Sunday, October 31, 2010

Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia Review

In time for Halloween, I’ve taken the time to play through Order of Ecclesia. I would have done it sometime eventually, but I’m glad I got to it. Being the third in the DS Castlevania series, those of you who have played either Dawn of Sorrow or Portrait of Ruin will be familiar with the gameplay style of OoE.

Developed by Konami
Published by Konami
Platform: NDS
Reviewed on: NDS (Marty)

Taking place in the early 19th century, Dracula is dead and his essence is trapped in a sealed device. The Order of Ecclesia is an organization which was created to stop Dracula’s next return by studying this essence to create magical glyphs, intended to destroy Dracula. The game’s protagonist, Shanoa is chosen as the bearer of these glyphs called Dominus, and in the introduction she is about to absorb them, but becomes interrupted by her colleague, Albus. Albus is very jealous that Barlowe, their master chose Shanoa as the vessel of Dominus before him, and steals Dominus. Shanoa is rendered unconscious and left with amnesia. When she wakes up, Barlowe explains to her that Albus wanted Dominus for himself and that she has to go get it back, being the only hope to stop Dracula’s revival.

The story of the game has its plot twists and interesting turns. It is perhaps not the best one I’ve experienced, but it does tell it well. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that it feels traditional as well as new, and if you’re familiar with Castlevania in general, you’d have a good chance of figuring out how things go.

The game plays a lot like Dawn of Sorrow, with the biggest difference being that this is a semi-stage/semi-Metroidvania title. What that means is that there’s a map screen on which you choose which stage to go to. When you exit a stage, you can always go back and explore it as many times as you wish, so it’s still no less linear than the Metroidvania titles. I commend Konami tremendously for this design choice, as it works and fits excellently in the Castlevania franchise, and is somewhat new at the same time. Something else that is different is the Glyph system. This is very reminiscent of Aria and Dawn of Sorrow’s Soul system, and I even caught myself calling them souls on many occasions. When some enemies die, they can drop a glyph that Shanoa can then absorb. You can then equip these glyphs which will grant you different abilities, but they take more of the weapon-role in this one. There are two attack buttons, A and X (you can configure the buttons however you like) which you can set attack glyphs to, be it physical or magical ones. Then you can also set a miscellaneous glyph to R, to provide stat changes as well as other things. As such, there are no weapons in the game, but the glyphs instead. This works very well, and enables new interesting features such as alternating between the two attack glyphs for faster attacks. You can also make a combined special attack (for example, if you have a sword glyph and a fire glyph equipped, you might conjure a flame sword, and so on). That being said, there are still armor and accessories to find and equip in the game.

The level system works like the previous RPG titles, but also spices it up with some FF II/Morrowind logic, in that there are seven different attributes of attack, and the more you use a certain attribute, the stronger it will become. However, the progression is reaaaally slow, but it allows for a more lasting gameplay experience.

Another interesting aspect is that there is a hub in the form of a village. Its inhabitants have been kidnapped, and you have to rescue one by one to get them back. Once rescued, they will ask you for favors (ungrateful bastards), so that they might establish their business better in the village. These side quests usually involve “fetch that item for me”, and it can sometimes seem like a random hunt, but at least you’re rewarded for doing it. It’s also here where the only shop in the game is. It doesn’t carry a lot of items, but the stock increases as you help the villagers. They also sell “Magical Tickets”, which can teleport you back to the village from anywhere, which is nice if you’re in a pickle.

Order of Ecclesia took a big leap in art design from the last title, Portrait of Ruin, which is very well welcomed. I personally prefer Ayami Kojima’s design, but this is once again sort of a blend between that and the cartoon-style that DoS and PoR had (characters change expressions in dialogs, etc.). Graphically, the game looks superb and animations are as smooth as you could hope for. The various sprites for armor, items, and accessories are still done in what resembles 16-bit graphics, which could be disturbing for some that would expect more out of 2008 game out there, but I still say that it has its charm. There are also a lot of cool glyph effects, and some areas even convey the feeling of being in 3D. As for the music, it is top-notch as we would expect from a composer such as Michiru Yamane. The whole soundtrack feels very traditional and faithful to the rest of the series, with even some retro tidbits in there for oldschool Castlevania fans (records that contain famous 8-bit songs, which you can get a hold of in-game and listen to in any area!). It’s troubling that Yamane left Konami after working on OoE. Like previous DS titles, some voice acting is present, and you can choose between English and Japanese talents. Somehow, the English Shanoa manages to remind me a little too much of Xena, the Warrior Princess ...

The game controls pretty much like any other Castlevania, and almost identically to the other DS titles. You can, as I’ve mentioned earlier, set the button configuration however you like, and the controls provide no flaws whatsoever. Excellent. Touch control plays an even more insignificant role in this iteration however. It’s mainly used for selecting where to teleport to and putting marks on your maps, so no navigation in menus. I almost never used it, but I think it’s good that Konami aren’t trying to enforce touch control to be the main focus just because of the platform of choice.

Upon completion, you receive no less than five new features, including the usual Sound Test and Boss Rush, as well as a Hard Mode and a mode where you control an NPC from the main game. And that’s not bad at all. Order of Ecclesia is lengthy, and especially if you intend to go for all glyphs and drops there are in the game. The difficulty is also challenging. Maybe it was just me, but some of the bosses were the hardest I’ve fought in the entire series.

There’s an online “Race” mode that lets you compete against a random player or friend to see who can finish a short stage first. You collect points for killing enemies, preserving your HP and hearts, and finishing the stage quickly. It’s not the best at finding opponents, but I’d blame Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection for that. Overall, it’s an alright mini-game, but no big deal. There’s also the Shop mode from DoS and PoR, which lets you trade items with other players online.

Summarization: Order of Ecclesia took a step back, looked at the Castlevania series and took the best aspects of each game, but still invented new content enough to make it the greatest Castlevania title to date, surpassing the much overrated Symphony of the Night. And I stand by that. If things go as they have up until now, the future is bright for portable Castlevania.

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