Inverted Castles - The Goods, The Bads, and The Uglies by The Successor
here is a cardinal rule. If a series goes on long enough, it will eventually involve ninjas and/or magical stones, even if it initially had nothing to do with either. Castlevania has gone on long enough, because it has involved both.
Another hallmark for long running series is the parallel world.
It's not a new idea, we've seen it used in such games as The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, to Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, and plenty of others.
What is it good for?
Making games last longer.
If you cut the crap, that's what it's about. The dual world is a semi-lazy way of lengthening our adventures. It's easy on development teams, because typically, the only differences between worlds are coloring, and other miscellaneous visual bobbles. I'm not underplaying that part; coloring greatly contributes to, and can alter a mood or message being conveyed.
Some parallel worlds are well played, others aren't.
Regarding Castlevania, we are first introduced to parallel worlds in Symphony of the Night. The Inverted Castle, as it's come to be known, is a mixed bag. It succeeds greatly in some areas, but fails miserably in others.
After releasing Richter from a spell cast upon him by the Dark Priest Shaft, an upside down castle descends from the cloudy heavens for apparently no reason whatsoever. The weird thing is that Alucard, Richter, Maria, nor Shaft seems to wonder what is going on. The gang readily accepts that another castle has suddenly appeared out of nowhere, for reasons unknown, and I suppose they expect us to, as well.
I prefer things like this have context. I think most gamers do when playing games meant to be taken seriously. When explanations for something as big as a parallel world are disregarded, it's obvious the dual world is present for the sake of increasing game time. Most games are at least more artful about it, giving the worlds reason in the context of the game's universe by explaining them in the story, as you'd expect. The Inverted Castle is only casually mentioned during a cutscene.
I fault this castle for being directionless.
Alucard has all needed abilities to go anywhere when he arrives. There are no hindrances to overcome, or worthwhile new skills to find.
There aren't any recognizable goals that we're working toward, at least none that we'd readily be aware of. The complete lack of story sequences (except at the very end) doesn't help this situation at all.
We… aimlessly run around an upside down castle, killing monsters without really knowing why.
In truth, we're supposed to be looking for bosses to kill, which are holding Dracula's Remains. Collecting all of the Remains will grant access to a chamber where we can fight the final boss.
You'd never know that, though. Nothing about the Inverted Castle is explained. Not where it came from, why it came, nor what we're supposed to do there.
Being that we can go anywhere at anytime, and without having clear objectives, playing through this castle is like returning to a save file on a game you already beat, which is saved near the very end. There is nothing more to do in the game, so you kind of wander around doing nothing in particular. The sense of purpose is gone.
I'm not asking that the game hold our hands for the entire adventure, or that it forsake its non linear composition.
One reason why I hold the original Metroid above the highly esteemed Super Metroid is because it is truly non-linear with its much looser design, allowing more freedom. The difference between Metroid and the Inverted Castle is that Samus doesn't have all of her abilities at the beginning of Metroid. Though players may not have the luxury of direction, there is a solid sense of progression when new items and abilities for Samus are acquired, granting players continued access in planet Zebes.
The Inverted Castle has no such thing.
Don't think this castle to be all bad, however. Where the Inverted Castle excels is its level structure. The design is actually unlike its counterpart, making for new challenges and experiences in navigating through it. It's not an entire retread that is merely colored differently and filled with different enemies. Besides that, the rough terrain causes us to make creative use of the various abilities that Alucard has gained, from Soul of Bat to the Gravity Boots.
Another plus is featured music that is unique and unheard in the normal castle. And it's usually really good.
Unfortunately, (and following the usual theme of this castle) bad comes with the good. The problem with the music is not necessarily the music, but rather, the amount of it. There's just not enough. As good as "Lost Painting" and "Finale Toccata" are, they lose power after being played for multiple areas.
It's like the composer attempted something ambitious with creating all new music for this castle, and was doing extremely well, but stopped a quarter of the way, leaving the job unfinished. Hence, we're left with really good music that repeats like mad.
The areas in the second castle often reflect a completely different feeling than their flip side versions.
The Inverted Castle feels truly different from the regular one. The mood of the Royal Chapel is poles apart from the Anti-Chapel. While the former is regal and elaborate, while being reserved and hushed, its counterpart is surreal, illusory, like something from a fantastic dream, and both are astonishing in totally different ways.
More direction, an explanation for its being, and more music, would have made this castle a definite winner. The funny thing is that isn't a lot to ask, but makes worlds of difference. As it stands, the castle is stuck somewhere in between good and bad.
We next see parallel worlds rear their head in Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance. The implementation here is quite different from Symphony. Rather than having the player complete crucial objectives in one world, then spend most of the game's remainder in the next, Harmony has the player venturing back and forth through castles from the beginning, all the way till the end. Fulfilling certain requirements in one castle will open up paths in another.
Harmony's approach abolishes the lack of direction and purpose that plagued Symphony's Inverted Castle, and it keeps from dividing the adventure in two segments, and makes it a whole.
One problem this causes, though, is making Harmony rather complex in design. Players have been known to get lost and not know what to do. Considering this from a different light, the set-up creates an interesting addition - an element to the series that is common to the Legend of Zelda. Progression isn't determined merely by defeating bad guys and maybe picking up a boss guarded item, we actually work to find our way and overcome obstacles to discover where to go. It's like Simon's Quest, but not near as impossible to figure out.
The weavings between one castle and the other are intricate, but the design is loose, allowing sequence breaking and branching points that let players decide what to do and when.
Graphically, the distinctions between the two castles are convincing. Instead of simply re-coloring objects, as Symphony resorted to, quite often, one of Harmony's castles is wrecked, habitually featuring different, often unsettling backgrounds, with broken architecture, blood, and odd paintings. A surrealist nightmare realm is expressed in this castle, while the other showcases spooky moonlit settings that are more akin to the series.
Castle B in Harmony of Dissonance takes on an illogical, demented appearance.
Where Symphony triumphs over Harmony is offering different level design for its dual world. The areas in Harmony's additional castle, for the most part, are structured exactly the same. The music is the same for corresponding areas, too. Nevertheless, this is better than what Symphony had, even though new music would seem like the preferred option.
It is the preferred option.
If each area presents a new track.
Harmony's dual world works well because it's clarified in the story, it has a different aura than the normal world, and the entire game compels the player with a feeling of purpose. The story continues unfolding for the entire adventure, unlike Symphony's, which starts for the first half, and then takes a long break and doesn't appear again till the end of the game.
Harmony's parallel world is implemented better than Symphony's. What it needed to be 100% is different stage design for Castle B, and different music. Now that is quite a bit to ask, but Harmony doesn't pull any halfway stuff like Symphony.
Portrait of Ruin currently has the latest version of alternate worlds in Castlevania. The stages look different from the ones they're taken from, and they're bestowed completely new music, enemies, and bosses. That all sounds great but this is the worst implementation of parallel worlds in the series.
Near the game's end, players are presented with four additional areas that must be completed before they can face the final boss. Portrait would have been better off were they not even there. It did not need lengthening at all.
It's not that making games last longer is bad. Filling space with boring, unnecessary content in the name of increasing length is bad, especially when players have been through it before.
We don't come across these areas the way we would others. Traditionally in Castlevania, we venture through the castle and come upon new places as we progress. This time, four painting are sitting in front of us, readily exposed, and it's a matter of beating one and hopping right to the next, instead of discovering new areas.
It didn't flow well, felt tacked on, was poorly paced, and worst of all it was downright boring.
Considering all of this in hindsight, I'm hoping Castlevania doesn't rely on parallel worlds anymore. It's not that they're inherently bad, or that they're always poorly executed, but totally new content is preferred, and if not handled carefully, they can hurt the pacing.
There is a certain charisma in seeing something familiar warped or presented differently, but as it is with a lot of things, whether parellel worlds come out well all depends on how they are handled, and with these being quite delicate things (aka easy to screw up), perhaps it's safest not to attempt them.