Aeon has a problem. Thanks to his time travel powers, he’s recently learned that that someone is mounting an assault on Castlevania. Normally, that’d be a good thing; Dracula is the embodiment of evil on Earth, so taking him out would at least temporarily save humanity. But this newcomer has come from the future – ten thousand years, in fact – for the sole purpose of destroying Castlevania and rewriting the past. No Dracula means no Belmonts, which means there’d be nothing to defend mankind from whatever would take the dark lord’s place. So what’s a lowly time traveler supposed to do against a being that can unmake reality itself? Aeon’s not about to tackle that kind of beast by himself. Instead, he does something far more cliche: he uses his powers to recruit some of the most prominent characters in the Castlevania series to see who’s strong enough to take on their mutual foe.
Whoa. Different characters spanning over twenty years of games, all together in one title? It’s a premise that would make any longtime fan drool. At a glance, the lineup is stunning. Simon, finally back in action. Trevor, Sypha, and Grant from Dracula’s Curse. Alucard, the rebellious badass from Symphony of the Night. Maria, the adorable secret character from Rondo of Blood. Carmilla, one of the bosses from Simon’s Quest, Circle of the Moon, and a handful of others. Even Death and Dracula aren’t going to sit this one out. Hardcore fans will be pleased by the return of a few obscure characters, too. Eric Lecarde has come from Bloodlines, magic spear and all. Cornell is still the beast he was in Legacy of Darkness. There’s even Shanoa from Order of Ecclesia, which ought to appeal to those who have just gotten into the series. It’s hardly a huge roster, but it covers a lot of ground.
There are some glaring omissions, though. Where is Richter, one of the most prominent Belmonts? Did the game designers leave him out because he would have played too similarly to Simon and Trevor? There’s no Soma Cruz, who would have been an obvious choice given the popular of Aria and Dawn of Sorrow. Also, why is Golem even here? He’s nothing more than a recurring minor baddie. If there needed to be another fighter for Dracula’s team, why didn’t they go with Shaft? You know, the major recurring villain who was the driving force of both Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night? Even if you’re not hardcore enough of a fan to nitpick about the little details, you’ll probably be disappointed by what you do recognize. Many of the plot points and character development have been drastically altered. Why has Eric been regressed into an arrogant child? When did the heroic trio from Dracula’s Curse become a love triangle? Why is Maria Renard, arguably the bravest and toughest protagonist in the series, a clumsy ditz with an obsession over big breasts? Any personality these warriors used to show have been replaced by poor imitations of the most generic fighting game characters ever conceived.
The combat itself isn’t much better. Since everyone wields some kind of weapon, you might assume that the game would take after the Soul Calibur series. Visions of blades, whips, lances, and scythes, clashing against each other with all kinds of devastating combos and attack stances are invoked, offering just enough promise to give it a try. A brilliant concept…if the game designers had made the effort to pull it off. Each character has only one basic combo, finishing special attack, dodge, guard breaker, aerial, and an overpowered supermove that you have to charge up with an onscreen energy meter. That’s it. No complex maneuvers, special commands, or anything that even vaguely resembles depth. The horribly unbalanced move sets don’t help, either. Alucard has lost all of his badass sword and magic techniques in favor of a few sluggish slashes. Maria and Death not only have quick multi-hit combos, but have ridiculously long range as well. Simon and Trevor can execute powerful combos in the blink of an eye. Not to mention Dracula, whose can easily win fights by just blindly spamming fireballs and projectiles without having to worry about actual strategy. Meanwhile, Golem, Eric, and Cornell have practically no priority and pathetic speed. It’s as if the game ignored every major convention of 3D fighting game mechanics of the last decade.
That’s assuming you can even land a hit. The default controls involve the Wii Remote and the Nunchuck, which are just as effective and accurate as you can imagine. Witness the greatest heroes and villains of the Castlevania series, plodding around aimlessly and attacking thin air as you awkwardly waggle the controller in hopes of connecting a move. Since nearly every attack can be blocked, you might spend several minutes wearing down your arm before you actually do some damage. The game supports both the Classic and GameCube controllers, which make playing bearable. Unfortunately, any advantages you might gain are immediately crushed by the horrendous camera. The perspective switches its focus onto whoever’s in the foreground. It toggles erratically, forcing you to look not-quite-over the shoulder of the character in front. That makes keeping track of the fighters’ distances and basic movements nearly impossible, which effectively destroys any kind of spacing or defensive strategies. How are you supposed to dodge Dracula’s fireballs when you can’t even see them or your character? Rather than focusing on tactics, you end up just doing evasive movements until you get back into view and start chasing your opponent around the arena.
The terrible camera doesn’t just ruin the basic fighting, either. Every level is crammed with all kinds of hazards and extra items. You might fight through a torture chamber, accidentally falling into a pool of toxic waste or getting torn up by a spiky floor. A haunted shipwreck is torn apart by a giant quid, rocking the entire stage awkwardly out of perspective. The stone bridge leading to the castle’s entrance gets smashed to bits, one arch at a time. You can even perform ring outs by throwing your enemies through the stained glass windows in the Royal Chapel. These features are actually interesting how they incorporate various Castlevania traps into their design. They make the stages feel more lively and dynamic. Of course, they lose their appeal when you’re blindly stumbling into certain death. The same goes for the items; you can smash candelabras, collect hearts, and wield all of the classic sub weapons. Unfortunately, the camera makes throwing knives and holy water grenades ineffective and inaccurate at best. These weapons are the closest thing Judgment comes to the rest of the series, and it still fails miserably.
The game tries to make up for it by providing a decent variety of playing modes. Assuming you’ve got the patience, you have to play through each character’s individual story campaign to get a full completion. The Arcade, Versus and Training Modes, on the other hand, keep things quick and relatively painless. There’s also the online multiplayer, but actually finding someone else still willing to play is…questionable at best. If you do, you’ll be treated to either straightforward matches or ranking battles determined by how many wins and losses you’ve accumulated. But chances are, you’ll get more out of the Castle Mode. Rather than taking on the usual fights, you’ll have to complete certain objectives to win the battle. Some of them, like using a super attack or performing lengthy combos, are pretty interesting. Unfortunately, the majority of them end up with you mowing down a gang of zombies or mermen, collecting items, smashing candelabras, or something equally bland. It’s reminiscent of the adventure modes from the Soul Calibur games, but nowhere near as long or satisfying. The only incentive you have is the sheer amount of stuff you unlock when you play; top hats, eye patches, and other clothing let you tweak the costumes to your liking. It’s not much of a distraction, but it’s something.
The unlockable music is the only real reward. Despite all of its flaws, Judgment has one of the best soundtracks in the entire series. The Beginning, Vampire Killer, and Bloody Tears have some particularly impressive remixes. Not to mention Eric’s Iron Blue Intention theme takes one of the best tracks from Bloodlines and makes it even better. It’s just a shame that such effort wasn’t put into the rest of the audio. The voice acting ranges from flat to decent to hilariously cheesy. Grant has a darkly humorous (but still lighthearted) tone that makes him stand out from his grim friends. Trevor sounds like he’s trying to quote a superhero movie. Cornell and Shanoa have no emotion whatsoever, while Dracula is almost as hammy as he was in Symphony of the Night. Death trumps all of them, though. Nothing is more eye roll-inducing than his, “If you wish for death, HERE. I. AM! What’s interesting is how characters have specific quotes for certain characters. References to Alucard and Maria’s relationship, Dracula making an offhand mention of his curse to Simon, etc. Half the fun is pitting the different fighters together and seeing them rattle off poorly executed allusions to events in the series.
The nostalgia is spoiled by the visuals, though. Despite being some of the most iconic characters in their franchise, none of the fighters resemble their counterparts. Take Grant, for example. He used to be a badass pirate that could move quickly and kill stuff with knives. Now he’s a frail, wise-cracking, mummy-zombie…thing that can move quickly and kill stuff with knives. Cornell and Death look like demonic robots. The once adorable Maria has traded in her girly outfit for a gothic Lolita ensemble and antennae-like pigtails. Carmilla, aside from being clothed for once, is a cheap Ivy Valentine knockoff. Dracula is the only one with an improved look; his physical size is imposing, his armor has some interesting designs, and his glowing aura practically reeks of evil. Too bad that the texturing and models are utterly bland; these characters look like something you’d expect out of an aged PS2 game. Despite some interesting backgrounds – the massive throne room and the searing-hot lava of the Alchemy Laboratory in particular – nothing is really up to par for what’s been seen on the Wii.
It’s too bad. Judgment was such an awesome, if not unconventional idea. Take the most iconic characters from a great series, put them all together with some items, and see who kicks the most ass. It’s like the bastard lovechild of Soul Calibur and Powerstone. It could have worked…but it didn’t. Nearly every aspect of this game is flawed. The roster, despite covering several titles, feels limited in terms of both size and its lack of certain heroes. The combat mechanics are shallow at best; simple combos, little variation, and an utter lack of balance keep things boring. The camera is horrendous, offering awkward perspectives that destroy any potential strategies, avoid hazards, and use items effectively. The default waggle controls make the game nigh unplayable. Aside from the various unlockables, there’s little incentive to try out any of the other modes. The music and some of the voice acting are the only redeeming parts of an otherwise bland presentation. In the end, Judgment succeeds in one thing: demonstrating how not to indulge in nostalgia.