I consider myself a bit of an amateur zoologist, and one of my favorite subjects is Nerdus Gamerus, and lately in particular the genus Nerdus Castlevanius. I have been observing these splendid beasts in the wilds of their native habitats (chiefly the GameFAQs and CV Dungeon forums), and I have come to discover that the genus has been split into two major factions over the past couple of years. One group laments the loss of the classic Castlevania level-based platformer, seeing the series become a combination of Metroid-RPGs and 3D failures over the past decade. This faction does seem to play and enjoy the handheld Castlevanias, but is disappointed by the general lack of challenge, and frustrated by grinding and item farming making up so much of the game's extended playability. The other group enjoys the "Metroidvania" direction that the series is seemingly committed to, and is roundly in support of Moar of the same, but has become disenchanted with the "saminess" and some of the stylistic choices of recent releases.

Series producer Koji Igarashi intended that the previous game in the series, Portrait of Ruin, act as a sort of bridge between these two factions in honor of Castlevania's 20th anniversary. It didn't really work. This new title, on the other hand, feels like the game that that game should have been - same framework, but much more challenging, with some epic boss battles, and returning to the tone and flavor of Symphony of the Night.

Ecclesia parcels out the action into smaller areas as Portrait did, but instead of having you jump into paintings, there is now an honest-to-goodness world map with different areas centered around a village vaguely reminiscent of Castlevania 2. You can now rest, replenish and buy items in town, returning to areas you have previously visited at will. Three things make this subdivision of levels work where Portrait's didn't - the aesthetics of the game are much better, the ongoing story is more interesting, and the ramped-up challenge level both makes the game feel more like an old-school platformer.

This time out, the game takes place in the mid-1800s, I guess somewhere between Symphony of the Night and Portrait of Ruin. The Belmont line has faded out, so a number of vampire-hunting organizations have formed in an attempt to thwart Dracula's regular resurrections. The Order of Ecclesia is the only group who has come up with an effective method as of yet, which involves containing the power of Dracula in magical glyphs. As the game begins, the head of the Order, Barlowe, is about to undertake a ritual, with his disciple Shanoa, which will banish Dracula and the glyphs from the world forever. Another disciple named Albus, apparently upset that he was not the chosen one for the ritual, breaks in and busts it up, stealing the glyphs and fleeing with them. Months later, Shanoa is without her memories, and begins training from the ground up again to go and recover the glyphs from Albus. And so begins the game.

The "glyph" system took me a couple of hours of gameplay to appreciate, but I think it is a pretty elegant way to fuse the various weapon and magic systems introduced in the last seven games, and is about the best system overall short of Symphony of the Night. One glyph can be equipped to each hand, and as with the more recent games, you can attack with either using different buttons. There is also a "support glyph" mapped to the R button, which is similar to the support ability used in the Sorrow games. Glyphs represent everything from the typical weapons of the series such as swords and lances, to sub-weapons like throwing knives and axes, and magical spells. The support glyphs also act as buffs, special abilities, and can even transform you into different creatures. Enemies sometimes drop them upon defeat, but you can also suck glyphs out of them when they attempt to use magic against you. On the whole, it is basically just a mutation of the Sorrow games' Soul system, but one that tends to work out just a bit better (a tthe very least, Glyphs are much easier to obtain than the sometimes epic grind-fests required in the Sorrow games).

The story also takes a couple of hours to appreciate. At first, it's kind of LOL WUT and just drops a bunch of stuff on you out of nowhere. Additionaly, Shanoa's deal is that she has lost both her memories and emotions, so she comes across as a rather flat character. However, the game ends up with a much more legitimately dark and menacing tone not seen since SotN and the end portions of Aria of Sorrow - part of that ties in with the rather ruthless difficulty as well.

Now, as to that - I am not a fan of games that are hard just for the sake of being hard, so that a bunch of social misfits can boost their perilously low self-esteem by being "ZOMG I AM TEH PWNZOR AT VIDELO GAMES!!11!11". That's a trap that the Mega Man X/Zero series has fallen into, and a large reason why that franchise has become increasingly irrevelant and worn out over the years. There may be enough of these I Wanna Be The Guy platform gamers out there to turn a consistent profit on such products, but going down that route inevitably alienates you from the gaming community at large. Ecclesia is actually sort of for that group, but not really; it doesn't have the insane demandingness and perfectionism of a Zero or Treasure game. The bosses here are tough, but they all have patterns and weaknesses, and it's more about exploring your glyph combinations to come up with a strategy for defeating them - and often, there are several feasible strategies, leaving some room for creativity. You also always have an "out" in the form of grinding if your reflexes just aren't up to code - you can gain levels, and stock up on healing items and such to give you enough of a handicap to take down a boss that might be giving you fits.

When people complain that the difficulty has generally been too low and the bosses weaksauce in the handheld CV games, I think they have a valid complaint. To me, the challenge level here was actually refreshing. Again, for the first two hours I was ready to write the game off as another bullshit sado-masochism exercise for basement dwellers ... once I got into the game's rhythms, however, and started realizing the importance of hunting down Glyphs and using them in wise combinations, I began to really appreciate the challenge level here. Some of the bosses are indeed recycled from previous CV games; however, they have apparently been sucking down cases of energy drinks. Everyone who returns mostly has a suite of new and unexpected attacks, and as hard as some of the fights are, I can't really think of one boss in the game that doesn't have a counter to each of their moves, if you are on your toes and prepared enough. That's good, carefully crafted difficulty; when you feel compelled to come back when you get your ass kicked, and figure out what you can do more smartly and sharply the next time, rather than just wanting to huck the controller at the screen in a fit of pique.

Gameplay depth is also surprising, given the more linear-level-like structure. While there are a few little goodies here and there to return for in the levels when you gain new abilities, and the side-quests that the villagers send you on range from finding rare herbs to snapping pictures of shy Yetis, there isn't a huge amount of reason to return to stages you have already completed more than two or three times. However, the side-quests pad out the game for at least a fex extra hours, and there are two fairly good optional dungeons that can be found towards the end of the game. Given all that, and the fact that you have to prepare adequately to take on most of the bosses, the game winds up having a little more playtime and meat to it than the previous Castleroids without relying on too much rare drop farming.

The graphics and music in this game both deserve special mention. While the sprite work for the most part is nothing outstanding, there are some fantastically detailed and gorgeous backdrops throughout the game. The simplistic animu art style of the last two games has been dropped, in favor of something much more akin to SotN and Aria of Sorrow. As far as the soundtrack, Michiru Yamane teams up with newcomer Yasuhiro Ichihashi (also credited with the recently-reviewed-here Lunar Knights, which had a pretty solid soundtrack), and the infusion of new talent seems to have done a world of good. Actually, I played most of the game before checking the credits, and just based on the sound I had assumed Yuzo Koshiro had come back for another appearance, as a number of the songs had his sort of electronica/symphonic touch going on. However it worked out, this is by far the best soundtrack in the series since SotN.

I feel a bit odd giving this game a high rating, when a condition I established previously was that these games needed to really innovate and do something fresh if they were going to stick around. Ecclesia kind of fails that test, as the structure is almost identical to that of the stock CV formula, and the levels have many instances of copypasta and long, flat stretches where you fight the same enemies over and over. Yet, I feel petty and bureaucratic rating it down on that basis, when I genuinely got so absorbed in it and enjoyed it so much. I can't even fully articulate why, but somehow, all the elements in Ecclesia just combine to make it *feel* like the proper follow-up to SotN that we've been waiting for for so long now. Hopefully, with this game as a fitting coda for the SotN-inspired portion of the series, Konami can move on to either use these resources to bring new life into the series, or finally put it to bed and move on to newer and fresher things.

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