“Welcome, dear readers! Please allow me to introduce myself - I’m a man of wealth and taste, Walter Bernhard, I hope you’ve already guessed my name. I am by all means a, what you would call, bad person – a master of the eternal night, a vampire, an arrogant aristocrat who is very fond of dark castles and cruel, admittedly sadistic, hunting games.
While searching for prospective participants, I came across Leon Belmont, a brilliant general of war, loyal and brave, friend of Matthias Cronqvist, in love with Sara Trantoul – a wonderful person in many ways. And yet Belmont’s soul is as restless and stubborn as mine - he won’t even allow my dear minions to conquer his land and threaten its inhabitants and dares to stand up against me, the one and only master of the dark world, who kidnapped his beloved to lure him into my realm.”
Obviously Castlevania’s storyline, as epic as it may be, is far from being a literary gem. However, after watching the intro, Mr Belmont will find himself deep inside the mystery dark forest where he meets an old ghoul or “man” as it likes to call itself - Rinaldo Gandolfi, a former master of wizard football. It is his duty to help chosen victims of his lord, Bernhard, as much as possible.
“Might sound strange to you - but what’s puzzling you, is the nature of my game!”
Konami’s latest instalment of the famous Castlevania Series is to be called revolutionary in many ways – visually the first probably most obvious improvement is the move from 2D to 3D environment. Being one of the major side scrolling 2D platform games in the last decade, Castlevania’s first switch to the third dimension (“Castlevania 64” and ”Legacy of Darkness” on N64) has rather been a step down the improvement-ladder than the major breakthrough it could have been. Some important issues in a well arranged 3D world are controls, which at the same time have to be precise and easy to handle, and camera angles, which have to provide the player with an overview and therefore aid with the understanding of various situations. Unfortunately, both N64 Castlevania games failed to impress at these points.
However, Konami seems to have learned a lot from past failures. Although Castlevania Lament of Innocence’s graphics do not push the power of the PS2 to the limit (characters act and move stiffly, mimics and gesticulation feel a little wooden compared to the rest of the game), the game benefits very much from a well balanced combination of speed, overview, control and gloomy surroundings, thus creating the impression of playing a 2D game in a 3D world.
At some times the fixed camera angles can be a bit of a problem, e.g. when it comes to estimating distances between platforms – obviously this is especially problematic during jump sequences. But since the emphasis of LoI’s gameplay lies on fighting rather than performing breathtaking HK-martial-arts-jumps, this isn’t much of further consequence.
Moving from room to room, deeper into the dark castle, Leon discovers an enormous lot of beautifully designed locations, which appear like they’d been cut out from one of the more expensive Dracula movies. The Gothic backgrounds’ cool and gloomy surface help greatly in making the vampire castle come more and more to life, and therefore are of essential value to the atmosphere.
Young Mr Belmont knows how to hit and how to run - he even knows how to perform a double jump that takes him sky high, thus enables him to attack opponents from above. Equipped with a handy alchemy-whip (can be exchanged for more powerful getup later), handed to you by aforementioned old man Rinaldo, Leon possesses the necessary power to wipe out the undead forces within a blink of an eye. In addition to basic weak and strong attacks, Leon will also acquire new techniques as the game progresses. Just like in a good RPG (let’s take Xenogears for example) the more you fight the more special abilities and combos you’ll learn.
Equally scattered across the whole castle, you’ll find various useful items, like potions, hearts (necessary to use your sub-weapon) and weapons (left by former victims of Mr. Bernhard). You may also feel free to leave the castle at any time to go back to good old “woodman” Rivaldo, who lives in a small cottage in the middle of Walter’s dark forest. Next to having a little and by no doubts relaxing chat, it is also possible to do some shopping - healing items of all sorts are on permanent sale!
There is yet another way to improve your alter ego’s fighting skills – simply pick up so called “orbs” and use them to enhance your weapon’s performance. Unfortunately, these items are next to being incredibly special and cute, extremely rare...
Next to attacking, LoI also provides an interesting Block feature – an enchanted device around Leon’s left wrist which helps to absorb and store magical energy by blocking magical attacks used by some monsters. After gaining a certain amount of energy you may feel free to release powerful magic attacks when fighting tougher battles.
Opponents vary quite a lot, both in shape and in difficulty. You will start by smashing skeletons, go over to beating Cyclops and Gargoyles and eventually will find yourself face to face with a Golem. To put it straight – you’ll be kept busy. Battles tend to be easy at the beginning, but get more and more complex and difficult towards the end of the game. Luckily, the difficulty level, unlike than in many other games, rises at the same pace as Leon’s abilities evolve, hence it is rather more motivating than frustrating.
Yamane Michiru, one of the few Japanese female composers, has already impressed the audience with the memorable score of Castlevania Symphony of the Night (PS1), and now once more steps on stage with an interesting mixture of organ music and hard rock sequences. Although some melodies (some piano soli) may be a bit too simple and the hard-rock samples may sound somehow uninspired, background music serves its purpose of supporting the mood of the respective situation. Konami’s sound effects department surly didn’t want to risk too much and kept them as classic as can be. Some neatly done voice samples pair up with the Dolby Pro Logic sound of crushing bones and shattered crystals – worth listening to, but nothing that hasn’t already been heard before in one or another way.
Castlevania is one of the few video game series that succeeded in keeping up with the flow of time without giving away too much of its original spirit. Lament of Innocence proves that the dynamic action of a 2D game can also take place in the third dimension and therefore sets a high standard for prospective titles of this never ending story.