Sailing the Blue Skies since 2001.
Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (DS)
Pub: Konami/Dev: Konami
ESRB: T/Players: 1 - 2/Wi-Fi: Yes
W- Order of Ecclesia falls into an interesting place in my heart. On one hand, the game doesn't rise above the usual CV mold in some ways. There's the usual enemy and background recycling (which, while the enemy side of things isn't quite as bad as PoR was, the backgrounds are reused much more than usual, even resorting to massive recoloring this time around), and the gameplay is pretty much what you would expect from the post-SotN line of the series. However, IGA and his crew did add some refreshing spins into this title, most of which work very well, making this the finest DS entry of the franchise.
First of all, the excellent new art direction that (finally) eschews the crappy anime shlock the past two DS titles got mired in returns to the dark, gothic feel that the series deserves. The new artist has done some fantastic artwork that properly captures what I feel a Castlevania title should look like. Shanoa is a wonderful character design, and her animation is among the finest I've seen in a 2D work. Compared to the last two game's art style, Order of Ecclesia is a vast improvement and I really hope that future CV titles continue using this incredible new direction, because it fits Castlevania like a glove.
Shanoa also gets a few new gameplay tweaks, one being the Glyph system. Honestly, it's not much different than Soma Cruz's Soul powers, but the main attraction is Shanoa's ability to attack with two different Glyphs mapped to two separate buttons (like Alucard in SotN), which open up plenty of experimentation to find the best combinations for certain situations. Your magic meter acts more like a gauge of how many attacks you can perform (your Up + Attack moves drain the Heart meter this time), which I like. It's a fairly strategic concept that rarely punishes you (unless you constantly drill the attacks and fail to kill anything), but it does take some time to get used to, and I can see how it may bother other gamers. Shanoa's method of battle combines elements of Soma Cruz and Charlotte of Portrait, which are my favorites in the history of the series, so I really do love the gameplay aspect of OoE.
And out of the DS bunch, Shanoa flows the smoothest. She has excellent response time, and you're going to need that against the hardest CV title to hit the handhelds in some time. The game's difficulty is far more serious than any of the handheld games have been since Circle of the Moon, and I feel that it's all the better for it. Leveling up actually matters in this game. Studying your Glyphs and finding weaknesses matters. And having plenty of potions matters. It's not "snap your DS in half" maddening at all, and I think Konami did a fine job riding the fine line of difficulty balance. I loved it, myself. I felt that Dawn of Sorrow was a piece of cake, and liked the ramp up Portrait of Ruin featured, and love the sweet challenge Order of Ecclesia brings to the table. And I can't talk about challenge without discussing this game's boss lineup, which is among the finest sets of bosses I've battled in gaming. IGA and Co. did not recycle a single boss from an earlier CV (outside of two, which are not big surprises when you figure out who they are, but they are fresh takes from the usual as well), and the quality shows. They look excellent, offer up some new twists, and are all rewarding to take down. Excellent job.
Another gameplay alteration is the addition of an overworld map and hub village, resurrected from Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. The map works out quite nicely, letting you quickly get around to places without needless backtracking, and I find it a welcome concept. The hub village also is nice, letting you rest up, heal, restock and buy new equipment fairly easily. Of course, the last few games have had a solo merchant who carried everything, and this game breaks that up, which may annoy some people, but it worked for me. Villager rescuing is also a vital part of the game, and for the most part it's not a nuisance. After rescuing them all, they send you on fetch quests, which can be pesky after a bit, but at that point, they're merely optional (you do need to rescue all of the villagers to properly beat the game, though).
Unlockable content seems a little lackluster this time around, especially compared to the glory Portrait of Ruin offered. Albus is the only bonus character, and he's all right, but the usual boss rush/sound test/difficulty/New Game + features don't supply any surprises. Along with that, the game's soundtrack follows a separate path from Portrait of Ruin, and while most of it is good, few tracks are truly excellent, which is a bit disappointing. And least the English dub has improved, and Shanoa is cast nicely. (And you won't have to hear "Jonathan!" "Charlotte!" all the time.)
Order of Ecclesia is not the Aria of Sorrow topper I hoped for. But it comes pretty close. The improved art direction, stellar gameplay tweaks and difficulty curve are all steps in the right direction. What I would love to see, almost more than anything else, is a 2D Castlevania rebuilt from the ground up, with no recycled sprites, fresh environments that do not retread old ground, and keeps the awesome new character designs and level of asperity Order of Ecclesia provides. We'll see what happens.