way I could recite how I overcame a stage in the first Castlevania. Yet, since this mode must be unlocked — it should be default — and because it is not entirely delightful — Dracula’s castle should be harder, denser, as should a couple other pre-Castlevania layouts — it is not All That. Like the Training Area, it begs for Konami to be go all the way, to inject all the juice they have to offer in the product’s basic form, instead of treating that specialness as, well, special.
There are other things to nitpick — like, it’s not big, but there are seams between the relative “seriousness” of Symphony sprites and the clunkier physicality of new ones. In spite of gaps, the bestiary has enough commonality to impress a plump horror vibe with its Swamp Thing men, Leatherface psychos, female vampires (!), lamp-carrying specters, gaudy demons, and Frankenstein’s monster-esque humanoids. It seems to be par for the course to say that the story is a mess adhering to Canonical Rules. It is, however, transparent enough to not get in the way (and the developers retain enough humor in their world, like placing a rubber ducky on a stage’s ocean waves). Also, for whatever reason, Shanoa’s hair is brown — her artwork has black hair — and her body is framed a hateful black outline. She animates well, though hell if the sprite itself isn’t kind of repelling.
If one thing is (practically) free of tsk-tsks, it’s the music. The music is fucking good. The music is the result of someone who listened to Tales of Phantasia, Secret of Evermore, Silius, Plok, Mega Man 2, and some SNES-era Capcom score, like Demon’s Crest, and managed to scoop out their aural in-betweens, re-imagining them for a family of wonderful songs. Ecclesia‘s music is some of the best video game music to come out of the medium in years. There are bass-heavy, thrumming tunes, airy successes in classic counterpoint, surging, nearly-cheesy battle anthems, wildly unexpected ventures into sizable, carnival-esque ragtime, and gorgeous whatever-the-hells. It’s Michiru Yamane — again — joined, in the apparent tradition of handheld collaborations, by a Yasuhiro Ichihashi (for Portrait of Ruin, it was Yuzo Koshiro; Dawn of Sorrow, Masahiko Kimura; Aria of Sorrow, Soshiro Hokkai). If you’re discerning enough, you can tell that Michiru Yamane was the primary composer, and I’m not sure how this is the lengthiest tracklist for a handheld Castlevania and the best.
To end and to summarize: this is a fine game. It feels like a Super Nintendo game you might’ve never played (but somehow have), carrying a similar attitude as Majyuuou, and we here at Action Button Dot Net say that as a positive thing. There are still some shitty levels, still the presence of obsessive-compulsion, still an excess in options; but, for what it is, Order of Ecclesia is a step forward. I’m adding half a star for hard mode.
To end the end: Nobuya Nakazato’s name comes up in the special thanks part of Ecclesia’s credits. You have to wonder if he met with Igarashi over a cup of coffee and encouraged him to give the game teeth. Maybe he told the animators to make the main character spin when she double jumps. Or maybe he told someone to put those god-damned homing bats in hard mode. Who knows. Yet it seems so cutely fitting that the dude behind the rollicking package of Neo Contra would be a part of Konami’s best Metrovania.