This game is terrible. That’s sort of all you really need to know. The rest of this post is just going to be a list of reasons why it’s terrible, so if you don’t agree (or don’t care) you now know to skip it.
This is only a tentative review because I’m only about halfway done with the game. It’s possible just the first half of the game is terrible and the second half is totally great. Metroid Prime 3 was structured like this. You’ll recall, though, that this did very little do endear me to Metroid Prime 3; I gave up on the game for almost a month until gentle prodding from compatriots and well-wishers got me to pick it back up again. And in the end my thoughts on the game weren’t “that was awesome!” but rather “that was pretty good!… but why did they bother making the first half suck so bad?”
So let’s start with our hero Shanoa. First off: I hate Shanoa’s name. Most Castlevania characters have classically European names which, if not authentic, could sound authentic if you squint your ears: Simon. Trevor. Richter. Maria. Sonia. Julius. Grant. Since these games are (tentatively!) set in Romania or Transylvania, it works. “Shanoa” sounds like a lifeless anime name. It doesn’t work. (“Soma” didn’t work either, but I think he was actually Japanese, so I’ll forgive it. Shanoa doesn’t have that excuse.)
Second off: I hate Shanoa. She is a complete non-entity. Three minutes into the game she loses her memory and her emotions, then proceeds to blindly follow orders for no reason other than they are her orders. Almost all of her dialogue in the game is “Yes, sir. I understand, sir. I’ll get to work, sir.” Or otherwise, “Something strange happened. My boss will know what to do.” I don’t have anything against a brooding, no-nonsense character, but it has to be done right. Alucard does it right. Shanoa doesn’t. Alucard was an actual character with some backstory and a touch of development; Shanoa is just the jumble of pixels that responds to your button presses.
Third off: I hate Shanoa’s sprite. It’s ugly, it looks lazily drawn… and this is coming from someone who almost never comments on the graphics in the games he plays. Most of the rest of the game uses sprites either lifted or greatly inspired by previous games (and much of the modern Castlevania series does this), but Shanoa just doesn’t fit. She looks like she fell in from some other game.
(And if I’m going to pick on that aspect of the graphics I guess I’d better compliment what I did like: the scenery. It’s not just beautiful, it’s also original. You’re not just exploring tired-ol’ Castlevania again, but rather the surrounding countryside. When was the last time Castlevania had a forest level? Or a swamp? Or a mountain pass? It’s a little thing, but I did appreciate it.)
So I hate pretty much everything about the protagonist. That’s not what makes the game terrible. See, up until now there have been two styles of Castlevania game, which I’ll call “arcade-style” and “freeform-style” for the sake of brevity. The arcade games are a series of ultra-challenging levels, renowned for their difficulty, and the goal is to get to the end without dying. The freeform games are one huge, sprawling level filled with secrets that you can advance through by upgrading your abilities.
Ecclesia is neither of these things. Or, rather, it tries to be both: it’s a series of ultra-challenging freeform levels, which you can re-visit and re-explore at any time. It’s trying to eat and have it’s cake, and it doesn’t work.
The levels don’t work as arcade stages because they’re structured like freeform ones: a series of rooms that can be passed from either direction. A map of blue hallways that turn pink as you travel through them. Periodic save rooms and teleport rooms. Monsters that respawn if you leave the area and come back. Like little mini Castlevanias. You’ll recall that the arcade stages are designed to be passed from only one direction: jumps which, once made, can’t be unmade. Platforms that crumble and fall. Bottomless pits. Ecclesia can’t get away with any of these tricks, so you get the same tired series of hallways that’s plagued the games since… well, since they went freeform in Symphony.
But the levels don’t work as freeform areas, either. There’s no sense of advancement, as such. When Shanoa gets into a new area it’s not because she found a new ability and the player had to think about what that ability might do for her; it’s because a new dot on the map opened up. She does get new abilities, from time to time, but they don’t allow her to peel back another layer of the game world. Consider the double-jump, a tried-and-true Castlevania staple. Shanoa goes four or five levels without needing a double-jump. Then she goes through a sixth, where she also doesn’t need it. In the last room of the sixth she finds the item that grants the ability. Then the seventh level opens up, and in this level, and every level thereafter, the double-jump is required. So you don’t need it until you do, but the game tells you exactly when you do, and where. It doesn’t let you screw it up.
(You can go back into old areas and find treasures sitting on ledges you couldn’t reach before, and I did appreciate that, but it’s not the same. Your abilities don’t get you into new areas or let you advance in the game, which is the main draw of a freeform game to begin with.)
So the levels are sequenced, and boring, and you don’t really learn anything from them. I could forgive all that, except they’re also hard. Like, an order of magnitude harder than anything I’ve seen in Castlevania since… well, since the series went freeform. Every regular monster is a battle. Your first time through an area even the weak monsters take four or five hits to kill, and can deal so much damage that you have to be very careful fighting them. The big monsters take even more hits and deal even more damage. Sometimes the game makes you fight a bunch of them at once.
Now, the monsters in the arcade-style Castlevanias were tough, too, and we’ve established Ecclesia is trying to be arcade-style, at least in part. But it’s missing the point. The monsters in, say, Super Castlevania IV or Rondo of Blood weren’t challenging because they took forever to kill. They were challenging because they inhabited worlds which made it awkward to fight them. Simon and Richter had to keep on their toes. They had to fight from stairways and landings. They had to consider attacking in multiple directions. First you learn to kill an axe knight you’re on even ground with. Then you learn to kill one you’re standing above. Then you learn to kill one you climb up to from below. Like that, see?
Shanoa’s world is a series of blank hallways and rooms. She takes them all head-on, each one same as the last. Whereas each monster in SCV4 is like a challenge unto itself, killing the fifth or sixth Stone Rose in Ecclesia is just repeating the same challenge over and over. It’s fun to learn, but after you’ve learned you have to keep doing it, over and over, until the game decides you’re done.
I very nearly gave up in the Skeleton Cave because of this. If you’re drawn to the Castlevania series for the same reasons I am, you’ll very nearly give up here, too.
So what else… ah yes, Shanoa’s moveset. Shanoa attacks using glyphs, which is set up like a neutered version of Soma’s souls. Which isn’t a bad thing — Soma’s soul system could stand with a bit of trimming. Shanoa gets all her attacks from monsters, like Soma, but much fewer monsters drop new attacks and the ones that do give a very clear visual clue so you know who to come back and grind on to complete your set.
The difference between Soma and Shanoa is that Soma had some basic attacks he didn’t need to grind for: his weapon attacks. If you missed a soul or two that would make an area or a boss fight easier, it was no big deal, since his sword slash was sufficient as a basic move. Shanoa doesn’t have that luxury. Now most of her basic attacks are pretty common; you tend to fight a lot of the enemies that drop them, so getting them is almost a guarantee. “Almost” is a tricksy concept, though, because if you do miss one you might very well find yourself in trouble for no good reason.
There are two physical and five magical attributes. If an enemy is strong to a particular attribute attacks of that type will do virtually no damage to it. This is a fine system, and it works really smoothly… except there is only one weapon type that deals blunt damage. If you miss it you can find yourself up against super-tough monsters you can’t actually damage. I didn’t miss it, but I’ll bet someone did. (And then that someone gave up in the Skeleton Cave. Twitch, twitch.)
Anyway. The game encourages you to use a wide variety of attacks, and it tries to facilitate this with a quick-swap system where you equip a set of glyphs and save it as “Set A”. You also have Sets B and C, and you can switch them on the fly, changing from “sword and lightning” to “hammer and ice” as quick as you please. It’s very user-friendly and it doesn’t work in the slightest.
It’s not the game’s fault, really. The DS just doesn’t have the buttons to facilitate it. Shanoa needs two face buttons to attack and one to jump, and one of the shoulder buttons for her auxilary glyph. (The last face button is backdash and you can have that when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.) This leaves just one shoulder button to swap her glyph sets.
Actually, no, I changed my mind. It is the game’s fault. If tapping L meant “swap to the next set” then I could get the set I want by either tapping L or tapping L twice. That’s intuitive, something I don’t have to think about while fighting skeletons or whatever. Instead, tapping L does nothing. Holding L means “now tap R to cycle forward, or tap A to cycle backwards”. It’s not intuitive. I have to stop and think about it. It means I can’t backdash while swapping glyphs. Since I have to stop and think anyway I might as well just open the menu, where swapping glyphs is as easy as tapping L. And this is what I did most of the time.
So that’s a lot of complaints, yes. Over 1800 words’ worth. As I said, I’m not done with the game yet, and even a terrible Castlevania game isn’t so bad that I won’t complete it. There are things I like about the game, they just don’t matter. If I hate 90% of a game it does not get points for the 10% I didn’t hate. Even if the second half of Ecclesia really grabs me, well, does that make up for the 10+ hours of slog I had to endure to get there?
There are also things about the game I hate but didn’t go into. The grind, for example. At this point I think I’m just resigned to grinding in this stupid series. Apparently they forgot how to make a fun, grind-free Castlevania. Ah well.