Review by The Purple Pantywaist
Bolero of Brawling - Neither full fan-service nor a formidable fighter
Castlevania: Whack-a-Vlad - Overview
Castlevania is a franchise, which has been around for a very long time. It is about a multitude of characters fighting Dracula - who is merely a metaphor for the evil in men's hearts. So far the games in the series have been platformers, mostly in 2D, some in 3D, since 10 years or so with an RPG-element. Castlevania: Judgment is the first fighter in the series. In many games members of the Belmont clan, who wield the legendary whip Vampire Killer, fight Dracula. But don't be afraid, the game is not about 10 guys wearing leather or fur and flagellating each other, there are only 2 characters who use whips as weapons.
The series has been mocked for several reasons, because male characters often have very female physiognomies and because the titles of the game often sound similar, try to convey a dark mood and include musical terms. This last point shall explain the irony I used for the various subheadings in this review.
C: Decrescendo of Innovation - How the game plays and is controlled
You can control via waving about and flailing or by using the classic controller. There is the possibility to use the Game Cube's controller as well. Maybe the controls will take a little time to get used to, but there is a tutorial (and even a manual) and you will most likely find a scheme that works for you. The only problem with the controls is, that you can not lock on to your opponent and that you have no button to do so. The reason is, that you can brake barrels, crates etc and sometimes even have to fight additional enemies in form of zombies and mermen. Still, as you can not lock on to your (main) opponent, you will sometimes miss them, especially with your ranged attacks, sometimes even if they stand still. That problem is complicated further by the camera. The camera is moving automatic, and as some stages move as well and some enemies move in certain patterns, in a few but recurring combinations the true opponent is the camera, not Dracula or his minions.
The characters in Judgment can run, jump, block, evade and attack. The standard attack has 2 different variations for most characters and can be chained by pressing the button several times or by continued waving. After this chain you can add one or several of the other attacks: Each character has about 3 special attacks, secondary weapons attacks and guard breaker attacks. Secondary weapons range from throwing knives to various spells, but they and their ammo have to be collected (by braking barrels etc) before use. As not every attack can be chained to every other one, there is not much variation in attacking - especially if you plan on winning.
Further there is a hyper attack. It comes with its own bar, which gradually fills by fighting. If the bar is full, you can use the hyper attack by pressing a single button. It does about 45% damage, is hard to connect and if successful executed shows a very long animation, which can not be skipped. Although those animations are different for every character and sometimes even a little original, after seeing them the third time you are bored.
It is a good thing, they did not make an overly complicated fighting system with 100+ combos, counter attacks, combo breakers, an unintelligible attack hierarchy, long key combinations etc. On the other side this simplicity is a big downside as well. While some of the characters are faster, stronger or better suited for ranged attacks, there is not much variation. You will find yourself doing the same combo on the same situation again and again. And again. The fighting systems feels somehow generic, and the question remains, whether that was done deliberately to address casual gamers as well.
The game modes are Arcade mode, Survival mode, Vs mode and Training mode. Further there is a so called Castle Mode, which resembles Soulcalibur's Weapon Master mode: You make your way through Dracula's Castle by completing various fighting missions. Those missions are mostly rather trivial, but are often either very easy or pretty unfair. The main mode is Story mode, and will be discussed below.
C: Nights of Darkness - Visuals
You'll find yourself fighting in classic Castlevania surroundings (cemetery, dungeon, clock tower, throne room etc) with fluently animated opponents. Sill, some of the characters do not take after themselves in other games of the franchise. An extreme example is Death who has always been portrayed as the Grim Reaper, a skeleton with a dark mantle and a scythe. In Judgment he looks like a combination of a stilted Terminator and a Predator. In general some of the characters look like Castlevania takes place in a Sci-Fi future and not mainly in medieval castles in the time between 1600 and 1940 AD.
As mentioned above, Castlevania is (in)famous for female looking male characters. As most of the times Alucard shares this fate, together with Simon (who tries to compensate by macho one-liners). Aeon probably looks androgynous for a reason.
Faces are the next cue: When watching the (hardly) animated faces of the characters, you probably would not think this was a game on the seventh generation of home consoles. In general the graphics are not bad, but definitely nothing to write home about. The whole game probably could have been realised on the Game Cube as well.
C: Lamento of Silence - Sound, Music, Voices
Another reason why the franchise is renowned is its music. Judgment includes therefore many classic tunes which fans will have heard before many, many times. Still, there is hardly anything new or shiny about it, no innovation or reinterpretation of classic themes. The music was not worse on DS either.
The quality of voice acting varies, but below the line it is good enough. Sound is not special. Japanese voices are available as well.
C: The Hopelessness of Fanboys and -girls - Story, Story Mode and how it fits into the franchise
In the beginnings of the series Dracula returned every 100 years. With the multitude of Castlevania titles out there he seems to return every other weekend now. This has called for severe retconning by Konami, the canon has been changed repeatedly. (Personally, I see no reason why not every Castlevania game should be considered canon - the stories do not contradict each other and Dracula is resurrected by humanity's evil, which is rather omnipresent throughout history anyway). The creators of Judgment did not bother with such details, Judgment takes place within a Time Rift. In Story mode the characters stumble into it and fight. After completing Story mode with all characters, there is a rather mild revelation, and for the "real" endings, you have to beat Story mode for a second time with everyone.
Nevertheless there is not much story in Story mode. The characters brawl mostly without any reason and they do so, even if they are friends, allies or complete strangers. Sometimes the "stories" bring soul-searching, self-discovery or background information or they include nice allusions to other titles in the series (e.g. Dracula mentioning the curse on Simon or Trevor talking about his marital life), but mostly the stories just feel poorly fabricated to create an excuse for violence. Maria Renard (and her pubertal jealousy of the other female characters bust sizes) probably is supposed to be funny, but is not. At least there is a couple of cool one-liners and the characters in the game are very well picked from the many Castlevania titles. (I still miss Soma Cruz though, but that is just personal taste).
C: The length of Eternity - Game length, Unlockables
It took me less than 8 hours, to unlock all characters and beat Story mode with each one. Further I broke all records the game comes with, beat the tedious Castle mode and defeated so many enemies in Survival mode, that I got so bored, I had my character jump into the abyss. All at normal difficulty, which is the hardest difficulty which does not need unlocking.
The game has a VS mode, where you can play against human opponents or the CPU, and you can play against friends or strangers over the internet. I did not try that. There is different stuff to unlock, music, voices and almost 100 accessories to dress up the fighters. So if you've always been thinking, Grant should wear a top hat, Dracula definitely needs a monocle and a medal and Simon would be much more handsome with goats horns, you can live that out with Judgment.
C: The final Judgment of an Endless Night - Conclusion 6/10
Overall, Castlevania: Judgment remains a honest try, which partly failed. The game is not really fan service, as it is superficial in that regard and includes hardly anything new. Further the artistic licence which was used creating the character models does not give one the impression of a Castlevania game at all, when you see e.g. (Cyberninja) Grant fighting (Terminator) Death. On the other hand, the simple yet generic fighting system, which lacks innovation and variation, while being adequately balanced, will not convince fans of the fighter genre. It is not a bad game, but sadly there is not much good about it. Still, there is latent potential for a sequel there, but even from a fanboy like myself Castlevania: Judgment does not get more then 6/10
Rating: 3.0 - Fair
Product Release: Castlevania Judgment (EU, 03/20/09)
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