Summer Gaming Challenge #5 – Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia

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Quick Info on Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia:
Console  – Nintendo DS
Release Year – 2008
Metacritic Score – 85
Time it took to beat – 10h41m

Wow, I beat half of my Summer Gaming Challenge this year.  That’s a new one.  I usually only get three games in before something else inevitably distracts me from the challenge.  Then again, since I’m not a hardcore game reviewer anymore, I do have more free time to chisel away at the backlog.  And while I had originally planned to end the challenge when I started back classes (which was Monday), I’m over half way through Metal Gear Solid, so I might as well finish that too while I’m at it. So I suppose I’ll extend the challenge to Labor Day.

But anyway, let’s talk about the final Igavania title, Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia.  A shame that it was the last one, being released at a time when they found an artist worthy of replacing the legendary Ayami Kojima’s work and the game itself really putting its best foot forward in the gameplay department where the previous DS titles were a little lacking.

What?  I find Dawn of Sorrow lacking compared to Aria.  And I’m saying that on the game’s anniversary on top of that.  Fight me.

However, I can see why Ecclesia was the final one–the formula, while great, was really starting to become stale, and although Ecclesia takes steps to help freshen it up a bit, it ultimately wasn’t enough.  Thankfully all gamers needed was a break from the tried and true formula, if Bloodstained’s Kickstarter success is anything to go by.  Much like the Mega Man series, it was just too much all at once.

But let’s get to talking about the game itself, shall we?  Order of Ecclesia takes place somewhere in the Castlevania timeline where the Belmont clan disappeared for a while, presumably because people are jerks that scared the Belmonts away.  Before the Morris family came about to take up the mantle of vampire hunter in their relatives’ absence, however, is when Order of Ecclesia takes place.

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Spoiler Alert, there’s Dracula in a Castlevania game. Shocker.

Anyone with any kind of video game storytelling knowledge should already know pretty much everything that happens in the game after the first cutscene, but let’s talk about it anyway.  This robust Order has only three members, and the game begins with a bit of bickering between the two ‘not leader’ members of the group.  The main character (Shanoa) was chosen to house the Dominus glyphs, a very powerful magic that is said to help defeat Dracula.  However, her comrade in arms Albus was originally promised said power, and is just a bit miffed that things aren’t going as planned.  He interrupts the ritual and steals the power of Dominus away, and in the process Shanoa loses both her memories and emotions.

The first half of the game involves chasing Albus around, trying to retrieve Dominus and figure out why he’s doing a bunch of weird stuff (like kidnapping villagers).  Of course, the second half of the game revolves around the real reasons for Albus doing what he did (after he’s dead of course, can’t have happy times here), and stopping the revived Dracula because–surprise surprise–the power of Dominus is actually meant to be used to revive Dracula, not defeat him!

Regardless of all that, though, the story was still alright, and the ending was actually pretty touching (in a Crisis Core sort of way–you know exactly what’s about to happen, but it’s sad anyway).  It doesn’t really dwell on any weird or boing points (“oh no I’m the reincarnation of Dracula, the angst” “damn I think I’m kinda useless as a mage, woe” (dramatic reinterpretations may or may not be accurate)), and while it isn’t even a good motivating point to see the game through to the end, the fact that it doesn’t’ really get in the way while succinctly explaining the state of the Castlevania world is accomplishment enough in an age of bloated narratives and endless exposition.

But what really, really shines is the gameplay.  See, Order of Ecclesia doesn’t pull any punches.  It’s a difficult game.  One thing that can usually be said about the Igavanias is that they can really be too easy.  If you get stuck on a boss or something, the answer was usually quite simple–grind a couple levels and come back to kick butt.  Ecclesia doesn’t do that, and the only other portable one I can think that also didn’t do that was Circle of the Moon, although that was mainly because the shop system was borked and you couldn’t buy healing items to help grinding anyway.

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Cats are important.

Instead, Ecclesia forces you to become better and use your arsenal to your advantage. With the Glyphs, Shanoa can have a huge range of weapons and spells at her disposal, making it very easy to switch strategies on the fly.  So Order of Ecclesia relies a lot less on the highest level equipment and more on taking advantage of enemies’ weaknesses and maneuvering around the map.

This is doubly so during boss battles, as they hit hard and fast, but ultimately have patterns to learn to dodge attacks and know when to strike.  While you can level up and mitigate the damage a little bit, the fact is bosses are such heavy hitters than you can’t just level up or get good enough equipment to tank through the battle.  You have to learn enemy patterns and the best attacks to hit them with, or grind money (which is relatively scarce) to buy a large stock of somewhat expensive healing items.

So, it’s definitely not a cakewalk.  I do like the balance that the healing items bring to the table, though.  I was better at learning some bosses’ patterns than others, and having  the option of just saying ‘screw it’ and bring nine bowls of ramen to the battle while only dodging half the attacks is an option I liked having.  Even though it always seemed I’d use a pricey healing item then kills the boss in the next hit…

But yeah, a very good, very satisfying Castlevania title.  I love how it’s balanced (even if it’s not perfectly balanced), and the 10 hours I put into it were a lot of fun.  Will I complete it and play Albus mode?  Probably not, considering it’s pretty damn hard, but it’s my favorite of the DS Castlevania titles.  I do need to replay Aria of Sorrow sometime though…

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