It's not as bad as you think!
The mainstream gaming media basically eviscerated Castlevania Judgment the day it was released (and even before), bemoaning the franchise’s bizarre attempt at a 3D fighting game and heavily criticizing the motion controls, messy camera, and Takeshi Obata’s art design. Well, they’re all right. Castlevania does not translate well to the 3D fighting genre, the motion controls are horrible, the camera is too erratic, and the character design lies somewhere between atrocious and comical. However, once you accept Judgment for what it is and isn’t, you can have a pretty good time with it. You just have to be willing to spend some time learning the ropes.
The story is absolutely inconsequential, so I won’t talk about it other than to say there’s a time rift and different characters from the Castlevania franchise are all fighting each other for no obvious reason. Dracula is involved somehow; it’s not really clear. The game is divided into different sections: traditional Story and Arcade modes, an interesting Castle mode (more on that in a minute), and online matches. Sadly, I cannot comment on the online content, because I couldn’t find anybody to play with.
The game’s control scheme is its biggest hurdle. Do not play this game with a Wii Remote and Nunchuck, because you’ll be whipping yourself in the foot. Shaking the Remote to attack is awkward and tiring, and the button configuration makes the game nigh-unplayable. The GameCube controller is an option, but the button layout makes certain attacks awkward. Your best bet is the Classic Controller, which, in spite of its own problems, is your only viable choice. Jumping and blocking are handled with the shoulder buttons, while attacks are mapped to the face buttons. You move around the 3D battlefield with the left stick and dodge with the right stick. Learning the ropes (whips?) of attacking takes some practice. The B button will be your primary attack button. Like Smash Bros., pressing different directions on the left stick in conjunction with the attack buttons results in different attacks. The A button charges attacks. Using it and the B button along with analog stick directions (or while jumping) produces different results, too. If you hold down the A button until your character flashes, the ensuing attack will (usually) be unblockable. The Y button is used for sub-weapons, and the X button is your super attack. Sub-weapons (Holy Water, Knives, etc.) are useful only when fully charged, and even then you’re better of simply attacking the usual way. They are an interesting addition to the standard fighting formula, but haphazardly implemented.
However, there is no lock-on button, and unlike a technical fighter such as Soul Calibur or Tekken, characters do not automatically face each other. This makes it very easy to run away from the opposition, although the camera will swing around like a drunken monkey as it tries to keep you and your opponent on-screen at all times. Because of the erratic camera, evading attacks is difficult: what you perceive to be the backwards direction may be different from the camera’s perspective. Very often, you will “evade” directly into an opponent’s attack. Movement problems are compounded by the various items sprinkled around battlefields, from barrels and crates (which hold items) to traps like spikes or scythes. Because the camera doesn’t give you a broad enough view, I found myself inadvertently stepping into disaster time and time again, or just falling right off the stage. The game already has a Soul Calibur bent to it, what with the weapons and certain character designs, but it either needed to be a more traditional 3D fighter or limited to two dimensions like the old King of Fighters games or Street Fighter.
Once you learn your and your opponent’s attack combos and adjust to the camera, the game becomes significantly easier. But in order to really feel like you know what you’re doing, you need to put some time into it. This is not a learn-as-you-go game, which I found irritating. The tutorials (accessed via the main menu) help drill skills into your head, though, and with its help you’ll be chaining combos with move cancels and recovering from falls in no time. Spending some time in practice mode helps, too, but without going through Training mode, Judgment has a pretty high learning curve, even compared to a more technical game like Soul Calibur IV. Another good place to pick up your skills is Castle mode, which resembles the old Soul Calibur Mission and Conquest modes, where you move from room to room fighting enemies under special conditions. They range from ridiculously easy (break five objects in the room) to unbelievably hard (keep enemies from breaking any objects for twenty seconds). But as long as you avoid the uber-hard challenges, Castle mode is pretty cool, and it unlocks cosmetic accessories for your characters.
This game's character design has been largely ridiculed, and for good reason. Absolutely none of the characters, except maybe Alucard and Shanoa, look like their canonical counterparts. Some, like Death, look like they belong in a different franchise. Others, like Aeon, look straight out of Death Note. The main problem is that each character’s costume is way too busy and modern. I don’t think they had intricate belt-coats in the 1600’s. Yet incredibly, there’s a Soul Calibur influence to the design. Carmilla is basically Ivy with a red (instead of purple) corset. She even has a whip. Grant DeNasty, who’s supposed to be a pirate, looks like Voldo here, even to the point of being covered in bandages and adopting bizarre postures for attacks. And then there are the non-canonical characters like Cornell (Castlevania 64) and Golem (from no game in particular). There are plenty of other canonical characters that could have filled those shoes, like Soma Cruz, Shaft, or Charlotte Aulin. The designs of some of Judgment’s canonical characters, like Maria Renard or Eric Lecarde, are hideous. Rather than redesign Maria based on her teenage Symphony of the Night form, Judgment gives you the little kid Dracula X form instead. Eric Lecarde looks like a 12-year-old boy, and giving him the Alucard Spear just emphasizes his small stature that much more. Even Dracula looks kind of silly, what with the gold and the spikes. .In all, these are not Castlevania characters.
At least Konami was kind to the musical score, which features remixed versions of classic Castlevania themes, including the seminal “Bloody Tears” and plenty of Symphony tunes. Additionally, the voice acting is good, but in a campy way. Few combatants sound out of character, but there’s definitely a strong anime influence (Maria's voice is straight out of Inayusha). Castlevania fans are also rewarded with bonus content for both Judgment with Order of Ecclesia when the two are hooked together, although the DS bonus content isn’t all that great.
If you work at learning the game, and view it as something that’s not necessarily Castlevania proper, Judgment can provide a decent romp. If you're looking for a good lighthearted fighter, Judgement is outclassed by Brawl. However, if you like Soulcalibur but don’t own a PS3 or Xbox 360, Judgment is your only real alternative, and it’s not as terrible as people have been saying.