Even if you bury it under a pile of bad ideas, a good idea can shine through.
Castlevania: Curse of Darkness was the second Castlevania title released on the Playstation 2. Opposite a time when traditional, Symphony of the Night-like 2-D Castlevania titles were annually appearing on the Gameboy Advance and Nintendo DS, Konami attempted a pair of “next gen” Castlevania titles on the Playstation 2 (and Xbox, if you’re nasty). The first, Castlevania: Lament of Innocence, was an effort to stick a conventional Belmont into a 3-D battle castle. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great, either. So the promise of the franchise iterating on that experience two years later with Castlevania: Curse of Darkness was encouraging. This could be more than a simple “Belmont with a whip” game. It could be the “modern” Castlevania, where a super-powered dude (why is it always a dude?) with a host of magical abilities and a seemingly infinite menagerie of esoteric weapons stomps through the Castlevania countryside. And… Oh! What’s this? We all had so much fun with Soma Cruz and his ability to manipulate Dracula’s powers that we are getting a whole new Castlevania concept: A Devil Forgemaster. The protagonist for Castlevania: Curse of Darkness is someone who previously “forged” the armies of Dracula. That sounds interesting!
In fact, the concept of a “Devil Forgemaster” hits all the buttons you need on a Castlevania game. First of all, it is just plain good lore to, after decades of vampire slaying, finally reveal why Dracula has a castle hopping with infinite fleamen. Previously, we were forced to conclude that the Lord of the Night went off and recruited an army of frogmen during some Belmont downtime. Now we know the real story: all those devils were forged by one or two adepts in Dracula’s employ. Dracula is royalty! Of course he subcontracts! But even more important than the story implications are the gameplay possibilities. A Devil Forgemaster should be able to draw on all the powers of those little devils, right? So you can immediately unleash the stony gaze of Medusa? The endurance of Frankenstein? The strangely kung-fu-based abilities of the Werewolf? And a host of special abilities means a number of different ways to keep a new castle appealing. The devil army can do more than double jump and break open walls, so more powers mean more ways to traverse the eponymous Dracula’s castle. When the biggest problem with Lament of Innocence was that the castle was exactly as boring as twenty different hallways sewn together (throw in a bathroom somewhere, guys), the mere mention of a Devil Forgemaster immediately ups the potential ante.
Unfortunately, Castlevania: Curse of Darkness was not to be the (vampire) savior of the franchise. Hector is certainly the Devil Forgemaster that was advertised, but it turns out that such a position does not confer all the abilities that could be imagined. Hector gets a double jump and a host of (forgeable!) weapons, but beyond that, the “Devil Forgemaster” conceit is reserved exclusively for a system that looks a lot like Symphony of the Night’s seven-year-old familiar system. There are five required innocent devils (and a bonus sixth one if you feel like playing with a pumpkin again), and they all come with abilities of varying utility. The bird-type devil helps you to glide over a pit, while the faerie devil opens treasure chests that are (for the first time in the franchise) locked. Unfortunately, aside from the devil’s ability to sink into the floor, none of these abilities are new or even remotely stimulating. What’s more, these innocent devils are maddeningly generic, so whereas “golem” is a Castlevania mainstay, your Magmard companion looks like it could have originated from Final Fantasy as equally as Castlevania. And that is definitely the problem when it comes to the black mage-looking mage-type devil. But even if you are happy with these designs, those abilities are still lackluster, and the environments of the castle match that lack of creativity. So, yes, get ready for another endless series of battles in boring hallways, but with the “upgrade” of now there is a skeleton bird flapping around behind you. And, lamentably, a skeleton bird can carry only so much on its bony wings.
However, beneath the muck of a boring Castlevania adventure, there was apparently a story worth saving. When presented in 2005, Castlevania: Curse of Darkness had the most generic Castlevania plot outside of “Belmont slays Dracula”. In the grand tradition of Shaft and his plan to pit two vampire hunters against each other, there are two Devil Forgemasters, and Dracula’s ultimate goal is to possess one of them to return to menace Trevor Belmont. So, in being manipulated into this goal by Death, Hector gathers strength across the area to eventually face Isaac, who thinks he is the puppet master influencing his former comrade. Isaac was responsible for the death of Hector’s wife, at least! Regardless, these two parallel Devil Forgemasters have a simple yin and yang dichotomy, as Hector left Dracula’s employ years earlier in defense of the human race, and Isaac stuck around because he is some kind of sadist (and possibly masochist! Check out that outfit!). In the end, it is an extremely cliched retelling of the same old IGAvania story, complete with a persistent villain that is supposed to be ultimately sympathetic despite a body count climbing up over the hundreds. At least he is not as bad Dracula! That dude eats people!
But the allure of the Devil Forgemaster was just too much…
Thirteen years later, the Castlevania Netflix series premiered its second season. Whereas the first season was little more than an expanded movie meant to introduce the main players of Castlevania 3, the second season of Castlevania is where the animated series became a proper series. A cast of supporting characters appeared in Dracula’s castle, and among them were two vaguely familiar faces. Hector returns looking much the same, and continues his job as a guy who makes monsters for a living while being weirdly fond of the people about to be eaten by his monsters. But Isaac is changed dramatically, shifting from a red-haired friend of Voldo to a solemn African man that holds a quiet grudge against humanity for his childhood enslavement. And while the details of being a Forgemaster are different in this iteration of Castlevania, both men are still filling the same general role of filling Dracula’s ranks only to later strike off on general missions of mayhem/salvation/revenge. In fact, as the show proceeds through another two seasons, these two Forgemasters become prominent characters in their own rights, often overshadowing the more popular heroes’ adventures in punishing priests and participating in twincest.
And Gogglebob.com is not going to officially recognize the Castlevania Animated Series as the best thing since sliced skeletons, but it is an entertaining, original take on the Castlevania franchise. It has its share of problems (not the least of which that every character in a Warren Ellis-based universe must be an asshole at all times or they crumble to dust), but you cannot say it was not unique. And unique is exactly what Hector and the whole concept of Devil Forgemasters deserved. In a franchise that has been languidly heisting mythological and movie monsters since its inception, the distinctive idea of a Devil Forgemaster deserved a similarly distinctive story. And the tales that are told of Hector and Isaac in Netflix Castlevania are nothing if not exceptional (at least one narrative includes a floating ball of corpses! You don’t see stories like that in dusty old books!). Somebody finally waded through the boring game of Castlevania: Curse of Darkness (or at least its Wikipedia page), and sifted out the best concept that experience had to offer.
Castlevania: Curse of Darkness was a middling Castlevania title, but, over a decade later, it was forged into something worthwhile.
FGC #639 Castlevania: Curse of Darkness
- System: Playstation 2 globally, and Xbox if you were in the USA. I wonder if Japanese collectors jockey on eBay for that rare “American” version of Curse of Darkness.
- Number of players: A Trevor mode may be eventually unlocked, but you won’t see the ability to play as two characters during this Castlevania.
- Say something nice: I am a sucker for monster breeding, so I will admit that I enjoy the whole “evolution” aspect of the Innocent Devils. I like using a spear over and over again to see if that will change my golem into, like, a different golem. It is the little things in life that make castles worth storming.
- Take what you can get: There is a complete “material/crafting” system here. There are scads of stupid doodads to pick up if you want to forge the more interesting weapons, and there is even a “steal” system so you have the ability to nab even more items from opponents. And it all adds up to a fat lot of nothing, as it is the same endless arsenal as other Castlevania titles, just now with extra steps. Boo.
- Favorite Innocent Devil: Oh give me a home, where the hulking golem roam, and the skies are not darkened all day.
- An end: The trigger for Hector’s quest is that Isaac is responsible for executing Hector’s wife. Over the course of the adventure, Hector is aided by Julia, who is eventually revealed to be Isaac’s sister. At the close of the story, Isaac has ultimately been killed (or turned into an innocent devil?… He isn’t Isaac anymore, at least), and Hector is anxious to rest with his forged monster buddies. Julia offers Hector sanctuary, and it appears they are going to have a deeper relationship from there. So, in summary, Isaac killed Hector’s wife, so now Hector is going to bone Isaac’s sister.
- It’s about time: This is also the Castlevania that introduces Saint Germain. Saint Germain is a time traveler, and seems to be part of that time travel plot that was teased across multiple Castlevania titles. Either because of the reboot and/or because Koji Igarashi never really knew where he was going with all this, all of these random time travelers across the Castlevania franchise never really added up to anything. Maybe they were meant to retcon any continuity errors? Or offer an excuse as to why you can always nab a pocket watch that defies space and time? Whatever. At least Saint Germain has a dapper outfit.
- Did you know? Appropriate for a guy that looks like he might be a carnival barker, Saint Germain is the only character so far in the Castlevania franchise to break the fourth wall and directly speak to the player. Or the camera just didn’t pan around, and he was actually babbling on to a particularly attentive skeleton warrior…
- Would I play again: I will be honest, I started playing this game again when I got the Wild Arms 3 Let’s Play going (as I was testing capturing directly from my Playstation 2 with different looking games), and it took me months of playing off and on to actually complete the thing. It is a slog! And not the good kind of slog (that would be Slogra, who does appear in this game). So, no, I am likely to play literally any other Castlevania again before getting back to this one.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Resident Evil 4! Let’s stop by a quaint Spanish village and see how the local populace is dealing with the current economic crisis. Please look forward to it!
Oh! This happened in the show!