Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia
Based on: Metroidvania, plus separate levels and a town; glyph-based magic; the first female lead to make it into series canon.
Article by Ben Elgin | August 13, 2009
I missed out on portable gaming. Sure, the Game Boy looked like it offered a few neat things, but mostly it seemed to be home to smaller and less colorful versions of the great game I was playing on my NES and Super NES. And since I was the kind of kid who didn't get out much, the need to glue myself to the family television to partake of Nintendo's console offerings wasn't exactly a drawback. There was the occasional marquee title that made me glance over with regret -- the usual suspects like Link's Awakening, and some that tickled my personal interests like Final Fantasy Adventure -- but they were never enough for me to take the plunge.
And thus it remained until about 2006, when the combined weight of the DS and GBA libraries finally made me purchase a DS Lite. They offered a home for 2D genres born in the NES and Super NES days, which since have been largely abandoned by the consoles; but this wasn't just an issue of nostalgia. No, this was better than nostalgia. This was a chance for developers to draw on two decades worth of experience and experiments in game design, and produce works that outstripped their inspirations. An entire generation based on reaching new heights of refinement amidst well-explored territory, rather than fumbling about with the latest technology.
This is not the castle we usually start in...
But enough about that; let's talk Castlevania. The series began in 1987 (1986 in Japan) as a solid but somewhat clumsy platformer that stood out for its atmosphere, its bosses based on Universal Studios monsters, and its system of heart-powered sub-weapons. It flirted with RPG concepts such as equipment and experience in Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, but returned to basic platforming for Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, Super Castlevania IV, and Rondo of Blood.
In 1997, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night? provided a turning point for the series, attributed in part to incoming director Koji Igarashi, and helped cement what would later become known as the Metroidvania style of game. In addition to the returning RPG elements of experience levels and an extensive collection of weapons and armor to be equipped, it did away with separate stages entirely, instead presenting the player with a huge interconnected map of Dracula's castle to navigate with the aid of various skills picked up along the way. The experiment was widely seen as a huge success. While future console entries attempted to adapt the series into 3D with what could charitably be called "variable" levels of success, the Metroidvania style continued on the GBA and DS where the basic idea was more or less repeated. And then repeated some more.
Four games later, one began to wonder if the perpetually-resurrected eponymous castle was really the be-all, end-all of the Castlevania universe, or whether a bit of a throwback to linear stages might not be a breath of fresh air. Portrait of Ruin took a stab at this idea, peppering the castle with framed portraits that acted as gateways to other areas around Europe and the world. It worked out reasonably well, although the game as a whole seemed a bit rushed. Finally, though, two years later, Order of Ecclesia took the idea and ran with it.
Travel the country side, meet interesting creatures, bash them in the head.
The "world map" presented in Ecclesia is more akin to illustrations found in some earlier games' manuals than anything actually used in previous gameplay. Protagonist Shanoa can quickly travel to any stage that's been opened by completing the stages leading up to it -- most are regions about the size of an early Castlevania level, though some are short linear stretches representing a path between areas, and some are larger environments that must be traversed more than once from different directions. Of particular note is Wygol Village, the first fully fleshed-out town to appear in a 2D Castlevania game since Simon's Quest.
The village naturally contains the item and equipment shops that show up in one form or another in every Metroidvania-style chapter of the series, but many other townsfolk gather there as well once Shanoa rescues them. Unlike their distant forebears, their usefulness isn't merely limited to giving highly dubious "hints" -- instead, they give out quests to find items, to slay monsters, or even to perform more esoteric tasks like taking photos of rare wildlife for a local broadsheet. The quests are entirely optional, generally rewarding Shanoa with new equipment upon completion. They're good mainly for a little something extra to do on the way from point A to point B, especially as several can be active at once and they have no time limits. The quest system had also been given something of a test run with Wind's quests in Portrait of Ruin, but it's considerably more fleshed out here.
Of course, when anywhere but the Village, Shanoa's main activity is killing monsters. Symphony of the Night's Alucard started a tradition of protagonist-as-weaponmaster, with main characters from then on wielding a wide variety of melee weaponry instead of just the classic whip. Alucard's small arsenal of spells, which seemed something of an afterthought, were expanded upon in later handheld games which used magic cards, spellbooks, or the very souls of enemies to allow a plethora of magic effects. Shanoa's Glyph system combines both aspects of combat into one streamlined whole.
Hanging in Wygol Village with her peeps.
Shanoa can choose three magic glyphs (one on each hand and one on her back) for use at any time, and all combat options flow through this system. Melee weapon glyphs come in various types and strengths, and can be equipped to both hands for rapid dual-wielding action. Various elemental spells are found as well, and the two can be mixed and matched freely -- broadsword in your right hand, lightning in your left. Back glyphs tend to be more passive in nature, granting stat increases or special abilities, though some can change Shanoa's entire form. The opportunities to design new builds and fighting styles are vast, and more so than in most recent Castlevania games, the builds you choose really matter.
See, Ecclesia is hard. Or at least, it can be, if you don't take advantage of all its options. In most of the Igarashi-led games to this point, simply equipping the strongest weapons and armor and maybe gaining a few levels was enough to steamroll most enemies and shrug off their damage. In Ecclesia, both bosses and regular enemies hit hard, and death comes frequently to an unprepared Shanoa. The biggest secret is affinities and weaknesses—what was something of an interesting bonus detail allowing you to kill some things more quickly in earlier games is absolutely vital here. Hitting an enemy's weakness can be the difference between a successful foray and a grueling slog.
And affinities here don't just mean elemental magic, but also the slashing or bashing attributes of the melee glyphs. Fortunately, the applications are usually fairly intuitive. In addition to the requisite fantasy standards of evil monsters weak to holy and water creatures weak to lightning, it's a good bet that anything made of bones or sporting a hard shell fall much faster to a hammer glyph than a rapier. Common sense (and maybe a little experience with Vagrant Story) will take you far—and in a pinch, there's always the in-game bestiary to check your assumptions against.
Given that Shanoa eschews the cold steel of physical weaponry, all of her attacks are in some sense magical, and draw on the same MP pool. This works out better than one might at first think -- the MP bar drains roughly in proportion to the power of the attack being delivered, and refills rather quickly whenever Shanoa takes a break from her offensive. After the first few MP up items have been acquired, running out is rare, and mainly serves to prevent a player from simply spamming the same rapid attack indefinitely. The system encourages creativity in attack patterns without being unduly punishing.
Meanwhile, since there are no sub-weapons here, the series staple of "hearts" are put to a different use—they power Unions, super-strong attacks that combine the attributes of Shanoa's currently equipped glyphs. Since hearts, as usual, are only regained through the slow process of collection from local lighting fixtures, these attacks must be carefully rationed, but can be the key to getting out of a tight situation -- especially when applied with an eye towards those all-important enemy weaknesses.
Shanoa brings the fire and the lightning.
The new use for the hearts system is emblematic of Ecclesia's tendency to take cues from the series' long history and adapt them to its own ends. Secret chests that appear when Shanoa kneels in certain areas call back to obscure hidden treasures in the very first game, but here are usually pointed out by suggestively arranged torches or conspicuously empty platforms. Familiars, first appearing in Symphony of the Night, show up here when certain enemies drop a glyph that can be equipped to Shanoa's back to summon their brethren. And occasionally the game indulges in outright callbacks -- tasty meat hidden in a castle wall, or records which play classic 8-bit Castlevania tunes when activated.
Ecclesia also taps into the sort of attention to detail that made Symphony of the Night such a hit. The stormy, dynamic environment of Kalidus Channel is gorgeous to look at and interesting to navigate, but what really puts a smile on your face is when you notice, perhaps upon coming back later on a quest, the tiny wave-tossed rubber ducky washed up by a cavern. Or the fact that when you use a glyph to transform Shanoa into a cat-woman (which is completely awesome, by the way), not only will feline enemies become friendly and fight alongside Shanoa, but she also gains the ability to converse with the normal domesticated cats in town, who provide hints helpful for finding some particularly obscure treasures.
In the end, Ecclesia owes everything to the two decades of series history that came before it. But it mixes those elements in novel ways, adjusting and refining elements to a honed finish of challenging and satisfying gameplay. It forges new directions by extending and adapting series traditions -- a stellar example of past and future working together.
Yes, there is a giant enemy crab, and you'd better hope you're hitting its weak point.
Images courtesy of VG Museum