IGN Review of Castlevania Judgment
I don't think most gamers would consider it an outlandish statement to say that Castlevania in 3D has never really worked quite like fans have wanted it to. For a series that's been around for over 20 years, and one that started with such humble origins as its 8-bit beginnings - spawned from Konami's desire to make a monster movie videogame, without grabbing an actual license to do it - it's odd to think that an entire franchise could have such a complete divide between its side-scroller glory, and a curse of its own in the third dimension, but it's true. Most of them aren't "bad" really, but they're far from the bar set by games like Symphony of the Night, Castlevania III, and Aria/Dawn of Sorrow.
So when we first got word that the latest Castlevania - and the first on Wii, mind you - would be not only 3D in design, but also a fighter, testing new grounds for the series entirely, you can understand why we entered with a bit of skepticism. After our playthrough, or fears seems to be coming true, as the game played pretty clunky, there was little to no depth in the battle mechanic, and characters all felt about as generic and similar as possible. For a huge Castlevania nut such as myself, it was a serious letdown.
What a difference a few months can make.
After going the distance with Castlevania Judgment on Wii, I want more, and I'm surprised to say it. Castlevania could be a stronger series on Wii than just a spin-off fighter - either in a full-on 3D adventure, or in the preferred 2D style, which could make for an amazing Symphony-like take on the platform - but the final offering Iga and his team has put together is one that still offers a huge amount of fan service to Castlevania lovers, and a deep, fun fighter for those that maybe haven't paid that much attention to the series over the years.
What it really comes down to in Judgment (just like in any fighter out there) is the question of whether or not you'll really want to spend time getting to know the fighters, learning their specific styles, and mastering their techniques. This was the number one aspect Judgment was originally missing, and in the end it's the game's strongest asset. Every character feels different, every attack matters, and in the end you're left with a fighter that's all about knowing your character and when to strike, and about as far from the originally expected "waggle-fest" that looked to be the only sense of play from the first versions of Judgment.
Controls are still a little odd in the end, as I eventually switched from motion over to the GameCube controller (something I haven't done since Smash), but even then the game has a few oddities that keep it from being entirely sound in its design. Battle is pretty simple all around, with motion combining with the A and B buttons to do different types of attacks, Z on the nunchuk used for guards and a special "unblockable" attack that takes a lot of time to prep, and a dodge system on the nunchuk motion sensor as well. With GameCube (or the Classic Controller) the game is a bit easier to play over long lengths of time due to the removal of constant Wii-mote shaking, but controls aren't completely customizable, so you'll need to use some odd "press this button while holding that one" choices by the team, rather than having all buttons available for mapping anywhere. After about an hour of play though, it'll come as second nature, so it's only really an annoyance, and not a deal-breaker by any means.
Where the game sets itself apart though is in the style and overall design taken from the Castlevania source material, and what I eluded to earlier in the character balancing. Outside of a strange camera choice, Judgment plays great, using a free-form 3D arena the likes of Powerstone, while still keeping it simple with flat playfields, a few basic level-specific changes, and some candelabras for new sub-weapons and power-ups. The true testament to the game's depth though is found in the fighters, as each one feels entirely unique, going as far as to change up how things like charge attacks and supers are handled. There's more variation here than something like the Naruto: Clash of Ninja series, for example.
Simon is an all-around fighter with basic whip attacks, Trevor is a heavier Belmont fighter with a few magic moves where traditional whip ones occurred for Simon, Maria is an extremely unique magic-based characters with lots of pre-attack frames before each move (as well as a few cool-down frames) making her a sort of "magic/tank" class. Then you've got traditional heavy fighters such as Eric Lecarde, who uses the weight of Alucard Spear to drive his slower, powerful offense, teleportation-based melee fighters with Carmilla and Cornell, a combination of distance spamming and sword fighting with "Summon Spirits" and "Tetra Spirits" attacks from Alucard, and a barely movable Dracula who is all about heavy hitting magic at the sacrifice of almost all mobility. There are also a few others added in to flesh out the roster, such as a unique take on the undead pirate Grant from Castlevania III (who reminds us of a less-disgusting version of Voldo from Soul Calibur), another set of magic/melee hybrids with Sypha and Shanoa (Order of Ecclesia), and a few others we'll leave a secret.
The variation in these characters is what makes it though. While Simon will have a huge spinning whip attack as his main special (which needs to be charged for full effect), Alucard actually has his distance Spirits attacks, letting him fire off a few at a distance while charging for the bigger Tetra Spirits finale. One of the best examples of these askew control setups though is Cornell. As a half-human, half werewolf, Cornell's curse is shown off in a great way in Judgment, as he goes from a more normal werewolf (with quick melee and decent power) into a rage mode after charging his special, allowing about 10 seconds of serious attack power at the expense of him collapsing for an easy heavy attack by his opponent once the effect wears off. Each character has little instances like that, and it really keeps things fresh.
It goes beyond just the fighters though. The entire game is laid with fan service and actual canonized content. Fighters say specific lines at each other in story mode (every pre-battle is character vs. character specific based on that exact fight), levels each have their gimmick, such as wandering zombies, a giant cracken on the ship level, or traps in one of the dungeons. Each fighter also has different ways of interacting with candle sticks - other than breaking it and taking the contents - based on their unique style, so while Cornell or Carmilla whip the stick itself at the enemy, a character like Maria or Alucard will actually suck up the power within it, using it as an attack or magic buffer in battle. The charcter-specfic supers (such as Simon's Vampire Killer) are each custom-animated for each fighter, and usually make use of something from the games as well, such as Maria using her four animal elemental attacks and owl both in and out of the super attack animation.
There are also a few other little thing that make the game's core mechanic work, and most of it was added in the final leg of development. You can now air-recover from hits, roll out of knock-downs, and charge items and special attacks from virtually any position (down, blocking, ect) in the game. Little cosmetic changes also add to the game, having items and costumes unlocked in the game's Castle mode, where you move from room to room in a very "SoulCalibur Weapon Master Mode" fashion, unlocking things like cool looking shades or new outfits for your fighters. It's a minor addition, but a nice one nonetheless.
As for modes, you've also got Survival Mode, the traditional Story Mode and its free-form Arcade counterpart, a full-on Tutorial area, and online for both friend and random player battles, and of course local vs. play. The music lives up to the Castlevania standard, and while it's made up of remixes from 20 years of content it isn't quite as polished or epic as it could have been. Still, there are a few killer tracks in there, and they all end up giving off a pretty nostalgic vibe, especially when teamed with the full-on VO production.
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