I remember a time when the news of a cherished franchise's transition to a next generation console was cause for excitement. Of course, this was also during a time when the template for every videogame was an ambitious arcade standard, and the formula for most 8-bit games was to shoehorn as much of the spirit of the arcade into a cartridge as possible. The concurrent visibility of the arcade standard made the promise of a next generation console literally palpable. Videogames were, on a technical level, advancing along a route that was at once predictable and novel. All you have to do is ask someone about their reaction upon first seeing screenshots of Super Mario World, Phantasy Star II, Contra 3: The Alien Wars, Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle, Super Metroid, Revenge of Shinobi, Mega Man X.
It wasn't really until the transition from 16- to 32-bit that this inexorable devolution began to smack of bathos; if the era of 8- and 16-bit games was a period of refinement towards a goal that was both real and ideal, then the 32-bit era was characterized by a crude experimentation that often and unfortunately donned the mantle of a classic series. I blame polygons. Polygons and Hard Drivin’ and Virtua anything and Yu Suzuki, Zaxxon 3D. Stellar 7, Mode 7, seven camera angles in a room that should just scroll from left to right. Our fascination with dernier cri. Fucking Ken Kutaragi.
Whatever the case, the 32-bit epoch was more stumble than stride, and the innocence that once colored the reception a classic series's next-gen installment received has today been largely replaced by skepticism and cynicism. All but one of the series mentioned above continue to generate descendants, and not one of these from without the polygon. The results have been unsurprisingly mixed. Draw your own conclusions.
Castlevania 64 and Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness, being that series's first uncertain steps into the third dimension, have achieved such notoriety among the critical press since their almost simultaneous releases in 1999 that I was genuinely surprised when I learned that Koji Igarashi planned on taking Lament of Innocence into 3D; not only has Igarashi publicly dismissed Konami's previous attempts at a 3D Castlevania game, he was also the man responsible for the series's 2D renaissance, Symphony of the Night, as well as two of the three excellent GBA Castlevanias that have appeared in the last three years (real panegyrics to the cruel old gods of 8- and 16-bit videogames).
Then I realized who we were talking about: this was not Koji Igarashi, savior and redeemer of the Castlevania franchise, architect of its glorious rebirth. This was Koji Igarashi, disreputer and despoiler of the Castlevania bloodline, harbinger of its dis-integration, a man who kisses his mother with the same lips that swear Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse is his favorite game in the series.
I think Castlevania III is a great game. But if his track record since Symphony is any indication, I don’t even think he's played Castlevania III.
But I get ahead of myself.
If Igarashi is right in his assessment that the Castlevania dilettante of today is more concerned with what he has presented as coherent chronology and unique aesthetic than with any sort of mechanical or spiritual fidelity, then his latest manipulation successfully panders to vox populi: Lament of Innocence is the rough amalgam of any number of generic 3D brawlers invaginated within the aesthetic of Igarashi's Castlevania, with all the baggage that entails. I'm not mad. I just wish I had seen it earlier.
The problem is that when Igarashi shovels it, he uses both hands: After all, he has been quoted as saying not only that 3D games cannot provide the depth of 2D games, but also that maintaining Castlevania gameplay in 3D would be impossible. He wants his games to reward gamers with nigh-infinite replay, yet has been enthusiastic about the lack of difficulty he has endowed them with. He feels that the Castlevania universe (before Symphony) was all at once coherent and disparate, and that it required a unified world view. Behold his artifice.
The main narrative clew of Lament follows Leon Belmont, manifest progenitor of the Belmont clan, and his quest to rescue his beloved Sara from the clutches of Walter, a vampire that inhabits "the forest called Eternal Night". The periphery involves the Crusades and the Catholic Church. Neither intrudes much.
In fact, the main story's significance isn't even revealed until the moments surrounding and then immediately preceding the game's crescendo, but this is mostly beside the point, as I have yet to meet the Castlevania fan sustained solely by its mythos. Suffice to say, herein are found the origins of the Belmont family, Dracula and the Vampire Killer. How’s that for cohesion?
Castlevania has traditionally been marked by a narrative made compelling by its elusion and a mechanic defined by its relentless precision. Yet since Symphony, and with the exception of Circle of the Moon, the Castlevania series has been unfortunately marred by an unmemorable and unnecessary storyline coupled with a sort of weightless gameplay (perhaps meant to facilitate the effete, androgynous protagonists of Ayami Kojima). Good hustle, Koj. Walk it off.
Every Castlevania, from the original X68000 version to Rondo of Blood, was designed with gameplay strictly in mind. The plot was an easily-reducible take on "Kill Dracula". The aesthetic was a product of interaction rather than packaging; the ideal resulted from that promise.
Following that era, the goal of most publishers was to reanimate a franchise that had proven profitable in the past by marketing it for the new medium. Sadly, that new medium was polygonal, and the videogame industry's impetuous drive to expand into the third dimension developed in tandem with their irreverent franchising: Household names reduced to doorstops and coasters, mascots rendered as bizarre zoological experiments with two blocky left hands and a cloven hoof.
Those critical of 2D for its apparent limitations refused to acknowledge the terrifying definition presented by this new dimension. Debug codes were no longer neat tricks used to uncover hidden areas in a level. They became an awful window to a programmer's inability, sloth, timetable and budget. The boundaries of a gameplay so starkly defined ushered in an irreversible nihilism: we no longer played someone's promise of a new world, but rather their finite construction of one. Where the flaws of 2D gameplay intimated an unavailable, grand design, the flaws of 3D gameplay introduced the idea of a limited and imperfect Creator.
And yet, while heads were still sweating Battle Arena Tohshinden and Panzer Dragoon, Koji Igarashi was busy developing Symphony of the Night, a largely 2D game built for a system that, at least critically, was only capable of 3D. I think I liked it. That is to say, I remember liking it, but the discourse has become tainted.
You see, it made sense to me that Alucard, Dracula's son, was fucking crucial. Shit, I can still apologize for the game's lack of difficulty based upon that one, strong reference on his résumé. At the time, I thought the art design awesome and unique, having only as recently as 1993 been introduced to anime in general, and Vampire Hunter D specifically. Here polygons were used as a means, rather than an end; to refine a medium, rather than to replace it.
Orchestrated tracks sounded, for once, as though they were composed for an orchestra. The story, though slightly more involved than previous Castlevania games, emerged at a time when the mythos of Anne Rice was still attractive: Alucard dug himself up from his grave because he was compelled by wailing guitars to bury his past. I thought Igarashi was on to something. I never realized that what I thought was symptomatic was, in fact, donative.
I mean, why has every Castlevania protagonist post-Symphony controlled like Alucard? Moreover, why do they all look like him? Some sort of nod to Castlevania Legends's (a game reduced by Igarashi’s revanchist historicism to apocrypha) romantic innuendo? Unlikely. White-haired, high cheek-boned, fashion-sensitive, culture-conscious metrosexuals that bump Future Bible Heroes, sip lattes and know what shade of purple tie matches a charcoal gray silk shirt.
Juste Belmont is silhouetted in blue. He dashes forward and backward, trailed by a series of shadows that chart his every swish. Leon Belmont controls and animates fluidly, dancing, flipping, spinning and generally ism-ing around his opponents, vigorously reapplying high-viscosity Bed Head during load-times.
Where Soma Cruz, who finds more combs and activator than stakes and garlic within the now-labyrinthine halls of Dracula's Castle, floats on air and walks on water, Trevor Belmont had all the grace of a rock plunking into a still pond. He sported leather and rucksack. Proudly displayed his guns. Teeth bared, jaw set, whip at the ready, his entire body coiled into one tight, sinuous knot. Igarashi’s principals repose in lithe contrapasto, analogues to his design theory, hiding their chicken arms within folds of velvet and silk. His games fight Dracula with comfort.
At once Igarashi, apparent as both inheritor and executor of the Castlevania continuum, seemed to understand the essential balance of gameplay over version; that is, he seemed to have some grasp of a game’s merit through interaction, rather than presentation. Games that reflected individual experience rather than prescribed vision. I mean, how many people know by name Toru Hagihara, H. Akamatsu, Jun Furano or Hideo Ueda? I sure as hell didn't. Igarashi still doesn't.
Sure, some bean working part-time at GameStop may not realize that Shinji Mikami and Capcom can be uttered in the same breath, but most gamers today are as comfortable attributing games to designer/producers as they are to publishing companies. This is how the industry has grown up. Games used to be a niche market; now there are niche markets of games. Hanging out recently with an uncle of mine, I inquired as to the DVD capabilities of his XBOX. He told me he had never used it for that. I was afraid to ask what he did use it for.
Igarashi is, I have realized, the sort of second-tier producer more concerned with public relations than with product responsibility. He makes Castlevania games about him, rather than about you. People want their videogame-cum-movie, and Igarashi is happy to provide: his games are easy, accessible and over-produced. Lament of Innocence, as a 3D game, was the most logical extension of his design theory, and the Playstation 2, as the most successful per capita console, its most pertinent destination.
Visually, the game suffers from the same sterile, anesthetic rendering that plagues every game compatible with the PS2. Its look is further hurt by its poor environments: the rooms are uniformly bare and unengaging, and in possession of so few interactive elements as to serve as little more than arenas for combat. The cutscenes are all done utilizing the in-game engine, which looks markedly better from a distance, and are animated in much the same way that they are voiced: characters issue declamations that are frequently punctuated by seemingly unrelated gesticulation.
It looks like I always imagined the corresponding scenes in Symphony would have, had they been in 3D. Some people think this style is bad; I happen to like it.
Excepting experience points, the general system and layout of the game follows the pattern set by Symphony: the focus is on a combination of fighting and
inane backtracking exploration, coupled with the ability to both earn and purchase abilities and items as you progress through the game. There are some puzzle-solving elements scattered throughout the castle as well, but these generally fall into the tired Tomb Raider variety.
Occasionally the game requires its player to exercise some platforming skill, and in so doing demonstrates one of the fundamental flaws, if not of the game, then of the medium itself: the hit detection in the platforming sequences is not good. That is not to say that it's impossible, or even particularly difficult, to platform in this game; the platforming is actually quite consistent. It's just not fun. If Igarashi knows that this kind of gameplay doesn't work in 3D (see above) then why did he pursue it?
With a poorly automated camera that seems to willfully choose the least advantageous angle, and with no option of manipulating it manually, the player is often faced with the prospect of not enjoying himself when these sequences occur. I can recall offhand two rooms that are un-illuminated save for the area immediately surrounding Leon, where the player is required to platform from block to block, without apparent depth or scale. Fall, and be returned to the beginning of the room. Repeat ad infinitum.
Similarly, the camera chooses notably inappropriate angles during combat, and in particular during boss encounters. But griping about camera problems in a 3D game is like complaining after the tightness of the cord used for a hanging suicide, and the impolitic camera remains a reality to which the grim majority of gamers have long become habituated.
Yet if in one vein Lament of Innocence suffers for its medium, in another it excels: while deeply rooted in the Double Dragon/Final Fight/Streets of Rage school of combat, it avoids many of the problems associated with the beat-'em-up as 3D brawler by employing the generous hit radius of the Vampire Killer in casual union with an increasingly abortive series of combos that are unlocked during play. The game also includes gems, reminiscent of the spellbooks of Harmony of Dissonance, designed to improve upon the functionality of staple sub weapons, but their affect is almost totally negligible.
The game's problem, or perhaps its greatest success, is that it is afflicted of the same formula as nearly every other 3D brawler: it can be easily beaten using only a modicum of the items and techniques available. Boss fights are patently uninteresting, and it is rare that an encounter necessitate any real variation from the formula of attack, dodge, attack. The harder difficulty mode, unlocked after the game is beaten, really just increases enemy strength, speed and defense. New techniques or modified gameplay are not required to win. What's more, the nature of the fighting engine makes the exploration elements seem out of place, as though they too belonged to a different game.
Pressed to offer constructive criticism regarding Castelvania's transition to 3D, I found I could provide none. As far as I'm concerned, this is an evolution that barely captures a semblance of the things that made Castlevania great, and remains an unnecessary addition to its legacy. Its aesthetic retention is a nod only to the interpretations germane to Igarashi's tenure, and as such merely adequate in conjuring any real association with its antecedents.
It’s clear that Igarashi & co. feel that (this) aesthetic, rather than mechanical, continuity is more important to the series's evolution. Whether or not this is true, Igarashi has not been ambiguous about his intention to continue producing 3D Castlevanias.
The reason a game like Shenmue works is because it was designed from the ground up to be a 3D game, taking full advantage of both the strengths and weaknesses of the medium. The same is true for Metroid Prime and Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid and (the recent) Zeldas. Sports, flying and racing games also tend to fare better in the current era than they did yesteryear, largely because long before polygons were available to home consoles, designers were attempting to simulate the very effects that are now at their disposal. Lament of Innocence, on the other hand, plays more like a paean to the sobering days of 32-bit games, not sure of what it can do, and consequently not certain of what it should. It remains a fun but unexceptional game, possessed of an average replay value, that I for one do not regret not owning, but do on occasion think of fondly. Recommended for fans of the genre and the aesthetic.
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