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Castlevania: Lament of Innocence
Score: 92%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Konami
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1
Genre: Action/ Adventure/ Platformer

Graphics & Sound:
There's something about beating the snot out of monsters with a whip while you explore a creepy castle that makes for a fun gaming experience. Since the 1980s, the Castlevania series has been one of the most successful game franchises ever, with more than 20 games released worldwide. Most of the games in the Castlevania series have been 2-D, while the last attempts at a transition into 3-D, Castlevania 64 and Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness, were mediocre at best. Some people had doubts that such a transition was really possible, but Konami's newest entry into the Castlevania line dispels any such apprehension. Castlevania: Lament of Innocence brings the game back to its roots and explores the birth of all the major players of the series: the Belmonts, Dracula, Death and even the Vampire Killer whip. However, it does so while making a great 3-D gaming experience that avoids the pitfalls (literally) that caused so many problems with the earlier attempts.

I'll start off by saying that the game looks... nice. I won't say gorgeous; I'll just stick with nice. There's too much repetition and lack of subtle nuances in the environment to garner a 'gorgeous.' A lot of what looks really good is in the background, and you can't directly interact with it. In addition, I didn't feel the castle was creepy enough. While the environments vary from gardens to dance halls to laboratories, it all felt very 'earthly' and didn't exhibit the same sense of chaos or evil that areas from some of the more recent ones did. Now it can be argued that it's the first game in the timeline and should start off more normal, but still, it just feels like a haunted house, not Castlevania.

Castlevania has always been one series of games that seems to showcase its audio more than its graphics, especially since Symphony of the Night. The music in Lament of Innocence is good enough to say that the soundtrack rivals Symphony of the Night. It has the quality, but not the quantity that SOTN had, so it shall remain the king for now. However, one thing we can say it beats SOTN in is the voice acting department. Lament of Innocence features the best voice acting of any Castlevania game to date. They know there's no pleasing some of you 'purists,' so they include the option to use the original Japanese voices as well. The game also features 5.1 surround sound... always a plus.

At this point, Castlevania games take place in all sorts of different time periods. So far, the earliest one in the time line, Castlevania: Legends for Gameboy, took place in the 1400s, the same century as Dracula's 'birth.' Lament of Innocence takes place far earlier, in the 11th century.

The story begins when a vampire known as Walter Bernhart kidnaps the fiancÚ of a famous knight, Leon Belmont. Leon travels to the vampire's castle located in a forest known as Eternal Night. During his adventure through the castle, you witness the creation of the Vampire Hunter whip, the real meaning behind the Belmont family curse, the true origins of Dracula and the reason why Death is satisfied being a mere minion. Yes, technically Dracula (Vlad Tepes anyway) hasn't been born yet, but just deal.

The game plays something like a cross between Castlevania 64 and the newer titles in the series. You will explore different sections of the castle as you fight through hordes of undead monsters. I say explore, but the sense of exploration leaves something to be desired. Unlike the other non-linear Castlevania games, the sections of the castle aren't interconnected in an interesting way. Rather, the level system is based around the castle entrance area that acts as a hub, leading off into the other six areas of the castle. I don't like it. It felt a lot more interesting when the castle was set up as a single map.

Exploring the castle isn't nearly as entertaining as it's been in the last few games either. Most areas have hallways that look and feel exactly the same, and rooms that look and feel exactly the same way. While it certainly feels more natural without lots of vertical shafts, the castle also feels more flat than it used too. Some areas have multiple floors, but you can almost never change floors mid-room. You'll have to go to the one (or maybe two) single staircase(s) in the area and use those. The idea of backtracking will leave you with a bad taste in your mouth. Thankfully, unless you want to acquire missed items, you almost never actually need to backtrack if you plan carefully.

The thing that feels the most different from other Castlevania games is the combat system. As usual, you have a whip as your main weapon. Rather than just getting linear 'upgrades' to your whip, you'll get an arsenal of up to four whips in your possession, each with different elemental properties. Combat is also based around a combo system. As you play the game, you'll learn new 'skills' that you can insert into your combos. You will also have access to the usual sub weapons (axe, holy water, cross, etc.), but there are far fewer chances to change them this time around. You will also acquire orbs after you defeat bosses that you can combine with your sub-weapon to change the way they behave. So in total, you have access to around 40 different sub-weapon attacks. Since you have to employ very different mechanics for each of the boss fights, you are left with a very wide range of methods to do your dirty work.

The older Castlevania games were notoriously difficult, and although they've mellowed a bit in their old age, most of the time they are still nothing to sneeze at. For most Castlevania games, you can usually divide the difficulty into two distinct parts, the platforming, and the combat. Fans will be pleased to know that the evil-bad, 3-D platforming from Castlevania 64 is nowhere to be seen. There are a few platforming areas, but almost all of them have you land on solid ground if you mess up, with no damage penalty. The few that do involve pits will simply send you back to the entrance of the room, again with no damage penalty. Since there are no evil pits, you also won't find the evil-bad Medusa heads that loved to knock you into said pits.

That said, there is the combat element, and it can get pretty hairy at times. Most of the time, you will be contending with way more than one enemy at a time, so you'll usually have to think on your feet. You'll probably have two favorite combos. One you use on bosses and single enemies, and the other on large groups of enemies for maximum destruction. As long as you use your weapons intelligently and carry a healthy arsenal of healing items, you should be alright. Things do get pretty hairy in the last area of the game. The difficulty shoots up a notch and you'll be on the defensive a lot more than you were in the previous sections of the castle. There was one point I kind of lost it and went off on a bit of rage at the game. Despite the fact that they have a very good spreading of save spots in the other areas, there is only one in the last area of the castle, and it's a pretty big section. It would have been nice to have one or two more.

Game Mechanics:
I have only two more things to address, and we can wrap this baby up. It's usually a pretty iffy deal when you can't move the camera around, and while there are a few moments in Castlevania: Lament of Innocence when the camera can get a tad hairy, for the most part, it's smooth sailing. For most rooms, the camera is pretty much fixed on a specific wall, sliding around as it needs to keep you in view. Thankfully, Konami didn't decide to be total demons and put secrets in those parts of the room.

By secrets I mean rooms that require some extra imagination to gain entrance to, and aren't usually marked on the maps you can find in the game. In the last two games, most notably Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance, I haven't enjoyed the way they've done the secret rooms. Put simply, there weren't enough secrets. You would spend all this time and energy whipping walls and smacking ceilings with no results. The rooms that did have secrets didn't really have clues pointing to them, so unless you were extremely vigilant, which is hard to do when you're getting no rewards, you never found them.

Lament of Innocence is much better. Each area of the castle has around three or four secrets in them, and they are either very obvious or you get enough of a hint that there is something there. A few also require some ingenious methods to open them, including using enemies to do the work for you. Thankfully some of the craftier ones have clues you can find in the form of scrolls.

If you are a Castlevania fan, you were likely waiting patiently to see if Lament of Innocence made the same blunders as Castlevania 64. Thankfully, it goes in an entirely different direction and has the added bonus of explaining the origins of just about every major player in the Castlevania universe. If you're a Castlevania fan, this is a must have; otherwise it's just a damn good game I suggest you try.

-Alucard, GameVortex Communications
AKA Stephen Triche

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