Friday, 19 October 2012

Horror Season II - 'Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness'

Konami’s Castlevania franchise is one of the longest running and most famous videogame series still in existence. Having begun in glorious 8bit style during the late 80s, the Belmont clan’s vendetta against a certain vampire overlord has continuously evolved, regressed, innovated and shot itself in the foot many times over the years. The late 90s marked a turning point for the horror saga, as gamers were introduced to not one, but two bold new stabs at renovating the Castlevania brand.

First up was Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, a 2D sidescroller released in 1997 for the original PlayStation that largely dispelled with the linear gameplay set by previous instalments by incorporating RPG elements and the now familiar ‘Metroidvania’ game design. A sleeper hit, Symphony became so popular that it’s often considered the be-all and end-all of anything remotely ‘Vania by fans (I’m more of a Super Castlevania IV man myself).

Then, in 1999, the series’ first foray into 3D was unleashed: Castlevania 64. It should have been a spectacular debut on Nintendo’s console, but to the shock of many, it proved less popular than the technically less ambitious Symphony of the Night – hardly the result Konami was hoping for. All leads pointed to a rushed development and premature launch, essentially leaving Castlevania 64 unfinished. Whether or not this criticism was taken on board, Konami produced a follow-up within the same year. Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness was a ‘Director’s Cut’ of their first attempt that promised to right past wrongs and finally give us the complete 3D Castlevania experience.

I’ll type it now: Legacy of Darkness isn’t great. Clumsy gameplay, rubbish graphics and an unfocused difficulty curve are all sadly present and correct… but it remains my earliest horror gaming experience, so I cling to it with sickening nostalgic affection. This was also my introduction to the series; without it I may never have discovered the earlier (and, yeah, much better) Castlevania games, so I’ve got to give it that at least. 

Set several years before the events of Castlevania 64, you don’t play a whip-cracking Belmont descendant in Legacy of Darkness (henceforth abbreviated to LoD). Instead, you are the lycanthropic man-beast Cornell, who returns home from adventures abroad and finds his village burned to the ground by the inhuman forces of Count Dracula. Cornell quickly discovers that his adoptive human sister, Ada, has been kidnapped, and that she will soon be used as a sacrifice to fully resurrect the Prince of Darkness. Following the scent of her blood, the werewolf begins a fraught journey into the very heart of evil to rescue her. 

My synopsis may have been a tad melodramatic, but it is quite the excursion to Dracula’s lair, with plenty of stage diversity along the way. Your first port of call is a moored ship overrun with lizard men and reanimated skeletons (the little Jason and the Argonauts fan in me was thrilled) where you’re attacked by a loogie-yacking sea serpent. Slay the beast and thou shalt continue into the forest and encounter goblins, zombies and vicious man-beasts, after which the ominous castle wall awaits (where the doors lock of their own volition depending on what time of day it is... yeah). Keep on trekking and you’ll eventually reach the many tower stages, with each ascent possessing its own unique theme (e.g. ‘Tower of Sorcery’ or ‘Tower of Execution’). Naturally, it wouldn’t be Castlevania without a maddening ‘Clock Tower’ level right near the end that’s clearly been designed as a method of testing the density of that wall you’re sitting nearest.

One of the more memorable areas is simply titled ‘Villa’. It’s technically more of a mansion, and delivers plenty of old fashioned horror thrills, like ghost-ridden libraries or stained glass window knights breaking into life. It’s also here that you’ll first be confronted by vampires. At my initial tender age, I found their introduction – complete with a graphic close-up of one’s fanged and bloodstained 64bit visage – to be quite mortifying in a fuzzy, low-rez way. Things get goofy when you head into the hedge maze garden, though. Once outside, you’re set upon by motorcycle-riding skeletons (and not the cool kind). Dealing with them remains one my most surreal memories, but it’s quickly offset by the terror that’s waiting deeper in the maze: a clanking, patchwork Frankenstein’s monster with a chainsaw for one arm who absolutely cannot be killed. Run away. 

As a side note, I’m not sure how all this is meant to fit inside the city walls, but then again, I don’t know why there’s roast chicken hidden in dissolvable lanterns (?), so I shan’t start questioning logic now.    

But this being a 3rd person adventure game released at the turn of the millennium, you can always count on each new location to supply its own torturous dose of platforming! These days, we love to complain about quick-time-events and regenerating health, but lest we forget, we once had to face a much greater horror – the camera. Oh, we’d have a time and a half finding the perfect viewing angle that wouldn’t guarantee a plummeting demise. This affected even the best that console generation had to offer (yes, Mario 64 included), but Konami made it extra painful in LoD. Warning bells should start going off when you realise how there are, in fact, four different camera modes. There’s ‘Action’ mode for general movement, ‘Battle’ to help target enemies, ‘Boss’ to get a better view of the giant buggers, while last and by all means least: ‘Auto’.

‘Auto’ kicks in when you approach a platforming area. The camera zooms out so you can more easily tell where you need to jump and clamber to, or at least that’s the idea. On paper, I bet it seemed like a great idea, but the view you’re given almost always makes it difficult to gauge how far/close you are to a safe landing or two broken legs. Couple that with the already clunky controls, and it’s like the game wants you to swan dive into that chasm. Still, nothing compares to how you’ll feel after finally making that leap... only to be knocked into poisonous water by the lizard man you couldn’t quite see (MOTHERFU-).

LoD also dates back to a time when proper, cinematic stories were still hard to come by in gaming. Not every other title wanted to be the next Bioshock, and most of us were happy to continuously progress from A to B before finally killing whatever lurked at C. What’s surprising, then, is how LoD does boast several memorable plot points beyond the whole “They took his sister... now he’s taking them down!” Seagal shtick.

Little touches stand out – like the young boy Cornell protects after his father is turned into a ravenous vampire, or the well-dressed salesman who also happens to be a demon from Hell declaring how slow business is down there (depending on how much you spend, you may even need to fight him later). Then there’s Ortega, a fellow man-beast and old rival of Cornell’s who’s betrayed their kind for the unlimited power promised by Dracula. He’s not in the game much, but the path to your inevitable confrontation with him is an enjoyable subplot. There’s more here than simply thwacking creatures of the night!

Okay, okay, it is mostly about thwacking creatures of the night... often with extreme prejudice. In addition to Cornell’s claws and weird, err, sonic boom attack (I guess), there’s a small collection of secondary projectile weapons to find. Each of these could be temporarily levelled up for a more powerful end result, but you likely won’t bother with the meagre throwing knife even with the extra oomph when there’s holy water and boomerang crosses to play with (as every Castlevania head case will attest to). Still, I always had a soft spot for the trusty axe which, if fully charged, would strike its target with a ginormous bolt of lightning upon impact in a hilarious display of Norse Deity-styled overkill.

Indeed, between Cornell’s weapons and his ability to change into a more powerful wolf form, it doesn’t take much to kill the supernatural nasties of LoD. You’re far more likely to die during one of those aforementioned platforming incidents than from the business end of an animated suit of armour’s sword. The bosses are mostly pushovers too. Whether it’s a giant skeleton bounding around on all fours or a two-headed, fire breathing snake, it’s just a case of hammering the kill button. Plus, if your health does drop too low, you can always pause the game at any time to consume a whole Sunday roast. How would that even work, anyway? Oh, sorry, would you give me a minute to eat this and recover my strength? Well thanks, that’s very kind of you! No... you can’t have any.  

Fittingly, the end encounter with Dracula provides a climactic challenge. You ascend the steps to his keep at the castle’s highest point, wherein there’s the obligatory pre-ultimate confrontation plot revelations, and the fight is on! Similar to another popular virtual villain, Ganon, Drac’s attacks haven’t changed too much over the years, so long-time series followers will already be prepared his teleporting trickster methods. But it’s still a pain having to balance: A) Looking for him, B) Evading his fancy shockwave/fireball/suction assault, and C) Getting close enough to actually land a blow.    

Whittle his life down and, in a series staple, Vlad transforms into his ‘true self’ (which, going by Castlevania chronology, he’s got at least twenty of). In this instance, he takes the guise of a muscular and seemingly blind winged demon with marble skin, whose chest opens up to reveal the Dark Lord’s face (no prizes for guessing the weak spot). It’s a tough battle, even with ready-to-eat roasts stuffed down your trousers, as the gruesome sumbitch spams you with flaming boulders, icy shards, electrical discharges and screaming souls of the damned! And all in a ridiculously cramped arena that gives you little room to hop, jump and skip over the crap he chucks your way.

You’ll sweat blood before it’s over, but persevere and Dracula will fall. Again. But it doesn’t end there! Defeating the Count unlocks three new playable characters! Well, one new guy – little Henry all grown up and back to rescue kidnapped children in his own mini quest – and the two main protagonists from Castlevania 64 in their original (if spruced up) adventure – Belmont heir Reinhart Schneider and little girl witch Carrie Fernandez. Yep, it’s the same game as before, just with a few minor additions (new music, stages and boss fights with a giant spider queen and the gorgon Medusa) there to hopefully convince buyers that LoD wasn’t just a sneaky cash grab... ‘cept it kinda was.  

If, like me, you hadn’t bought Castlevania 64, then this pseudo-prequel / extended edition would represent good value for money, much like a proto-Game of the Year release. Today, I’m sure Cornell’s quest would be released as overpriced downloadable content for us all to whinge about on the internet (after, you know, buying anyway).

Like I typed, Legacy of Darkness was far from brilliant and, looking back, an unfortunate misfire on Konami’s part. There would be more middling 3D experiments to come on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox systems (not to mention one rather woeful attempt at a Wii fighting game), further cementing the notion that this was one series which didn’t need an extra dimension.

But all good things, etc. Konami eventually handed MercurySteam, a little-known Spanish developer, the reigns to their darling horror opus... and gold was at long last struck in 2010 with the release of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, a critically acclaimed reboot that simultaneously reinvigorated interest in the series and paved the way for future instalments.

Castlevania’s Nintendo 64 history may be looked back on with some trepidation (Cornell’s adventure in particular is something of a curio today), but it made its mark and, for better or worse, added to a rich gaming mythology now over twenty years in the making... and which looks set to continue for quite some time.      

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