Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What happened to Castlevania? (Part 2)

(Part One of this entry can be found via this link, I suggest you read it first before continuing. Also, brace yourselves for an even longer post this time)

It was around 2009 that I first heard that Konami is working on a brand new 3D Castlevania game for the then next-gen consoles; the Xbox 360 and PS3. Later I saw a teaser trailer leaked online.

The trailer showed a fully 3D model of Alucard, with a bloodied sword (either that's a powered up Alucard Sword or a whole new sword entirely), but the short teaser made me all excited nonetheless. I was thinking of all the possibilities that this trailer might hold for the supposed next Castlevania game:
  • Could it be a direct sequel to Symphony of the Night? Just like that radio drama that was released in Japan?
  • Could it be a teaser for the now legendary "Battle of 1999" where Alucard joins up with Julius Belmont and an unnamed member of the Belnades clan to finally rid of Count Dracula once and for all?
  • Could it be a 3D remake of Symphony of the Night, a classic game that is still beloved by many Castlevania fans old and new?
And as I waited in anticipation for more news about the game, this trailer appeared.

At the time, it was then just called "Lords of Shadow". While it didn't have the "Castlevania" title on it, there are some vague, yet unmistakeable hints of Castlevania on it.

The main character's overall armor design is highly reminiscent of Simon Belmont's famous red armor in the game Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. The crimson red and gold trimmings bear an striking resemblance with the former's design.

The scene of the then unknown hero kneeling in front of a cross in an abandoned church bore a strong resemblance with another popular Castlevania game; Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse. The scene where Trevor Belmont kneels and prays before setting off on his adventure.

Add in the cross, the dagger, and the flaming whip (which turned out to be the cross itself) all evoked a sense of familiar trappings normally found in a Castlevania game. Which got me all confused at the end of the trailer when it showed the title to be "Lords of Shadows". I wondered if the game was perhaps an indie game that was sort of a fan's take on the series and made it their own.

Then Konami made it official: Lords of Shadow is a Castlevania game. And the franchise will now be handled by Mercurysteam and not IGA. With the following trailer, it gave me a glimpse of Konami and Mercurysteam's new vision for the series.

The trailer showed alot of promise. Infact, it showed the promise that a 3D Castlevania game CAN be good, after such terrible attempts made by IGA during his tenure. However, one of my biggest concerns was what will happen with Castlevania's timeline then? How will Mercurysteam's "Lords of Shadow" game fit in the timeline?

Then Mercurysteam announced that the "Lords of Shadow" game will not be connected to the classic timeline, but is rather a reboot of the series.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I felt that Mercurysteam disrespected my personal history with the series. However, seeing how IGA's last few Castlevania games I kept an open-mind about Konami's decision and hoped for the best. I mean Castlevania: Symphony of the Night's departure from the classic 2Dvanias helped the series achieve an immense popularity at its time, and so probably Konami is thinking the same thing with "Lords of Shadows".

However, after playing both the first Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (PS3), as well as Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate (3DS), and watching an entire playthrough of Lords of Shadow 2 (PS3), I'm convinced that while Mercurysteam made a really beautiful looking game, it didn't feel like a Castlevania game to me at all. I mean sure its an okay 3D action game, but not quite Castlevania. Infact, as much as I hate to say this, both Castlevania: Lament of Innocence and Curse of Darkness (PS2) felt much more like a Castlevania game, than the Lords of Shadow trilogy. Quite honestly, the Lords of Shadow games felt like a mish-mash of several different things from many different games that poorly executed them and slapped a Castlevania logo on it. In the end, the "Lords of Shadow" trilogy felt like a shadow of its former self (accidental pun not intended).

The thing is, I WANTED Mercurysteam to deliver a definitive Castlevania game that would be this generation's "Symphony of the Night". I WANTED Mercurysteam to succeed in rebooting this legendary franchise, the same way Christopher Nolan masterfully rebooted the Batman franchise with his "Dark Knight" trilogy. But most of all, I WANTED Mercurysteam to create a worthy successor to the Castlevania franchise that I can actually embrace and love as much as I loved and embraced the classic ones.

They had everything going for them. Exquisite dark gothic art that successfully captures the look first set by Ayami Kojima in Castlevania Symphony of the Night, an ensemble cast of voice actors (where else can you find a Castlevania game that's full of star-studden celebrities voicing the characters? Also Patrick Stewart FTW), a promising storyline that will finally take the series seriously compared to its predecessor (while IGA's Castlevanias certainly tried, they just weren't taking it seriously), and most of all, a much better looking 3D game than the ones that came before.

However, despite that, they failed to make a convincing Castlevania game for me. How could that happen to a team that's just full of promise and potential? How could a team that seems perfect to take the reigns of the series having shown full knowledge of the series' storied past (as shown in their work with the teaser trailer) fail to live up to the hype? And after Castlevania: Lords of Shadows 2's sucked so bad (again accidental pun not intended), I begin to ask myself why...

Then news came that Mercurysteam had internal problems brewing during the development of Lords of Shadows 2. Having had experience working in the gaming industry, I know just how internal problems within studios can affect the product your team is working on. And after seeing tons of poor reviews of Lords of Shadows 2, I'm inclined to believe that this was the case.

However to be completely fair, I DID feel that Mercurysteam truly did try to make a really great Castlevania game. And that despite throwing the classic timeline out of the window, they did show some reverence to the games that came before (which I'll expand on a later post). There were moments of genius that I actually applaud Mercurysteam for (Mirror of Fate comes to mind), however it was largely negated due to some really poor decisions on Mercurysteam's part (Lords of Shadow 2 comes to mind). That said, I truly felt that if Mercurysteam didn't have those problems, they would have delivered a truly great game, even if most of the time it doesn't feel like a Castlevania game at all. More of which I'll expand on the next post.


Monday, March 17, 2014

What happened to Castlevania? (Part 1)

I have a confession to make (specially to those who don't know me in person)... I am a HUGE Castlevania fan.

I've started the series at a very young age, and it was one of the very first video games I ever played; along with Megaman, on my Nintendo Gameboy. (My very first Castlevania game being Castlevania II: Belmont's Revenge on the Nintendo Gameboy)

This is the Japanese boxart, which is
far better than the US boxart of the game
Here's a short review of the game, with some gameplay footage for you guys to see how the game looks like on the Nintendo Gameboy. :)

For the record, I've played most, if not all of the Castlevania games that was released; from the classic old-school 2Dvanias, to the metroidvanias, to the 3Dvanias. I pride myself in being a very devoted long-time fan of the series. I feel quite fortunate to have witnessed the series' evolution over the years, from its humble origins as a 2D platformer, experimenting gameplay elements over the years, adding new elements while retaining its signature "feel", which is unmistakably "Castlevania". It's a familiar feeling to most fans of the series will know.

Then, after years of being handed off from one game development team to another, the series finally finds universal acclaim... and a face to carry the series forward. That face, was Koji Igarashi (fondly called by fans as IGA or IGA-san). And his claim to fame was the game that would forever place Castlevania in the minds of gamers around the world; Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.

By fusing exploration elements and an interlocking map system from Nintendo's game "Metroid", basic RPG elements mostly found on JRPGs, and Castlevania's distinct look and feel, Symphony of the Night elevated the series from relative niche obscurity, into universal acclaim in the gaming world. Alot of gamers fondly remember the game, being their first Castlevania game that they played and cherished, having alot of fond memories with the said game. I mean most gamers (specially those who grew up in the Playstation era) remember this iconic exchange between Count Dracula and Richter Belmont:

The game became a classic and gamers rediscovered the series anew. Infact, the game was so popular, it basically created a game genre on its own; the "Metroidvania"or "Castleroid" genre. The series would enjoy immense popularity for quite sometime (and earning itself new fans) with IGA spearheading the series renaissance.

And under IGA's supervision, the series introduced for the first time a timeline that carefully recorded each game's exploit and wove it into a cohesive whole. This was another one of IGA's biggest contribution to the series. While carefully respecting the games that came before, he wove a timeline around what used to be seemingly unrelated set of sequels in the series, and told a large epic that spans centuries in the making.

IGA's Castlevania Timeline
(Click to enlarge)
One of the best things about the Castlevania games that came under IGA's supervision, was that each game was like a piece of a puzzle that helped fans of the series unlock the entire timeline, as each game filled-in the gaps within the timeline and helped flesh out the grand epic that is Castlevania. I remember back then where I wait in anticipation yearly for the latest installment of the series, wondering what point in the timeline will they unlock next and how does the new game's story fit in the overall timeline's narrative. It was an experience that was made even more special, as I literally grew up playing most of the games in the series and having known majority of the timeline's story by heart. Each game I played and finished felt like I was getting close to completing the grand story of the Belmont family's eternal battle with the Prince of Darkness; Count Dracula.

However, the tale would be left largely unfinished, as IGA suddenly finds himself losing the supervision duties of Castlevania. Konami (the publisher of the series), suddenly announces that the series will be turned over to a different development team.

Enter MercurySteam.

At first I was slightly nervous of the prospect of a new team handling the series. However, after a couple of really poor Castlevania games that was released by IGA on his last few days as supervisor of the series (Castlevania Judgement comes to mind), I became abit open-minded with the idea. I mean the series DID turn for the best after IGA came along, so I suppose it wouldn't hurt to see how the change would affect the series. However, what Mercurysteam would do next caught me off-guard. Little did I realize this was the beginning of the series' slow decline into a shadow of its former self.

Mercurysteam announced that the next Castlevania game would be a reboot of the existing Castlevania timeline. Quite frankly, I was enraged at the idea when I first heard about it. I literally spent YEARS trying to complete the series' timeline only to have a new team just throw everything out of the window like they didn't exist at all. By rebooting the series, I felt that Mercurysteam didn't just disrespect all the hardwork IGA put into the series, connecting all the games' narratives and making them into a cohesive whole, he also disrespected my personal history with the series. There were so many questions that I still have with the timeline that I had hoped Konami and Mercurysteam would fill in:

  • How did Mathias Cronqvist obtain his power to become the Prince of Darkness and re-emerge as Count Dracula?
  • What happened to Alucard at the end of Symphony of the Night till his re-emergence at Aria of Sorrow? What was he doing all that time?
  • After Richter Belmont's fall from grace at the end of Symphony of the Night, what happened to the Belmont clan?
  • Why were the Morris clan and the Lecarde clan suddenly the ones who fight Count Dracula in-between Symphony of the Night and Aria of Sorrow? Where were the Belmonts?
  • Whatever happened to Shanoa after her exploits in Order of Ecclesia?
  • Where did the Lecarde family come from? Why are they tasked on defeating Count Dracula alongside the Morris clan?
  • What happens in the Battle of 1999, where Julius Belmont along with his companions finally succeed in sealing off Dracula for good? What was so special about Julius that he was able to accomplish what no other vampire hunter that came before him was able to do?
  • How come Dracula's castle was sealed inside an eclipse and why did the Vampire Killer end up being inside the castle?
  • How did Julius Belmont lose his memories and why was he inside the eclipse in Aria of Sorrow?

Now I will never find out what happens in the end, nor will I find closure with the series. I will never have a definitive answer to the lingering questions I still have with the series. Because aside from the fact that Mercurysteam rebooted the timeline, IGA has recently left Konami (more on that on a later post) completely removing all hope of IGA's timeline ever becoming completed at all. However, the timeline being rebooted was just the tip of the iceberg of Mercurysteam's sins.