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CONSOLE: PlayStation 2/Xbox DEVELOPER: Konami PUBLISHER: Konami
RELEASE DATE (NA): October 21, 2003 GENRE: Action/Adventure
// review by SoyBomb

Dracula's curse transcends even the Z-Axis...

I'm fairly confident that before Castlevania: Lament of Innocence was released, many fans of the Castlevania series were more than a bit on edge. And who could blame them? After all, this was another attempt at bringing the franchise, which had strong roots in two-dimensional venturing, into the third dimension. It had been attempted once before, in Castlevania for the Nintendo 64, and it was indeed a mixed bag. Though a novel effort and one of the more genuinely chilling entries, the community-dubbed "Castlevania 64" toyed with players' patience through a wicked camera system and controls that could make grown men weep in their La-Z-Boys. I can't count the number of times in Castlevania 64 that I took one wrong leap thanks to a merciless camera angle, requiring me to re-complete an entire section of the game. And I doubt I am alone in that experience. Thus, it is only logical that skepticism would arise when Castlevania would once again return to that third dimension for another go, this time on the more advanced PlayStation 2. But put your fears to rest because this is how Castlevania in 3D should be done.

Castlevania: Lament of Innocence actually serves as the prequel to literally EVERY Castlevania game of the past, present, and presumed future, as it sets up the original source of conflict between the Belmont clan and Lord Dracula. We meet up with Leon Belmont, the earliest known member of the family bloodline, in the year 1094. He was once Baron Belmont but has left that title behind as his companion Mathias Cronqvist informs him that his beloved Sara has been captured by Walter Bernhard, a known vampire. Shedding his regal title, Leon heads toward Walter's castle, only to discover Rinaldo Gandolfi, an alchemist who has set up in the woods to aid those who wish to defeat Walter. Rinaldo offers Leon the use of a whip developed by alchemy as a tool for survival. This, obviously, starts a trend of Belmonts using whips to cut Dracula down to size over the centuries. When Leon enters the castle, he discovers he must defeat five guardians before being able to actively confront Walter. And, upon doing so, he also learns that there is more to one of his closest friends than meets the eye, which brings forth the origins of Dracula himself.

As Leon, you will need to visit five different "areas" within the castle, accessible via a central transporter room (quite impressive technology for the late 11th century, I might add). Such areas include the Anti-Soul Mysteries Lab and the Garden of Forgotten Time; their decor reflects what they are. Each area, though fairly linear overall, does allow a bit of freedom in travel with branching pathways. Luckily, a map can easily be accessed at any time and is built as you make your way through the castle grounds. Throughout the many rooms of each area are many secrets to be found, either by keeping a watchful eye on your surroundings or by using specific abilities to reach new doors and rooms. And, as any loyal Castlevanian would expect, there are creatures of the night to kill.

Brandishing his newly-acquired whip, Leon is ready for action at any time. Skeletons, zombies, possessed suits of armor, and many more familiar creatures will cross your path, ready to be conquered. I'm pleased to report that the floating Medusa heads of games past are absent, perhaps a relief to some. Whipping your way through hordes of enemies is actually both easy and satisfying; it's far easier to hit a target in a three-dimensional plane than expected. Castlevania 64 was a little tougher on this front. As he gains more experience with using his whip, he'll gain new combos, though the methods of actually gaining these combos seemed completely random. To make Leon's life even easier, he can pick up sub-weapons (all recognizable from Castlevania lore) including an axe, a knife, holy water, and a cross. When you defeat the major boss in each area, you'll win yourself a coloured orb, which can be used in conjunction with each sub-weapon for unique effects. Try them yourself for extra fun!

Whether by whip or by cross, Leon Belmont gets the job done.

Along the way, Leon can pick up additional armor and accessories to better his chances for survival. But, perhaps most importantly, Leon may (if he finds their locations) stumble upon a few elemental bosses. When they are defeated, they produce new element-based whips, suitable against certain types of enemies (or, often, are simply more powerful than that lackluster whip Rinaldo gave you for free). He'll also be able to use healing items when needed; these can either be dropped by enemies, found randomly (though scarcely), or purchased in Rinaldo's cabin with money found pretty much everywhere.

When you finish the game as Leon, you also get codes to go through the game in other modes. For example (and I'd better say "SPOILER ALERT"), you'll unlock the ability to play through the game as Joachim Armster, one of the haunting characters Leon meets up with -- and fights -- in his travels. Joachim is equipped with five swords on his back that he can fire off at will. His mode includes a homing ability, making your brawling a little more efficient. It comes at a price, however: he can't use items, and therefore cannot heal except at save points or if he finds healing items (at which point they're used immediately upon grasp). Completing his mode unlocks Pumpkin, a character who functions similar to Leon but with far more limited health. You can also unlock Crazy Mode, which is significantly more difficult.

One thing Lament of Innocence definitely has is atmosphere. Every hallway, every large room, every inch of the premises has been minutely crafted to perfection, giving the impression that you are actually IN a Romanian castle. The sheer amount of detail here is almost astonishing, considering how little it affects your overall quest. And luckily, with pre-determined camera angles, you'll actually be able to enjoy it. Characters are moderately detailed and well-animated (the vomiting zombies come to mind). The soundtrack is equally impressive. Michiru Yamane, a long-time Castlevania composer since Castlevania: Bloodlines for the Sega Genesis, returns with an ingenious palette of styles ranging from industrial to gothic and even some dance music just for kicks. This is not a game to mute, that's for certain. As for the voice acting, it's not half-bad, either.

Those who worried that Castlevania: Lament of Innocence would be as much of a derailment to the series as the polarizing Castlevania 64 were put at ease. This is a far superior game with more forgiving controls and a camera system that won't cause you much unnecessary damage. It's a well-crafted game that proved how Castlevania can, and does, thrive while escaping the shackles of a sprite-based world.

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