How Metroidvania is it? Low Fit. There are ability upgrades that you can utilize by backtracking to old areas for secrets, but it's not really required for progress since you almost always get the ability exactly where you need it.
Primary Challenge: Melee Combat
Time to beat: ~15 hours
Review Info: Castlevania: Curse of Darkness was played using a PS2 disc on a Backwards Compatible PS3 system.
Buy Castlevania: Curse of Darkness if you like…
- Koji Igarashi's Castlevania World
- Customizable Action RPGs
- Monster Raising Mechanics
- Addictive Music
▼ Review continues below ▼
The post Symphony of the Night Castlevania series made its foray into the 3D realm with Lament of Innocence, a fairly fun game which we felt was nevertheless plagued by camera issues, stilted storytelling, and extraordinarily frustrating platforming. Castlevania: Curse of Darkness improves just about every aspect of Lament of Innocence. You can control the camera now, the story is much more straight forward and campy, and they wisely dumped platforming entirely. To keep things interesting they put a stronger emphasis on RPG style customization and leveling up, creating a combination of Action and Strategy that was perhaps ahead of its time in 2005. It still doesn’t really capture that same “Metroidvania” feel that Symphony of the Night introduced, but it does present a very fine direction the series could have taken in 3D, and holds up on its own as a great game to dig into today if you have the means of accessing it.
Surprisingly this game is a sequel to Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. Hector and Isaac were devil forgemasters during the events of that game, and their job I guess was to make all the monsters that Trevor Belmont had to fight. Hector had decided to renounce his position as a forgemaster, which was a betrayal that allowed Trevor to win against Dracula. Isaac wasn’t too happy about this and post Dracula’s death he invites Hector to hunt him down, which kicks off the events of Castlevania: Curse of Darkness. In order to compete with Isaac and defeat him, Hector must relearn devil forging, which introduces some very interesting mechanics to the game.
Along your journey you will find statuettes that you can turn into Innocent Devils, which are called “IDs” in much of the game. IDs function somewhat like the familiars did in Symphony of the Night, with a few important twists. Like a familiar, the ID will follow you around and attack enemies at regular intervals, but they also have a set of active powers that function more similar to the spells you might find in a different Castlevania game. You can set the ID to cast these spells automatically, which is useful for support IDs like the fairy who will regularly cast healing spells on you when you’re hurt, or you can set them to “command” mode where you can cast the spell at the most ideal time by pushing the activation button. Most IDs can also create a zone of protection where you can avoid damage, but I personally didn’t find that particularly useful outside of a few bosses in cramped corridors. ID lifespan and magic power is determined by how many heart points they have. Instead of replenishing their hearts just from breaking candles like in previous games, enemies now generously drop lots of hearts to keep the Innocent Devil going. Eventually you can carry up to five IDs on you at a time, and as the difficulty ramps up you’ll be switching between them often both to replace an exhausted ID and to apply specific strategies that an individual ID might specialize in.
There are at least four different Innocent Devil types available to you, and each of them evolve and have a few final forms that you can work towards. You can check which evolution paths are available to any ID in the game’s menu, and choosing between paths is a matter of collecting enough of the right colored gems to initiate the transformation. These gems are dropped based on the weapon type you’re using, so evolving IDs also encourages you to try different melee play styles, which is something I definitely liked. The game doesn’t give you a lot of information about what kind of devil you will get by evolving (you’d need a guide to know that ahead of time) but it does keep track of what evolutions you have tried already. Seemingly randomly IDs will drop seeds that will let you forge a duplicate of the same ID type, so the game encourages you to experiment and try different things. It doesn’t take very long to evolve any ID to its final form; usually you’ll have your ID close to that evolution by the time you acquire a new type just playing normally – assuming you stick to one weapon type any time you have an ID summoned. Trying out all of the IDs encourages multiple playthroughs, or you can also evolve a complete set of IDs on the same file if you so choose. The game is by its nature a bit grindy, but the grind isn’t unreasonably long if you decide to change up strategies along the way.
Enjoying the combat is incredibly important to enjoying Curse of Darkness, because that’s really the only thing it has to offer besides the grind. The game starts out pretty slow, which lets you ease into its mechanics without being overwhelmed, but the initial setup gives the impression that the adventure is going to be a bit boring. Your first ID is a support fairy that seems to trivialize combat by keeping your health topped off at all times, so at first there’s really no reason to learn how to dodge and play with your enemies. That changes drastically as the game goes on. Enemies get more complex, and it gets harder to keep your IDs alive between checkpoints. While you do always have the option of grinding out more levels to win, the way equipment works in this game still requires you to really learn the mechanics of combat rather than simply rolling the dice for the best loot. It’s a brilliant system that rewards skillful play at all times, but struggling players can still simply apply time toward leveling up to get through it if that’s what they prefer to do.
Combat control is similar to character action games like Devil May Cry, which is the same comparison I made when I reviewed Lament of Innocence. You’re not quite as overpowered as you are in Devil May Cry – you can’t juggle enemies in the air and keep them locked down indefinitely with the right stylish application – but combat is a bit slower and more deliberate to compensate. Between the innocent devils and the wide variety of weapon move sets available there are so many strategies to try that the slower combat is almost necessary. Just mashing the attack button might work fine for some encounters depending on what weapon you’re using, but there are plenty of enemy types that will force you to take a different approach. Given the almost overwhelming number of options it might take some time to learn any time you switch things up, but you do have a few panic buttons that work regardless of what you have equipped. You have a block button that will prevent all damage if you time it right, and if you hold it down you can jump to do a rolling animation with i-frames to avoid damage. There is a bit of lag at the end of the roll where you’re vulnerable, so it’s not a good idea to spam it, but it does help you manage distance so enemies can’t just slap you down while you get your bearings.
Weapon attacks will also often lock you into the animation, so being deliberate there is also important. During an attack animation you can push a final attack button which will do something different depending on the weapon and what part in the combo you’re in. Killing enemies quickly or doing the most damage is contingent on you getting used to what final attacks you have available and using them wisely. You can also combo attack with your ID, although most of the time I did this by accident. The ID’s main contribution to combat when they’re not just supplementing damage or doing support is their active spells which can extend a combo if used right. There’s so much depth in Castlevania: Curse of Darkness‘ combat system that I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of it. It is absolutely wonderful. The only thing holding it back from getting a higher score from me is the camera. While it is controllable now, it’s still sometimes your greatest enemy.
One of the things I appreciate the most about Curse of Darkness’ unique combination of RPG mechanics and action is how the crafting system is implemented into the regular gameplay. Just traveling regularly through the game world you’re probably going to collect quite a few important pieces of metal and other fragments that you can use to make weapons with in the game’s menu. The game’s lone shop has a few weapons you can buy, but they’re all the lowest level options, meaning you if you want something better you have to craft them yourself. Unlike some games with crafting systems, you don’t need to collect recipes or visit specific NPCs or workbenches to get the job done. Hector can apparently just craft weapons out of thin air, which I guess is another one of the other benefits of being a devil forgemaster. Any time you pick up an item it’s added to your database, and new crafting options just appear in your menu the moment you become aware of the existence of any item.
The thing that adds depth to this crafting system is that not all crafting materials are just random drops from enemies. Curse of Darkness also features the ability to steal from enemies, since apparently some of their best stuff disintegrates with the rest of them when you kill them. You steal by pushing the final attack button when the targeting reticle turns purple, and the frequency of this opportunity varies from enemy to enemy. Some enemies even require you to do something specific to make them vulnerable to a steal. So to collect ingredients for the best weapons in the game you need to get to know enemy patterns and in a lot of cases apply some skill to knock the item out of them. I think my favorite thing about this aspect of looting is that it’s guaranteed you get the item if you pull it off. So while crafting could be considered part of the grind, it’s not just a matter of playing the slots like it can be so often in other games.
Even though it also includes a lot of hallways to traverse and “explore”, as I mentioned, combat is really the only great thing Curse of Darkness has to offer. Like Lament of Innocence the hallways in this game are mostly copy/pasted setpieces, except this time around there are seemingly even fewer interesting rooms to come across. Most places you will visit are just hallways, with repeating statues, trees, cave walls, or whatever flavor the level you’re in happens to be. Being a Castlevania game you will of course visit some of the more iconic biomes, like for instance there’s a clocktower-like mechanical area, but comparing the environments to other Castlevania games just ends with disappointment. There are some great secrets to discover from backtracking, whether it be a treasure with a rare crafting material, an HP upgrade, or optional areas, but backtracking just isn’t that much fun. Trudging through low level enemies you’ve already bested a hundred times while walking slowly to get 100% is something I basically just skipped. The game really needed a horse ID you could ride around, or just anything to make you move faster as the available map got larger. I discovered that rhythmically timing a roll was slightly faster than walking, so in a very silly way Hector became a weird acrobat for more than half my play through. With games like Dark Souls that combine intense RPG action combat with incredible level design being available now, it makes it that much harder to recommend Castlevania: Curse of Darkness as a complete package. But there’s also nothing quite like Curse of Darkness when it comes to its combat oriented systems.
The bosses especially justified my time with the game. I haven’t said a whole lot about the game’s story because there isn’t a whole lot to say, but for Castlevania fans there’s just enough substance to make key fights exciting thematically as well as mechanically. Almost every boss is a perfect test for the moves that you have available to you, and while the fights definitely get hard, they matched that optimal level of fairness and variety that they became a treat for me.
Castlevania: Curse of Darkness expands on the potential shown by Lament of Innocence in the best ways possible. It drops the systems that bogged that first 3D title down while inventing ways to keep it relevant even in today’s more saturated market. It’s really a shame that this direction of Castlevania ended here, because if they took Curse of Darkness and combined it with modern level design, it could easily become a standard setting game. By itself it’s still a gem. You have to accept some grinding, and be especially keen on playing with your enemies and experimenting, but if you happen to be in that niche, it’s still well-worth checking out even 15 years after its release.
Numerous weapons to try, dozens of strategies to apply, all with a great dodge mechanics and combo attack depth - it's not Devil May Cry but it's very strong especially for the era. The only thing holding it back is the camera.
Thankfully Platforming isn't a focus for this game after the mess it was in Lament of Innocence. Very rarely are you expected to cross any gaps.
It's fun to backtrack to old areas - and there are some really strong secrets to discover - but hallways are super long and Hector is relatively slow, making it hard to give this a higher score.
There's the occasional passageway that makes you think about what abilities you have that can unlock them, but other than that there really aren't any puzzles in this game - and none on the game's main path.
Fairly straight forward with only a few surprises. Exactly what it needs to be for what is essentially a side story in the Castlevania universe.
Character models still look attractive and hold up even 15 years later, although the environments are kind of samey.
The catchy Castlevania tunes make their return with some especially addictive unique tracks.
There are two layers to the looting system, a deep crafting system, and a monster raising system that can keep you busy for a long time trying out new strategies, plus there's a bonus character mode and higher level difficulties on top of that.