What creature lies in the deepest dungeon? The long spiral stairway leading to a blood-splattered arena may well be the first area you investigate, but it's likely to be the last you'll unlock.
The cloying atmosphere and dingy moss-clad walls suggest this is a killing ground for a diabolical monster of ancient origin. To the left is an enormous door, enchanted with a lock to keep the creature at bay. And this being Castlevania, you just know it's just one of the secret chambers too tempting to ignore for the curious adventurer.
Konami is back on form. After the execrable Castlevania on N64, Lament of Innocence is a superb return to the principles that made the franchise so cherished during the NES and SNES eras and culminated in the magnificent Symphony of the Night on PSone. The greatest compliment that can be paid is that, like Super Mario 64 and Metroid Prime, it has achieved the rare feat of translating a finely tuned and balanced 2D experience into 3D.
While it's not as cleverly structured as the pinnacle of the series, Symphony of the Night, it resurrects that game's hallmarks of seductive exploration and satisfying topographical progress.
Lament of Innocence unearths its traditional roots from the very beginning. You play Leon Belmont on a mission to save his betrothed, Sara, who has been kidnapped and incarcerated in a vampire's castle deep in the Forest of Eternal Night. The game certainly won't win any awards for its plot exposition, or for the hammy voice acting.
Rather than furnish the player with a huge castle to investigate, Lament of Innocence is divided into five discrete levels, a decision that may dismay traditionalists. These levels can be accessed in any order from a central dais in the castle's main chamber, and this lends the game a more abstract and disjointed air. Stand on a platform and it teleports our hero to his destination. It's a less cerebral way of structuring the game, but it is not without its benefits. It's possible, for instance, to defeat the final boss in the game without having to backtrack between levels. In this respect, Lament of Innocence has got the balance right. One orb needs to be discovered in each part of the castle - collect all five and the final chapter opens up.
However, longevity is considerably extended by the inclusion of locked chambers in each of the levels. The twist is that the keys to these rooms can only be found in one of the other castle interiors, a feature necessitating lengthy wandering for those who ache to attain the 100 per cent rating. Further hidden alcoves, and the castle's deepest dungeon, make this an intriguing and comprehensive package. In short, the game caters for those who want a relaxing eight-hour dungeon crawl and for the hardcore contingent intent on finding every item and examining every nook and cranny.
Furthermore, the combat in between save points is satisfying and cathartic rather than formidable and bothersome. Unsurprisingly, the whip is Leon's main weapon, though this can be augmented with a number of items. The secondary weapon attack returns (represented by the knife, holy water, axe, cross and crystal icons) and 'effect' orbs can be combined with these sub-weapons to deliver an impressive range of further magical assaults. New whip combos are added as competence increases and while the combat is never electrifying there's enough variety, both in terms of creature types and their attacks, to make the action absorbing.