Castlevania: Curse of Darkness is the umpteenth game in the vampire-laden series (we've lost count). The original Castlevania is one gaming's most classic and beloved adventures, and while the series has seen both its ups and downs since then, everybody loves a good vampire tale. And as such, the tale of Dracula, the Belmont family and more continues on the PS2 and Xbox with Curse of Darkness.
As Hector, you seek revenge against your former ally, Isaac, for having killed your wife. At one point in time, you were both servants of Dracula, but his death three years prior to Curse of Darkness has left the thrown of evil in a state of chaos. Hector gave up the dark ways sometime around this point, and left behind his devil forging abilities.
Hector and Isaac are the only two mortals with the ability to call upon Innocent Devils, creatures who serve their conjurer with utmost loyalty. Forgemasters, as they're called, practice a dark art, and as such Hector gave up his ability to conjure Innocent Devils when he turned away from Dracula's teachings. But when he hunts down Isaac to seek his revenge, Isaac taunts Hector and essentially forces him to regain his Forgemaster abilities in order to exact his revenge.
Curse of Darkness lives and dies by a few of its main features, with Innocent Devils being the major one of them. Luckily, Konami pulled off this aspect of the game pretty well and it goes quite a ways to helping this latest Castlevania romp be an enjoyable experience throughout.
Speaking in a general manner, the overall course of the game is that you'll fight through one section of the story, fight a boss of some sort, earn a new Innocent Devil and then use said devil's powers to help you reach the next area of the game. While this somewhat sounds like it would be akin to the way the Metroid games work, it's only so on a very small level. For instance, when you first get the Bird-type Innocent Devil, you'll need to use its glide ability to help you jump over a large gap in order to continue. But aside from that first use, there aren't many other places where you'll be required to use this ability, and the same basic rule of thumb applies to the other Innocent Devils.
What makes them cool though is their general use throughout the game. As you can only have one summoned at a time, there's a cool bit of management going on with what abilities you want available to you at any given time, coupled with which Innocent Devil you'd like to feed experience to (as only the currently-summoned Innocent Devil gains experience during battle). While a Battle-type Innocent Devil will obviously help you the most during a fight, it won't be able to heal you like a Fairy-type can. And while a Mage-type Innocent Devil is equipped with some cool tricks like the ability to stop time, it lacks the fighting prowess of a Battle-type Innocent Devil, the healing abilities of a Fairy-type or any of the other tricks and such of other devil types.
You'll find yourself constantly switching between which Innocent Devil you have summoned, not necessarily for getting from place to place, but for how they'll help you out fighting the game's vast assortment of enemies. For example, a Battle-type Innocent Devil is great against large amounts of enemies on the ground, but it's not so great against anything airborne. In this instance, you might want to conjure your Mage-type Innocent Devil in order to stop time and get a few free licks in, or you might want to conjure your Fairy-type and let it focus on healing you. Or, you may opt to bring in your Bird-type Innocent Devil as it has no problem fighting either ground or airborne creatures, though it doesn't cause as much damage as some other devil types do.
The management choices you have here is Curse of Darkness' strongest aspect, one that is also seen in its weapon and inventory system, which we'll get to shortly. It's the constant decisions of what sort of Innocent Devil you want helping you at any time, and how much of its power you want to be using at any given time as well, since you never know what's around the next corner, that makes Curse of Darkness a fresh gaming experience.
Something that wasn't quite as fleshed out as could have been though is the evolution aspect of the Innocent Devils. Depending on which weapon type you're currently using, be it a sword, axe, spear or what have you, enemies will drop Evo Gems of different colors; using a sword will have them drop red, for example, while using your knuckles will have them drop white. Each Innocent Devil has a short, branching evolution tree, with each branch in its evolution granting different abilities and powers.
Sounds good, but you never really have any sort of idea of what you're evolving them into, making it somewhat pointless to force yourself to use a certain weapon type in order to evolve them the way you want. For example, one fork in an Innocent Devil's evolution may lead to more battle-friendly power one way, but the other might grant it more powerful abilities. As you have no way of knowing which is which when you're playing through the game, nor how different any two steps in its evolution may be, you don't really have a reason to put away your sword and stick to your knuckles to upgrade it. For the true completionists who will want to see absolutely everything there is to see in the game, this provides a fair deal of replayability, but we doubt 99% of gamers out there will play through the game multiple times solely in order to see all of the Innocent Devil forms.
As mentioned, the light RPG and strategy elements that make the Innocent Devils cool in the game carries over to your character, Hector, as well. You're automatically given attribute bonuses when you gain a new level, so that doesn't really count nor provide anything in the way of upgrade strategy, but the vast assortment of weapons you have at your disposal, their use and their creation, does.
New weapons aren't found in the game but rather created by you via items and elements that the enemies drop. For example, to create a Bamboo Lance, you'll need to combine one piece of Wild Memory and one piece of Jet Black; presto-chango, you've got a Bamboo Lance. For a set of examples, you can check out our feature on item creation right here.
The cool part about this is two-fold. Firstly, you won't need to explore every nook and cranny of the game to find the best weapons, as you create them yourself. Secondly, you always have the option for what sorts of items you want to create, depending upon what materials you've collected. So if you only just found a seemingly rare material, you might be able to combine said material with other stuff you already have to create a new sword, helm, piece of armor or a "miscellaneous" item. The choice is yours, and while you'll likely find more of this seemingly rare material as you progress through the game, enabling you to create everything on your list, for immediacy's sake you'll want to create what you're lacking in the most, and hope it's good.
While armor types are black-and-white choices (you always want the piece with the highest armor rating), weapon types aren't clear cut whatsoever. A heavy sword or axe may cause a massive amount of damage, but it trades its damage rating for speed and accuracy. While these sorts of tradeoffs apply to many games, the differences in Curse of Darkness are wide.
For example, though a heavy sword will cause a lot of damage, its speed makes it very difficult to hit fast enemies, which many of the game's foes are. If you happen to nail someone in a combo, they're toast, but it can be difficult to do so. Because of this, you'll likely find yourself constantly switching between both Innocent Devil types as well as weapon types, depending on what you're up against. If you're fighting a group of tree trunk-wielding ogres, a heavy sword or axe and a Battle-type Innocent Devil may do you wall. But if you're fighting a large group of fast-as-lightning Mermen, you may want to go with a weaker but much faster weapon and call out your Bird-type Innocent Devil and have him carpet bomb them.
While the battles can offer up a fairly wide variety of skirmishes and strategies therein, the game's environments are a let down. Most areas of the game are simply repeating hallways of the same texture set over and over again, and as there are very, very few points of interest within these environments, it can be very easy to get lost without the in-game map. Luckily the map is very good, allowing you to place markers for important places so that you can remember where critical spots are, and save and warp spots are nicely highlighted, but without it you'd be oh so very lost.
Even the overall environments themselves aren't really worthy of lasting memories. You begin in a castle, replete with numerous long and repeating hallways using the exact same texture set. Then you'll move onto a mountain range, which is very similar to the castle in terms of repetition, only the repeating textures are made of rocks and such. You'll come to woods, towns, other castles and various other areas like this before finishing off the game, but again, each area is both boring and clichéd.
It's disappointing that a game with such a cool background story - vampires and such are almost always cool - is so lacking in interesting places to explore. It's simply copy-and-pasted hallway after hallway or wooded area after wooded area.
Being as we're on the subject of its vampiric setting, Curse of Darkness has a fairly confusing though well-told story throughout the course of the game. You'll come across a group of characters who don't really seem to make much sense, and we'll leave it up to you as to decide how well they fit in when all is said and done, but the story presentation is quite good.
The CG segments are very well done with excellent animation, and the voice acting perfectly fits the feel of the game. You might say it's a little overdone, but we say it excellently walks the fine line of being just right and being a parody of itself. The written dialog also may seem a tad out of place at first, but as you become more comfortable with the characters and their representation throughout the game, you'll find that the dialog is written excellently as well; again, walking a fine line between overdone and perfection for its vampiric setting.
Lastly, like most Castlevania games, Curse of Darkness features an excellent soundtrack. To some outsiders, it may not exactly match the somewhat dark setting, but the series once again perfectly transitions the old-school 8-bit soundtrack into the world of now, however many bits we're at these days. Were these tracks as fully realized as they are, with full bands behind them, or simple MIDI playbacks of the same score, they would fit the Castlevania universe excellently.
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