Castlevania is one of Konami’s most popular franchises and for the longest time, I had never actually played any of them. My first Castlevania was actually the original NES game which I picked up on the Wii Virtual console. I found it to be extremely difficult and never got far into it, however I later played Super Castlevania 4 and despite struggling through some really tough sections, I eventually managed to beat it and while the game initially felt like a frustrating ordeal, by the end it actually grew on me.
Ever since finishing Super Castlevania 4, I suddenly got the urge to play other games in the series but I didn’t know where to start. One Castlevania game that caught my eye in particular was Castlevania: Curse Of Darkness, a 3D Beat Em Up game set in the Castlevania universe with the ability to summon demons to fight for you, as tempted as I was to pick the game up, I ended up playing Symphony Of The Night instead due to the fact that it was considered the series’ magnum opus and that Castlevania Curse Of Darkness received pretty mixed reviews.
While Symphony Of The Night didn’t disappoint me in the slightest, when I finally played Curse Of Darkness, I realized that I had picked the wrong game. I mean don’t get me wrong, Symphony Of The Night is a wonderful game and definitely lives up to the hype but Curse Of Darkness was just begging for me to play it simply because it caters specifically to my tastes for better or worse.
Imagine what would happen if Chaos Legion, Castlevania Symphony Of The Night and Shin Megami Tensei Devil Summoner combined, that’s exactly what Castlevania Curse Of Darkness is, it’s a 3D beat em up, much like Chaos Legion in which you hack n slash enemies and summon demons to assist you but at the same time your demons can evolve and level up much like in Shin Megami Tensei Devil Summoner.
The level design appears to be reminiscent to that of Castlevania Symphony Of The Night in the sense that it is tight yet somewhat open-ended. However I would argue that Symphony Of The Night provided more incentive to explore and there was a lot more freedom in terms of where you were allowed to go once you acquired the required abilities to traverse certain areas. That’s not to say that Castlevania Curse Of Darkness removes the aspect of backtracking to acquire new items, rather the progression in general feels a lot more linear.
I would argue however that the game more than makes up for this with its combat which is surprisingly flexible for a Castlevania game. Make no mistake, Castlevania Curse Of Darkness is not a metroidvania at its core, it is a 3D beat em up so if you are expecting a 3D version of Symphony Of The Night then you may be disappointed. Personally I find this to be a good thing as I enjoy beat em ups.
The combat itself feels like a combination between Chaos Legion and Dynasty Warriors, you have your basic attack string which can be cancelled into a finishing move by using the circle button. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Well it would have been if it wasn’t for the Innocent Devils. By pressing triangle, you are able to command your Innocent Devil to perform a special ability… sound familiar? Yep it’s just like in Chaos Legion except this time, your summoned companion has several abilities to choose from, allowing you to mix things up. By pressing left and right on the d-pad, you can scroll between each ability in the heat of combat meaning that you don’t have to go into the menu to change abilities which allows for more flexibility in the combat.
Much like Chaos Legion however, Castlevania Curse Of Darkness doesn’t focus on building combos like Devil May Cry, rather the combat is designed around fighting a larger quantity of enemies much like Drakengard and Dynasty Warriors. As such, Castlevania Curse Of Darkness doesn’t try to be like Devil May Cry, rather it chooses to its own thing and in doing so, it manages to hold its own against other 3D beat em ups of its kind. However, I find the quantity of enemies to be slightly lower than other games of its kind and this can make a lot of the game’s arenas feel a bit empty at times as they can be pretty long and wide.
Speaking of the arenas feeling huge and empty, the game’s protagonist, Hector moves considerably slower than other characters in the series and this is made even more apparent when you are trying to run from one room to the next as it can take a while to get from A to B which can be a bit irritating at times. I often find myself dodging to get to each area as it is faster than jogging but if you choose to do so, be careful if you have the double dodge ability switched on because if you dodge too quickly, Hector will have a long recovery period so you will have to time your dodges as you move between areas. Despite this, I highly recommend turning on the double dodge ability as it allows you to chain dodges faster, thus allowing you to move faster. Just be careful when you use it in battle as dodging too quickly can leave you vulnerable due to the recovery period.
Thankfully the dodge ability is accompanied with a guard ability and they both share the same button which means that even if you fail the dodge, the guard can still save you so long as the dodge animation has ended. Be careful though as enemies can break your guard if you guard for too long so it’s important to keep on the move in order to avoid getting hit. Once you unlock the perfect guard skill, you can time your guard perfectly in order to stagger the enemy, leaving them vulnerable to your combo’s so it’s a good idea to keep that in mind when guarding.
I really like how the game offers plenty of options for defensive play as not only is guarding and dodging flexible but there are also skills your innocent devils can use to keep you safe from enemies and deal damage simultaneously. Curse Of Darkness may appear to be shallow on the aggressive side at first but once you unlock new Innocent devils and acquire new weapons, it really opens up. There are lots of different ways to play this game which is what ultimately makes Curse Of Darkness’ gameplay so appealing to me.
Aside from combat, Curse Of Darkness has a lot of RPG elements, so much so that it could arguably be considered an action RPG. Each enemy you slay will give experience to both Hector and your Innocent Devil companion. Bear in mind that in order to gain experience, the Innocent devil has to be summoned. Therefore it is often encouraged to switch things up every now and again to spread the experience points between each of them. On top of all that you may also acquire evolution crystals from enemies, these crystals can be collected by Hector to evolve the Innocent Devil that is currently summoned.
Each Innocent Devil has its own evolution paths and in order to get the evolution you want, you will have to use a specific weapon. It’s often encouraged to experiment with different weapons each time you get a new Innocent Devil. If you screw up then don’t worry as your innocent devil can produce devil shards which give birth to new innocent devils so you can try new paths with them. In addition, these new Innocent Devils will carry over the stats of your current Innocent Devil, making them stronger in the long run.
Weapons and armor are crafted by obtaining materials dropped by enemies and combining them in the combine menu. You can also steal materials off of enemies by pressing the circle button on them when the lock on cursor is purple but it can be quite difficult to do so against some enemies as to trigger the steal option, there are certain conditions that must be met with each enemy and some steal conditions are absolutely ludicrous. Stealing is hands down the most challenging aspect of Curse Of Darkness and can be quite frustrating at times, especially against bosses as you only have one chance to steal from them outside of the boss rush mode which is a pain.
In addition to stealing and killing enemies, certain ingredients can be found in secret areas which usually require the abilities of certain Innocent Devils to access. This is similar to the form changing in Castlevania Symphony Of The Night in the sense that they’re used to traverse areas of the map that were otherwise inaccessible except this time, each Innocent Devil has its own abilities and some Innocent Devils may not have the abilities you need, requiring you to incubate another devil shard to pick another evolution path in order to acquire the abilities that are needed.
This can be a tad annoying to some and a bit cryptic but it’s only necessary for those looking to get 100% map completion as many of the items can be obtained through stealing anyways, thus diminishing the value of finding secret areas which may disappoint fans of Symphony Of The Night. On the bright side, it encourages players to experiment with different Innocent Devils and make use of the devil shards.
Aside from devil forging, weapons play a major part in combat as each weapon type has its own set of combos and finishers. In addition, some weapon types have a one-handed and two-handed variation which perform very differently. For example, one handed swords are handy against mermen as they have the tendency to dodge a lot and are often attack in groups. Since one handed swords have long attack strings, reasonable AOE potential and high attack speed, they are a great weapon to use against them. A two handed axe on the other hand would have trouble hitting them as it is a lot easier for them to dodge a slower weapon despite its reach.
To get the most out of Castlevania Curse Of Darkness, you really need to be experimental and not stick to a favored playstyle. On surface, the combat may not appear to be very flexible but that’s because in order to change weapons and innocent devils, you have to use the menu and since changing weapons and innocent devils is important, you will spend a lot of time going in and out of the menu screen to do so.
Curse Of Darkness isn’t the first Castlevania game to have this issue as Symphony Of The Night also suffered from this problem. While this could be problematic for people who want to play a more seamless 3D beat em up, I personally don’t have an issue with it as the menu is paused and not in real time. This means that I don’t have to consider time spent navigating the menu as a resource cost. I’d also like to point out that Curse Of Darkness doesn’t require you to equip items in order to use them like in Symphony Of The Night so its menu navigation isn’t half as irritating as the equip menu isn’t as cluttered.
So Curse Of Darkness is not only a solid 3D beat em up but it also has some pretty deep character management to the extent that it could even be considered an action RPG. Despite how common it is to see RPG elements these days, I’d argue that Curse Of Darkness has more depth in its RPG elements than most beat em ups and I personally consider this to be one of the game’s biggest strong points as the ability to level up and evolve your Innocent Devils is rewarding in itself as there are many different possible evolution forms for you to discover which gives more of an incentive to play the game.
I personally think that this winning formula is ultimately what makes Curse Of Darkness stand out from other 3D beat em ups. If you’re looking for a game that is similar to Drakengard, Chaos Legion, Shin Megami Tensei Devil Summoner or even Kingdom Hearts 2 then you’ve found the right game because all of these games have one thing in common, they are all action games in which you primarily control a single character and they each have some kind of leveling system to give players a feeling of progression. This is what Castlevania Curse Of Darkness is all about and it’s the best of the bunch in my opinion as it arguably has the perfect mixture of action and RPG elements within the framework of a 3D beat em up.
That’s not to say that the game isn’t without its flaws, while the need to constantly access the menu mid battle and the more streamlined level design could be considered flaws, they can easily be overlooked. What cannot be overlooked however is the visuals which are pretty mediocre for a 2005 game. It doesn’t help that a lot of the locations in the game look as if they were copy/pasted, particularly in the final area. To the game’s credit, there are some unique locations at certain points which help mix things up but the majority of the game has you exploring what looks to be a copy/paste of a previous room.
If it wasn’t for the in-game map, navigation in Curse Of Darkness would be an absolute nightmare as nearly everywhere you go looks the same. It doesn’t help that the arenas are big an empty as it can take ages to reach an area that looks different due to Hector’s slow movement speed. As such, the value of exploration in Curse Of Darkness is crippled because if all the rooms look the same, what’s the point in wanting to see what is through the next door? It’s just going to be another copy/pasted arena with enemies to kill.
On the plus side, like in most Castlevania games, the music is on point. Despite its dark gothic setting, many of the tracks are surprisingly upbeat which can feel a bit jarring at times but the same can be said for most Castlevania games. The music succeeds where the visuals fail, some of the tracks help build a strong ambiance while others play to the game’s strengths by being more dynamic. As such, there’s a nice variety of tracks on offer.
Despite this however, due to the game’s lackluster visuals, any attempt for the game’s soundtrack to build a strong ambiance falls flat. So while many of the tracks that build a strong ambiance are nice to listen to, they tend to blend in with the visuals poorly. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed Curse Of Darkness’ soundtrack and I highly recommend listening to it outside the game to better appreciate it. The music is arguably the most fun part of backtracking to previous areas if you ask me.
Aside from the visuals, the only other flaw that could be considered a major flaw is the fact that the Innocent Devils themselves aren’t exactly balanced as some abilities are better than others, therefore you may end up using the same abilities over and over again simply because they are better than the rest. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of useful abilities in this game but some of them just aren’t as good as others and some of them are a bit too good to the point that they could be considered overpowered.
I personally think that this flaw is justified due to the fact that there are many different Innocent Devils and they each come with their own abilities, it would be difficult to balance them all. With that said, Chaos Legion also suffered from balancing issues and I can safely say that Curse Of Darkness suffers from them a lot less than Chaos Legion despite the fact that Chaos Legion only has 7 legions to manage with only 1 assist ability for each.
As for the story, there isn’t really too much to say really. The story revolves around the characters Hector and Issac primarily who appear to have some sort of rivalry. Hector himself appears to be a dignified yet somewhat paranoid character who is prepared to fight anyone who stands in his way in order to avenge the death of his former lover by defeating Issac, a flamboyant servant of Dracula who scorns Hector for making a mockery out of him by abandoning his service to Dracula.
While the story does its job, it doesn’t really take center stage. One thing I can comment on however is the voice cast. Crispin Freeman and Liam’ O’Brien were the perfect roles for their respective characters, Liam especially since he has the tendency to voice a lot of flamboyant characters, particularly those who are aristocratic or insane. Crispin Freeman tends to play the dignified role well in pretty much every game he’s been in which makes him very fitting for Hector. I think the voice acting of these two characters is what makes the story as while the writing itself isn’t anything special, the delivery is perfect in every way.
While it might not be everybody’s cup of tea, Castlevania Curse Of Darkness does its best to cater to its crowd. If you’re a fan of 3D beat em ups then I can definitely recommend this game to you, I can also recommend this game to fans of RPGs in general as the Innocent Devils add a lot of growth and personalization to the game that many RPG fans will enjoy. Ultimately I’d argue that Castlevania Curse Of Darkness is a solid game as it manages to hold its own against other 3D beat em ups well enough to be considered a gem on the PS2.
Lifespan: Decent Length
Would You Replay? Yes