Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia - Review
Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia is the seventh, 2D action-rpg installment of this long running series. Borrowing elements from both the tradional, action-oriented titles, as well as the rpgs, Ecclesia brings a much needed breath of fresh air to the series after the grindy and uninspired Dawn of Sorrow and Portrait of Ruin.
To kick off this review, I would like to bring up the reasons why I actually bought this game. I have been playing Castlevania since the NES, and I am one it's enduring supporters. However, I was met with dismay when I heard that Ecclesia was going to have cross connectivity with Castlevania: Judgment for the Wii, a game I already decided was a disaster. It's an exploitative, and repulsive, idea, to burden a better game, like Ecclesia, by having unlockables accesible only through another lesser game. However, as time progressed it was discovered that all the secrets in Ecclesia could be unlocked through the game itself, and I was free to play the game, without the worry of having an incomplete game. Now on to the full review.
This game, since it's inception, has been billed as a return to the series roots by it's developers. By changing the game's presentation from a large hub area, like Dracula's Castle, that you could manually explore, to an overworld map, with selectable way-points, it just changes the way players view their progress in the game and get from area to area. This new method is far quicker, but it doesn't change the gameplay or structure of the areas. Some locales are strictly linear, while others are larger with a bunch of hidden secrets. To say it's a return to roots is untrue. All the previous games had stages just like that. More dubious is the fact that each stage does not end with a boss, and some have no bosses at all. Gamers expecting to play something akin to the 8 or 16-bit Castlevania's are going to be disappointed.
Now that the structure of the game has been unveiled, let's look at some interesting points before moving onto the deeper gameplay. Ecclesia adds in a strange, counter-intuitive, system that seems to negate the fast-paced, and somewhat linear, nature of the game. The treasure chest system from Portrait of Ruin makes a return in Ecclesia, but in a whole new fashion. Studded around in fixed locations in most levels, are respawning treasure chests. If you collect a chest in a stage, return to the world map, and return to the stage, all chests respawn. This helps, because each stage has certain group of treasures that a player can obtain, and some are rarer than others. Some contain armor, items, or quest materials, and if you are lucky, you'll find a sparkling green chest instead of the standard brown. In the sparkling green chests are the rarer items, of which you will want to make the game easier. However, all of this does slow down your progress in the game, as you will not always get what you want from the chests, but if you are curious and want to get every item as soon as it becomes available, it is less of a problem. Once I had completed the game though, I realized that the treasure chest system was used to bolster the enemy drop system. The enemy drop system has been overhauled since the last game, with less emphasis on enemy grinding. Some of it is still there, but not as intense as before. Ecclesia has 121 enemies in the entire game, with a majority of them having no drops, so you don't need to spend too much time getting what they have.
Now, as promised, I will talk about the real gameplay Ecclesia has to offer. One of the biggest improvements this game offers is it's streamlined weapon and magic system. For the first time, unecessary weapons and spells from past installments have been trimmed, and in it's place are fewer, but far more effective weapons. Weapons and spells have between 2-3 variants (with a few having just one) that have different mana costs, attack ratings, and speeds. Most intriguing about this game, is that all attacks in this game cost mana, including the one that were considered "physical" weapons in previous games. The stronger an attack, the higher the mana cost, but if you use a lower cost attack ability, you can get more usages out of it with a full mana bar. The playable character has a recharging mana bar, that takes into effect when you stop attacking (you can still move though), so a very interesting layer of strategy is put over the game. Weapons and spells power up over time, through the games seven attribute system, including strike, slash, fire, ice, lightning, light, and dark, with each kill giving a certain amount of points to the attributes used in the kill. This means that if a spell or weapon shares an attribute, both will gain in power. Now, because of the concise nature of the weapon and spell selection in this game, the combat can feel very strategic, and very balanced. For those who played it, it's very reminiscent of Circle of the Moon, in which you had to make good use of your elemental abilities to exploit the weaknesses of your enemies. What you have is a game that is no longer about getting the strongest weapon and spamming it, but building up what you have and using it effectively. You'll still be able to crush enemies, but you have to work for it in this game. Another great addition that has been reinstated in this game is the ability to dual wield. This is most definitely and improvement over the system from Symphony of the Night, which only utilized it for a few, special, weapon or shield combinations. In Ecclesia, each weapon has a reload time, which is sped up when used in conjunction with the same weapon. It gives most weapons a Crissaegrim-like quality, just don't expect it to be THAT fast, unless you exclusively use daggers. Ecclesia also has shields just like, SOTN, but unlike SOTN, these do work, and can defend you from a wide range of projectile attacks, as well as give you a huge defensive boost. And finally, are the glyph union attacks. When you combine two or three compatible glyphs, you can unleash a powerful attack, at the usage of hearts instead of mana. These attacks, especially when you have maxed out stats, can deal death to bosses in but a few hits, so it is important to save these attacks for when you truly need them. Hearts are harder to come by in Ecclesia than any other Castlevania in the past, so use them sparingly, or else you can spend quite a bit of time grinding for them, or leaving an entire area to replenish them.
Now, for those of you reading who don't know, Ecclesia basically plays the same as just about every other 2D, side-scrolling Castlevania game, or just about any other 2D side-scroller for that matter. In this particular game you have two attack buttons, a support spell button, jump button, evade button, and a weapon switching button. You can crouch, slide, do a dive kick, and have absolute control over your jumping direction. Weapons and spells have different sizes, speeds, and areas of attack. In short, it's very simple to grasp, and the controls are never a problem. Also, Ecclesia uses a HP/MP system, that can be increased by leveling up (killing monsters for experience points) or collecting special power ups. It also uses a heart system, that is used to limit the amount of times you can use powerful, secondary attacks. The max number of hearts can not be increased by leveling - only by grabbing special items.
Moving along, there are few things in the game that I describe as take it or leave it, which don't add much to the gameplay experience. First is the boss medals, which are awarded to the player after beating a boss without taking damage. If done on the normal, or default, difficulty, these medals can be quite easy to get, as there a quite a few tactics that can be exploited to defeat the bosses quickly. The main tactic is the usage of glyph unions (glyph is the fancy name given to all your weapons and spells in this game) which deal massive damage (at the cost of hearts, and not mana) when correctly paired and used in conjunction with a boss weakness. You can use certain spells and items to devastating affect, so it just seems like a throw-away and a empty victory to award players with a medal for getting through a battle unscathed. All but three of the 14 bosses in this game can be beaten this way. Here's an idea for Igarashi - how about just making the bosses more difficult, at which point your reward is the ability to continue the game. Another sticking point of the boss battles is that everyone you fight has a save room right next to the bosses door, so that if you do get hit, it's easy to reload and try again, thus negating your failure, and the worth of the medals even further.
Another questionable addition was the glyph absorbtion. It's basically a more complicated form of picking up item drops, where the player character must stand still for a few moments, while holding the d-pad up, to absorb the glyph. This move can be seen as more a less a defensive move because any enemy that does cast a spell, including a few bosses, can have it stolen and given to the player. Other than that, using it as a means of picking up enemy "drops" isn't very intuitive. As a side note, every time you absorb a glyph, the player regains ten hearts, and is given 1 point to each of the seven attributes, thus giving incentive to use this move often, as cumbersome as it is.
All questionable things aside, once you have completed the game, absorbed every glyph, explored all the areas, and completed every side-quest, you don't have to do it again. Except on a second playthrough, where you might want to double up on a few more items, a lot of these problems melt away, and you are able to play the game unfettered. When you complete the game, you are given a game plus mode, where you keep everything, including your character level and all HP/MP/Heart Ups, with the exception of a few transportation glyphs. These subsequent play throughs are actually more enjoyable than your first playthrough, simply because you can play it as a true Castlevania game. With a hard mode that allows you to play with different level caps, (1, 50, and 255) you get to play through with most of your abilities from the start, and it makes for a far more strategic, exciting, and old-school playthrough.
And of course, what would a review be without the requisite banter about the games production values. Ecclesia's visuals are on par with one would expect from the modern Castlevania games. It features clean, detailed sprites, with fluid animation for the player character and enemies (where applicable). Bosses are large and varied, utilizing lots of scaling and rotation. Unfortunately, there is still quite a bit of enemy recycling from past games. The environments are varied and detailed as well, although there are a few tile repeats, with a couple repeated areas with swapped palettes. The music in Ecclesia, however, is a mixed bag. Not as good as Dawn of Sorrow or Portrait of Ruin, it does have a few memorable tracks, but some filler as well. In short, the music is serviceable, but not of the type where you would want to buy the soundtrack. The last thing that requires mentioning, is the rubbish that is passed along as a story. Konami should feel blessed that I review and score games based on gameplay alone, or else this would be a severe hit. The main plot of the game is put into motion when the main character, Shanoa (the one you play as), has her memory erased by her close friend, Albus. Prior to, Shanoa was to receive a special set of glyphs from her mentor, Barlowe, that would allow her to destroy Dracula. Albus, jealous that Shanoa was to receive such power, steals them. With her memory erased and the glyphs stolen, Shanoa is trained for combat by Barlowe and then informed of her mission to retrieve what is rightfully hers. During the course of the game you meet up with Albus on several occasions, to which he slowly reveals his plans to you, all the while you are rescuing a group of villagers from his clutches and recovering the stolen glyphs. These small bits of dialogue are interspersed throughout the rest of the game and have no bearing on all the grinding, fighting, and treasure hunting you will be doing. In short, the little bit of story in the beginning is more than enough to set you off on your quest, and to give but the most basic structure to the game.
Now, a few words about Ecclesia's difficulty. On the first playthrough, you play on normal. You have no choice of an easy mode, at all, and the hard mode doesn't become available until after you have completed the game. Anyway, Ecclesia will provide a few unique challenges for Castlevania veterans, especially later on in the game, but it's nothing that they can't handle. However, for new (or recent) players, Ecclesia does have a few pitfalls. First is the damage output of enemies. In the first few areas, it's not too much to worry about, but as you face bosses, including the first, and progress further in the game, if you don't upgrade your armor, or push yourself to do a specific quest to do so, enemies will start to put the hurt on you. You can't hide behind the shield of level grinding in this game, because its bonuses are minimal, at best. You get 8 hp, some mana, and a couple stat boosts at a level up, which only add up in the long run. This game either revolves around skill and ingenuity, or stocking up on restoratives and gold if you are having a difficult time. All in all, your first playthrough will be the hardest, but subsequent playthroughs, even on hard, will become easier.
All in all, Ecclesia is an excellent game. It's shortcomings are easy to overlook, as I have found myself enjoying it in ways that both DoS and PoR could not deliver. Simply put, the gameplay is exemplary. I haven't been this satisfied with a Castlevania game since SotN and Aria of Sorrow, and I can confidently place it with those two. Ecclesia's gameplay is a refreshing change, making further refinements to the system pioneered by SotN, and it has me excited again to see how the next 2D entry will take shape.