Monday, February 26, 2007

Castlevania II - Review

I have yet to write a review of an actually bad game. This is probably because I tend to only pick up games that I have heard or good. But sometimes I'll pick up games just because I like other games in a series. And sometimes my opinion just differs from others.

Castlevania II is a direct sequel to the first NES game. You play as Simon Belmont after he has defeated Dracula. It seems that Simon has discovered that, just he died, Dracula placed a curse on him that would cause him to die early. In order to break this curse, Simon must collect all of Dracula's body parts, reassemble them, and then defeat Dracula once and for all. The story itself isn't presented much in the game except for villagers occasionally referring to Dracula and his minions.

Castlevania II also attempted several innovations over it predecessor. While the original Castlevania was a fairly straightforward level by level experience, Castlevania II allows you to roam freely throughout the game world. While the game is still a side-scrolling affair, leaving the edge of one area takes you to the next area. By doing this you can find new places, including towns with villagers to talk to and buy equipment from and mansions which house Dracula's body parts. Castlevania II gives you the ability to hold several different items and choose between which ones to use. You gain hearts by killing monsters and use these to buy items, and by killing enough monsters, you level up and gain more health/take less damage from monsters. Castlevania II also implements a Day/Night system where monsters get much tougher at night and start roaming in villages while many villagers go inside and lock their doors.

All of these innovations could be really interesting, if they were done well, but they generally are not. The fact that the game features quite a bit of exploration should generally be a good idea. You can pretty much go anywhere from the beginning of the game, although you will have trouble with the monsters in some areas. You can also, generally, tackle the mansions in any order although you may often need the right item to progress far. This is one of the big problems with the exploratory aspect of the game. In order to get certain items or progress in areas, you often have to do random things like kneeling in a certain place with a certain item. In most games of this sort, the villagers would give you clues to help you figure out what to do. In this game, the villagers often give you red herrings ("Get a silk bag from the Graveyard Duck to live longer"). You can be assured of getting truthful clues by finding the books in mansion, but these are often incredibly obscure ("A FLAME FLICKERS INSIDE THE RING OF FIRE.") I'd be amazed if anyone were able to finish this game without getting any outside help.

This game retains the play control of the original game. You whip horizontally in front of you. When you jump, you have a set height and distance and have no ability to change your trajectory in mid-air. These things basically worked in the first Castlevania because it was designed around them. Sure, it was frustrating to attempt to jump over a pit and have no way to kill the Medusa head about to hit you and drop you into it, but for the most part, that game didn't require mid-air acrobatics. The sequel focuses much more on platforming to its great detriment. There are several jumps in the game that require you to wait until the last second to jump in order to get maximum height and distance. If you make a mistake and jump too soon you are often dead. Dying because you are a pixel off makes the game feel cheap. The play control in regards to attacking feels pretty good and works well. It is a shame they made jumping so important.

There are a good variety of enemies in the game, at least in the outdoor portions. All sorts of skeletons, ghouls, wolves, spiders, and more make up a pretty good gallery of enemies. The enemies are never too tough so long as you have regularly been buying whip upgrades. Once inside the mansions, the enemy variety drops significantly. All the different mansions have basically the same enemies so you lose variety. Because of this lack of variety, you learn the enemies well and they cease to be too much of a challenge. Also, only two of the mansions have bosses at the end of them (three if you include Dracula at the end of the game) and the bosses are incredibly easy to defeat.

Challenge in general is a big issue in this game. In the first Castlevania, the challenge was largely on how to defeat the enemies without getting hurt yourself. Here, the enemies themselves are easy. The bosses are ridiculously easy - Dracula can famously be defeated before he has a chance to move. The challenge comes in figuring out what random item to use in what random place by deciphering clues or figuring out which of the villagers to listen to. It also comes in making incredibly precise jumps with an annoying jumping mechanic. So basically, the challenge comes from the unfun parts of the game, while the fun monster-killing stuff hardly presents any challenge.

Where this game somewhat redeems itself is in the graphics and sound department. The NES Castlevania series always had some very impressive artwork in the characters and backgrounds and this installment certainly lives up. The outside enemies are colorful and well detailed as are the forest, lake, and other areas you explore. Once inside the mansions, the color palette basically consists of grays, but at least the art is still very detailed, especially in the rooms with Dracula's body parts. The music is absolutely amazing. There is a reason that most video game cover bands do some Castlevania tracks. While the first game had some really good tracks, this game gets all it can out of the NES' 4-channel sound chip. The theme that plays while outside is just incredible and one I would happily have on my CD player.

So, in the end this just isn't a good game. Not because they changed the Castlevania format, but because it isn't well executed. Wandering through the outdoor areas and killing monsters can be fun, but the act of attempting to finish the game isn't. It is even worse than the random exploring required in The Legend of Zelda or Metroid because you are required to do more random things and may actually be led astray. Once you decide to just look up where to go and what to do, the game becomes incredibly easy save for frustrating jumping elements. In such a storied series, this version is definitely a mis-step. Fortunately, most of the of series' fans realize that.

Rating: 4 / 10

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