Castlevania: Curse of Darkness is a sneaky game. It starts out very typical for the action genre: linear environments, dated graphics, and a bunch of weak enemies that won't go away.
That's not very Castlevania of it.
Combat is the bread and butter and the meat and potatoes of the game. Forget dessert, there isn't any to be had. There isn't any corn either, unless you're referring to the corny voice acting. The game is based entirely on the assumption that slaughtering thousands of ghoulish creatures is more fun than anything else.
Lots of developers think that. Curse of Darkness is set apart from those similar-minded games by, in an unusual and hard to explain way, bringing the Symphony of the Night gameplay to life as a living, breathing three-dimensional title.
Now that's very Castlevania of it.
Take control of Hector, a devil forgemaster determined to avenge the death of his lover. The one responsible, Isaac, is a fellow devil forgemaster. He's your driving force, and he's the one you'll have the hardest time reaching. To defeat him you'll need to prepare yourself for a treacherous battle, and what better way to do that than to unleash your anger on a few thousand of his loyal subjects?
Darkness So Bright
It was hard for me to believe that hacking and slashing could be long-lasting fun, and I'm the one with the proof. Curse of Darkness doesn't deviate. It doesn't take you down any unexpected paths. The game sticks to what it starts with – if you've seen an enemy once you can be certain you'll see it 100 more times.
The single unexpected moment comes from how the game slowly turns you into a believer. I must give extra credit to the ghosts and goblins you battle. Though not exact to those you've fought before, they have evolved from 2D cartoons to 3D beats that will crush you. Eventually. It takes a bit for the difficulty to catch up with the player. Whereas Aria of Sorrow and Dawn of Sorrow were made for the hardcore Castlevania players, Curse of Darkness seems to be aimed at creating new fans.
Attacks are solid and the camera is reliable (mostly), ensuring that nothing holds you back during battle. Battles are constant – if you're not fighting, you must be running to an unexplored location. And if you're doing that chances are you'll pass through a room you've already examined and have to engage in additional battles as your once-dead adversaries respawn.
The constant encounters with large numbers of enemies are made enjoyable by a non-restrictive control system. This isn't like Prince of Persia where you can hit multiple enemies in one combo string, but there's nothing to stop you from going from one enemy to the next. Don't think, just do it as you would have in a 16-bit side-scroller, long before annoying targeting systems were invented. Curse of Darkness has a targeting system, but is it a must? Must you use it to defeat the hardest and most fearsome enemies? Let me put it this way: it wouldn't matter if your controller's shoulder buttons were broken – you'd be able to finish the game anyway.
Show Me Your ID
Hector's devil forgery skills allowed him to create partners that will heal his wounds or assist him in battle. These partners are referred to as Innocent Devils (ID). Birds, fairies, ape-like creatures, and several other forms are there to be discovered. They might look harmless, but their abilities prove otherwise. Going up against enemies that increase in size every stage, there will come a time when their armor far surpasses yours. Having a devil at your side is a big help even if it's not innocent. ("I didn't kick the change machine. Honest, officer!")
Innocent Devils are non-playable characters, but you may influence their actions by selecting one of a few simple commands. Auto Mode lets the devil move freely in the game, attacking enemies whenever it believes it's necessary. It'll use special abilities on its own. These abilities must be replenished with heart pieces that fallen enemies leave behind. Without heart pieces your partner is useless.
Command Mode tells your ID to stay closer to Hector and attack the nearest enemy. It will not use special abilities on its own while in this mode. Guard Mode, on the other hand, shut down all other functions in favor of protecting its own skin. Outside of Guard Mode you may press the triangle button at any time to command your ID to attack or heal. Some of the IDs create a Guard Ring while defending – jump inside and Hector will be protected as well.
Four Walls and a Funeral
Curse of Darkness's most prominent flaw is its level design. Four walls, a ceiling (possibly), and as much fog as a Nintendo 64 game. Graphically you'll argue otherwise. "There's fog, but look at those textures!" They're nice, but a wall is a wall whether it's rendered or just a plain, straight background. From a visual standpoint the cave/dungeon interiors should have looked less square. That would've helped, but it wouldn't have fooled gamers into believing that the worlds are more than lengthy corridors.
I wish I could say that didn't matter, but as I mentioned earlier, when you're not fighting you're running. Hector doesn't move very fast, and the levels are pretty long. The huge, square and rectangular spaces don't seem too boring when a boss leaves little room for anything else. Unfortunately bosses only account for about 5% of the battles. During the other 95% the game looks big but empty, like a plain mansion with no furniture, no fixtures, no signs of life.
As much as I want to see the Castlevania series flourish in 3D, it seems impossible to get it just right. Meanwhile, the 2D sequels keep getting better and better.