Castlevania: Nocturne: Season 1

Review by Mike Finkelstein

How loose does an adaptation have to be before it no longer counts as an adaptation? I think this something a lot of the fans of Castlevania have to ask themselves as they settle in for anything in the Netflix-produced anime series. It was true for the first four seasons of Castlevania, as the show quickly moved away from a straight adaptation of Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse into something that blended in elements of other games (like Castlevania: Curse of Darkness) into something that ended in a very different place from the main Castlevania continuity, and it's absolutely true for its sequel series, Castlevania: Nocturne.

Ostensibly Nocturne is an adaptation of the 1993 PC Engine game Castlevania Dracula X: Rondo of Blood. In practice, though, there are only a few familiar elements from the game used in the new series. Familiar heroes Richter Belmont and Maria Renard. Their quest to fight vampires and rid the world of evil. Action. adventure, carnage. If you were unfamiliar with the source material, this would feel like a very Castlevania series. But the devil, of course, is in the details and for any fan of the games, this version of events is going to feel very unfamiliar. Whether that bothers you or not really depends on where you come down on that initial question I asked. If you have to have the most faithful adaptation possible then Nocturne is not for you. It is for everyone else that's interested, though.

After Richter's mother, Julia Belmont, is killed by the vampire lord Olrox, Richter head to France to live with the only relatives he has: his young cousin Maria Renard and her mother, Iris. They all live together under the looming threat of a revolution, all while vampires slowly move into the countryside and stoke the flames of fear and horror. Thankfully, between the skills of Richter and the powers at Maria's disposal, the vampires shouldn't be much of a threat.

Or, at least, that would be the case if not for the vampire goddess. A power master vampire, this goddess is heralded by Drolta Tzuentes, her right hand woman. Drolta declares that her mistress, Erzsebet Bathory, is the resurrected Egyptian goddess Sekhmet and that she will usher in a new era for vampires, one where they won't have to fear the sun. Rihcter and Maria are warned off this by new allies Annette and Edouard, two vampire hunters from the new world hoping to prevent the rise of the vampire goddess. They'll have to work together to try and stop the vampires, but even then the forces of darkness may have them outmatched.

For those paying attention, you will note that Dracula isn't in this story, the setting is France and not Romania, and Annette is not Richter's fiance but some other vampire hunter. There are many more changes here as well, from Making Annette, Drolta, and Olrox characters of color, making Iris into Maria's mother, and even a cameo from Alucard late in the run that shows just how far off the source material the production team has gone. The question, though, is if this really matters? In short, no.

If wew get right down to it we have to ask ourselves just what Castlevania really is? Is it about the vampire hunters or is it about Dracula? The game series invariably focused its action on Dracula, having him as the crux of every story. That's fine for action games where you want familiar beats that you can play on time and again, but for adaptations where you're just watching, and not playing, having the same basic story beats used over and over again can get tiresome quick. If Dracula is the villain every time, what new ideas can you bring each time? Just look at the classic Universal and Hammer Dracula films to see how far a series can go off the rails when you try to bring back, and use, the same vampire lord over and over again.

Setting Dracula aside and focusing on the Belmonts is a move I respect. It allows us to have the basic beats that say "this is Castlevania" -- namely vampire hunters killing vampires with whips and cool magic -- without having to retread the same story. Bringing in Bathory and having her be the goddess of vampires on a quest to eradicate the Sun is a different story from anything we saw in the previous four seasons. You don't know where the story is going to go and it keeps you guessing. But you do still get plenty of action, and lots of dead vampires, and that feels right, in its own way.

is it Rondo of Blood? Absolutely not, but then it doesn't say "Rondo of Blood" on the package either. Richter and Maria are here, and they get to do Richter and Maria things, but the series very much goes out of its way to say, from the start, "this is not the adaptation you're expecting." You have to accept that from the outset or move on. Plenty of fans have voiced their complaints and moved on. General audiences, though, seem to enjoy what they're seeing. These are the viwers that haven't played a game that was only released in Japan on a console many in the States hadn't heard off, and which has only slowly trickled into the U.S. since then. They don't care if this is a pure adaptation or not. They want cool characters fighting vampires for the fate of the world. They got it here.

And, frankly, the story works. Bathory makes for an interesting, and powerful, foe to battle against the heroes. The heroes themselves go on their own journey, growing and evolving over the course of the seasons, learning to embrace their powers even as they face setbacks and have to regroup. This is the first season of at least two (and probably more like three or four) and it works as both the opening salvo for the series and a statement of what's to come. It's not hte same old Castlevania, and I think that's a good thing.

Yes, as a fan of the original games it took me a little time to adjust to the new status quo. But at the same time we have great characters here -- from a snarky but sweet Richter to a tough as nails Maria, along side bad asses like Annette and Iris -- and powerful foes for them to fight. It has action, and carnage, and a throughline that makes you care. It's not Rondo of Blood, but considering where the previous series left off we were never going to get Rondo of Blood. We had to get something else, and this season delivered. It introduces us to the new version of events, and sets a solid journey in motion. It's an adventure I'm going to enjoy watching.

But most of all it is, in fact, Castlevania. Maybe its not the one they were expecting, but after twenty-plus mainline games, multiple spin-offs and reboots, and a previous anime series that was already willing to play fast and loose with continuity, maybe it's time to set aside expectations of what Castlevania is "supposed" to be. Come in and enjoy the vampire hunting action with familiar (and not so familiar) characters. It's fun, it's gory, and it's a bloody good time all on its own merits.