Castlevania was headed down a dark path. After the sublime Symphony of the Night fans were greeted with two flawed N64 adventures. There were good ideas buried in those games but they were surrounded by sloppy execution. One couldn’t help but think of the fate that befell the Contra series at that point. Luckily Konami took their time before embarking on another 3d adventure. Castlevania: Lament of Innocence was the result and enabled the series to bounce back. It has its flaws too but in the end is a solid game.
Canonically Lament of Innocence is the first in the series’ timeline. Baron Leon Belmont is informed by his best friend Mathias that his wife Sara has been kidnapped by a vampire named Walter. Relinquishing his title Leon hurries to the castle grounds and meets Rinaldo, who informs him that he is now trapped until he defeats Walter. Surprisingly there isn’t as much story as you would expect. Despite featuring the origin of the Belmont’s war against Dracula and the Vampire Killer the plot is doled out sparsely. The cast of characters is small as this is a personal tale. While you get answers to some questions the game raises just as many and has an abrupt conclusion. It is satisfying to an extent but will leave you wanting more.
Leon doesn’t move with Alucard’s grace but his combat prowess is second to none. From the onset you can double jump, block and perform numerous dodge rolls. With your strong and weak attacks you can perform an absurd number of attack combos. These combinations become more complex but are incredibly rewarding to perform, giving the game even more depth than similar titles such as Rygar or Devil May Cry. There is no lock-on system but for the most part it isn’t necessary as Leon’s attacks cover a wide range. I’m of two minds when it comes to the fixed camera. It offers the widest view of the action and works the majority of the time. But there are times where you’ll want to move it but can’t. This affects the platforming, of which there is a decent amount. Thankfully there are no bottomless pits and you are only minorly inconvenienced.
The subweapons complement the whip. All of the major Castlevania subweapons are present outside of the stopwatch. Their basic attacks are further enhanced by the weapon orbs collected after defeating each boss. These produce dramatically new effects, similar to the item crash in prior games minus the exorbitant heart cost. The right combination can be truly deadly against particular bosses and it is extremely fun to experiment. As a bonus subweapons are marked on the map should you need to find them again.
Structurally Lament of Innocence is a sort of hybrid between the classic games and the Metroid style exploration of Symphony of the Night. Nearly the entire castle is open to you from the start but is split into five distinct areas. You have free reign to explore each and travel back and forth which is required in some cases. There are a wealth of optional equipment and items to find, enough that it can be overwhelming. The game provides marker stones you can leave on the map to highlight areas you’ll want to revisit. These are incredibly useful and something more games should employ. Each of the castle’s areas is punctuated by a boss battle like the classic titles and are just as epic.
Fundamentally Lament of Innocence is sound but it stumbles in a number of areas. For the most part the level design is flat out boring. Despite each location being distinct they all share one common trait. The vast majority of rooms in the game are flat, boring squares with a few enemies and nothing else. These are connected by an endless series of identical hallways and corridors. Once you’ve seen the few unique rooms in a given location you’ll notice they are copy/pasted repeatedly. It kills any desire to explore and comes across as lazy. With next to no warp points it makes traversal a slog.
As much as I like the wealth of combat options there is very little reason to engage battle. Since you don’t gain experience or level up it is better to avoid combat. Item drops from enemies are rare and so combat is best avoided unless you have to kill all enemies in a room to progress. It defeats the purpose of having such an extensive array of combo attacks and is probably the game’s biggest failing.
In spite of these flaws I still found the game interesting enough to complete, especially as it isn’t long. Lament of Innocence is slightly longer than Symphony of the Night at about 7-8 hours. There is a wealth of post-game content too. There are four optional bosses that have worthwhile rewards. For those who like combat there are two additional playable characters, one of whom is a massive departure from Leon in play style. He also possesses a feature I wish were available to Leon, a lock-on function. There is a boss rush mode, which highlights the game’s best moments. For those that want it there is also a crazy difficulty mode but I don’t see the point. To access most of this stuff you’ll have to complete the game multiple times and while I like it I can’t say that it is worth going to that much trouble.
The blurry textures of Castlevania 64 have given way to clean textures and a ton of detail. The quality of the environments was among the best on the PlayStation 2 at the time of its release. Every room is packed with minute details, from furniture to other objects that add character. You can see the compromises made to achieve this level of quality as each room is a box and textures are recycled wholesale. But the trade off is a smooth 60 fps. Lament of Innocence also marks the first time the games have been able to capture the magic of Ayame Kojima’s artwork. To an extent some of the costumes look a bit goofy but it is still remarkable to see the intricacy of her character designs in 3d.
The soundtrack is equally fantastic. The soundtrack is more operatic and less diverse in its themes than Symphony of the Night but is still just as excellent. There are very few remixes of past favorites, leaving this an almost completely new soundtrack and it is great. The voice acting is a mixed bag but you can listen to the Japanese dub if you find it really offensive.
This has always been a hard one to judge. There are many aspects of Lament of Innocence that I like. But its flaws are significant and detract from the overall experience in my opinion. That being said I still think the game is good but could have and should have been better.