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Review: Castlevania Judgment (Wii)

 

Castlevania Judgment is the first game in the long-running Castlevania franchise for Nintendo Wii. Rather than being an action adventure game like the other games in the series, Judgment is something different. It’s a 3D fighter with weapons, something like a mixture of SoulCalibur and Castlevania. Select from a disappointingly small handful of characters from throughout Castlevania’s centuries of history, tack on a bunch of accessories, and fight the computer, or a local opponent, or even online in a broad range of modes.

What’s the story?

Ah, narrative. Castlevania games have been hit or miss on writing over the years. In fact, it wasn’t until Koji Igarashi was handed control over the series for Symphony of the Night that any attempt to truly tie the games together as a cohesive story was made. Some of the games since then have shown that there is the capacity for great narrative here. Aria of Sorrow had perhaps the greatest twist the series has yet to see, followed by a battle that had my jaw on the floor. Symphony of the Night brought the conflicted nature of Dracula’s half-human son forward for us all to ponder, exploring his mother’s torment at the hands of those she loved and his own dispassionate desire to keep his father’s evil contained. Curse of Darkness literally got me off the couch by showing me one of my favorite characters in the franchise graphically sustain a mortal wound. Does Castlevania have narrative? Yes, sometimes. Not this time.

Judgment’s story is handled even worse than SoulCalibur II’s explanation for why Link was in the Gamecube version. The mysterious man in the white suit carrying a clock, Aeon, is bringing all these characters into battle at a “time rift” for reasons you won’t know until late in Story Mode. Many of them have desires that they will express in battle, such as Shanoa’s wish to test her strength against the Belmont clan, who she believes are long dead in her era. The characters each have their own path through story mode, during which they will have dialog with other characters based on how they may or may not know that character in their own timeline. Each line of dialog will be followed by an awkward pause with the camera on that person’s face. Maria’s storyline is about nothing at all, short of her feelings of inadequacy upon seeing how large some of the other fighters’ breasts are. I am not even kidding.

All this is forgivable to an extent. This is a fighting game, and we don’t expect much from them in terms of story. The only way to pull this off with a series where characters are living hundreds of years apart from each other is through a huge plot hole, or the “time rift” that Aeon will welcome you to over and over. It does make for some interesting moments, such as when Maria encounters Alucard in her story. He comments that he’s glad that she doesn’t know him yet as they’re due to fight. You see, she will grow up and fall in love with him in Symphony of the Night, which is in his past, but in her future. Upon defeating Alucard in her story, she will point out that it’s a shame, because he was “kinda cute.”

The fact that the characters, when fighting, are made to seem aware of each other is very cool. Grant Danasty’s path is driven by his affections for another series character, and over the course of that story he will encounter everyone who’s involved with the whole mess and discuss it with them. It’s a narrative hook that is sometimes done acceptably well, but is generally marred by poor timing and some disappointing decisions, such as making Maria such an incredible goof.

How does it play?

Players have the option of using a motion-based control scheme or a traditional one, using either the Classic Controller or Gamecube controller. Plugging in a Gamecube controller will block all other inputs, including the IR functions on the Wii Remote, so make sure that’s pulled out before giving the game a spin if you’re not planning to use it. The traditional controls are responsive enough, with an accessible enough learning curve where button mashing alone can usually get you quite a distance into the campaign. However, there is strategy involved, and blocking is an absolute necessity or you often won’t make a scratch. There are a number of hits that vary in strength and speed, there are combos and special moves, and each character has a super attack that leaves them open for a moment while preparing and then does a ton of damage over a long, elaborate, and inexplicably mandatory cutscene.

While each character’s main weapon set is tied to them, there are objects like braziers scattered around the various stages in Story Mode that can be destroyed for subweapons and other items. Simon and Trevor Belmont, for example, have their legendary Vampire Killer whip, but bashing open objects can yield a throwing cross, dagger, or any number of other throwable subweapons. As in most of the series, these are fueled by hearts, which can also be found in these objects. Also like in some of the previous games, these can be executed after charging, producing a kind of “item crush” effect. I personally enjoy knocking my opponent to the ground and then dousing them with holy water before they get up, even when it doesn’t make sense that it will harm them, depending on the character. Other modes in the game have you select your subweapon at the beginning, and it doesn’t change throughout.

The battles are placed in the context of a number of different play modes. Story Mode plots a course through characters for you to fight with a general storyline of your character trying to fulfill a wish. You’re given only Simon or Alucard in the beginning, plus Shanoa if you connect the game to a copy of Order of Ecclesia on DS, but finishing the mode with each character unlocks another playable character, so by playing through, you can unlock all the characters one at a time. The balance on the characters is not excellent. Playing through the game as Grant was nowhere near as easy as playing through as Dracula or Death. This was a concern when the game was first announced: do we really have to deal with a Dracula who is watered down to the level of… a golem? Arcade Mode is another single-player mode that pits you against a sequence of CPU enemies with the goal of getting the best overall completion time. Then you try to beat your time. Castle Mode is a lot like Weapon Master Mode in SoulCalibur II, in that you progress through stages where you need to fulfill certain requirements in a specially arranged battle to progress through Dracula’s Castle and eventually face the Count. Requirements can be things like “kill all the zombies” or even just “don’t break anything for twenty seconds” which apparently also means “don’t let anyone else break anything either.” Some of the stages in Castle Mode become save points when you complete them, but if you fail even once, you go back to the last one, which can be a real challenge. Versus Mode is what you’d expect: play against a computer-controlled opponent or do local multiplayer. Survival sends an endless string of CPU opponents at you until you die, but the difficulty level, at least in the beginning, seems ridiculously low. I simply stopped playing it after 32 battles.

WiFi Connection mode lets you battle other online players of Judgment. As in other online Wii games, this functions regardless of whether you’ve exchanged friend codes, depending upon the options you select. It seems like a robust system with a fair amount of options, but with multiple attempts and waiting several minutes, my game never succeeded in finding an opponent to fight with. I know this isn’t universal as I’ve seen mention of others playing online without issue, but so far I’ve been pretty unlucky. It’s hard not to entertain the thought that a Castlevania branded fighting game on Wii has three strikes against it when looking for online opponents.

How does it look and sound?

We expect nothing but the best from Castlevania, and that’s because it never lets us down.

The visuals in this game stack up well to some of the best games on the platform. While it lacks the radiant shine of something like Super Mario Galaxy, it still looks great and unlike a lot of what we see on Wii, it’s clearly not something we could have expected to see on Gamecube. We’re two years into the Wii’s life now, and most of us have accepted that the best we can hope for from third parties is only a little better than the best we saw on Gamecube, so this game is very pleasing in that context. The art style is great too, but many will disagree with me on this, so I’m going to rant for a second.

Firstly, let’s talk about Eric Lecarde, the spear-toting alternate player character from Castlevania Bloodlines. In the original art for that game, Eric could easily have passed for a blonde girl. This is pretty much expected from a Japanese perspective. When the game was brought to the US, they redid the art to make him look more manly. Now that graphics have caught up to where they’re about at parity with concept art, we have an Eric Lecarde who looks like a girl. Get over it. Insult his masculinity when he beats you again and again, juggling you across the arena with his spear faster than you can respond, but stop whining about the art design. It’s consistent with the character.

Secondly, let’s talk about Simon. Simon here looks like the Simon from Castlevania Chronicles, not the Simon from the box art of the US release of the original Castlevania, who looks like Conan the Barbarian. He’s got red hair and he’s somewhat of a pretty boy. The NECA action figures for the series followed the box art, and as a result Simon looks ridiculously out of place in that product line. Let’s be thankful he looks like this instead.

The designs on all the characters are really nice. There’s plenty of variety in shapes, sizes, and colors. There’s a hulking BDSM-looking Golem who talks like Cookie Monster while on his Pinocchio-inspired mission. There’s the ridiculously busty Carmilla in her revealing outfit taking a page from Ivy’s playbook in SoulCalibur, drawing in the enemy with a lashing chain. There’s the aforementioned idiot little girl Maria who, when executing her super attack, actually trips over her own feet in the process and then responds at the end with a “huh?”

The stage design in this game might be the very best part. The arenas are imaginative and surprisingly varied. One clock tower arena has you battling on the surfaces of multiple turning gears. Damage to your environment (which happens in just about every stage) can knock some of the huge gears loose, and if you’re not quick on your feet, the battle can end very abruptly. Ring Outs are some of the best ways to win against a computer, but may be a good way to get punched in the arm if your opponent is human.

Judgment’s soundtrack is nothing short of awesome. There are a small number of new tunes for the various menus and the main theme, which rocks and is constantly stuck in my head. Everything else is a pumped up, orchestral and electric rendition of a classic Castlevania track. They work perfectly with the arenas, which have been designed to suit them. Facing off against pirate Grant Danasty in a room with meshing clockwork with the clock tower music from Castlevania III in the background will thrill series loyalists like me. It helps you get past the badly delivered dialog, and when Grant says something about the experience you shared in that old NES game, you’ll smile.

How’s the replay value?

Well, there are the fourteen characters to unlock, but if you look at the back of the box there are no surprises save for the very final battle in Story Mode that you can only fight to after unlocking everyone. Just about everything you do in the game unlocks stuff. Accessories, music for Gallery Mode, playable characters in Story Mode, just about anything. It’s fun to unlock things, but it makes you wonder just how much you have to play the game to unlock everything. There are many accessories to unlock so you can dress up your character, but they don’t seem to have any impact in battle outside of aesthetic. You can play it online, but that means you’ll have to connect to another person who’s bought this game, then they have to be playing it online. The media backlash over the announcement of the game, coupled with the rough early showing this past summer, have all but ensured the window for playing this online with strangers could be very small. In the end, whether this game has replay value will tie to whether any fighting game does: do you have someone who will sit down and play it with you? I do.

Is it worth it?

Oh, absolutely, yes.

I remember getting the advice years ago regarding Metroid Prime Pinball that if you’re a fan of Metroid Prime, and you’re a fan of pinball, you’ll love the game. That was completely accurate for that game and the same goes for this one. If you enjoy playing fighting games like SoulCalibur and maybe even Smash Bros (as opposed to serious fighting games like Tekken) and you’re a fan of the Castlevania series, you owe it to yourself to at least try this game. Ignore your reservations, ignore your conviction that Castlevania shouldn’t be a fighting game, and enjoy the ridiculous amounts of nostalgia and logic-defying plot contrivances. Enjoy Maria saying, “they’re huge!” at Sypha Belnades’ breasts. Find a reason to try the game. I don’t guarantee you’ll love it, but it’s good enough where you should try it.

It’s not the best game ever made, or even the best fighter or the best Castlevania game, but I really enjoyed this series sidestep on more than a nostalgic level. Castlevania Judgment, despite its challenges before release, gets four Aeropausonauts out of five.

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