Poor Dracula. After getting his ass kicked so many times, he’s starting to lose his edge. He wasn’t even killed by a Belmont in the last battle; he was taken down by Quincy Morris – a relative of the family who somehow acquired the legendary Vampire Killer whip – and a handful of other strangers in 1897. It came at a price, though. Quincy didn’t make it out of the battle alive, and his young son John got to witness his gruesome demise firsthand. After inheriting the Vampire Killer in the most macabre and traumatizing way possible, John and his best friend Eric Lecarde dedicated their lives to defending the world against evil. Their Batman-esque vow is about to be tested. Elizabeth Bartley, a demonic countess and the catalyst for the first World War, is on the verge of reviving Dracula. With the fate of mankind – and a personal vendetta – on the line, John and Eric plunge into a war-torn Europe.
Needless to say, this isn’t your typical Castlevania. Rather than having a single hero storming a castle, it’s got two protagonists fighting their way across a continent. Though they can wield classic sub-weapons (the throwing knife is absent because everyone already knows it’s useless), their main arsenal has been reworked. Despite being related to the Belmonts, neither of them have the skills of their predecessors. John wields the Vampire Killer, but lacks the freedom that defined Super Castlevania IV. He can still fling the weapon in eight directions, but his attacks and movements are somewhat stiffer, laggier, and more limited in range. He can’t do the limp chain techniques, either. John’s mobility is his only saving grace; he can use the whip to latch onto ceilings and ledges – no special hooks required – and swing around like a gothic Indiana Jones. He’s got nothing on Eric, though. His best friend wields the Alcarde Spear (a nice shout-out for the older fans), which has far better range and speed. He can even twirl his weapon in a full arc, allowing him to quickly smite enemies in any direction. More importantly, he can use his Super Jump to leap up an entire screen length of a room, reach high platforms, and damage anything stupid enough to get in his way. While John might be a Texan badass with the iconic weapon, Eric is far more fun to play.
The levels are designed to cater to both men’s unique abilities. Whether you’re swinging around platforms or pole-vaulting up to otherwise unreachable heights, there’s always a way through. The problem is that the stages don’t offer the kind of complexity that previous Castlevania games have offered. There are a no branching paths, alternate levels and bosses, secret characters, or anything else that would give the adventure some additional depth. The unlockable Expert Mode isn’t nearly enough of an incentive for a replay. That’s a shame, considering how much content was packed into the last couple of titles. With only six relatively simple and straightforward stages, the game comes up kind of short compared to Rondo of Blood and even Dracula‘s Curse. The brevity of the game is made even worse by the utter lack of difficulty. There’s nowhere near the kind of challenge that made the older titles so interesting; aside from a couple of stages, there are no platforming segments that truly test your skills. Even the Clock Tower area, arguably the most iconic setting in the series, has a half-assed replacement in the form of a German munitions factory. Rather than balancing precariously on spinning clock gears, you dodge gigantic pistons and make pitifully short leaps along floating conveyor belts. Such generic obstacles are serviceable, but hardly satisfying.
Instead, the game tries to distract you with some of the most flashy, chaotic battles in the series. Giant statues can be knocked off their pedestals to create bridges, minotaurs uproot Greek columns to use as battering rams, whole rooms flood with magical water until you fight the mini-boss…all in one stage. Castle Proserpina has you crossing a collapsing bridge while killing/dodging pyrotechnic Medusa heads. Just after you’ve gotten over that brief moment of sheer awesome, you’re forced you to wander a hallway in which whole sections of the screen have been jumbled and shifted to simulate the perspectives – upside down included – of a broken mirror. Even Versailles, a bastion of wealth and opulence, turns ugly when the fountains start pouring blood and skeletons rise from the gore. The boss fights are even more insane. After whipping and stabbing your way through hordes of ghouls in yet another rendition of Castlevania’s first stage, you’ll get ambushed by a reeking, half-decomposed zombie werewolf with howls powerful enough to shatter glass. A golem has to have its rocky, multi-tiered stomach knocked to rubble before you can reach its weak point. Possessed suits of armor will restlessly pursue you even as they get dismembered piece by piece. These confrontations are easily the high points of what is an otherwise lackluster platformer.
The intensity of these battles is made even better with some incredibly stylish visuals. The Shrine of Atlantis stage has this amazing beginning section in which you’re running along some sunken ruins against a setting sun. As you slaughter minotaurs and Mermen, everything is projected in reverse on the bottom of the screen, simulating the rippling waters that flow underfoot. This mirrored effect is stunning in its beauty. That’s aside from your ascent of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It begins with you climbing a long staircase, chopping through Bone Pillars along the way. But if you look at the background, you’ll notice how the brick walls and windows are all slanted to portray the consequences of the building’s weak foundation. But as you get higher, the passages get narrower and start shifting back and forth, giving off a nauseating sense of vertigo. Even the boss battle has the stage spinning around, creating a dizzying and disorienting battleground. These things are little more visual tricks, but they make a lot of Super Castlevania IV’s Mode 7 stuff look like garbage.
That doesn’t make it completely superior, though. Bloodlines is a strange mishmash of ideas taken from the previous titles. The result is a Castlevania unlike any other. Each stage is fraught with chaotic battles and incredible visual effects, making it one of the most action-focused installments yet. It didn’t come cheap, though. The platforming, arguably the most fundamental aspect of the entire series, has been sacrificed in the name of style. Longtime fans might be disappointed by how some of the iconic stages have been watered down into pale imitations. That extends to the rest of the game. There’s nothing in terms of alternate levels or exploration; it’s just six straightforward brawls through some of Europe’s most recognizable locations. Awesome battles aside, there’s no incentive to keep replaying and exploring. Despite having two protagonists with different move sets and special abilities, neither of them are as powerful or versatile as the heroes of the last few titles. Even the new whipping and jumping mechanics are hindered by stiff controls. It’s too bad. John and Eric might be in the Belmont‘s bloodline, but they don’t quite measure up.