As the Castlevania series marched on after the success of Symphony of the Night, Koanmi worked to fill in various gaps throughout the in-game history, finding different places to put heroes and their various journeys. Of course, when you have a villain that only comes back every 100 years (more or less), you have to start coming up with convoluted reasons for the heroes to be needed, or you have to go further and further back in time. With Lament of Innocence, Konami did both, creating a game that doesn't (technically) feature Dracula and also heads back in time to tell the story of the first vampire-hunting Belmont.
Set 400 years before any of the previous games in the series, Leon's journey concerns him going after a new vampire, Walter Bernhard, after said vampire kidnap's Leon's great love, Sara. Leon then has to explore a dark castle filled with monsters and areas that will be all-too-familiar to Castlevania fans. As a post-Symphony game, of course, the emphasis for this adventure is on exploration, although many of the trappings of Symphony were played down, instead adding in a blend of action and adventure along with 3D-style environments (although played from a top-down perspective).
What's most curious about Leon's tale is not what it actually did (which was basically be a fairly serviceable, if not entirely memorable, Castlevania game), but the legacy of the title afterwards (or, really, lack there of). It seems like Lament was meant to act as the start of a franchise exploring earlier in the series history, what with the (possible) creation of a new vampire to hunt along with 300 new years of history to explore. And yet, after Lament there was very little said. Leon hasn't shown up in any future games in the series, nor have the evil vampires from this game. The adventure, then, remains an odd blip in the series, a story that was meant to add depth to the Belmont legacy that, due to how removed it is from the rest of the series, instead adds very little of consequence at all.
Castlevania: Lament of Innocence
The year is 1094 and our hero, Leon Belmont, has just come back from abroad. A knight who served in the Crusades, Leon has returned from his latest conquest in the holy lands a hero (so probably one of the first Crusades since they're all downhill from the relative, marginal success of the early campaigns). Despite his initial elation at coming home, though, Leon's homecoming is cut short with the terrible news (delivered by his long-time friend and war-buddy, Matthias Cronqvist) that Leon's fiance, Sara, had been kidnapped and taken to a dark castle deep within a horrible, haunted forest. Leon immediately set out to find the castle and save his love.
Out the outset of the castle, Leon encountered an alchemist, Rinaldo Gandolfini. The alchemist told Leon that the evil vampire in the castle was named Walter Bernhard. Kidnapping Sara was part of Bernhard's game: he loved luring powerful warriors to his castle to play with them before eventually killing them. To aid in defeating the vampire, Rinaldo gave the Belmont a magical gauntlet and the Alchemy Whip, a powerful weapon that would aid in the battle with the forces of darkness. He warned the hero that to traverse through the castle and save his lost love, Leon would have to battle five guardians and unlock their power. Only then could the final stretch of the castle be explored.
Exploring through the castle, Leon had to traverse many dangerous areas, including a laboratory, a haunted theater, deep and dangerous caverns, dungeons, and gardens populated with nasty creatures and deadly plants. As he defeated the guardians of the castle (including a vampire, Joaquin Armster, who would go on to have his own playable mode in the game), Leon returned to Rinaldo for more information, including Rinadlo's own history (his daughter was killed by vampires), and details on just what was powering the vampire (the first hints about true power for vampires in the Ebony and Crimson stones, two artifacts that could grant a vampire control over eternal night as well as greatly amplifying their strength and abilities).
Unfortunately, despite unlocking a path to Walter, Leon discovered his was unable to defeat the vampire -- his whip couldn't damage the evil creature. Walter let Leon have Sara back, though, continuing his game of cat and mouse with the hero. Back at Rinadlo's cabin, Leon and the alchemist discover that Sara had been bitten by Walter and would turn into a vampire (which is, of course, why he let her go). To free her, Leon would have to defeat Walter, but Leon couldn't do this without more power. Rinaldo then came up with a solution: fuse Sara's soul into the whip, something Sara was all too willing to do (which, we guess kind of makes sense if you don't want to be an evil vampire for all eternity so you may as well aid in the defeat of one instead, but it still makes us question the gender politics of this series). Sara's sacrifice greatly infused the power of the whip turning it into the Vampire Killer.
Whip in hand, Leon went to have his final confrontation with the evil vampire Walter (which, let's be honest, is a deeply silly vampire name). Although the battle was fierce, Leon came out on top. However, it was then revealed that a greater plan had been in place. Upon Walter's defeat, the Grim Reaper appeared, collecting the soul and fusing it into the Crimson stone, the power totem which, apparently, was actually in the posession of Leon's supposed friend Matthias. Everything leading up to this point had been orchestrated by Matthias so that Walter could be defeated and his power sealed in the stone, granting Matthias the power of the vampire including unholy, eternal life (all because of something to do with Matthias's wife dying and a bit hate-on for God). Death then attacked Leon (as the Crimson Stone also made it's owner an ally of Death himself), giving his master time to escape. Leon was able to defeat Death but found no trace of his one-time friend.
His fiance dead, but one evil rid from the land, Leon swore that he and his family would continue to fight the forces of darkness. He also vowed that Matthias would forever have an enemy in the Belmonts.
With Lament of Innocence, Konami looked to softly reboot the series, clearing up some continuity "issues" and moving the series into a new phase. The continuity issue in question was Sonia Belmont, the previous originator of the Belmont clan. As was noted in some publications, series head IGA felt that Sonia's game should not have been made. Rumors were that IGA didn't think a female-lead Belmont game made any sense, and some vague ideas were thrown out about how women had roles in the series but that "something something they couldn't be Belmont heroes". How much of that is true or not at this point is anyone's guess, but Sonia's game, Castlevania Legends, was removed from continuity with the release of Lament, and Sonia was ditched from the series.
How much this whole behind the scenes saga has any bear on the series is really up to the individual gamer. Admittedly, Legends wasn't very good, so it was unlikely that most gamers noted it's removal from continuity (nor even cared about the game itself). But then, Lament wasn't exactly beloved after release either, so it's not as if either game had huge bearing on the overall series.
The most curious detail about Lament, then, is it's attempts at explaining the backstory of the Vampire Killer and Matthias. The Vampire Killer is a powerful whip and it's not as if it needed to be explained, although we do seem to recall some mention in the Castlevania III manual (itself not exactly in continuity as U.S. game manuals of that era were often terribly translated or out-right fabricated) telling the tale of the Poltergiest King giving the Belmont clan great power to fight the forces of darkness). Essentially "fridging" Leon's woman so that he can be a better hero is not exactly a great explanation for the Vampire Killer's power, especially when we barely see her at all before hand and her sacrifices has very little bearing on us as gamers.
Matthias is an even greater sin, at least from the perspective of us at the Inverted Dungeon. As we've mentioned repeatedly elsewhere on this site (and with much venom), it is implied in this game that Matthias, using the power of the Crimson Stone, goes on to become the series grand antagonist, Dracula. From a historical perspective this makes little sense as Vlad Dracula was a real person (and his very name means "Vlad son of Dracul", as the a at the end of the name means "son of" -- a way of making a name a "junior" in modern parlance). No one was itching to find out how Dracula became a vampire as there are so many stories that have already told that tale (to greater or less effect, looking at you 1992 Dracula).
If, then, we look at Lament just from Leon's own adventure and not from any of the milestone it tried to set up (since Matthias is never name-checked again later in the series and no one discusses Sara's great sacrifice after this game), what we're left with is a decent Castlevania game with a hero than never showed up again. A curiosity, to be sure, but not much more.
Playing as Leon:
Fighting from a top-down perspective, Lament tried for something very action-oriented with Leon. He's still able to jump around, and whip at enemies, so his moved feel closer to to the classic Belmonts, even if he had a whole plane to work from. Less emphasis was placed on vertical space (although Leon could jump), and enemies would mob-in from multiple directions. Manging the space around him and best using area-of-effect attacks was the key to surviving as Leon.
Leon's great innovation was the Alchemy system, which allowed Leon to fuse magic orbs into his sub-weapons, creating powerful attacks. These effects were not unlike Item Crashes, an ability a later Belmont, Richter, was able to perform.