Monthly Archives: November 2008

On Orders and Ecclesiastics

The 2D Castlevania series of games has existed safely nestled within the tropes it established for itself since its 32-bit (arguable) masterpiece, Symphony of the Night. Almost every game since has featured metroidvania free-roaming castle exploring, experience leveling, and red herrings appearing halfway through. It was a pretty good formula, especially given the usual high quality of the music and the tiny tweaks made to vary the titles. Even the occasionally frustrating touch-screen feature in the first DS title, Dawn of Sorrow, was welcome and neat. It changed the atmosphere ever so slightly, which was necessary given that it was a direct sequel of Aria of Sorrow.

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The new DS game, Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, attempts to shake-up the formula by introducing a feature abandoned after the 16-bit console games – linearity. For the most part, the incredibly large, living castle of previous games is abandoned for individual stages. The stages are relatively short, but they do each contain their own miserable little pile of secrets, including multiple exits which open up additional stages. However, after you complete a stage, you do not need to travel through it again to reach either the stages before or after it. There’s a simple map that lets you jump from place to place instead. While I find it odd, I must commend its ease of use.

The staging is something I find much more interesting than the new character’s supposedly unique abilities. Again, since Symphony of the Night, ever protagonist has brought something new to the table, usually in the form of powers. Shanoa, the first female lead protagonist since Sonia of Castlevania: Legends was officially retconned out of the official timeline, borrows and expands on the powers held by Soma Cruz in Aria of Sorrow and Dawn of Sorrow. Like Soma, she absorbs powers from enemies – but unlike Soma, the powers are the only weapons she’s given. It’s a neat idea, actually. Most powers can be equipped to either her left or right hand, so she can duel-wield weapons or spells, or even one weapon and one spell. An additional attack, using hearts collected (another old staple of the series), is accomplished by holding the up button and pressing an attack button – unifying the two powers into an even more powerful attack. It’s neat, but it’s only neat.

Other than that, the tropes are still in place. How does this work out? It’s not a very good brewing. With the stages being linear and unnecessary to traverse to get from one to another, it creates a much shorter game. Backtracking was certainly annoying at times in previous titles, but it added depth and helped establish a world in the minds of the players. I just think they were lacking in save points, but that’s common in most attempts to create challenge. Ecclesia ramps up challenge in its shorter stages by making enemies much stronger than they were in previous games. No matter what armor you equip, it’s hard to protect Shanoa because I’m pretty sure she’s made of paper-mache. There are three solutions to this: more conservative fighting (which only goes so far but was my chosen technique), leveling up before attempting the newer stages, or being lucky enough to score a random power drop that greatly enhances Shanoa’s ability to progress.

Shanoa’s lack of physical constitution appears to be a bane for many players of the game because of the handful of boss encounters. Before I go on, I have to say that I enjoyed fighting the bosses. Not necessarily because of the challenge but because they were strategically placed obstacles to block a player’s progress. Some boss encounters are at the end of a stage, blocking a mandatory power that the player must get, and then the player has to trek back to the beginning of the stage to escape. Some bosses are in the middle of a stage. The occasionally boss is at the beginning of the stage, catching most players off guard. Aside from that, many of them fight like Gradius-bosses. They have set patterns you have to recognize, moments where you can’t fight but instead have to spend time dodging, and your character certainly will die if you get hit more than a handful of times. For this reason, the game actually rewards players with in-game medals if they beat a boss without getting hit. (Note: I received not a single medal and don’t plan on it.)

The difficulty boost was necessary because, with the stage setup and everything, the game was just so short. While I’m known to prefer shorter games, this fails to be a good pick-up-and-play title because you can’t zip through it, especially not to the good ending. Shortening the game but adhering to other Castlevania tropes puts this game in an state of being. Shortness suggests quickly shooting through the game; but the experience system suggests that you can’t just run through and get to the end of a stage, the luck stat-based power drop means you won’t necessarily pick up almost necessary abilities for advancement, and the red herring mid-game boss requires you do some exploring of every stage to find what you need to advance. Strangely, this game doesn’t provide any hints to what is necessary for passing the mid-game boss safely until after you’ve defeated him and have achieved the “bad end”. (Even then, it doesn’t share that you’ll have to do some classic Castlevania secret-finding – meaning hitting all walls to find out if they break. At least one was hidden in a Donkey Kong 2-esque manner – just ask Sirlin, who doesn’t seem to enjoy the hotlinking of his pages or something: http://www.sirlin.net/archive/hiding-secrets-in-platform-games/.)

Like the Castlevania handhelds before it, Ecclesia tries to bolster its replay value with further exploration, a bonus dungeon, and additional play modes that include a boss rush and the ability to play as another character. Like the Castlevania handhelds before it, I’m uninterested in the additional modes. I’m actually less interested in this game than I was the previous ones because of its length. The short level design and short overall feel of the game made me feel detached from the game playing experience. I wasn’t presented with a world that made me not want to leave it. There’s no longing to exploring the pirate ship under the sea. There’s no longing to return to the “Giant’s Dwelling”. And why do I want to go to a bonus dungeon? It just sounds like more work. The boss rush mode is compelling, but I’m not into timed game play unless I’m playing a racing game. I attempted playing with the new character, but the mode completely foregoes a narrative and provides a strangely overpowered character – who continually levels up mind you, so there’s never a concern about difficulty. The character has ranged attacks, so I was hoping that it would be like playing as Mega Man in a Castlevania-themed world, but it didn’t work. Mega Man feels right because he is consistently powered through the game. One shot to take out weak enemies and between 3 and 10 for stronger ones. So long as you stick to the arm cannon, this is consistent as you progress. This character in Ecclesia kills most enemies in the beginning with three or four shots of his weakest ability – and you’re given four different attacks from the beginning. I played through two stages, advanced a few experience levels, and started killing the most weak enemies with a single shot. One would think it would be fun to take a previously challenging world and walk through it without having to take a breath. It’s not.

Order of Ecclesia is a game that I can’t recommend buying at full price. It’s worth playing through once for the experience of it, because it is another Castlevania game. It’s just lacking something. It feels like a transitional title. The series creator probably wants to change the direction of the series, and this was only a step. Well, here’s a suggestion: Dropping one cliché at a time until something new comes up is not the way to go; newness is not a variant but rather a revolution. (Or, in the case of Mega Man 9, a devolution.)


The Short List
What it did right: the music was the usual high standard of Castlevania titles, the control was tight and concise, each boss was a unique and fun experience in itself, and the map function between stages created an appreciably easy function for advancement…

What it did wrong: …which unfortunately made for an even shorter game than would have been experienced with its already short stages, the powers weren’t varied enough, leveling seems out of place in this style of action-adventure game, the story was boring with the plot twists fairly cliché (for the series), and there’s little to no replay value unless the player is a neurotic completist or obsessed with Castlevania titles

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It’s hard to fear zombies who lag behind us

Simon Pegg on why the undead should never be allowed to run

This piece is ultimately interesting to me not because a writer-slash-actor I enjoy has voiced his opinion, but it he seems to be fairly knowledgeable about the zombie movie mythos. I hadn’t thought about things the same way he did, and I’ve come to love lurking, stumbling zombies all the more. It’s not just about the dead coming back to life. It’s about a force of nature that comes in droves. You can see it coming, but there’s very little you can do about it. The recourse is to survive. Hole yourself up because nature is coming to swallow you whole. Remember Armageddon and Deep Impact? Zombie films are the allegorical equivalent. I always thought of them as the end of the world, but I didn’t see them elevated to the point of natural disaster.

Zombie films have evolved so much over the years. As Pegg states, they were originally about voodoo curses. Then they became Romero’s force of nature with a strange cannibal and vampire/werewolf twist. Except to be a zombie, in most cases, you simply need to die during the time period – you don’t necessarily need to be bitten. These days there are offshoots. 28 Days Later introduced a zombie-like virus, spread by blood. The allegory has changed. It’s no longer a force of nature but a force accidentally formed by man and spread by blood. Obviously this represents something akin to HIV. I’d almost argue it’s a somewhat more subversive attempt to tackle what slasher flicks tried to represent – the dangers of loose sex. After all, how did so many people get the rage virus so quickly?

They’re not zombies, but I find them much more interesting to talk about than the remake of Dawn of the Dead. I liked the original, so the remake wasn’t all that great to me. Plus fast zombies don’t make sense unless they’re, y’know, not walking corpses. 28 Days Later had an explanation for its change in the myth. However, I don’t agree with Pegg’s view that Dawn made the change to appeal to the MTV generation.

I think it’s a natural changing of the guard. The myths have to change over time because the nature of the myths doesn’t necessarily work anymore. Romero’s last two zombie films tanked at the box office. While I enjoyed them, Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead didn’t make money, and people bitch about a certain lack of quality in the films. I think the movies are right on par with the original trilogy of Dead films, but maybe I’m behind the times. Maybe tastes have changed because we don’t fear the slow tide of dead-reaping-dead coming toward us anymore.

We’re haunted by 9/11. Hurricane Katrina ravaged our families. Hurricane Ike sent shivers down our spines. Now we’re in the midst of a sudden financial crisis. Impending doom doesn’t seem realistic to us anymore. Getting hit in the face by fate? That’s a whole new matter.

Zombies overwhelming us slowly but surely doesn’t seem to fit snugly with our worldview anymore. Something fast moving for which we can’t necessarily prepare is logical. It frightens us because that’s what we have right now. Our devastation is immediate. Our monsters don’t announce their presence from yards away. Once we know our monsters are here, like Kenshiro says, “You’re already dead.”

The Dawn of the Dead remake doesn’t work because it takes an old myth and fails to update it properly. It’s trying to turn old monsters into new monsters. It’s like taking Dracula and turning him into a raging lunatic beast instead of the monster who invited you into his castle and slowly but surely tried to turn the maiden while fighting off the hero. But this generation praised Dawn because its zombies were made in the image of our current demons.

These days you know what horror films work based on what gets a sequel. Various remakes of Japanese films have been brought over, but they don’t speak to our culture. People see them, then the films rot away. What I’ve noticed work? Hostel and Saw. Our demons take us without our realizing it, and then we’re literally placed in hell. Saw gives the victims a chance, but there’s a price. Our solutions may involve losing a piece of ourselves. In Hostel there are no solutions. Of course, it’s a little more directive if you think about it – the demons are the rich. Come to think of it, Jigsaw in Saw is old. Are our current demons the old and the rich?

The funny thing is that Romero tried to make that point in Land of the Dead. The biggest monster in the movie was the man who owned the safest haven. The rich lived in separate world from everyone else, not spreading the wealth and inviting the other survivors in to help them. It ultimately became their undoing. The problem is that it’s hard to see what Romero is trying to say because viewers have been primed to see our demons in the form of the title monsters. But the zombies weren’t the monsters. Come to think of it, Romero gave up his own force of nature metaphor. He saw that they don’t fit the current concerns. In fact, I’d argue that the zombie world is simply a backdrop now. Maybe the zombie film can’t speak to us anymore.

I hate to turn this in a political direction, but last night there was a pretty sweeping Democratic victory in the United States. The view of the previous Republican regime was crusty old men with wealth and unnecessary power. Our problems are not solved, but many saw their presence in top spots as an issue. Now that they’re gone…will our demons in horror films change?