Diplo's Order of Ecclesia Article

astlevania: Order of Ecclesia is confusing. And I don't mean confusing like Simon's Quest (a.k.a. "what the hell do I do, now"). I mean in the sense that there was Portrait of Ruin, there were those leaked screenshots that made everyone sweat 50mm bullets, and here is Order of Ecclesia, the most consistent, stable thing to come out of the Metrovania – or whatever you want to call it – formula. It is not the Grand Adventure Symphony of the Night managed to be, but it is a little shocking in how pleasantly it manages to conduct itself. In a phrase, things can only get better from here. In another phrase, it managed to make me smile. The previous "modern" games did not do that, save for Dawn of Sorrow's bit where you sat in a chair to procure a classic crown icon. And that was just cute. No: here I was in a coffee shop, trying not to smile like a dork.

It wasn't even a tiny bit funny how much Portrait of Ruin managed to stumble without trying to run in the first place. In a way, the game has become the current whipping boy of the series, though a lot of that ambivalence is grounded in cold fact. PR made sure everyone knew about the Main Feature: that is, how paintings, hovering in certain rooms of the castle, allowed you to enter them. Questionable phrases were thrown about without care, like "breath of fresh air" and "old school." When Portrait of Ruin was released to reviewers the Internet over, the lot of them emitted a universal "GU-HYUCK," jammed their fingers on their keyboards, and things like "Goin' back to the series' roots!!!" appeared on computer monitors. God only knows how else they made a connection to Classicvania. I guess they thought that on the basis of a couple of them being outdoors alone . . . You know, I'm not even going to get into it.

To be brief, Portrait of Ruin wasn't horrible enough to become a cult hit – it was just hopelessly, miraculously, impossibly mediocre. To be not brief: that the game advertised the separate locales as "exotic" and "free of the castle's confines" only made the reality more headache-inducing. Most portraits were indoors, their entireties haphazard messes, stacks of soggy paper napkins. The Nation of Fools, a circus-themed stage that flipped the laws of gravity around in regard to enemies' positioning, was interesting at first, and then became only vaguely cute when you realized that it had little effect on how you tackled obstacles. Overturning the usual-rule of "if it sucks, at least it entertains the eyes," it was a Castlevania that was boring to look at. The characters, little sprites, somehow managed to offend in their cheekiness. And the music, while more confident than Dawn of Sorrow's, suffered from a lack of endurance: there were only about a hand's finger's worth of good songs out of the thirty-some once you'd let it sink in.

Going back to 2005: Dawn of Sorrow made mouths water with its luscious opener set in an antique village covered by snow, but made said mouths suck all the drool back in when that structural/aesthetic charm fluttered away afterwards. For sure, it managed to dazzle in select moments beyond – an excellently staged boss fight in a tower, an attractive final area, a moment that must have made several people scream "Holy shit!" (teleporting into a mirror and being confronted by a huge fire demon) – though the game ended, and there was the feeling of halved satisfaction. Some asked, "Why play this when you have Aria of Sorrow?" It was, and is a valid question: the Gameboy Advance prequel was without the extraneous inclusion of more grinding, more annoying characterization. It possessed a crisper flow to the journey and less padding. Where DoS could claim lordship over AoS in boss design and extra modes, the latter outdid its successor everywhere else. Before Order of Ecclesia, Aria of Sorrow was the modern Castlevania.

What Order of Ecclesia does is not tear the machine apart, but pecks at it, cleans it, removes pieces of scraps, and re-arranges cogs for a pretty functional clockwork. The problems that remain are at their most minimal. It is kind of unfortunate how bleakly it all begins, though: first, the Ecclesia headquarters with awkward floating platforms, unfitting music, clunky bunches of text, and a tutorial on how to press the attack button. Then, to a disheartening Monastery full of the same old skeletons and box-by-box room design. It's the weakest opener to a Metrovania. After, there's a straight-shot through a forest, which, if anything, kind of feels like a forest (it must be those foreground tree trunks (note: it could have become the 2D Forest of Jigramunt: however, it is super-small)). Passed these fumbles, the game's a backwards doppelganger to Dawn of Sorrow: from sigh-drawing to head-nodding. Anyone with common sense would prefer a game that got better than a game that got worse, and Order of Ecclesia does just that. It's funny, also, how the game puts you in "natural" settings, without advertisements screaming about it, and manages to be more liberating and demanding than Portrait of Ruin.

OoE could be viewed as an extension of Simon's Quest's spot-hopping quest where you oscillate between the land and artificial establishments. However, it divides the environments up into a world map. Some of the stages, like the Misty Forest Road and Oblivion Ridge, are comprised of only several rooms that act as straight-shots, perhaps harboring one or two inaccessible fragments demanding later return. Some of the others, such as the Kalidus Channel or Tymeo Mountains, are laid out in a less linear way and act as "traditional" Metrovania maps with a handful of large rooms linked by horizontal and vertical passageways. Though it does pull off the "mix the palette up and switch things around for a new level" operation, it's more contextual and acceptable than Symphony of the Night's inverted castle (much as I actually enjoyed the inverted castle) or the inexplicable duplicate portraits in PoR. They are bite-sized enough to avoid groans, different enough in their enemy placement and visual shifts, and, to once again reference Simon's Quest, seem content in existing as duplicating generalities (a couple of mansions, a couple of fields). Things that get very specific – say, the Skeleton Cave or the Minera Prison – remain unique in their existence, and it works. Even special flourishes of partnered areas aren't whored out: the pirate ship bobbing on the dark waves of the first marine stage is replaced by a background mist skimming the base of blue mountains in the second.

The level design, at the least, proves that some people at Konami are finally getting it . . . understanding how to marry design to form, and enemy placement to each of those. At its best, it is what made me smile in that coffee shop. Aquatic caverns feel like aquatic caverns, instead of literal boxes with dressing. They are bumpy and irregular, spotted with protrusions and nooks. The swamp has long pits of muck that squelch quick movement. The mountains have trees whose limbs can be jumped upon and rugged hills to traverse. Low ceilings prevent room to jump over live obstacles (and, though this relates more to the combat, arcing attacks cannot reach through directly-overhead platforms for "cheap" hits). Hidden rooms and crumbling crannies abound. New treasure chests appear when you revisit levels, and secret ones rise from suspicious parts of the ground when slid over (hello, NES mysticism). The game is full of little touches that make Could-Be-Lames into contained, textural entertainers. And, when you get down to it, that's really all the series has been hinging on in order to bring about success: little adjustments all over for a big picture of solidness.

Order of Ecclesia shines brightest in its usage of the series' stars, the monsters. A good example to describe the problem with their handling may, again, be Portrait of Ruin and its city stage. Some of the paths were lined with a couple wolf-mounted, bird-like humanoids with swords. You could kill these monsters before they even moved (and you might never know that the wolves have a fireball attack if you don't stand in your spot for ten seconds). The self-defeating thing, here, is that Konami was taking the time to draw new sprites, in spite of them not really functioning as anything besides additions to the huge bestiary – and that most of the monsters were still operating under the context of a Retro Belmont, even though we were in possession of these graceful, ultra-capable protagonists. Ecclesia does not take the easy route by deploying a pack of clones, nor does it so sweetly continue the tradition of well-animated pacifists. While things are not perfect, it's the best they've been, well, ever, at least in terms of presenting a challenge in a Metrovania. Old sprites, such as the spear guards and skeleton blazers, are given behavioral updates, and the new selection, including a shovel-throwing grave digger and charging T-Rex skeletons, will keep you on your toes, both because of their increased aggressiveness and their numbers. And there's something to be said about where the monsters have been placed. Symphony still gets a lot of love for its attention to critters' occupancies – not necessarily for serving as obstacles, but as atmospheric setpieces; Dracula's castle had never felt so . . . lived in. In some ways, Ecclesia can't compare with Symphony because we've already seen some of the most impressive ghouls, like the Poltergeist Sword, but in other ways, it actually can make more sense than its predecessor. To use that Poltergeist Sword as an example: Symphony had you first encounter one in a stained glass room of the Royal Chapel, but Ecclesia has them show up in Dracula's armory, a setting with better relation to the sprite. Or the Une that popped up between the stonework in the Long Library now wiggles its tendrils in a swamp. Positioning tends to have a hazardous element, too, like enormous Final Knights occupying hallways where the ceilings don't extend above the enemies' sprites, forcing you to deal with them.

Also contributing to Ecclesia's challenge are a tighter grip on save rooms and healing items. A lessening of life-filling save statues does just what you would expect it to – makes you approach levels with more care. While I am wary of how the game regulates its potions (you need to satisfy a couple of quests that involve grinding for items before the shop will even stock high or super potions), I do appreciate how relatively conservative its application is. Super potions wind up costing thirty-thousand gold, and, in Ecclesia's case, gold is uncommonly hard to come by. There are no drinkable beakers waiting to be collected in the stages, either, though there are several goodies hidden beneath breakable sections of walls. In the case of the game's latter moments, where save points are a rarity and enemies hit harder than ever, it becomes something of an endurance test where actual dread can settle in . . . and it's in those moments that Ecclesia becomes the most exciting.

These moments are Dracula's castle. When you've waded in a little over waist-deep, the spire-tipped establishment appears, and it's a burst of smartness. As you step into the classic Entrance halls, you have – almost – all of your required abilities; the castle, thusly, becomes a comparatively propulsive experience, free of meandering lock-and-key hunts, more in tune with momentum and survival. The only missing required abilities include one that you learn from a boss you run into if you keep going straight, and another several rooms before Dracula's chamber (this final glyph grants flight, for no other reason than to let you cross the space between the obliterated, recurring staircase; it could've been omitted, without a doubt). Initially, a square blips onto the DS's top screen, but it's far off from the center, implying that there's a ways to go. You just don't know how much. You put a foot in the door, expecting a quick branching of dead-ends, excluding the one way to the next boss. When this is proved wrong, you question when will it end after traversing several rooms, seeing that there is more to uncover. There's a freshness in how the castle behaves, how it's more "controlling" than any other Metrovania, but how it manages to combine a jolly faux-explorative sentiment with streamlined structure. There's even a lovely hidden-room sequence in the castle's dungeon where you start to wonder when it will end. Hoping against hope, I wished for it to lead into a secret area – and, though it did not, its existence, like the rising treasure chests, adds to the tinges of Ecclesia's "iceberged" reality.

It's a sort of shocking miracle that a bunch of the castle was designed by none other than the guys from Circle of the Moon. Their Clock Tower is the best Clock Tower since Rondo of Blood, toothed with consequential (yesss!) spikes, moving bits that you need to latch onto and use to propel yourself upwards, stomping hordes of enemies, and meaty room layouts. There's rarely a moment to be lazy; this pressure extends into the Castle Keep, as well, full of close calls and three-on-one matches that will you have you sliding, back-dashing, and flipping in the air to contend with what comes your way. If I'm making it sound like Order of Ecclesia is the toughest thing ever, let me say that it is not Ninja Gaiden: it is, however, about as difficult as Castlevania: Bloodlines, which is to say that I would love for it to be more rough with me, but what it is, is good. It will make you die a healthy amount. Watching Shanoa's body erupt with pixilated blood, seeing the zero digit in her health meter, a tiny smile crept onto my face – not because I have a morbid fetish for deceased sprites, but because it felt good to know that I was being challenged by a game produced by Koji Igarashi, a man who has, for so long, stressed the importance of "accessibility" (a.k.a. make the games easy enough to meet the needs of even the most inexperienced demographic (retarded, blind baboons)).

The harder mode needs to be mentioned not because of its plain existence, but because it shows that someone out there either loves us, hates us . . . or feels a combination of both. It slaps you in the face, kicks you in the gut, and throws you down flights of steps. That is, it will do that if you don't keep on your toes and strategize just for single rooms. Dracula's Castle on "normal" heightened the element of tactics and reaction: hard mode, in general, makes legions of chambers and shafts frankly frightening excursions with the breath of death. Vertical rooms in the Tymeo Mountains become lip-biting experiences when a steady stream of Medusa Heads and Flying Skeletons are added to the mix of hard-to-see birds and resilient Rock Armors. With a few adjustments, like making Dracula's castle, and a few pre-Castlevania areas, more brutal, the mode would be a shockingly right-on. As it is, it's still exciting and welcome, a continual prompt to use your avatar's abilities in a way unlike you've used any super-heroic Castlevania avatar before. You'll come to a room where you realize the walking speed of the Skull Spiders has been sped up; quickly gathering a tally of how many you have to contend with, you might then exit the screen, properly equip yourself (elemental attributes matter), and, with the knowledge of where the Skull Spiders come from, re-enter and employ a relevant, hearts-eating glyph union (more on this). Or, you may hop onto a tree's limb and take the extra time, but lessen the risk, by using an indirect lightning glyph. Preparation and successful improvisation, thus, are important factors within hard mode. Short stages that lack teleportation points challenge you to make it through in one go by acknowledging enemies' patterns and performing explosive bits of crowd control. Getting by with nary or no scratch imparts the sense of genuine accomplishment.

Two extra areas appear when a particular chunk of Dracula's castle has been covered – the Large Cavern and the Training Hall. The first is a re-appearance of what was exhibited in CotM and PoR – a combat-centric maze, packed with killer monsters – but more vicious; I went through two rooms my first time and was obliterated. The second focuses on brutal level design that presents patterned platforms, cylinders of flame, and sharp objects. Both are inarguably Ecclesia's hardest features. And though I appreciate their aggressiveness, the idea – used three times in 2D Castlevania, so far, allowing more scrutiny than before – presents a paradox of design. The problem with the Large Cavern, PoR's Nest of Evil, et-cetera, is that they reward players with things that suggest challenges beyond – but they, in themselves, are the game's highest challenge, and so their prizes are rendered moot. Order of Ecclesia's Training Area is wonderfully designed and well-paced. My suggestion, then, is that Konami should get rid of the whole mega-difficult bonus dungeon and just implement that into the main stages. It would make the games more cohesive, and would remove the queerness of getting pointless armor or items.

Ecclesia boasts the best line-up of bosses in maybe any Castlevania. Though your standard Big, Dumb Beautifuls are present, they are at their lowest number yet, and they are at least more dangerous than their relatives. The best encounters range from an enraged giant who punches the ceiling to make planks rain down and charges down the hallway to let loose a flurry of punches, to a funny, pot-bellied figure with seemingly infinite health who tosses out timed bombs – and who can actually be killed in a single action when you've figured out the "puzzle." I'm not sure if I prefer Ecclesia's Dracula over Portrait of Ruin's excellently plaid out (if goofy, dialogue-wise) climactic battle, but there are enough changes to his standard actions to make the experience a series-highlight. For instance, if you get close enough to his body when attacking, he will swoop his cape up and knock you back, and there's an interesting choice of options on how to counter his newly-heightened barrage of flames: you could try to attack at the right time to snuff them out, or you could jump-kick off of them until the wave ends. Speaking of secondary mechanics, it's nice how Ecclesia doesn't feel obligated to actually single out the slide mechanic as a Trademark Feature in one or two practically neon-highlighted underpasses of the game, but lets it exist as an action to use during fights – I know I used it a lot – or as a miniscule way of lending itty-bitty, split-second dynamisms to stages' geometric space, like spots to be slid under for access to a save point underwater, or impeding bumps on tunnels' undersides in the mountains.

Getting onto the primary combat mechanics: the standard of real weapons has been scrapped in favor of glyphs – spells Shanoa can gain from enemies, or glyph-holding statues, and equip to her left arm, right arm, and body (these function as general spells, such as statistical boosts that may increase your strength of defense, or "joke" effects that include summoning up to three owls). If you equip the Falcis glyph to one hand, you can wield a scythe. If you equip a Grando glyph to another, you can eject shards of ice. Combine two glyphs of the same name and you can initiate a special attack, like swinging a huge axe and summoning a levitating ball of lightning. Because the special attacks run on hearts, and eat so many of them, and because the heart-healing items heal very little (and cost a lot), conservation and tactical aggression plays into the mix. There is an appreciable matter-of-factness in how you can't level glyphs up, too (save for the aforementioned few that act as creature summoners), erasing a superfluous OCD aspect. There are still too many total, accentuated by the fact that upgrades of the same glyph do not nullify the weaker ones – but it's more tightly controlled than the Sorrow titles' everything-has-to-have-a-soul rationale, and better than powering up Portrait's legion of sub-weapons.

A few other features make this the best "system." Not all of the glyphs rely on luck: some can be stolen from enemies as they prepare a spell. Ideally, this is how any collectible element would be featured (stealing spells also refills hearts, as well). And this time around, the MP bar is a stamina bar, naturally refilling at a quicker rate (making me wonder why Konami bothered to include the MP potions). If it gets near the empty level, your ability to attack quickly is stifled. The ability to attack quickly is sort of a crisp mini-game in itself. Press the Y and X buttons, alternately, in a timed manner, and you can attack much faster than usual. Utilizing this mechanic will be the key to taking down a lot of the bosses, and stronger monsters, without getting yourself in a world of hurt.

Visually and aurally, the game is nearly singing. As I said, a reason why Portrait of Ruin was so hard to get into was because almost nothing was graphically stimulating, and in Castlevania, atmosphere is one half of the equation – though, really, I would hope that every game made me interested in its world. Ecclesia has a quirky finish to its presentation that is reminiscent of games like Demon's Crest, Majyuuou, and, surprisingly (or unsurprisingly) enough, Metroid Fusion, combined with the baroque detailing the Metrovanias are often known to exhibit. There is a vague "horror" atmosphere in the rickety mansions' interiors set against the red-orange sky, and in the skeletal-intestinal, horror-nouveau embellishments of Castlevania's entrance. Little red eyes stare from the forest. Green lighting in caves makes you wonder. Storm-laden clouds scroll by. Mist sifts through hazy foliage. Fires flicker in stone stones. Even the final save room has this wonderful Contra-esque melding of bones with "flesh" – a snapping balance of the ominous and the silly.

When Ecclesia is at its best, it is when it realizes what made some of Symphony's essentially banal elements transcend simplicity: their function and form. Floating platforms are fine . . . I mean, it's a video game. But when the game has the good nature to explain that platform, the environment becomes more real to the senses, and this is why I'm in love with Ecclesia piling up books and paper to jump on, or designating the boundaries of shafts with clustered crates of food. These touches give the act of traversing space a weight that literalness – "see, you're in a box with floating ledges" (oh, thanks a lot) – would fail to convey. Undoubtedly, schizophrenia is present: we have Rondo and Symphony sprites rubbing up against newcomers, the involvement of the KCEK people, and ripped backgrounds (the forest stage is literally the pre-castle woods from Symphony's opener with Alucard running). But the game manages to succeed in spite of its flaws: Portrait's stolen backgrounds seem more at home here, there is a heaping bunch of attractive originality in its own right, and the bestiary has enough elements in common – leaning towards that aforementioned "horror" notion that is not without a sense of humor – to act more confidently than the last two DS entries, and perhaps just as well as Igarashi's GBA titles (Circle's selection was, yes, very dull).

For all the praise the series gets for the scores, the handheld Metrovanias have struggled a lot with their music. Circle of the Moon had a bundle of lackluster remixes, and some tracks played in too large a region. Harmony of Dissonance didn't have a qualitative problem, as much as the music was so psychologically charged and bound to the game's identity that listening to it as "music" was close to impossible (I'm still waiting for someone with the fortitude to interpret it using actual instrumentation (lord knows I don't have the guts)). Aria of Sorrow had better compositions than Dawn of Sorrow, but the sound quality in either was unremarkable – especially the former – and, often, the most positive adjective to apply to a track from either was "solid." After Portrait of Ruin's initially startling energy faded, it revealed a handful of good tunes that didn't breach the double digits in number, and Koshiro's involvement was overplayed in favor of his status, rather than for his work.

Order of Ecclesia, a collaboration between mainstay Michiru Yamane, and new blood Yasuhiro Ichihashi, is both the largest tracklist for a handheld Castlevania and the best – and it's one of the best scores I've heard come out of video games, at all, really. As a whole, the OST gives off the energy of an atmospheric, dark Super Nintendo release, like Demon's Crest or Secret of Evermore, and combines that with some of the punchiest percussion and basslines in 2D games. There's life to be found in every context: "cutscenes," environments, battles, and introductory/ending sequences. The largest complaints I can laud against the music is that some of it feels out of place in its setting – "Chapel Hidden in Smoke" or "A Prologue" spring to mind – and that it can intrude on the individuality of prior work – "The Colossus" is uncomfortably close to "Lament of Innocence", for example – but neither of these complaints can be applied to very much at all, and the OST succeeds with flying colors, working on emotive, melodic, and memorable levels. Beating Ecclesia once replaces the initial menu theme with the simple, sensitive intermingling of a flute and acoustic guitar. On the other end of the spectrum, a key fight evokes the blazing, harmonic creativity of Mega Man 2 and stops just short of "cheesy," nestled perfectly in the realm of clear and enthralling, regardless of the electric guitar synths. It's not very hard to tell which songs are Yamane's: and it's then interesting to note that the majority of the score was executed by her, once again – only, this time around, we can be glad of that fact, because there's such a wealth of goodness to hear. At night, when all the lights are off and I'm in bed, I'll hook my headphones up to my DS, go into Ecclesia's sound test, and just listen. That's pretty good, in my book.

If the story is unexciting, it at least is not offensive and handled with more tact than has lately been present. Characters' presences are helped by the artist Masaki's profile pictures, which are worlds – or universes – beyond the stock imagery produced for Dawn and Portrait. Similar to Simon's Quest, again, the village returns with inhabitants who can be rescued from side-rooms in areas. Once they come back to the village, you can talk to them and complete requests. As per usual in video games, most of the side-quests aren't a lot of fun – they're more like chores. But it's easier to digest compared to big-timers like The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, perhaps because the villagers aren't so unappealingly goofy – and because Shanoa actually responds to peoples' requests, rather than the way Link silently assumes his role of the Everyman's Errand Boy (indeed, Zelda's main game has become one huge errand for stupid, ugly chumps . . . but I digress).

I like Order of Ecclesia. Mostly, I wish that hard mode had been the default difficulty, that it had been more consistent in its challenge, that the beginning hadn't been so weak, and that we didn't have to grind to access the game's "other" slice. A week after completion, I started a new game of Aria of Sorrow and stopped after twenty minutes. I haven't gone back since. I guess what I might be saying is that if you went to Aria for the "atmosphere," it's not irrelevant, now – however, if you went to it for the action, Ecclesia is the uncontested highlight of any Metrovania. Sometimes, when things are quiet, I'll imagine, just for a second, the maybe impossible reality of a quiet, dreamily insulated Castlevania that picks up where Symphony of the Night's most affecting spots left off: a Castlevania game that says, "Fighting things is nice; fighting things is great; but what about the stuff that's in between the fighting? What about those moments where the music and setting, the friction of your characters' body against the texture of the architecture, suddenly hits you, and you're in that world – not violently, but as an explorer?" . . . Man. Please, please, please forgive me for being so romantic about a series with skeletons that detach their heads and throw them at trespassers. And I can wait for that never-arriving Castlevania a little longer with Order of Ecclesia around.

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