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The Castlevania series has taken a 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' approach for years now. Instead, each new release sees minor tweaks here and there, but core gameplay remains the same.
Order of Ecclesia takes a more arty style look which seriously updates the series dated look into the 21st century. Despite just being a 2D platformer, it looks pretty good for the DS.
There's a multitude of different weapons and magic you can use and due to their variety, you'll be spending some time experimenting to see what weapons suit you best.
The story is certainly nothing unusual as Dracula is back (AGAIN!) and your goal is to retrieve a powerful glyph from a fellow member of Ecclesia and use it to defeat Dracula. The story has a twist here and there, but the story merely acts as a backdrop and doesn't get in the way.
I think this is the best Castlevania game for the DS. Dawn of Sorrow was just a clone of Aria of Sorrow. Order of Ecclesia is a fresh new entry into the series and is definitely one of Castlevania's best.
When a series becomes too popular or too long running, some people will start assuming that by then it must have become rubbish. When the original few characters in its universe are long gone and their role has been picked up by descendants, friends, associates; and the original, simple storyline has mutated into a convoluted tangle of prequels, sequels, antefacts and parallel dimensions, all struggling hard to keep a fragile consistency with each other; when a simple gameplay concept has been transformed many times into many variations, when the number of collectibles have gone up from five to five hundred, but at the same time the same themes have been exploited so many times that you would assume that they have become sterile, and no good can be pulled out of them any more.
When you reach this point, you will be forgiven for thinking, like I did, that the series has degenerated into something not worth bothering with. But in case you're one of these people yourself, this is the perfect time to convince ourself that such snobbish assumptions are often limiting, for they would keep you from enjoying one of the best games in the Castlevania series, and of course, also one of the best of any game for the DS.
As hinted above, you'll have to 'tolerate' a mixture of new, not so new, and old. The title of the game has a lot to say about which familiar features can be expected - crooked, cursed halls in disrepair, an assortment of foes that draws from the dark mythologies of all continents and all eras, and an atmosphere of sad surrender to despair and damnation, shared by both the evil creatures and the hero who must fight them.
You are Shanoa, a young member of an ancient mystic organisation, the Order of Ecclesia, which over the centuries has been researching occult techniques to banish Dracula in preparation for the day when the worst happens and the Order should be called to protect the world. The weapons they have developed are in the form of 'Glyphs', which are magical drawings worn like tattoos on one's skin which give supernatural powers to the carrier.
It looks like the centuries of research have finally come to an end; the ultimate weapon has been perfected and it is time for it to be used for the good of mankind... and you are told that you and only you will be able to control its power and use it correctly. You are the only suitable carrier of this responsibility, and you have no choice but to accept it. This generates envy in another pupil of the Order who wanted that power for himself, and a war is started within the sect. But what is this weapon, and is everyone really who they seem to be?
So you set off to chase the traitor who ran away with the pieces of the Glyph that should have been yours to control. And you run after him fighting and jumping in the 2D-platform sort of way that is what the Castlevania series is all about.
One thing is different from the two most recent predecessors to this title, though: you aren't just exploring one huge, contiguous castle. Here, the game world is effectively broken into sections that can be considered "levels" and can be played in any order, as long as you have unlocked them.
This segmentation allows the settings of the levels to be not only limited to a castle or its surroundings (or to small alternate dimensions such as the ones found inside Portrait of Ruin's contrived "portraits"), but to effectively cover various different buildings and natural landscapes centred around a small, remote village of terrified, vampire-fearing folks. This range of backdrops is beautiful, atmospheric and awe-inspiring.
This is not to say that the network of save rooms and teleporters seen in previous instalments is lost; they can still be found inside larger levels in Ecclesia, too. But instead of having one single huge, monolithic castle that is long and confusing to navigate, here we have several smaller (but not by much!) levels that can be reached easily and instantaneously from the common overworld map.
This change in design effectively does miracles to lift the claustrophobia often felt in previous games, when you wanted to go somewhere in the castle but you were at the opposite corner, there was no warp room nearby and you knew that you'd have to tediously walk endless halls to get anywhere useful.
Also, some of the locations seen in Order of Ecclesia are a bit more contemporary than the usual: we have, for example, a dilapidated prison that looks more 20th-century than medieval, equipped with searchlights and all. In fact, you don't actually enter a *castle* proper until the very end, when Dracula's lair materialises on the map. (In case you're wondering, YES, there is a 'clock tower' stage full of gears and belts and Medusas. This is a tradition that is still unbroken.)
The level design, in terms of placement of items, enemies, and room layout, is good and varied as usual.
Graphically we're on the same level with Dawn of Sorrow and Portrait of Ruin, making great use of both the DS's 2D and 3D engines to allow a massive amount of action on screen at the same time. It is extremely satisfying to watch the large, detailed and smooth animations of enemies dying, no two of them alike, and to gape at the full-screen flashes and energy effects of a particularly well-cast spell. The animation of the main character is also superb, with more hand-drawn frames than you could ever imagine. The smooth motions of the jumping and sword-swinging , and the rhythmic waving of clothes and hair as she runs and falls through the air are like a dance to behold. The only thing I would have liked to see more of, are the large, gently scrolling 3D backgrounds such as the magnificent cathedral seen in Portrait of Ruin's City of Haze. There is something here, but not a lot this time. Instead, more room has been given to the creation of intricately drawn 2D backdrops.
The sound is as good as you would expect, too. The standards for soundtrack quality are so high already in the later Castlevania titles, that it's hard to produce something that stands much higher than the predecessors. Ecclesia is up there for certain, with the highly diverse tunes by the amazing Ms Yamane painting the sonic half of the game's atmosphere in the usual mixture of eerie colours that have had gamers raving with each release. Of course, there is a weak piece here and there, but that's inevitable for a range of styles as wide as her output - in each game she usually touches base with symphonic, electronic, high octane rock and more, as well as one or more remixes of classic themes. But don't worry; this game will still recreate that familiar situation where you will be going back to certain levels only because you want to hear the music again!
There is also a fair amount of voice clips in the sound effects, and they can be switched to Japanese or English at any point during the game. Some of the most epic moments are when certain human bosses will mock you with various over-the-top taints while fighting them, and as their health begins to approach zero they will become more frantic and insane, their delusions of grandeur shattered. It's truly a rush of excitement to your head.
A word about the power-up system. It retains many familiar elements (attack, defence, strength, constitution, intelligence, mind, luck) but it makes a welcome effort at also trying to simplify to a degree. It does away with many of the hard-to-use power ups (and, for that reason, hard-to-remember-you-even-have-them!) and "only" leaves you with a choice of garments for each part of your body and your Glyphs, which are your main weapons. There are no extra 'cards', 'souls' and the like.
You can carry a Glyph (i.e. a weapon or spell) on each arm, and one on your back. By pressing a certain button combination, you can spend some of your MP and try using all of them at the same time. If the combination works well, a powerful (and often spectacular) spell will be produced. If the Glyphs you have are incompatible, only a generic fluff of light will erupt, and not much damage will be dealt. You have to experiment with different pairs to find the ones that work best together for the biggest bang. And also remember to vary your Glyphs depending on who you're fighting, because each enemy is more vulnerable to certain kinds of attacks, for example stabbing, crushing, dark magic, white magic or lightning - while being almost invulnerable to others.
And thank God there's only one character. In Portrait of Ruin, with the two-player team, things could really become too confusing to anyone, you had "too much choice" on how to attack, and it was easy to forget how to use most of the stuff you'd collected.
Regarding the enemies and bosses, all I'll say is that you'll be pleased. There are just so many of them that you won't be bored. The classics are all there - skeletons, bats, killer weeds - and there are many, many new ones that sometimes have you laughing as they are so over-the-top or morbidly twisted. There is no shortage of imagination at Konami! A few sprites have been recycled from past games, but hey. Once defeated, each enemy will have a brief 'ID card' and description available to read in the Pause menu. Some of these descriptions are a riot in their own right.
Boss battles are big and very challenging. Mr Death, of course, is present at some point, as well as some ugly freaks of nature, but the most satisfying duels are often to be had with the human-sized villains. The boss music in Ecclesia is one of the best I've heard in the series.
And make no mistake, both level sections and boss fights are not a walk in the park. In fact, they can be incredibly hard. You will die many, many times and will feel frustrated now and then. This is normal, but it's easy to forget this small detail when most of the games released recently are so effortless to finish. Be prepared with your expectations, and enjoy the challenge!
Once the main game mode is beaten (there are a couple of bad endings and a good one), you'll have the opportunity to play 'Boss Rush' mode, a gauntlet where you revisit all the bosses previously killed and try to set a time record for beating them all again in close succession, and 'Albus Mode', where you basically play a simplified version of the whole game again, this time impersonating the 'villain'.
So, at this point, you could take the challenge and do Albus Mode to see how hardcore you are (there are some difficulty options in this mode that can make it insanely hard if so you desire), but to be honest I think that when the main story is over you'll be content and satisfied with what you've done so far, you'll feel that you've got your money's worth out of this game, you'll feel that the many hours you spent on it are enough and you'll gracefully move on, without thinking that it was too short and artificially trying to extend it.
Any downsides? Well, it depends on what you're seeking. I would say that, in general, this is a game that anyone could enjoy once they get into it. It lacks a dramatically novel concept, but it's hard to make an accusation on these grounds when what it does do, it does so well. If anything, I would say that the high difficulty can be off-putting to less motivated players, and the weapon and armour system would be not so easy to grasp for very young players - in turn, making it even harder to try to play through with a sub-optimal choice of gear. But I'm just being picky here. And just to make it clear: the fact that it's a 2D game should not put off anyone. It's how it's supposed to be, and it's by all means a game genre in itself, and a very alive one indeed, judging from how we never seem to tire of it when the occasional new title appears.
To sum up, this game is not great because it comes up with a revolutionary new idea. Rather, it is great because it does traditional things in a manner that comes as close to perfection as anyone's been so far, and holds off the temptation of pointless exuberance in favour of a more moderate degree of innovation, but with a level of design detail, polish and balance that are truly outstanding. It doesn't break any new ground but takes the ground previously explored by the series, trims its hedges, and builds beautiful new things on it. The slight deviation, in level structure, from the two previous DS games will also make it refreshing even for those who've played both Dawn of Sorrow and Portrait of Ruin to completion and thought that after that, they couldn't be bothered any more.
Be aware that, if you're skipping over Order of Ecclesia for this reason, you're missing out.
Following the success of Dawn of Sorrow and Portrait of Ruin, the legendary Castlevania series is back on the Nintendo DS. This time you play as a member of the Ecclesia, an organization that has sworn to defeat the evil forces of Dracula. Use the brand new Glyph attack system which has more than 100 different combinations to battle Dracula and his minions throughout 20 explorable areas. Take part in side quests and collect items to power up your character in the next great Castlevania game produced by Koji Igarashi.