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Review: Castlevania Judgment for the Wii

The Castlevania series has done much soul-searching in its eleven year history. What was once slow and steady whip-slashing in the NES days evolved into Metroid-styled RPG platforming, followed by 3D action-exploration—and at times, all three in one release cycle. Despite the variety in gameplay (and satisfaction), each game shared basic elements with its preceding and subsequent titles that made it distinctly Castlevania. Though it’s the most drastic deviation from the norm, the latest game in the series, Castlevania Judgment, amazingly maintains these elements that ensure its Castlevaniaty™. As a moderately obsessed fan of the series, I wish it hadn’t.

Here’s the deal: everyone knows the best Castlevania games are those based off Symphony of the Night’s “Metroidvania” style of gameplay. The original style is now too awkward and stilted for enjoyment, and the 3D variations suffer from poor level design and lacked depth of exploration (despite the whole, you know, extra dimension). But that doesn’t automatically doom Judgment. The core of the series—traipsing about Gothic landscapes while killing ghouls and demons on your way to fight Dracula—is held generally intact here, and as a fighter, its 3D environment is meant to be limited in ways other games in the series were not.

Of course, some limitations would be welcome. I was initially thrilled to see that players could run about the fighting landscape freely in all directions, instead of the 2D rails that trap us in some games. However, this free movement quickly becomes a deterrent as characters spend more time evading each other than actually fighting. Many battles are determined by the clock and who is better at running in circles. When it does come to blows, the dangerously open movement and spastic camera makes actually landing a hit a matter of luck and guesswork. In most fighters, your character’s attention is always locked on the opponent, so that any swings made are necessarily made toward him. That doesn’t guarantee a connection—but it does mean you’re usually swinging in the right direction. Because Judgment keeps targeting options open in case you want to bash a crate or whack a zombie stage hazard, half the effort expended each match is on just making contact.

Those very hazards and targeting distractions contribute greatly to that “Castlevania” feel, consisting of boxes loaded with recognizable sub-weapons (throwable dagger, cross, etc.), hearts to accumulate sub-weapon totals, and the occasional meat-on-a-stick in specific game modes. Though I appreciate the idea and the added action element this instills, these ‘extras’ are really a necessity with the limited attack options characters possess.

Even counting the effort made to actually hit your target as a ‘move,’ the base attacks and available combos in Judgment are sorely lacking. Which, as a series like Smash Brothers has shown us, is not always a terrible thing. Except when you only have fourteen available characters, and a number of these share move sets (as with Ken and Ryu, a few minor changes does not equal a new fighting style). There was certainly opportunity to include more, considering the canon available to Konami. And the exclusion of Soma—star of two games and with a potentially devastating soul-suck fighting style at his disposal—was merely one of many oversights.

Even considering the variety the player does have available, (I really enjoyed Voldo Grant’s drunken-boxer style), the characters start to blend together fairly quickly. Everyone’s “super special”—which can be unleashed once the skill gauge is full—takes off about half a health bar, with minor exceptions. Alucard’s special seems to be slightly more powerful. They all offer a unique and drawn-out cut scene a la Final Fantasy summons, and also get old after the third viewing (also a la FF).

Judgment does offer a fair amount in terms of gameplay modes—after the typical 2P Versus and straight-through Story modes, there are also Survival, Castle, and Online modes. I actually enjoyed Castle quite a bit—it takes you through a variety of rooms with varying requirements for completion, from “defeat all the zombies” to “ring out your opponent.” You’re rewarded throughout Castle mode with accessories for characters to wear in other instances—a nice bonus, but not worth grinding for.

The overall problem with Judgment really comes down to its audience. It’s a Castlevania game that offers only a few aspects of Castlevania gameplay; and it’s a fighting game that won’t appeal to fighter fans. So those players who only enjoy the hack ‘n’ slash of Castlevania and are completely inexperienced in fighting games may have found a goldmine. Everyone else will find mostly aggravation and disappointment, with the occasional “Oh, that’s kind of cool” aside.

There must be some sort of market, though, as I’ve already seen discussions of “what would you want in a sequel?” on certain message boards. What would I want in a sequel? More characters, more variety, tighter controls, faster load times (yes, they’re atrocious), the graphics of a Wii game (really, Konami, you usually make beautiful games), and recovery times that don’t meet the Castlevania norm. Keep the gorgeous, nostalgia-filled music; stay free-roaming (but not aimless); throw even more environmental traps at me; and gladly introduce characters as badass as Aeon. But really, I’d rather you just work something out with Nintendo and get some of your guys into the next Smash Bros. They’d still receive all the benefits they have in this game, just with more faces to bash.

Of course, if you find yourself more intrigued by Judgment’s potential than afraid of its flaws, you can keep up to date on both it and Order of Ecclesia via Konami’s widget. Or just enjoy the Yamane-tunes.