Diplo Revisits Curse of Darkness

ow often is it that we witness things of substantial value using size as a near-universal marketing scheme? I've never read a book ad which screamed, "One of the biggest novels yet!" Neither have I seen this in music, movies, or visual art (perhaps. . .an exhibition, yes, though that's a different matter). It's a strange thing that video games are so explosively intent on getting this point across: that they're hours long, that they have so-and-so many weapons, that they're set in a HUGE GAME WORLD.

So, it's kind of shuddersome that this marketing scheme draws parallels with the likes of gas-guzzling SUV's, room-filling televisions, and fast-food. I'm saddened when a title like Portal will be turned down by some because it does not take a month to complete, because it is not acceptably tubby. It's ironic, I guess, that many of these crammed games end up being so hollow. Then again – they are hot air balloons.

Thus, we come to Castlevania: Curse of Darkness, the second three-dimensional attempt by Koji Igarashi's team, and what an explosion of nothing it is.

There are certain games, I think, many enjoy that, if exhibited in front of others, will embarrass. Whenever I've done a bit of Wind Waker in the company of friends, I realize just how dragging the sailing really is. By myself, I'm more free to relax and let the thing exist – that critical air of expectancy to entertain is gone (going by this…perhaps the best way to critique a game is to have people present). Curse of Darkness has the dishonorable honor of making me, by myself, feel a "God. I mean – really?" personal incredulity. I can only attribute my completion of the monster to a stage in life, which was very terrible, and I will not get into it. Suffice it to say, those who push through its entirety: well done, and what the hell were you thinking?

Curse of Darkness, in a phrase, does not "get it." On my part, I had a good bit of dumb fun with Lament of Innocence, snags and all. Universally, complaints were thrown at the level design, which was asked to go beyond tarted up interiors of cardboard boxes. The developers apparently misunderstand the specifics of the complaints, taking the "get your ass into gear, please" sentiment as a challenge to increase longevity. The case's back excitedly states, "Explore the biggest 3D Castlevania world yet!", but what good is that when it's so dreadfully executed?

The plot: Hector, once an aid of Dracula, is hunting Isaac, another prior-confidant of Dracula, who helped orchestrate the killing of Hector's wife after Hector abandoned their master. In an odd twist, the details of this are revealed in a separate comic, illustrated by Ayami Kojima, whose gorgeous manga work is similar to Takeshi Obata's. So attractive is the art that I'd say Curse of Darkness would have worked better as a graphic novel with an accompanying soundtrack.

Following a cutscene with tenacious voice acting, we are left to guide Hector where we choose, to certain degrees. CoD is positioned only three years after Dracula's Curse, a setting with implied elements that usually don't bother surfacing, save mostly for the insertion of Trevor Belmont, who will challenge you on two occasions. The world is dingy and muddy, as Dracula threw a hissy fit before dying and decided to make everyone depressed with an ever-present gloom. I guess Hector is supposed to be saving the land, a land that no human seems to live in, save for a pretty witch. Your travels begin in an abandoned castle, which leads to the mountains, and then a temple, an aqueduct, a forest, caves, and more, culminating with Dracula's Castle. The visuals are immediately less impressive than its PS2 predecessor, a fact that has to do with the controllable camera (Lament's positioned itself so that nothing rarely looked as poor as it might have closer, or from another angle), and a general step-down in aesthetic and technical flair.

In another half-hearted attempt to reference the glory of a bygone hit, you're allowed various routes through areas, moving beyond the comparatively more straightforward Playstation 2 predecessor. It's all a bit silly, though, since you'd be hard-pressed to figure out just why you should explore: it's all tacked on, equally empty space. After a while, even the most intuitive person will have the reference the map because where the hell am I going wasn't I here before? Everyone is sure to experience a sense of being lost, and it's not the mystifying Super Metroid type of Lost – it's one that comes about because the game is trying to be so massive that it throws structurally and visually identical paths at you like nobody's business. And that's pretty much all the world is: dead paths with different décor.

The sight of something to do in these locations is a miracle. I was excited that I could actually chop away a bit of wall in a room to reveal a new door. Curse of Darkness starves you for some connection to its environments until the most insignificant thing is a bucket of water after twenty days of sand and heat. When you're jumping up a couple of platforms, it's the game being generous. When I hit a switch to make a staircase appear, I'm given a cutscene of the raising of the steps almost as if it's something to be revered – as if it's a ceremony of TOTALLY AWESOME. You know what? Fuck you, Curse of Darkness.

Hector retains the ability to jump, though you never need utilize it beyond one or two instances. Even crazier is that he can double jump. The game's a mess of half-assed references ("Alucard could double jump – let's make this guy, too!") which seem to exist for some terribly misguided "fan service" or "tradition." And so while we have the What, we don't have the Why, or the How. Sure, the places are huge: but how are they built; why are they built like that? There are so many questions that seem to only be answerable by applying a sheepish grin and shrugging one's shoulders. Here's a thought, Igarashi: maybe your level design sucks not because of hardware limitations, but because your team is made up of SUPER-SIZE ME idiots with no design sensibilities.

With how the game handles its priorities, it's comparable to Phantasy Star Online. Except that there's no social aspect to speak of, now, and Phantasy Star Online's design is just a more controlled but similarly hollow "numbers-go-up" multiplayer online RPG design – so. Combat lacks crunch or flow. Lock onto an enemy, dial a combo, and watch Hector flail about as he tries his damndest to make contact with his stubby, wooden swipes. It could be because of the whip's reach in Lament that there wasn't the trouble of merely hitting enemies. Just, it's weird when more freedom is given (manual lock-on and camera) and we're worse off.

Minor enemies are hopelessly dumb, sulking slobs. Bosses must be relied on for any combat-oriented challenge to surface, and that'll primarily be via attrition – stupidity backed up by loads of health. Dracula and a couple other cretins manage to avoid this classification, and in that they are good, or even great. There's a depression on my end that the team spent however much time modeling however many interesting looking monsters, but failed to include brains. A slice of meaningful combat would've lessened the tedium of making Hector's thighs even beefier by jogging around rat-mazes.

As things are, the violence will attempt to distract with cheap abundance. Monsters drop items and materials at an almost alarming rate; damage numbers pop up when you slice in; your familiar monster will no doubt be doing its own thing; and there will be the "blupp" of hearts being collected and the "ping" upon grabbing coins and such. Curse of Darkness tries to convince the player that the fighting they're doing is actually involving in the same way that the Kingdom Hearts games try by making the conclusion of their terrible boss battles slow down and have ten LEVEL UPs explode onto the screen, or making enemies erupt with chunky bulbs of health and money that pop with crisp and goopy noises. And Curse is even worse at bullshitting.

But why should I be concerned? Poorness is poorness. Maybe it's a testimony to the little things that surface here and there, showing someone at least gave a spot of care for the gloss. There are times when, despite your connection to the world being aesthetic appreciation at best, you'll be drawn in. I'm a little infatuated with the Garibaldi Temple, full of dreamy light, warm candles, fantastic blue tones, stained glass, cobwebs, all resounding with harpsichord and strings. While the method of getting there is awful, atop a building you're treated to a view of a full moon and a tower beyond, separated from you by an windy expanse of clouds. In one room of the enormous Aqueduct, lightning periodically strikes outside the windows.

Curse of Darkness, for all its failings, has a hint of mystery to its setting, tinged with the scent of maps whose edges fade off, murmuring with tales of men who speak of the legendary Nautilus, tinted by myth and superstition stemming from an immaturity of knowledge. It's in that tower you can see, and in the clock tower being named after a sage, and the bestiary's descriptions. It's here where I realize why I wish the game were more than a treadmill with gothic frills and a Tamagotchi stuck to the side. This is the magic of Castlevania showing through all the crap, and enticing, regardless.

Above and beyond everything else is the soundtrack, done by now-regular console composer Michiru Yamane. I hesitate to say that it's better than Lament of Innocence's score, which, if memory serves me right, was executed with a newer, unfamiliar program. The result was a string of compositions relatable to Symphony's score, but more experimental, deeper, and ultimately more sensational. Curse of Darkness' track list, rather, comes off as being slightly domesticated and familiar, though that's nothing to hold it back from brilliance.

Shedding a bit of the extravagant flavor, the music here is dirtier, rawer. Yamane brings back the electric guitars for boss anthems, and knocks listeners down with an aggressive handling of harmonics, due in no small part to the unusually prominent basslines. "Forest of Jigramunt" melds a peculiar cleanliness with a dark flow and progression. "Baljhet Mountains" is especially good at showing her ability to build off a motif and make it knee-bouncingly addictive. Even the shop's tune, "Sarabande of Healing" is wonderful and rich. Unfortunately, the OST loses quite a bit of steam in its other half, resorting to annoyances like "Infinite Corridor" and "Dracula's Castle" that don't serve to do much of anything besides just be. There's also a slice of uncomfortable similitude. I can pick out parts of "Lost Painting" in "Mortvia Fountain" and "Garibaldi Courtyard", or "Rainbow Cemetary" in "The Cave of Jigramunt". Yet even with snags, it's so much a delight.

Curse of Darkness hasn't the heavy task of being a major representative, as Mario or Zelda now do. No – it's more the issue of it failing to be decent entertainment for the person outside the OCD sphere of influence whose heart starts beating faster when they check out the amount of steps they've taken in-game (you…seriously can do this) that irks. And it's also that the game possesses more character than most titles being released, in spite of its horrendous mechanical decisions, which makes me lift my hands, palms upward, squinting my eyes. CoD has the benefit of the Castlevania mythos; it has the character design, the music, the setting, the creatures. And it all goes to waste. It's an album with intriguing cover art and awfully dull songs. If you're looking for Castlevania in 3D, Lament of Innocence is arguably still the best choice you've got, and if you're determined to play Curse of Darkness, regardless, for God's sake, man – rent it first, at least.


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