Review by discoinferno84

Reviewed: 10/18/11

There's a darkness, living deep in my soul...

It’s not easy being Kale. After his parents were murdered, he dedicated his life to slaying vampires. He spent years traveling abroad, picking up skills and mercilessly killing countless creatures of the night along the way. The only positive aspect of his bloody crusade was Lydia, a young woman who he rescued from one of his targets. Despite being rendered amnesiac from her brush with death, she fell in love with Kale and decided to stay with him. This twisted little romance has hit a snag, though; Lydia has recently been plagued with nightmares, and she’s unable to continue on the journey. In order to find a cure, Kale has brought her to Ominos, a small, decrepit city that often appears in Lydia’s visions. Shortly after arriving, they’re attacked by a strangely familiar vampire and Lydia is whisked away into the night. With the fate of his love hanging in the balance, Kale must use his skills to save Lydia for the second time.

…Really? How much more cliched can this possibly get? The story is like the bastard lovechild of Batman and the plot of Rondo of Blood. It’s one thing to knock off Castlevania - given the game’s style and premise, it’s kind of inevitable – but the game designers could have come up with something original. Kale is a horribly flat and one-dimensional character. Aside from his obsession with saving his wife, he has no other personality or motivation. It’s hard to connect with a hero that lacks emotion and depth; he merely spouts off a few lines of uninteresting monologue per cutscene. While it’s possible that the story is deliberately simplistic as a way to pay homage to old-school action titles, the bland romance between Kale and Lydia makes it even worse. The game takes the tragic elements of their relationship seriously, but the plot twists are so predictable that it’s almost comical. The hero’s love interest has amnesia and mysterious visions? Taking her to a place called Ominos? The villain knows her? You’ll be able to figure out what’s going on long before you’re treated to the unintentionally cheesy ending.

The adventure is even more disappointing. Soul of Darkness takes several cues from the old Castlevania titles; Kale has to wander through a series of side-scrolling platforming levels and occasionally fight roving bands of the undead. There are even pickups hidden inside some of the walls. While there’s nothing wrong with the idea, it lacks the basic elements that made such games so memorable. There’s little challenge or creativity in the structuring of the stages; there are no tricky moves to make, perfectly-timed and controlled jumps to perform, threatening enemies, or anything that requires memorization or thought. Aside from one halfway decent area at the end of the game, the levels are incredibly linear. You’ll occasionally have morph into a demonic bug, fish, or water monster, but those transformations are limited to specific sections and do nothing in terms of exploration. The game tries to make itself look clever by including a few puzzles and strategically-placed power-ups, but they’re ridiculously easy to find and solve. There’s also a gimmicky feature that lets you use the 3DS camera to earn a handful of extra pickups, but it’s so blatantly tacked on that it makes the experience that much more unsatisfying.

The biggest mistake, however, is the design of the weapons and leveling system. When you kill enemies and open treasure chests, you’ll be rewarded with gems that can go toward leveling up Kale’s abilities. You can boost his offensive and magic stats, the length of his attack combos, and the chances of landing a critical hit. Aside from those four attributes, there is no other way to modify your character; there’s nothing in terms of experimenting with different gear or anything else that resembles depth or variety. There are only two weapons, and their fire and ice-based secondary attacks only serve as ways to get around the half-assed obstacles and puzzles. Since your enemies reset every time you leave the room, it’s easy to max out your stats before you’ve finished the second stage. There are some collectibles that boost your health and magic gauges, but you won’t need them; thanks to the pathetically weak enemies and quick energy regeneration, you’ll rarely be in danger of getting killed. If you somehow manage to die, the game will let you restart in the same room and not take away any collected gems. Even if the game was intended to be this easy, there should have been something, anything to make it worth playing a second time.

It’s not like you’ll remember much of the adventure, either. There are just over ten stages, and nearly all of them are too brief and generic to leave an impression. You’ll get to shamble along castle ruins, fighting the small groups of zombies that burst through the stained-glass windows. You’ll hack and slash your way through caves covered in lava or ice, bounce across bending tree branches in an evil forest, dodge laser-spewing gargoyle statues, and drift through the murky depths of ponds infested by schools of undead piranha. The only remotely fascinating stage involves you trying to stay on top of a demonic centipede as it stretches, curls, and dives through a huge open space. Kale’s animations are decent; you can see his overcoat flapping behind him, and fully-leveled weapon combos look pretty slick. Too bad it all looks horrendously outdated; the characters don’t have faces, the buildings lack texture and detail, and the lighting effects are meager at best. While Soul of Darkness is just a downloadable game, its visual quality is far below what you’d expect from a DS title. If anything, it might be mistaken for a high-end GBA game at best.

It’s kind of sad. Soul of Darkness reeks of wasted potential. It’s designed as a throwback to old-school action-based platformers, and the inherent nostalgia is undeniable. The problem is that the game ignores everything that made those titles so awesome. Kale’s crusade against the forces of evil is incredibly bland and unforgettable; the plot is laughably cliched and predictable. The characters lack depth and personality, which makes the story mind-numbingly boring. The stages are even worse; the platforming sections have nothing in terms of challenge or creativity. The obstacles and puzzles are almost insultingly easy, and there’s no opportunity to explore beyond the linear pathways. The inclusion of the 3DS’s camera is a terrible gimmick, and it’s so awkwardly shoehorned into the gameplay at it wrecks what little atmosphere there is. The game tries to make up for it with its weapons and stat leveling system, but the design is so horrendously broken that you’ll be able to max out your abilities before you’re a fifth of the way through the adventure. Aside from the health and magic boosts, there’s no weapons aside from the default sword and spear, extra equipment, or anything else that vaguely resembles variety or customization. The graphics look about a decade old, which makes everything seem even less appealing. When combined, all of these aspects create a thoroughly disappointing experience. So if you’re looking at Soul of Darkness as a temporary Castlevania fix, do yourself a favor and dig out the old games. You’ll get far more out of them.

Rating:   1.5 - Bad

Product Release: Soul of Darkness (US, 07/05/10)

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