Castlevania: Lament of Innocence
I did not have high hopes for Lament of Innocence. For one thing, I was growing tired of Konami’s penchant for using ridiculously dramatic and pretentious subtitles for their games, all seemingly born of the same formula (Aria of Sorrow, Harmony of Dissonance, etc). For another, those same games were annoyingly similar to the masterpiece Symphony of the Night, the last magical Castlevania game. While they mimicked expertly, they lacked their own soul. I knew Lament wouldn’t play like those Game Boy Advance SOTN imitations, because it was going to be 3D. Which meant to me that it would play like the sad pair of N64 Castlevanias, an even sadder circumstance.
Thankfully, that was not the outcome; Lament is an excellent game. The combat system is tight and fairly exciting, the music is typically brilliant, and the graphics and general look and feel of the game screams SOTN atmosphere without coming across as a poor man’s version of something greater. That said, SOTN is the better game by a comfortable margin, but there are few action adventures that SOTN isn’t better than. Lament can be commended for capturing the essence of that game in the often troublesome 3D world while managing to create its own very likeable identity in the process.
Even more admirable was Konami’s ambition to present this game as an origin story to the entire Castlevania saga. Lament’s hero, Leon Belmont, loses his betrothed to the clutches of Walter, a powerful vampire whose stronghold is a dark castle fraught with evil things. Leon must not only rescue his lady, but also set about his grim undertaking with heavy heart; his best friend Mathias is bedridden with sorrow at the passing of his own lady. Further, Leon’s new mentor in the ways of the whip, Rinaldo, reveals to our young, poorly coiffed hero, his own vendetta against the man of the castle. Intriguing twists abound, and much is revealed of the franchise’s beginnings. The acting is sometimes hokey, sometimes brilliant. I was especially taken by the opening intro’s narration. The rich polish whetted my appetite for what tasted like sumptous adventuring ahead.
While I’m thankful for the high quality trimmings, I realize that we’re not playing Castlevania for its epic story. If we were, we might have realized we’re reading the same book over a dozen times by now, Dick Francis style. Thankfully, the meat of Lament is juicy enough to sustain even non-fans. The layout is decidedly more linear than SOTN and the GBA iterations, featuring old school levels accessible from a portal room, rather than a single sprawling map. This cuts down on backtracking, but gives the game an odd sense of smallness. Unlimited saves are still available from save rooms scattered throughout the various areas. Leon’s whip, the original vampire killer, can flick quickly, or else lash heavily. As you progress, you’ll learn different combos involving snapping the whip and launching foes, rendering them prone to further vicious carving, or else taking Leon himself airborne for some impressive hang time-cum-monster rending.
Probably the coolest moves can be effected using the guard button. Simply holding it down will cause Leon to raise his gauntlet to block the attacks of weaker enemies. Hitting the button at the exact moment an enemy is attacking will produce a Perfect Guard, a technique that is necessary to parry assaults by the stronger foes in the game. Guarding increases your Magic Power, and Magic Power fuels your Relics. Relics give Leon the ability to run faster, sprout flames in his wake, and more. But, back to the guard function! With the button depressed, Leon can perform evasive maneuvers, such as cartwheels and backflips. Lament is at its best when it’s got you facing an incredibly strong opponent, necessitating on your part: dodging, Perfect Guarding and stringing together destructive combos with both whip and sub-weapons.
Fans should remember what sub-weapons are; they’re as old as the very first Castlevania game, those axes and holy water bottles bore by the very first Belmont vampire killer we met, now revealed to be carried also by the very first Belmont vampire killer there ever was. In Lament, an exceptional twist is added to their function: coloured orbs affect their behaviour and efficacy. The orbs are earned by conquering areas, defeating bosses. Once you’ve got a few under your belt, you’ll see how your axe can be thrown as a pair of speedy, swath-cutting sentinels; or a single, slow moving boomerang blade; and so on.
And the foes you get to cut down! From giant ogres to lizard men, from pillars of fire-breathing bone to stalking skeletons—you’ll thrill to thrashing them and leaving stunning blood or gruesome fragments spattered on the dark corridor walls.
Bosses are even more impressive, of course, as mostly everyone RSVPed on their invitations to the party. Doppelganger, Medusa, Golem—just about the whole gang is here, in splendid 3D. Even Death is here to do you in. And if you trek bravely through all that is in your path, you will still not have experienced all there is to experience in Lament. There are hidden bosses galore, including The Forgotten One, a boss that has to be seen to be believed. The abominable creature has been locked far, far beneath the castle, hidden down and around swirling castle steps streaked fearfully with the scent of doom–the ultimate embodiment of that which should not be.
But The Forgotten One brings to my mind the game’s few flaws. The hidden areas and Relics and bosses give Lament some excellent replay value, but before I discovered them, I felt that there wasn’t enough game here. Seven hours isn’t exactly a walk, but Lament has a lot to live up to in SOTN, and I felt that all the ‘extra’ stuff should have been part of the mandatory experience, and that on top of all that, extra stuff could still be tacked on. Besides this feeling of being slightly shortchanged, Lament’s camera is extremely bad at times, which is not so uncommon in games of this type, but that’s really no excuse. You’ll frequently enter rooms and not know what’s in front of you, since the camera will position itself so that all we can take in is Leon at the edge of the screen, facing an unseen panorama. You’ll regularly have to throw axes or whatever you’ve got at nothing in particular, so that you can hear enemies torn, and see their hit points proclaimed, or you wouldn’t know they were there at all.
Still, Lament’s tunes alone make up for these issues; they are consistently beautiful, and that cannot be emphasized enough. The orchestration is rich and alluring, reaching its zenith with Leon’s theme during the final stage. My only complaint is the lack of variety in the types of tracks–SOTN showed off considerable versatility, offering hard driving rock, some oddly danceable stuff, and even a vocal arrangement in addition to the expected symphonic renditions laced with organ and choir chants. Lament only works the latter–but what little it works, it works well.
To my mind, Lament of Innocence certainly did not cure the lame subtitle condition facing today’s Castlevania titles, but it does manage to stand impressively on its own two feet, something I have not seen from a representative of the series in awhile. Make no mistake: this is no Circle of the Moon or other shameful shadow of SOTN’s almost anamalous greatness (which in fairness, would probably dull any subsequent 2D effort, all but necessitating the switching of gears to 3D). Old school fans and SOTN fans need not despair about 3D mangling their precious–trust that Lament feels the same, but thankfully, it’s not at all the same. Everything old is new again.