Review by Hikuusen

Reviewed: 07/20/20

What was the definition of insanity again?

Lousy sin. Unsociable, bad on the nerves, and drives property values down. And what do you have to show for it? An ulcer and bruised knuckles, that's what. And it's so vulgar. Take it from me, pass on the wrath. Not only will you be less [condemned], you'll be happier. - Lore Sjoberg on the deadly sin of wrath

"Wrath" might be too grandiose a term for what's fueling Curse of the Moon 2, but the game certainly is the angry drunk at the party. The music's playing, the canapes are out, everyone's here to have a good time, but Curse remembers that time way back a year ago when some people were talking about the first game being "way too easy," and he's gonna have it out with them, whether they want to or not. He can take it out into the back alley if need be. People are trying to talk Curse down, but he's like no, he's been waiting to settle this for months, and some of the guests are awkwardly off in the corner, trying to ignore the incident, but the evening is already ruined. That's Curse of the Moon 2.

This is the part where I'd run down the story as an intro, but honestly, between the BE SURE TO DRINK YOUR OVALTINE true ending of the first game and the sequel's dubious adherence to everyone's alignment, ultimate respiratory status, and locomotive capability from Ritual of the Night, who knows. Zangetsu had some bad natto and this is the subsequent fever dream, maybe that's it. That would explain a lot that follows. Let's just go through the playable cast:

- Zangetsu, previous protag and Getsufuumaden tribute with a chip on his shoulder and a stubby butter knife. Halfway through the game, in one of his trademark stellar ideas, he picks up a cursed demon hellsword. Surely nothing but good will come of this. Before the karmic backlash kicks in, you can use it to stunlock combo enemies.

- Ritual of the Night alumna Dominique, who has a spear. She can pogo on it like Scrooge McDuck, but the game hardly ever lets you do this, because it hates fun. Her jump is higher, and one of her subweapons spawns a plant that grows healing hearts. She has other subweapons, including a move that echoes Eric Lecarde's spear jump, but you won't care, because you'll just use the healing one.

- The soldier Robert, whose lime-green slicker and sleek shades seem better-suited to Phantasy Star Online than Stainsylvania. He brought a gun to the fight but no HP, and since this is (nominally) the 18th century, there's a goodly pause to reload between attacks. He can also wall jump, and unlike most wall jumps, it's responsive & controls well, but it's rarely used, so oh well.

(I am hoping, given the name, the bald pate & build, and the dev team, that Rob is not an avatar of Victor Ireland wannabe and Silent Hill franchise fumbler Tomm Hulett, who has the ego to engineer this homage yet not enough in the positive side of the ledger to merit it, but we are living in the worst timeline.)

- Hachi, a ghost Corgi in a steampunk mech. His ride is slow but punches hard, and he can briefly turn invincible, though this drains Weapon Points like a '73 LeBaron guzzles gas. He also has a hover jump, but it's more Luigi than Princess in the control department than one might prefer.

So you're asking: what am I doing, giving a 3 to a game with a ghost Corgi in a steampunk mech? Well, as alluded to in my patience-trying opening metaphor, Curse of the Moon's big flaw is that it wasn't at all hard, unless you decided to take a non-superpowered Zangetsu through the game solo. Calling this out led to some contention, because gaming was going through that stupid "difficult games are morally offensive" phase at the time. The devs behind the sequel have reacted to this criticism, but not in a "yes, we have taken your feedback into account to create an improved consumer experience!" way - it's an I'LL SHOW YOU!!! tantrum, and the end result is chockablock with decisions motivated by petulance and spite.

Before a certain point (Stage 6 of 8, I'd say, though I've seen arguments for 5), the game is largely OK, though a mixed bag compared to its predecessor. Graphically, it's more technically proficient but not as visually striking, as it doesn't take advantage of Bloodstained's defining visual element from Castlevania, the introduction of bright color - the backgrounds, despite a few impressive set pieces, frequently look dank and dull. The music is a definite downgrade - it's passable background noise when you're playing, but, unlike 1's OST, I can't remember how a single track goes outside the game. The boss designs also aren't as interesting, with a few flops (a train with a giant Roman gladiator torso fused on top? Did you take a wrong turn at Cho Aniki?). I do like the interstitial campfire cutscenes, which feature some charming sprite art, and the interface is more effective: the pause screen even gives character tips this time around. But then...but then.

The first Curse, you'll remember, was top-to-bottom a clear homage to Castlevania III. Its sequel takes it takes a while to reveal its inspiration...which, alas, is Haunted Castle. Like Castlevania's woebegotten arcade failure, Curse 2 ends up hatefully punishing and reliant on memorization instead of skill, experimentation, and thinking on your feet.

First off, the stages get to be ridiculously long - three to four times the standard Castlevania stage. As of this writing, a "gameplay walkthrough" of Stage 6 from someone who knows what they're doing and wastes minimal time clocks in at TWENTY-SIX MINUTES. That is bananas. This kills pacing dead, particularly combined with another dreadful decision: the extremely stingy checkpointing. This creates a very artificial solution to creating difficulty, one that was rightly outmoded as we left the NES era: forcing the player to play huge chunks of an extremely long stage over and over and over.

To make sure you'll be playing joylessly, the game's added kaizo baloney. One of its favorite tricks is ending a difficult section with a jump directly into one of these demon heads that shoot on sight and will inevitably knock you into a pit. Ha ha! Congratulations on making it through this tough challenge! Enjoy doing it all over again! A boon for those who love typing OLOLOLOL into chat in response to streamer rage, surely, but not fun for anyone else. (The game also does away with branching paths - they're nominally there but mostly not accessible in the first runthrough, so you can't go around these middle fingers.)

Curse 2 also makes the disastrous decision to build large sections of the game around requiring the player to have all of their characters alive and at full health. For example: there's a passage late in Stage 6 where you're jumping over a bunch of platforms that zoom you up to these tall spikes on the ceiling as Medusa-replacements swarm from the left and spider nests drop arachnids as you approach. You're supposed to use Robert's gun to take out some key spikes and nests, Dominique's upstab ability to take out spikes directly above the platforms that Rob can't reach, and Zangetsu's sword combo as a reliable means of dealing with the not-Medusas. If any one of these characters is dead by the time you reach this part - likely, because it's late in a miserable stage - can do it, like you can eat pudding with a steak knife, but it's not fun, it's not how you're meant to do things, and you're not likely to succeed.

(To add to the frustration, these sections demonstrate that the designers do have a good grasp of how to combine stage traps and enemy movement to create challenges that leverage your characters' abilities! They just chose not to do so in any way that's fun or reasonable because they're mad at their players.)

You'll notice a pattern above: nearly every mistake forces you to play the stage over. It's the game's answer to your every move. Make a mistake? Play the stage over. Arrive at this part with fewer than a full complement of troops? Kill the survivors, then play the stage over. Fall prey to a nasty trick? Play the stage over. Like Haunted Castle, only a near-flawless playthrough fueled by a perfect memory of the stage's obstacles will get you to the goal.

Then there's the boss of Stage 6, which has, without exaggeration, about 10 attacks, with typically three or four firing once. It's impossible to parse what's even going on or what you're supposed to be doing the first three or four times you run into this thing - the encounter looks like that Tutankhamen boss from ActRaiser threw up on Carnival Games for the Wii. And when you fail? Right, back through the level all over again!

The devs never noted - or, more likely, didn't care - how these flaws combine to create a fiasco. Stage-based Castlevanias typically give you a very limited range of moves at any given time. There's a reason for that: you know your options, and the challenge then lies in how to use them effectively instead of a game of oops-I-forgot. (Castlevanias will also typically give you some latitude in how you'll tackle problems - you'll have an easier time with some approaches than others, but your loadout typically won't get you irretrievably stuck.) When you have four characters each with a huge array of moves, and the game expects all these characters to be alive & at the ready at any given time and for you to take one and only one specific set of actions from this huge array to solve a problem, but the problem is so complex that it's difficult even to get an understanding of how it works, and the penalty for failure is being set back so far that you frequently can't get back to take another look at it expediently, and it takes a ridiculous amount of time to grasp what's even being asked of you, never mind experiment to see what works to tackle see the quandary.

The design sensibility reminds me of this forum thread where the translator of Silent Hill 3 was explaining how some puzzles on Hard mode ended up actually broken due to miscommunication behind the scenes - a keypad graphic ended up in a different configuration, or a crucial line regarding rearranging the numbers for a code got omitted. She seemed to think, however, that these bugs were features instead of major problems - because the puzzles couldn't be solved using the resources given, right? So that made them harder! Curse 2 uses that kind of dunderheaded approach to creating player challenges. They don't test the intended skill set and no one enjoys them, but people can't get past them, so the designers think they did their job.

Well, anger's contagious, so I'm mad, too - mad that a promising side-franchise got strangled in its crib because someone couldn't handle a significant but not world-ending criticism of an overall well-received game. I got through about four Blocks, to use the old-school term, of Stage 7 before I realized that I'm under no obligation to play titles that have no respect for me and aren't fun, particularly when Deadly Premonition 2 is sitting right in my Switch. I went through Castlevania III again a couple years ago, and that game's design still shines in how it simultaneously crafts unique trials for different characters yet offers a stiff but surmountable challenge. Here, the devs were given a valuable successor to that legacy and couldn't race fast enough to make it cheap. It disgusts me, and if a 3 seems excessive punishment for that...well, as we've seen, wrathful people do brash things.

Rating: 3

Product Release: Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 (US, 07/10/20)

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