Castlevania debuted 20 years ago on the Nintendo Entertainment System and was an instant classic, worthy of shelf space next to such contemporaries as Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. The protagonist, Simon Belmont, was like a monster-hunting Indiana Jones, slashing through hordes of ghouls with his trusty bullwhip. It was the first great game to employ gothic imagery, in some sense paving the way for Resident Evil and the whole survival-horror genre.
Unfortunately, time was not kind to the franchise. Konami pumped out a slew of sequels for every conceivable platform, and the results were uneven at best. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for PlayStation was hailed as a highwater mark for the series, but Konami stumbled in making the jump to 3D graphics, and recent games have not been so well received.
Now comes Castlevania: Curse of Darkness, a game that seems designed to drive a stake through the heart of the franchise once and for all.
Our hero, a well-manicured swordsman named Hector, dresses as if he's ready to audition for America's Next Top Vampire-Hunting Model. He's not pursuing Dracula in this game; that would be way too much fun. Instead, Hector and his perfect hair are seeking vengeance on some well-coifed brute who killed Hector's beard . . . er . . . "girlfriend." The ambiguously gay dialogue between Hector and his foppish nemesis is like a scene out of Brokeback Transylvania.
Joining you are creatures called Innocent Devils, who could best be described as Satan's Pokémon. Once found, these monsters do your bidding, whether it's healing you, killing enemies, or scratching hard-to-reach places. But Castlevania chooses to put the "F-U" in fun. Rather than a playable tutorial explaining Innocent Devils, the game disgorges screens of encyclopedic text, as if to say, "Here, you figure this crap out." Action grinds to a halt for 15 minutes as you wade through head-scratching directions about "mystical untainted familiars" and "devil forgemasters." It's like cramming for the Vampire SAT.
Games like Devil May Cry 3 and God of War raised the stakes, so to speak, for the fast-paced hack-and-slash genre, but Castlevania moves as slow as a mummy. You'll run a lot in this game -- through graveyards, castles, and torture chambers -- so it'd be nice if our hero didn't seem as if he were out for a Sunday jog through the fog. And when Hector's not dogging it, it's the point-of-view camera that can't quite keep up with the lazy action.
Castlevania does include some cool customization options, allowing you to build numerous weapons from found items. But ultimately, every pointy thing you create accomplishes the same goal of chopping up alligator men and skeletons. The game even ditches Castlevania's iconic weapon: the bullwhip. You can wield every conceivable weapon except the one you really want.
Castlevania proves that sharp graphics are as cosmetic as makeup on a corpse, if there's no game play to back them up. About the only bright spot is the ability to name your Innocent Devils. This may seem dull, but a rock-monster helper named "Ass Clown" will at least bring a smile to your face during this unfocused festival of fangs.