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.
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