Castlevania Judgment

You can please some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time, or so the saying goes. Well, it’s certainly hard to please Castlevania’s legions of bloodthirsty fans, who demand consistency and innovation in equal measures – a nigh-on impossible task. Case in point: the PS1’s seminal ‘Vania experience, Symphony Of The Night, updated Castlevania’s trademark gothic platforming with lavish visuals and a deep, RPG-tinged metagame. Fans adored it. But since that wave of change, Konami have delved into the murky realm of 3D console gaming with scant success, and hardcore fans have resorted to lapping up Symphony-apeing handheld titles in their stead.

So it was rather odd when Konami unveiled Castlevania: Judgment at E3 this year, a title that was almost certainly not the glorious next-gen reimagining fans have been waiting for since Symphony hit the PS1. That’s right, like the recently announced Dissidia: Final Fantasy for the PSP, Konami are taking all the trappings of one of its most successful franchises and somewhat ham-fistedly crushing them into the confines of a 3D fighter. Current series producer Koji Igarashi explains the dramatic shift in genre as the result of his desire to make a Castlevania game for the Wii that wasn’t hour upon hour of wrist-breaking whip action. His solution was to divvy up your playing time into neatly proportioned rounds of combat, avoiding several early onset arthritis-related lawsuits.

Rather than playing out as a simple brawler, Judgment boasts a more frenetic, free-for-all approach that resembles kookier fighters like Smash Bros and underrated Dreamcast sleeper hit PowerStone. As with PowerStone, combat is somewhat fuzzy because players never have a lock on their opponent, leaving them free to roam about the arena at will. A la Smash Bros, items and NPC enemies appear during combat – a pitfall for the unwary. We lost our first match because of some happy-slapping zombies lurking in the background, but in time you’ll learn to use the stage to your advantage. The controls themselves are rather simple. After a brief hands-on, we were waggling the remote to attack and shaking the Nunchuk to dodge with aplomb. Special attacks require holding B, shaking the remote, and a little bit of luck and timing to land with devastating effect.

So far the only confirmed characters are Dracula, Simon Belmont, Alucard and mystical jailbait Maria Renard, though Konami tells us this number will rise to a respectable 14 series-spanning fighters upon release. Given the expansive cast of guys and ghouls, we wouldn’t be surprised if Richter Belmont, Death and Soma ‘I can feel Dracula deep inside me’ Cruz make appearances in the roster, too. Konami has said that a few of the series’ more notorious enemies will crop up as well, but whether they’re playable characters or stage furniture remains to be seen.

That said, long-time fans are likely to take issue with the art direction, which to our eyes seems a little too Kingdom Hearts-cheery next to the dark gothic stylings of previous Castlevania games. Indeed, feyness is the order of the day – so much so that the Simon Belmont that has thus far been depicted as something of a medieval barbarian is now an S&M fetishist with boyband good looks, and series-favourite Alucard has ditched his trademark baroque vest and cloak, now resembling the Vatican’s entry into the rhythmic gymnastics event at this year’s Olympics. For hard-bitten Castlevania fans, it might be just a little too much. Like placing Mario in a mini-skirt, some things aren’t meant to be tampered with.

Similarly, hardcore fans obsessed with things like continuity and story might grumble about the plot, which uses time travel as a convenient excuse for why protagonists from across Castlevania’s millennium-long timeline are suddenly fighting face-to-face with fang features and each other. For the time being, it seems Judgment lacks some of the colour and depth of customisation that fans have come to expect of the series. As to whether it shapes up into being a truly memorable Castlevania game, we’ll be reserving, ahem, ‘judgment’ until release.

Sep 2, 2008