So forgive the lack of images besides this sloppily-padded one:
- With all the games it's inspired and would-be spiritual successors from Bloodstained on down, playing this proved to me that there's just no substitute for Castlevania. It feels great to be back in its take on haunted-house horror, seeing new incarnations of old favorites. It's like catching up with old friends. Frankenstein? I haven't seen you in ages! Oh, you got a rocket launcher now?? Good for you! No other franchise does humor and references as deftly, I think. (Bloodstained handles this department with particular thudding "GEDDIT, GEDDIT?!" gracelessness.)
- That said: this is one of the lesser Metroidvanias. For one, the "switch between partners" gimmick falls by the wayside as the game goes on, as it becomes less and less feasible to have an AI-controlled character eating up MP with the damage they take. Unfortunately, this means Charlotte becomes an afterthought, as she's markedly more fragile, has far fewer melee options, and requires constant menu futzing given that she can equip only one highly-situational spell at a time. Most of her spells are oddly directional in a way that's fine for a bonus attack but not for a main, making them more suited to spamming R and using them and her like an Option from Gradius than Jonathan's subweapons - and even that is less-desirable than saving your MP for Jon's better-directed arsenal in the final stages. By the end, I was using Charlotte only for morphing and poison cures, which is absolutely not what I wanted to happen.
- Every story beat is over as soon as it begins (serious spoilers start here, by the way). Wind's true identity (why was he hiding it, anyhow?) is revealed after a couple levels. No sooner are Brauner's vampire daughters actually revealed to be Eric's than their vampirism is reversed. Vincent's incipient vampirism can also be instantly cured. You fight Brauner the second time you meet him. Almost as soon as we learn that John Morris wouldn't teach his son how to unlock the whip's powers because doing so eventually kills non-Belmonts, we're...on a quest to unlock the whip's powers, despite the fact that, as John knew in teaching our Jonathan other means of defense, the whip is not required to kill Dracula. There is no final level; as soon as Dracula is Revived After All, you're fighting that fucker. There's admirable ambition here in how the story builds so extensively on a lesser-known title in the series canon, but with more time to breathe and develop, it could have been one of the best.
- Likewise: Brauner should absolutely be (and still kinda is) one of the series' strongest villains. A traumatized artist who lost his children in WWI, is pushed over the brink by a second world war, decides to end humanity due to its endless love of pointless conflict, adopts ("adopts") his enemy's daughters through seeing his own late children in them, creates monstrous worlds out of his own art, and figures out how to sever Dracula from his own castle? Awesome. Again, though: we hardly see him. The game does nothing with him, we are absolutely robbed of the art-studio level we deserved, and Jonathan responds to his dying lament about his lost family and the injustice of endless war (with the killer line of "Perhaps justice wasn't on my side but I will never admit that it was on yours"), with "yeah, well, you're a coward, and it was your daughters' fate to die!" I know repartee is not Jonathan's strong suit, but...really?
(Brauner is also behind one of the series' best, funniest, and truest-to-character bad endings: if you defeat his "daughters" instead of using the spell, he'll swoop in to rescue them, abandoning his plan in exchange for their lives: you vampire hunters always want to watch Dracula's castle collapse, don't you? OK, fine! Castle's gone! Leave my family alone! Bye!)
- True to Brauner's vision, Dracula's castle is almost an afterthought here, but I did like the painting levels. I loved knocking stuff off the shelves with every leap in Brauner's quaint London shopping district. I also liked the variety of the Egyptian pyramid, in both its standard and Lisa Frank incarnations, and the Dark Academy, with its moody use of rain & lightning, Hanako-in-the-toilet, and giallo-esque neon-red handprints on the walls as you run by. I liked its first incarnation as an abandoned, overgrown home in the forest, too. And though the Nation of Fools has a lot of aggravatingly energy-sapping obstacles and not a lot of save points, I appreciate the symbolism (which actually eluded me until I saw demonfox's post) of a bombed-out city populated by clowns. It would've been interesting to link all the portrait environments to Brauner's past and psychology, Silent Hill-like - for example, was that first mansion his family's home?
- Incidentally, I missed a lot of map because I didn't think floors & ceilings could be breakable because there are no weapons that can hit up or down. This apparently means I missed a pastry shop and a skeleton bartender in the City of Haze; oh, man. I also didn't access the Nest of Evil, as my Eric quest list was junked up with stuff I couldn't complete (collect the three nun equipment items) or that was annoying to do (come back at actual midnight on your DS clock). Maybe that was for the better, as I understand that area consists mainly of Dawn of Sorrow bosses, and I haven't played that game yet.
- Metroidvanias are apparently the one genre I can just play and play. RPGs like Omori, visual novels like Hermitage, adventure games like The Book of Watermarks, platformers like Bowser's Fury, I'm stalling; this, I sunk six hours of a single day into it effortlessly, which is nearly unheard for me nowadays.
- Despite, as with Brauner, Jonathan being markedly callow at times in a realistic-young-person sense, it did translate well to his totally-undaunted punk attitude toward confronting the Death-Dracula tag team in the endgame: bring it on, sounds great to me, that makes it two vs. two, let's go! Jonathan and Charlotte do have an easy, appealing buddy-buddy chemistry. (And I did like how consistent the game is with its motif of pairs: Jonathan & Charlotte, Stella & Loretta, John & Eric, the inspired Death & Drac final boss, even a bonus Richter & Maria mode.)
- Also, it's a pity about Charlotte's limited arsenal, because her book weapons, once they get going, are some of my favorite weapons in the series. At first, you're just whacking enemies at extremely short range for not much HP at all with an encyclopedia volume, but eventually, you get books from which Charlotte conjures themed attacks upon thrusting them toward and opening them at an enemy: a knight tilting at windmills (or bone-throwing skeletons) from Don Quixote, an Anubis head from the Egyptian book of the dead.
- Baroque luxury of choice is a hallmark of Metroidvanias, yet Jonathan has so many subweapons, and the ceiling is so high for mastering each to get their evolved form, that you're better off just choosing your favorite and sticking to it once mastered, as that's the only one you're likely to master in organic play. I mastered only the kunai and Bible in normal play, and that was while making a marked effort; I took a detour expressly to grind out the javelin to get Eric's spear, with which I finished the game. I liked the mastery system (and both the kunai and Bible are worth leveling up, BTW); I just wish I could have gotten more out of it without stopping to grind.
- Legion shows up as the boss of the second level of this game, which seems extremely early.
- I think this is one of the lesser scores. The only new tracks during gameplay that caught my ear were "Hail from the Past" and "Gaze up at the Darkness" (though I suppose "Victorian Fear" isn't bad). Though it later has some strong parts, "Invitation to a Crazed Moon"'s hook has a cheap showbiz flair, making it one of the worst opening-level themes. They did give some Circle of the Moon-esque love to underappreciated classics, though: "Iron Blue Intention (of course), "Cross Your Heart," and - for a single screen! - CV3's "Overture." (No "Reincarnated Soul," though?)
ETA: Wait, Michiru Yamane was working with Yuzo Koshiro on this score? The results are a little underwhelming.
- I expected to have a very negative reaction to the art style; Castlevania's done anime before in Rondo, but this artist's efforts seemed poorly-drawn. Close up, though, it's not bad - it's not as undetailed as it seems from a distance. There's a lot that's straight out of a really cheap '90s afternoon cartoon, though (like Death's design - oh, boy). I'm trying to put my finger on the source of the cheapness - lack of shading, maybe? I'm glad they changed to Masaki Hirooka by Ecclesia; though he had one game, I think that artist's efforts in the franchise - dark, gothic, & sumptuous but in a different vein than Ayami Kojima's pretty boys - are massively overrated.
- In fact, a number of things Ecclesia did right seem to be correctives to this game's shortcomings. You have lots of time with each of the story's central players. You can equip three spell-like special abilities at a time and cycle between loadouts, so you don't need to go to the menu every time you need to change a spell. Then there's the art, of course.
- They did try to make up for the portrait art with the sprite work, particularly Charlotte's. She has a lot of charming smaller animations, like using a broom for her double jump. At least having a number of minds overly focused on Charlotte's flouncy skirt & thigh-highs paid off in one respect.
- There's a Talk function for the characters that's like Phantasy Star IV's Talk function, but when I tried it out, Jon & Char only exchanged game tips - they didn't comment on their surroundings, so I gave up early on. It turns out, weirdly, that you get situation-specific chatter only if you use the function during boss fights?
- To try to play up the partner aspect, the game has a bunch of situation-specific partner commands such as ordering the character to stay somewhere or push something with you that require unique button inputs but are used like two or three times. It was aggravating to keep going back to GameFAQs for long-forgotten button commands when required later in the game.
- Though I got used to it, I don't like about the Ned Flanders-adjacent voice they gave Eric. It should be more raspy and Man with No Name-like - something befitting his current appearance but that could have once, prior to aging, belonged to the fair warrior he was. (Speaking of Eric's changing appearance: of all the atrocities visited on the Castlevania cast in Judgment, I recall that Eric's got the worst reaction - which I never understood, particularly when Grant's unrecognizable mummification was right there. Surely it's not out of character for a master of reinvention who was a valkyrie in his youth and a cowboy in middle age to be Blue Boy when he was twelve?)
- Speaking of Eric: with him a cowpoke and his daughters in what could be interpreted as European noblewomen's wear but could also be American Western attire (anachronistic for 1944, but no one is era-appropriate here), and given how Julius dresses in the Sorrow games, did the entire vampire-killing operation move from Wallachia to Texas around or before Quincey's time?
- I'm not sure I like the idea of the Lecardes being this special family with a Specific Role to Play in the whole Dracula-battling enterprise. Surely, we can have random, sufficiently-motivated people sally forth to do combat with Dracula, without it being their family destiny? (But then, it's not hard to make a story of the Lecardes might be descendants of Maria & Alucard with that whole Alucard Spear thing - with the idea that Maria and her animal powers are descended from Hector's Devil Forgemaster skills and Julia's witchcraft, with the forgemasters' symbol repeated in the design of Eric's spear come Judgment. There seems to be a difference, though, between a family with a special heritage and a family with a specific, destined role to play every generation: the latter is undermining the newcomers' heroism somewhat by making their acts seem like routine duty rather than courageous initiative and just turns everyone into the Belmonts.)
I think we'll end on that note of fanfic. Despite all my complaining above, I did quite enjoy the game and am going to knock out Dawn of Sorrow next.