Diplo's Curse of Darkness Article
think I kind of like Lament of Innocence.
That is to say, I have a conflicted relationship with it.
I drove out to look for it one night in December, a few years ago. No one except Best Buy had a copy, so I shelled out fifty dollars and brought the thing home. The cover art was nice: Leon looking upwards, holding out his hand and the whip, while a prickly darkness surrounded him.
There was a tinge of excitement in the air. After all, the guy who headed Symphony was behind it, as was the woman who did the music.
It was winter, for sure. Sharply cold, and the world around me infinitely farther off than it actually was. I liked the stillness, how life only seemed to be in the car's headlights' glare on the snow. I went into my house, the basement, turned on the fireplace and slid the game into the PS2.
December is a wonderful time to play games. It's cozy, you know, getting absorbed while the windows expose the white flurries and drifts outside, or the cleanest darkness imaginable. Wrap a blanket around yourself and stare at the glow of the TV. You're a kid again.
It's somehow even better when you're going through a snowy place in the game. Perhaps, in the back of your mind, you think that if you put on your boots and jacket and walk outside, you'll find the same adventure waiting for you. It's as if reality is giving a compliment to the world inside that box.
There was this platforming segment I was trying when the doorbell rang. A few friends stopped by - Adam, Nick, Jordan. They'd gotten lost on their way back from some place. They were hungry, so I got out some food and we ate. Nick had a camera that was used to take some videos of their escapade, and we huddled around the tiny screen to view what had been taped.
That was a good night.
When I played Lament at my dorm last semester of freshman year, a friend said, "I'm not too hot on the whip thing. I really like using swords a lot more."
That is not one of the deficiencies. But it was an interesting comment.
Myself, I like the memorization and momentum the whip holds in the 2D games. You eventually get the feel for how exactly long it stretches out, and you can flick it out and connect with the enemy just at the tip while cruising along.
"Well, Curse of Darkness has different weapons," I said.
"That's cool. I'll have to try it out, some time," he responded.
Would you, Nate? Would you have to try it out?!?
I've completed Lament a few times. It's curious, I guess, when someone who knows about my tastes finds out such a thing. There are some foundational deficiencies in it. These things are not hard to see.
Still, I like the graphics and the music. I like the combat's smoothness. The cutscenes' quaint and dark equanimity is pleasing. The areas are not too long and decent platforming periodically surfaces. I stop playing when the repetition has worn itself out. The experience must be done in short spurts. Times come up when I want "do-nothing" gaming. Have a game where everything is…kind of right there, and you simply proceed. When that happens, I'll maybe put in Capcom vs. SNK or Shinobi or – yeah, Lament.
Even so, I'm disappointed. When I see how good its other components are, I get a little pissed off.
People may be quick to point out that the series started out as primarily action games. And they're right. The platforming, more often than not, was a reminder to deal with the enemies before trying to traverse the gaps and whatever else instead of being outright jumpy-jump like Mega Man.
But Castlevania was never a brawler. Dracula's home isn't a bunch of big boxes with monsters standing about. It always had substance beyond the interaction of you and your enemies.
I can appreciate evolutions - when they fit the context of universes.
Like - the idea of exploration and unity was always lurking around. If you couldn't feel the potential for that sort of interpretation, especially after Simon's Quest…well, then.
I can't play a Castlevania game and get the sense that any translation should be arena combat. The core concept of Castlevania – it's got too much going on to transform into such terms.
It's not only that, either. Lament was built from a type of middle ground, instead of consciously ground-up, and then stayed there, refusing to become much more than a tech demo. There's…stuff hanging around – just barely enough reason for the game to exist. I can appreciate it, but I wouldn't call it well made.
Igarashi did say that he was experimenting to get ready for future projects. Why did he have to release the experiment as a full-fledged game?
More confusing (and disturbing) – if Lament was an experiment, why is Curse almost the same thing? And why is it worse?
Within almost all of the stunningly repetitive interviews (don't they check to see if anything they want to know has been asked before?), Igarashi has commented on his admiration for Castlevania 3, how it's his favorite of the series, how he thinks it represents everything the series stands for.
Personally, it doesn't do much for me.
It's the most determined, of the NES trilogy, to create atmosphere. I enjoy the music and it has some really nice looking backgrounds and effects. If I had played it as a kid, I probably would have been overwhelmed. The scope is big.
I guess – yes, it was the level design that bothered me. The layouts speak of trying to drown out the prior two games with expansiveness instead of achieving cohesiveness or interest.
The intuitiveness of Castlevania and the bizarre intrigue of Castlevania 2 are gone. Instead, there's either too much clutter or…not enough of anything. Platforms that you'll never get to are clumped next to other structures, and flat planes stretch on to increase time. Enemy placement is meant to aggravate, rather than prompt an instantaneous solving of a spatial puzzle. Spear guards and other figures hover above every flight of steps, creating long pauses before the game randomly allows access.
Regardless, Castlevania 3 wowed packs of people at its arrival. Makes sense.
Igarashi's admiration for Dracula's Curse is not difficult to see. Alucard was used in SotN to tie knots so that anyone could hop in and get a feel for what had happened before. You can also fight zombie versions of Trevor, Sypha, and Grant, among other things.
Harmony has an area that reproduces the tile-set of the town Trevor Belmont began in, and even includes owls. The Skull Knight, along with a menagerie of other creatures, including the Cyclops, pop up as bosses.
Curse of Darkness follows what Castlevania 3 laid down: conceptually.
If you played both side to side, you'd be hard pressed to find major similarities beyond the storyline's recurring figures and the quest across the landscape.
I'd prefer certain alterations and additions – like sequentially including the prologue manga story and not finishing it all off so cheerily – but the plot's presentation is surprisingly entertaining.
Iga and his team usually have a way with forming personalities that, despite their minor presence, become very agreeable. It's not the originality of the story (though that helps) – rather, the contained classiness that the characters conduct themselves with while making exchanges. They've got a style that makes me want to sit down with them, have tea, and discuss little discussed things in a dimly lit room.
Ayami Kojima has a lot to do with this. I almost want to take back a previous statement because her drawings for the manga are so visceral - and at the same time so eloquent. If there are any champions of the 3D game teams, she is certainly one of the few.
Curse of Darkness represents her greatest display of skills. Hector is easily the most intense and masculine of her "tragic bishounen." Trevor's redesign continues the neo Belmont fashion sense with sharp boots and flowing trench coat, now with a Wild-West sentiment. Julia has a frail independence about her, St. Germain is fantastically capricious, and Isaac's twisted mind is shown in his body's spiky tattoos and lewd clothing. Dracula and Zead (Death) are everything you'd expect.
Yes, there are snags in terms of transferring over these designs to the models: Hector looks a bit too plump and his face is slightly odd (I think it's in the lips, big eyes, and literal mop of hair). Dracula appears Asian. Beyond that, it's smooth sailing. I can't imagine Trevor looking any better than he does here.
Ms. Kojima's work has become inseparable from the series, as far as I'm concerned. I've heard detractors say her style is too flowery and not gritty enough. Funny: the contrast is what makes it so perfect. When most people hear of trekking through a castle and killing zombies, they don't visualize guys wearing red cloaks with silver lining and shining, white hair. Yet, how natural it becomes – a why wasn't this how it always was creeps into the mind, as if snappy fashion and meticulous, shady beauty is the perfect combatant against, and partner, for a dark world. It's a fresh take on basic things long expressed. Kojima is an enormous boon for Igarashi's romanticized view.
That's why every time I go over this it just makes me all the more frustrated with the handhelds' current direction.
Screw the children – the children are retarded.
Listen, Iga: if you're going to hire a full-blown anime artist because you want to appeal to the ankle-biters, try to go beyond picking a kid from deviantArt to do the job. Achieve a medium. Inuyasha fans aren't the only ones buying Dawn of Sorrow and Portrait of Ruin.
So, aesthetically, there are some superficial parallels.
The land is covered in gloom. Look up and you'll see lots of dark clouds and maybe a moon. A dark forest awaits, as does a town with zombies where the music plays a motif of "Beginning."
Wait, let me backtrack infinitesimally – calling the forest a…forest isn't correct. Nor is calling the town a town.
The level design is horrible.
No, no, see – it's horrible.
I hesitate to even call it "design." If someone set out to create something worse than this, they would probably fail.
Iga's team always seems to listen to suggestions and make changes. People said CotM was too dark, so HoD was bright. People complained about the music in HoD, so they changed the composers and sound quality for AoS. People complained about the difficulty, so they put in Crazy mode in LoI. People didn't complain much about AoS, so they stuffed more into DoS' Julius mode.
People said Lament's level design was the obvious problem – and they made Curse's so inane and stretched out that it would take only the most brain-dead or determined person to get through. You don't follow a compelling path of progression, but your own trail along the challenge that is time-consumption; how much you are willing to take before you switch the game off in exasperation.
I admit: I played it occasionally after finishing off the last boss.
My saves usually ended up in the Garibaldi Temple. The Temple is another one of Igarashi's signature surreal cathedral-esque structures. Whenever I turn on a game to wander a bit, I have a habit of concluding the trek in the locations I like the most. So it was with Curse.
Thing was, I'd always switch off the PS2 with an empty sensation in my gut, one I'd expect to get if I had spent a day arranging papers into stacks in a white room.
I wanted to like the game. I wanted to suddenly realize: "Hey. Everything's okay." I ended up pitying and, at the same time, abhorring it.
The problem with Igarashi's 3D design philosophy is that the level design is there for the sake of existing – there wouldn't be a "game" without it. It's as if Iga would, if he could, release a product where your character sat in a chair and viewed a slide show of different Gothic environments. Perhaps it's ironic, then, that there are chairs, of sorts (of an often quizzically stupid nature), littered about the world.
The visuals are mere dressing. You can't explore the houses of Cordova Town. You can't go up the little hills near the paths in the Forest of Jigramunt. You can't even slash the windows' drapes in the Abandoned Castle. The world may as well be a bunch of grey corridors.
Igarashi wants you to be involved in his universe, but you'll never be able to shake away the reality that everything is either a path or a big box that wags its finger at you when you walk near the edges.
Maybe the travesty of architecture and context speaks for itself when I must question why the option to jump was even included.
If Koji Igarashi is a man of atmosphere, why does he allow a creation where the participant feels so detached? Individual parts are only constant reminders of what could have been. There isn't an understanding that people look at art and play games for two different reasons.
A good painting works because it gives us an unchanging space for our mind to interact with and develop emotional responses. What's going on in that valley over there? What's the history behind that woman? I love those colors on that house. We are satisfied: the subject does what the format was meant to do.
And a good game works because it gives us a space for our mind and our avatar to interact with. It doesn't attempt to be almost entirely pseudo-intellectual with bits of virtual physicality. Out of This World, Super Mario Sunshine, Metal Gear Solid 3 – those are achievements.
Ironically, the most infuriating parts of CoD are often when the designs try stuff.
Here and there are a handful of sections where the path is squeezed between two small towers on either side. I'd run through them and continue to run to the next room.
I'd think: What in the hell?
Why were those structures there?
They are suggestions, teasers, of actual ideas. They are there to feign a care that the developers should have had. It's so utterly insulting and annoying.
About three spots allow access to seats where the player can direct a canon to fire explosives at the enemy or barrier blocking the way. While fun in concept, the mechanic is slow and awkward, and its sudden appearance after who-knows-how-many-minutes of trudging on land makes it all the more ridiculous and forced.
Let's view another successful game as a table, like the Xbox's Ninja Gaiden. Imagine there's food on the table; a Thanksgiving feast. Turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, all that. Now, Curse of Darkness' table is nearly barren, except for three or four scraps of food hastily stolen from the other table on a plate. Obviously, there's almost nothing, and what is there belongs somewhere else. If we decide to eat the tiny pieces of food, we're left unsatisfied. We feel even more cheated when we do eat those scraps.
It's…something like that.
Initially, progress to the forest is impossible because there's a big gap between you and the platform leading to its entrance. You have to fight a boss. Following that, you're able to get your new Innocent Devil, which is a bird. There's a long explanation of its abilities. Then you can use its flying power to float across.
You'll never have to use that ability again, except for one part in Dracula's Castle.
Even in the 2D games, where an ability such as sliding is underused, it has usage beyond getting past tight spaces. You can use it to attack enemies. Or to dodge assaults at a low angle. It's fun to crash through candelabras and go down inclines.
The ability to fly doesn't even allow that. It's clunky, entirely contained in the couple of necessary usages of it.
And the same goes for others: like the golem, who can open up heavy doorways, and the devil-type that helps Hector get under low openings.
So, the Innocent Devils' "interactive" abilities are underused.
If you want to see them do anything mildly interesting, you'll have to spend hours killing things and leveling up, experiencing trial and error, figuring out which evolutions allow which techniques.
It's the team's way of painting gold on the penny. Hector's companions are there to try to draw your attention away from the mundanity of the rest of the game. Simultaneously, it looks like an attempt to acquire a larger Castlevania audience in Japan by introducing another tired "farm your monsters" feature that has been seen in things from Dragon Quest to Chaos Legion.
I'm willing to be sympathetic, here. If the surroundings are abysmal, how is the combat?
It's…manageable. Not good, not sufficient – manageable.
The mechanics are especially difficult to appreciate after coming away from something like Devil Mary Cry 3. In that, I'm switching between weapons on the fly, running along walls, and dancing on the ground and air, having a wild time.
You'd expect that Curse, being founded on the theme of revenge and the newer aesthetic, would possess a satisfyingly sharp and keen feel to the combat. Leon himself had panache in how he cartwheeled around enemies and flicked the whip out with a languid crack.
Hector, inversely, is dull to control. His combos are stubby, circumscribed, mechanical, his running pace painfully moderate. Guarding has been dumbed down, now allowing for multiple hits before being broken, and the dodge maneuver is stiff.
Prior to the menu screen there's an opening cinematic, wherein most of the characters are shown. Hector and Isaac are shown fighting, blazing past one another as their weapons clash and their Innocent Devils battle above.
Why doesn't Curse deliver, at least on a partial level, this type of experience? Of course I understand that there are almost always dividing lines between the cinematics and actual gameplay of games, but why must there be such a massive one here?
To the game's credit, the final fight is honestly good. Some other bosses exhibit inspired moments, like riding on the back of the Wyvern. Plowing through the waves of mermen in the aqueduct delivered pleasure, in spite of myself. I think the idea of stealing from enemies is great, and would be overjoyed were it applied to the 2D games.
But it's too hard to salvage any substantive dynamics to speak of. For a product entirely concerned with combat as the only means to express oneself, it's absurd that there's rarely a need to deviate from the "attack, dodge, attack" strategy and that the opposition is so very often seemingly unaware of your presence or unequipped to deal with it. Curse's fighting system takes the "safe route," a bland direction that has plagued things from Dynasty Warriors to Kingdom Hearts. It's neither spectacular, nor dreadful, but just is – content with its position at the edge of lowest competency, it glances at the player and says, "Hey, I let you attack stuff. What more did you want?"
Bless Michiru Yamane's heart.
She is one of the few reasons I managed to finish CoD.
I guess she didn't play it. How do I explain such good music? Did they just show her sketches? Was she determined to try to alleviate the shit as much as she could?
The music is a recalling of…I'm not sure what, exactly. Something older. The melodies are more repetitive than usual, caught up in whirls of layers that speak with one another in the same way, say, "Mad Forest"'s do. Start with a hook, roll it into a different idea that was previously below, expand upon that, then bring hints of the beginning back and interpretively unify it all in the end.
It's video-game-y, if I may use the term.
It's tough, too. There's nothing else in the series that approaches such coarseness, except Belmont's Revenge and Chronicles.
Here's my Pro-tip: Skip the game and buy the soundtrack. Nifty sketches are in the booklet. Or download the songs. Whatever floats your boat.
Playing Curse of Darkness, I am made aware that, apparently, the qualities that made Dracula's Curse special for Igarashi were its garnishes. There is no attempt to create a sort of structural link. Indeed, there's little attempt to create any complementary innovations, either.
The soundtrack, the art, the cutscenes – they are the attendees of the ball who arrive, after choosing their best garments, and find that the inside of the building is a run-down warehouse and that the rest of the members present are bums.
As a fan of this series, it's difficult to see the handheld installments garner constant praise while the three-dimensional efforts are instantly thrown in the pile of bargain bin games, and things like God of War are showered with enthusiasm.
Castlevania, with all it's provided in the past, easily has the potential to oust a product such as GoW; unfortunately, Igarashi and his team forsake gameplay, and use its one-of-a-kind aesthetic as a crutch, instead of having it be a realized product and kin of the mechanics.
Because of CoD's existence, I dread the next console installment. Maybe Iga will completely surprise everyone: make an experience so finely crafted that it will have us forget about the two prior efforts…or at least forgive them.
But the man's track record is too, well, consistent. Symphony through Dawn have been excellent; Lament and Curse have been weak – stress on "painfully" for the latter.
Still: I wait, with small hope, for the next renaissance.