Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia
Review by Mike Finkelstein
In the years after the events of Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night, the Belmont family disappeared (leaving their whip in the hands of other successors). In order to keep up the balance between good and evil, other groups came together to find ways to stop Dracula -- without the Belmonts, there was no one chosen by the "Powers That Be" to rid the lands of Dracula's ever present evil.
One of those groups, the Order of Ecclesia, was researching a spell (a glyph, to use the in-game terms) that would allow it's user to "seal" Dracula (seal, destroy, temporarily detain -- it's all the same in the Castlevania series). The spell, Dominus, had been assigned to Shanoa, a female agent of the Order. During the retual to bind Dominus to Shanoa, the Order is betrayed by another of its agents: Albus. Shanoa, de-powered and without memories or emotions, is sent out to retrieve the Dominus glyph and defeat Albus, preventing the glyph from being used to actually bring Dracula back from the dead.
Order of Ecclesia was the last of the Castlevania games released for the original Nintendo DS. Like its predecessors, Ecclesia is a platforming/exploration/RPG hybrid (the so-called Metroidvania genre). And like many of the recent games in the series, Ecclesia is a lot of the same old-same old with a new veneer.
The twist to the gameplay style this time around is that Shanoa exclusively uses glyphs for all her attacks. Weapons, spells, everything are glyphs. Any time a glyph is used, Shanoa's magic meter decreases (as in previous games, the magic meter slowly regenerates). Thus, if you attack in too big a flurry, you'll end up out of magic and unable to even use a basic sword. In theory this should up the difficulty of the game, since you have to conserve your power so as not to be completely hosed in the middle of a battle. In practice though (and I'll grant, maybe I'm just a more cautious player), I never ran into a point where I found the need to play it safe because I was dangerously low on magic (and the option that I'm just really good at Castlevania is simply ridiculous).
Mostly, I found, what the glyph system did was limit me in my ability to gain and swap out equipment. Because you're at the mercy of enemy drops, and the glyphs drop less frequently tha nweapons and items classically have in previous games (at least, in my observations), you'll wind up using a much smaller amount of gear just to make it through most of the game. Ecclesia boasts "100 different glyphs", but Soma had access to over 100 Souls in Aria of Sorrow plus all his other gear. Shanoa has 100 glyphs for everything -- spells, abilities, and weapons. The variety is lacking by comparison.
Of course, I admit that in the past I've groused about "there's a lot of options, but you'll only end up using a few" when it came to spell systems. That much is true, and one would think that having less options would be my preference... except now, there's less options for me to find what I like, less glyphs to experiment with, so there's even more of a sense of making do with what I get.
Aside from the funkiness of the spell/weapon systems, there's a few improvements that are welcome. Ecclesia has a world map which lets you explore back and forth, with ease, the various areas of Romania you've been to (or need to go to). It's a nice feature, and one the series could have implemented a while ago. On the flip side, though, while it's neat (and fitting for a game that doesn't even feature Dracula's castle for most of its run), it's not an essential feature. Ever since Symphony of the Night, the series has featured teleport rooms, allowing you to quickly traverse any area, and move back and forth between them quickly. This is just a grander version of that system.
There's also a village in the game, Wygol, which allows you to interact with people and collect mini-quests to perform. Quests were a feature of Portrait of Ruin but they felt insubstantial there -- I don't think I even finished all the side quests in that game. In Ecclesia the town and the side quests are tied together, and freeing villagers from around Romania opens more quests -- finishing out the quests feels more natural, more necessary, and helps the extend the play experience of the game.
Tehnically, the game is fantastic. As with all recent Symphony-clones, Ecclesia features silky-smooth gameplay. Konami has this system down, and Ecclesia benefits from the years of experience. It boasts a solid play-system and tight controls.
Graphically, it's just as good as recent entries, if not a little better. There are a lot of nice little lighting effects, a beautiful range of colors, and a diverse enough sprite-set to please any fan of sprite graphics. I've groused, though, that previous games felt interchangeable in their locales, and this is true of Ecclesia as well. I have a hard time remembering what areas I explored here, and what areas were in other games -- everything could seamlessly fit in another entry in the series, which, sure, at least they're consistent, but it also speaks to the lack of new ideas in the series.
I have a similar issue with the soundtrack as well. It's all very pretty, don't get me wrong... it's just that, like many other modern games in the series, there isn't a lot about the soundtrack that I actually remember. I wish I could, really, but while the music is technically accomplished, it doesn't feel original.
I'm not trying to say Ecclesia is a bad game. Certainly not. It's just that, like with the many, frequent iterations of the Mega Man series, if you've played one Metroidvania (increasingly) you've played them all. I didn't hate Ecclesia, and I found it to be another fine, very polished version of the modern Castlevania formula. It's just gotten to the point where the same old game, no matter the different graphics and swapped out feature-set, isn't going to thrill me anymore. As with previous entries, if Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia had come out years before, I'd have raved about it. Now, I'm just looking for something new.