The Castlevania series has appeared on nearly every console in the past 20+ years of gaming. In that time, the majority of these titles have been 2D action-adventure games where you must traverse a dangerous castle filled with deadly traps and monsters, eventually leading up to a rumble with Dracula himself. Konami has attempted to toy with this formula a bit over the years through fully 3D adventure outings on Nintendo 64, PS2, and Xbox, but the results have been less than spectacular. The series’ latest incarnation, Castlevania Judgment, is a 3D fighting game built exclusively for the Wii. Can the series survive another spin off, or does this take a fatal bite out of the Castlevania legacy?
Judgment casts an assortment of characters from the long history of the Castlevania saga against each other in familiar series locales. The roster is made up of vampire slayers, a werewolf, temptresses, a giant, and even Dracula himself among others, with each having various strengths and weakness that force a player to use them all differently. These characters battle in a number of interesting and entertaining environments, including lavish halls, a graveyard, a torture chamber, and the inner workings of a clock tower. Each area has several interactive elements that will affect you as you play, including moving saw blades in the torture chamber and a giant fish in an outdoor level that gradually destroys the bridge you are standing on. Some levels also have neutral enemies walking around that range from zombies to mermen, and they will attack either player that gets in their way as the fight progresses. All of these interactive level elements are very cool, as they really add an element of surprise and variety into the game. They can also be turned off, in the event you don’t want a colossal hammer-wielding Gollum interrupting your match.
The fighting system that you will be utilizing in these environments is introduced to you through a series of 3 tutorials and is made up of several attacks, items, and combos that the player can unleash during battle. By default, all of these actions are mapped to various functions of the Wii Remote and Nunchuck, as the game utilizes button presses, motion control, and a combination of the two for all of the basic moves. Each character starts with a primary weapon, which varies by character but includes whips, throwing blades, and magical attacks. You will also start with an item in your inventory, though you can also pick up new items and power-ups hidden around the environment as the battle wages on. The items range from crosses and boomerangs to hordes of bats that attack your foes, and you can combine these with your regular moves to do more damage. Aside from the simple strike of your primary weapon, which is done by waving the Wii Remote, you can hold a number of buttons down as you attack to modify or charge up your moves and can launch into combos by timing button presses and Remote-slashing as your previous actions are being carried out. There are also Hyper moves, which aren’t immediately available when you start.
During the fight, you can charge up a meter on the bottom of the screen by doing all kinds of attacks, and pressing Down on the D-Pad once the meter is full launches a Hyper attack attempt. If you successfully connect with the move, you will be treated to a 10+ second animation of your character destroying your opponent in a number of grisly ways, and will find that these moves can take around 40% of your opponent’s life away. The downside to attempting this is that missing the move leaves you open to attack from a crafty opponent, and these animations never change, so you should get accustomed to seeing the same animations often. You can also block by using the C button on the Nunchuck, or do an enemy-stunning block-breaker move by holding C and swinging the Wii Remote. Finally, you can dodge an enemy attack by swinging the Nunchuck right before you are hit, though the timing of this takes awhile to get a handle on.
While these controls seem somewhat competent on paper, the system falls apart in-action. To be honest, using the Wii Remote and Nunchuck to control Castlevania Judgment is an unruly mess. You are constantly swinging the Wii Remote at all times during battle, and simultaneously trying to hold the correct buttons to initiate combos and block enemy attacks. What this leads to is the player wildly waving their arms in the air nonstop until the player or the opponent is dead. Why the developers decided to map the primary attack and the primary evade moves to motion control in a fast paced fighting game is beyond my comprehension. You never feel like you have a firm grasp of what is happening, as it all feels like random happenstance as you flail around attempting to pull off some of the more complex maneuvers. At times, it felt like what I was doing wasn’t matching the on-screen action at all, as the motion sensor in the Wii Remote doesn’t allow the split-second accuracy of a button press. It feels almost like the motion control was shoe-horned into a game that was being built for standard controls, a distinction which should never be made with a Wii-exclusive title such as Judgment.
Thankfully, Konami opted to enable use of the Classic or Gamecube controllers with Castlevania Judgment, and I am happy to report that the game experience gets a lot better if you choose to do so. The attacks feel more responsive, the combos seem easier to pull off, and the block and evade system isn’t nearly as frustrating when using one of these controllers, making them the recommended way to play this brawler.
Regardless of which control method you choose, the in-game action of Judgment tends to be confusing and frustrating at times, mostly because of an inconsistent camera. Instead of being fixed at the side of the action like in most 3D fighting games, the viewpoint in Castlevania Judgment tries to provide dramatic angles of the action by constantly moving. This unfortunately leaves the player with a less than ideal view of the fight more often than not. The characters are allowed to run around the contained environments in full 3D, similar to fighting games such as Power Stone and action games like Devil May Cry, while the camera shifts position to try and provide a good view. The problem is that there are times when you will be in front of the enemy, but the camera is behind you foe’s back, making it almost impossible to aim your moves in the right direction and block the oncoming attacks. There have also been cases where the camera has left me unable to see some of the environmental hazards strewn about some of the levels, leading to me taking damage because of my inability to see. Matters are made worse when you realize that you can not move this camera manually in any of the control methods.
Before you get into an actual match, you will be initially amazed at the amount of available single player modes in Castlevania Judgment. This excitement will quickly wane when you realize that they are almost all slight variations of the same mode. You can choose from Story, Arcade, Castle, and Survival, but aside from unlocking a few new in-game items and characters there is no real purpose to beating any of these modes more than once. Castle mode is the most interesting of these, and has you going on mini-missions between regular fights. These missions can be anything from “collect 5 items” to “beat the character with a certain move,” and each level usually lasts about 3 minutes. Story mode features quick cutscenes before and after matches, and has you fighting 10 battles that fit in with your character’s story canon. Unfortunately, these cutscenes are all dialog-driven, feature robotic facial animation, and usually document uninteresting developments that feel fairly pointless in the end. There are also no endings to speak of in Story mode, leaving you little motivation to keep playing. Arcade is Story mode without the story, and Survival is an Arcade mode that continues infinitely until you die. All of the modes have you battling randomly chosen foes that get increasingly difficult as you move on, and none of the differences that each mode provides make it stand out enough from the rest. Castle mode is the only one that attempts to do anything interesting with its mission structure, but after a few rounds, the mission types start repeating and you will eventually lose interest.
The multiplayer offerings in Judgment allow you to take on a second player in Versus mode or jump onto Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection to battle opponents world wide, and you will find that the game is the most fun when fighting live competition. The Wi-Fi mode is has plenty of options, letting you engage in random or ranked matches, check leaderboards, and even add players to your rivals list if you enjoyed the match, but lacks any type of voice or text chat. The online games that I played were smooth for the most part, but I did experience some slowdown in a few of the matches that cause the match to pause a few times. I also noticed a bit of delay in a few battles, where my button presses weren’t registering for a half-second or so on-screen making it almost impossible to react to my opponent’s attacks. Thankfully, this wasn’t a frequent occurrence, and most of my online matches played fine or had a little slowdown that didn’t seriously effect the action.
Whether playing online or off, the graphical presentation of Castlevania Judgment leaves a bit to be desired. The game begins with a lush CG intro sequence that sets up many of the characters, but the game is never able to live up to the stylish visuals of this video. The character models have a distinct anime-influence to them, featuring girls who are either extremely over-exaggerated in the upper-torso region or adorned with big eyes and gigantic extravagant weaponry, and guys with spiky, unusually colored hair or unorthodox clothing choices that offer neither protection in battle nor practicality for vampire hunting. These character designs also seem to stray from previous depictions of the same characters in earlier games, which may upset purists a bit. Another annoyance is that all of the characters have a “shine” effect around them that makes the game look a bit worse than it should. It is a white halo that outlines the character, and it makes them look out of place in the environment, as they have this glow no matter what the lighting is like in an area. Because of this, when characters clash and particle effects from the weaponry begin to fly, the on-screen action can look like a mess of scattered light, and it can be difficult to see what is going on. The one highlight would be the 3D backgrounds, which all look very similar to the 2D areas from previous games that they are representing and do a good job of giving this game the signature Castlevania feel with their gigantic full moons, lavish stained-glass windows, and monstrous creatures milling about.
While the graphics disappoint, the sound fairs a bit better due to the fantastic music taken from previous entries of the game. The songs are mostly made up of creepy organ sounds, yet the prevalent themes are all very catchy and are sure to please both fans and newcomers. The sound effects stay true to the anime-theme, with clangs of weaponry and slicing sounds that all sound impactful while also being a bit over dramatic. The voice acting here is typical for the Castlevania series, which is to say that it is somewhat cheesy, but in a good way. For purists, there is a Japanese language track available which makes everything sound a bit more dramatic and fits the graphical theme better.
In the end, Castlevania Judgment is a flawed game and maintains the notion that the series is best left in its 2D origins. While there are plenty of modes to play around with and some decent online combat, the whole package collapses under the weight of its many flaws. If you need some Castlevania action on the Wii, pick up one of the old-school games on Virtual Console, as they are much cheaper than Judgment and won’t disappoint.