Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia – DS
Platform: Nintendo DS
Release Date (NA): October 21st, 2008
Nerd Rating: 9 out of 10
Order of Ecclesia marks the third and final installment of Castlevania for the Nintendo DS and continues in the tradition of its predecessors Portrait of Ruin and Dawn of Sorrow. Those of you who’ve been keeping up with The Bacon lately might notice that Order of Ecclesia marks my final excursion with the series’ “handheld Metroidvanias,” and that my interest in repeating the Symphony of the Night-esque formula was beginning to wane. Order of Ecclesia couldn’t have come at a better time; it single-handedly rejuvenated my impression of said formula and showed me that it could still be taken to bigger and better heights. A reviewer at 1UP.com calls Ecclesia a cross between SotN and Simon’s Quest, and while I think the comparison to Castlevania II is a little more figurative than literal, overall I’d consider it an apt description.
There’s a lot to see and do here, and Ecclesia more completely embraces non-linearity than previous titles. At its core it’s still basically a series of fetch quests, but it’s all cleverly buried beneath layers of other things to discover. This is a lengthy and meaty game set up in such a way where revisiting areas is encouraged without the need for extensive backtracking. I love the way the developers have partitioned the gameplay here and how it (mostly) keeps the experience fun and long-lasting with minimal monotony. Konami left out any DS-related elements this time: no stylus, touchscreen, nor microphone are used. This is just fine with me, as I’d prefer to focus on the gameplay instead.
Before I get ahead of myself, let’s figure out where we are in the Castlevania continuity. As you may or may not know, the 19th century was a dismal time for the Belmonts; the family had somehow vanished (the cancelled Dreamcast game Resurrection would’ve likely explained why) and it was up to other individuals to keep Dracula at bay. Some of these folks founded the Order of Ecclesia, an organization devoted to protecting the world in the absence of the Belmonts. To do this, they created 3 magical glyphs known as Dominus from Dracula’s very own power. Master Barlowe, a man of some importance in the Order, has tasked one of his pupils, Shanoa, with acting as the vessel for Dominus so that she may act as a physical protector. However, another student, Albus, promptly steals Dominus for himself, and kidnaps and enslaves the population of a nearby village for unknown means. Shanoa must then track Albus down, who seems to be precipitating Dracula’s return. As usual, the story takes a few major twists and turns, so I’ll hold back on the rest.
And so the player steps into Shanoa’s shoes (who’s reasonably attractive as far as video game vixens go) and sets out on the heels of Albus. Like I’ve mentioned, Order of Ecclesia employs a sort of open-world exploratory type of gameplay where the player roams around finding items that make more progress possible. Along the way, Shanoa discovers all sorts of equipment and other items to increase her stats. As for weapons, Ecclesia utilizes a system of magical items called “glyphs.” These glyphs encompass everything from material weapons, to spells, to other special effects such as flying, magnetic attraction, and walking through walls. Glyphs can also be combined for more powerful attacks. Shanoa absorbs glyphs from various sources, including fallen enemies and special statues. Those familiar with the Tactical Soul feature of Aria of Sorrow and Dawn of Sorrow will quickly see the parallel between souls and glyphs, and all in all Konami has come up with another clever way of combining the concepts of relics, magic, weapons, subweapons, familiars, and other abilities.
Glyphs do some with a price, however. Shanoa uses glyphs exclusively in combat. In fact, there’s no way not to use a glyph if you want to fight. And since glyphs are a type of magic, they use MP. Although MP regenerates over time, it is a downer that virtually every press of a button uses up this somewhat precious commodity. Items and trinkets along the way can alleviate the drain, but one still has to be careful about using the hard hitting weapons too often.
Now let’s get back around to the Simon’s Quest comparison. What makes Order of Ecclesia so novel is how all the familiar elements are laid out. Instead of showing up on the doorstep of a giant castle, Shanoa visits various locations on a sort of world map. There are several different areas, each with their own small map, secrets, save rooms, teleportation rooms, etc. In fact, these areas span just over half of the game and include underwater areas, a lighthouse, a prison, mountains, a cave, a swamp, and more. With so many discrete areas, explicit motifs can be established with fitting enemies and environmental features. At first Shanoa must pass through one area before moving to the next, but once an area has been cleared, the player can revisit it at will. Most areas have at least 2 exits (a beginning and an end; sometimes more) and the player can even choose which exit to start at.
This degree of compartmentalization allows the player to easily revisit past areas with new abilities and makes it a little easier to search for a particular item since most locations have a set of self-contained enemies. One key location is that of Wygol Village (an overt reference to Simon’s Quest), where Shanoa can rest, heal, buy supplies, and interact with the villagers. Here’s where things (again) get interesting. Throughout this “world,” Albus has captured villagers and imprisoned them in some sort of crystal. Shanoa can easily save them, thus returning them to the village where they each play a specific role (such as the shopkeeper who sells Shanoa equipment). Each villager (well, except for the founder and shopkeeper) also has 3 to 5 “quests” for Shanoa to complete, mostly consisting of her bringing them certain items. Shanoa is usually well rewarded for her efforts, and it adds an extra layer of both enjoyment and replayability to the game. One will probably “complete” a number of quests throughout the course of regular play, but at least half will require some focused, dedicated effort.
In total, there are 13 villagers scattered across the 10 or 12 locations of the game, and finding them all is crucial to accessing the entire second half of the game. I’ll grant that there is probably a secret room or two that I haven’t hit, but after several hours of gameplay (including completing all 35 quests), I’ve hit 99.7% map completion. When I’d more or less finished up each of the small maps, I was something like 55%. So where is this other 44.7%? Dracula’s castle. And in order to get there, as well as to get clued in on the rest of the story and keep Shanoa alive, all 13 villagers must be present and accounted for. Most will be uncovered by the astute explorer, however 2 or 3 are hidden quite well.
Once in Drac’s castle, the whole flavor of Order of Ecclesia changes. The difficulty takes a massive leap forward, and the castle itself is a cleverly designed labyrinth. One can still come out of the castle to take care of some business in town or revisit other areas with new abilities; being able to control the pace of Shanoa’s adventure is a very welcome introduction.
Graphics in Ecclesia are awesome. One aspect I really enjoy is the variety of settings. Rather than being confined to the castle walls, Shanoa ventures through a number of stereotypical biomes: a swamp, mountains, underwater, and more. Having so many environments goes a long way in keeping Ecclesia from feeling like a rehash of past Castlevanias. The castle itself includes new sights, especially the cluttered library. The rest of the castle is stunning as well, bringing a new level of detail compared to previous installments.
The bestiary is unique as well, with a whole slew of new monsters. The designers and animators dug deeper than they have in a while this demonic roster. It exudes a level of creativity equal to that of Symphony of the Night with a plethora of all-new strange and hideous creatures. Bosses, as usual, are an excellent treat. I especially enjoyed Arthroverta and Eligor, the latter requiring a sequence reminiscent of the Titan battles in Lords of Shadow.
Order of Ecclesia is also full of great music; perhaps some of the catchiest and most distinct I’ve heard from the series in a while. The powerful DS speakers blare the mixture of orchestral music and synth without clipping or distortion. At times, turning the sound up on a handheld isn’t always practical, but this does deserve a listen.
I know that my last few reviews have been full of Symphony of the Night comparisons. I’ve bounced around between nearly all of the GBA and DS installments as “closest to SotN,” but with Order of Ecclesia being the last (for now) of the Metroidvanias, I think I’m finally comfortable saying that Ecclesia comes closest to matching the innovation and enjoyment found in SotN. The Tactical Soul system was revolutionary for the franchise and the system of glyphs does a great job of embracing the simplicity behind Aria and Dawn’s soul capturing. Expanding the in-game world beyond the castle is another great step forward, keeping the game fresh and lengthy without boredom settling in.
Admittedly I was prepared to hunker down with another trudge through another castle, and Order of Ecclesia was anything but. A 9 might be a bit generous considering the outrageous difficulty, but this is one of the most distinctive and memorable Castlevania games in recent memory.
Reviewed by The Cubist
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