Could this game be a post-Symphony “Symphony?”
In 1998, Koji Igarashi took the reigns of the Castlevania franchise and crafted a wonderful game based on the open-world formula of Super Metroid. By all measures, the result of that effort – Castlevania: Symphony of the Night - is a masterpiece of modern gaming, standing tall as one of the best PS1 games ever released. It completely re-imagined the franchise, and almost overnight the series’ standard went from linear, level-based sidescrolling to open-world exploration and rampant backtracking.
But let’s be honest—the formula became overused. The next five Castlevania games would essentially duplicate Symphony’s gameplay flow and design. Perhaps the worst offender was the GBA’s Harmony of Dissonance, which felt like Igarashi’s love letter to Symphony of the Night. Too much of any good thing is tiresome, and after 2006’s Portrait of Ruin recycled way too many series tropes, it was time for a change. Order of Ecclesia is that shot in the arm the series needs. In many ways, this is a new breed of Castlevania, a game that may hint at future revolutions, and despite some minor stumbles, may be looked back on as the “next” Symphony of the Night.
Part of what makes Ecclesia so compelling is that it exists almost wholly apart from the rest of the series. Without making any specific reference to canonical characters (aside from Vlad), Ecclesia really does cover new ground, taking place in a difficult-to-pin-down era in the mythos. The Belmonts are gone, the Morris family hasn’t yet appeared, and Alucard is nowhere to be found. The Order of Ecclesia is one of many independent groups that have sprung up in the wake of the Vampire Killer’s disappearance, all with the goal of preventing Dracula’s resurrection. You play as Shanoa, a mysterious woman with the ability to absorb “glyphs,” magical spells that allow her to wield a wide assortment of melee and elemental weapons. On the day she is to receive Dominus, the ultimate glyph, her friend Albus intervenes, absconding with it on the grounds that it was originally promised to him. This single act drains away Shanoa’s memories and emotions. Her master, Barlowe, insists that, despite her condition, Shanoa must pursue Albus and retrieve the Dominus glyph. Fans expecting the usual Harmony of Dissonance or Circle of the Moon betrayal story will be pleasantly surprised. There’s a lot more meat to this story than usual, and you really do start to feel for Shanoa as she wanders through her mission with no purpose other than its completion.
Weapon use is radically different than in the past. There are no “bullet souls.” Rather, Shanoa can equip three glyphs at any one time for the Y, X, and R buttons. The Y & X buttons are used mainly for attacks while the R button is for situational magic, stat boosts, and summons. The ability to use two separate melee weapons, for example a hammer and a lance, with the Y & X buttons changes the gameplay dramatically, as you can give enemies a “one-two punch” without the between-attacks lag that limited attacks in past games. Furthermore, pressing up + X (or Y) results in a devastating magic attack that consumes heart points and often utilizes both weapons. You can also press X & Y simultaneously to produce a wholly separate special attack with certain weapon combinations.
What’s even better is that after experimenting and finding what weapon combos work best, you can assign and switch between three different setups with a tap of the A + R buttons. The only drawback is that using any attack (other than up + X/Y) drains MP. However, MP recovers very quickly, so unless you’re hammering away at all three buttons, you’ll almost never run out of attack power. However, beware of enemies that give you a “Cursed” status, as no MP means no attacking! If you’re a completionist, you might find glyph-farming irritating, but it’s not as bad as soul farming in Dawn of Sorrow. Glyphs do not stack, so you only need one of each, and thankfully, not every enemy in the game has a glyph to pick up. It’s safe to say that combat really opens up thanks to the glyph system.
The biggest change is in the level layout. Stages are broken up into bite-sized chunks in the spirit of the pre-Symphony series, with clear-cut beginnings and ends. Repeat visits to many stages allow you to start at the beginning or end, traversing the stage any way you like. Although there is the traditional “Metroidvania” castle present, it’s presented as the “last level,” and isn't nearly as large as previous post-Symphony castles. Some tilesets are reused, but the color schemes and enemy populations are entirely different, so you don’t really notice.
There’s even a Castlevania II-like village area where villagers end up after being rescued. The village provides essential tools for your journey, including a shop and a heart refiller. Villagers will ask you to complete tasks, and doing so usually results in a new item available at the shop. Some farming is required to find the more obscure items (for example, Merman Meat is dropped [rarely] by Lorelai monsters) but the results are usually well worth it. The level designs, while linear, are filled with variety and challenge. The player is presented with environments they’ve never seen in a Castlevania game before, like a canyon, the raging sea, swamplands, and a lighthouse.
The only real drawback of these stages are the boss encounters. Without question, these are the most difficult bosses in the entire post-Symphony series. Aside from having unnecessarily high health, their attacks are incredibly damaging. The player is forced to memorize attack patterns and dodge just right in order to achieve victory. The game’s first boss may seem easy, but pretty much every other boss is a nail-biter. This high level of boss difficulty is maintained throughout the entire game. While I was able to beat Dawn of Sorrow and Portrait of Ruin without really having to worry about dying, in Order of Ecclesia ordinary enemies are huge threats right off the bat. This wouldn’t be such a problem were it not for the fact that Potions (in all their forms) must be earned through village quests, and are unfairly expensive when they do become available at the shop. The problem is further compounded by the fact that money is harder to come by than in past games.
Order of Ecclesia’s graphics are smooth and colorful, utilizing many of the same sprites as previous DS Castlevania games. Happily, there is a wealth of new enemy sprites. My favorite is Lorelai, a marine creature. Upon first inspection, she appears to be a beautiful mermaid, beckoning you forward. When approached, she “decloaks” to reveal her true form: a toothy armored fish whose mermaid-like features are merely a lure! The boss designs are also generally awesome, although this is the laziest Death we’ve seen in awhile—it doesn’t even have a second form.
For her part, Shanoa really stands out as the first strong female lead the series has ever seen (Sonia Belmont doesn’t count). Igarashi’s team has done an excellent job animating her; she walks with purpose and has a very interesting double-jump, her wavy hair is mesmerizing, andher glyph-absorbing animation is absolutely wonderful. The music is similarly wonderful. It is not derivative of typical canonical themes, and manages to stand entirely on its own alongside the great soundtracks of the Castlevania series.
All in all, Order of Ecclesia is one of the best Castlevania games ever produced. It manages to differentiate itself from the blatant self-reference of most post-Symphony games, and uses its unique setting, cast of characters, and engrossing gameplay to stand almost totally apart from its predecessors. This is a new Symphony of the Night that fans will adore, despite its often punishing difficulty.