Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia is the third game of the popular vampire-hunting series for the Nintendo DS platform. After arguably taking a step backwards with last year’s Portrait of Ruin, Koji Igarashi and company have made a few changes to the formula that has been prevalent in the first two DS games. There is a pretty interesting story, gameplay that takes place over multiple locations on a world map instead of in one castle, a new Glyph system which allows players to arm two weapons at once, and a difficulty level that Castlevania players have not seen in quite some time.
The game’s story introduces players to the Order of Ecclesia, a group that is dedicated to ridding the world of Dracula once and for all. Shanoa is the game’s protagonist, and she has been chosen to defeat Dracula by utilizing the Dominus Glyph, a weapon of ultimate power. Standing in Shanoa’s way is Albus, her fellow Ecclesia member and brother figure, who goes rogue after discovering that he has not been chosen to carry Dominus and steals it before it can be given to Shanoa. Shanoa is charged with finding Albus, taking back the Dominus Glyph, and destroying Dracula. Dominus has a dark secret that allows for some interesting plot twists as the game progresses.
Ecclesia’s progression takes place in several different locations, which is a departure from the castle-centric setting seen in the previous portable Castlevania games. The locations vary between indoor, outdoor, and underwater stages of play. There are caves, caverns, forests, swamps, and monasteries represented here. Unfortunately, many of these stages are basic travels from one point to another and don’t allow for the explorative aspects that castle travel afforded players. There are secrets hidden in breakable walls, underground passages, and in other areas, but each stage feels like a mission instead of an area to investigate. Some players may not mind the change, while others may balk at it. In fact, these stages feel more like enhanced versions of the worlds in the paintings within Portrait of Ruin. This new progression doesn’t hurt the game, however, as long as the player is open-minded.
As you might expect, Shanoa will have to deal with a variety of enemies during her quest, and this is where the Glyph system comes into play. Players arm Shanoa with Glyphs, rather than conventional weapons. Glyphs can be found and absorbed from treasure chests, fallen enemies, and secret locations. Once absorbed, Shanoa can equip two offensive Glyphs for the X and Y buttons and a support Glyph, which is activated by using the R button. Offensive Glyph types include swords, hammers, axes, scythes, rapiers, and offensive magic. Support Glyphs include temporary stat increases, drawing more money from hacking candles and torches, and a special Glyph called Magnes, which functions similarly to a grappling hook and is vital to accessing hard-to-reach areas or traversing spike pits.
Unlike recent games in the Castlevania series, Order of Ecclesia stands as a formidable challenge. Players will find that enemies deal a lot more damage than in the past, and boss encounters can be downright punishing. Adding to the game’s challenge is that initial healing items are pretty weak and money isn’t as plentiful, leading to either exhibiting skill or setting out on replays of earlier stages for farming money and items in order to have enough potions and perishables to survive onslaughts of damage from bosses. One particularly tough boss battle occurs pretty early on in Ecclesia’s progression, against a crab boss, likely to cause more deaths during this one encounter than some veteran Castlevania players experienced in Dawn of Sorrow and Portrait of Ruin combined. This battle is a cruel reminder that a bit of trial and error is required when using Glyphs as certain Glyphs deal more damage to certain enemies than others.
In addition to dispatching enemies and bosses, Shanoa also becomes tasked with rescuing villagers who have been taken by Albus and sealed away in the various stages that Shanoa visits. These villagers are important to advancing the story and they also have subquests that can be completed by Shanoa which lead to various monetary and item bonuses, similar to Wind’s role in Portrait of Ruin. The subquests range from item collection to defeating certain enemies to games of hide and seek. Completing all of these subquests is not vital to beating the game, but completists will revel in the chance to finish every last task before meeting up with Albus in the final battle for Dominus.
The visuals contained within Order of Ecclesia are quite impressive. The character designs have moved away from the anime-influenced style that has been prevalent in the handheld games and towards a more gothic style once again. There is a nice mix of new enemies and familiar foes here, as well. The boss characters are generally huge, ranging from the crab mentioned earlier to a large militant zombie and a creature comprised entirely of shadow. The only nitpick here is that infrequent periods of slowdown can disrupt an otherwise smooth gameplay experience. It’s a bit surprising that slowdown can still be such an issue, especially at this stage of the Nintendo DS’ development cycle, but the problem does still exist, apparently. These bouts are infrequent, though, and don’t serve to further inflate the game’s difficulty.
Ecclesia’s music is very good, although it’s not quite as consistently good as in other games in the series. There are certainly some tracks that stand out, including the piece that accompanies the opening cinematic, but there are also several repeats and a couple of less-than-stellar tracks. Fans of Symphony of the Night will notice some interesting parallels between that game’s soundtrack and several of the tracks within Ecclesia. The game’s sound effects are clean, and there is a decent amount of voice work included; unfortunately, the game’s dialogue is still limited to text.
Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia is worth the $30 price of admission. It has its imperfections, and the difficulty may be off-putting to some, but persistence and skill do eventually pay off in the end. Few games in this series—or on the DS itself, for that matter—give such a feeling of accomplishment and achievement once the game ends. There are several options that become available once players complete Ecclesia that provide a fair amount of replay value, as well. Ecclesia may be a no-brainer to Castlevania fans, but it’s recommended even for gamers who haven’t yet faced off against Dracula or his minions.
ESRB: T (Blood, Fantasy Violence)
Plays like: Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin
Pros: Glyph system, new level progression, unlockables
Cons: Difficulty may frustrate some, some quests require lengthy item farming