Castlevania: Lament of Innocence (PS2) - Gareth Chappell - 9/10

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Castlevania: Lament of Innocence [game information] Version Tested: PAL Genre: Adventure Publisher: Konami Developer: Konami

The Castlevania series has stretched back through the many years of gaming and for the most part has stuck to a two-dimensional formula. After some badly-received N64 iterations, Konami has once again seen fit to revisit the third dimension; and this has caused some grief amongst hardcore Castlevania fans - although in reality the series needed to try and capture a new audience while not alienating its core fanbase.

Gamestyle first laid eyes upon the new Castlevania at ECTS in 2003, and to say the experience was disappointing is a major understatement. So when the finished version arrived at Gamestyle Towers there was a lingering fear of calamity in the air. What did Gamestyle find? Well, let's just say that our fear has transmogrified into something else.

What at first appeared a complete mess of a title has been polished and refined to the point of near-perfection; quality assurance has taken priority and most of the bugs in early code have all been vanquished. At first glance it appears that Castlevania is nothing more than Devil May Cry with bells on - erm, make that whips. Once experienced however, it soon transpires that the two titles are essentially different: the key ingredient to any Castlevania game is atmosphere - and this iteration delivers unmistakably as soon as the title screen appears.

Castlevania: Lament of Innocence looks absolutely stunning, with subtle shades used to build layer upon layer of detail into different areas of the castle. And these areas are made unrecognisable from each other - adding far more variety in location than Gamestyle could have hoped for. Coupled with these are dozens of unique enemy types that all behave in different ways; creating an incredibly vibrant, detailed and variegated canvas with which to emblazon the blood of fallen foes. Did someone say blood? Indeed we did: it's remarkable how much blood a whip can coerce from the nearest eight-foot-tall demon - with every strike looking like it hurts and all the better for it.

Accompanying the subtle dignity of the graphics is a pounding musical arrangement, which is of typically unsurpassed quality - and consists of what can only be described as a sort of classical-gothic-trance hybrid; very strange, highly atmospheric and totally unique. Apart from the music, the sound in general is of a very high calibre as it works out vigorously to the strains of full Dolby Pro Logic II support. It is fair to say that Gamestyle has never winced as much when dealing out the punishment in this title. These weapons truly 'sound' hurtful.

One of the main issues highlighted by ECTS was the lack of flexibility with Leon Belmont. Luckily, all this has changed: Leon can now double-jump in the air - which really does make a difference to boss battles - and new moves can be acquired as you play through the game. These take the form of new attack combinations and side-stepping blocks and rolls (thus making fleet-footed evasion of whichever object is currently targeting your person all the more easier). Add to this a nigh-on perfect combat system, and you have a repertoire that would make Dante cry on any given day.

The structure of the game is similar to recent Game Boy Advance outings, with our hero venturing through a huge castle in pursuit of the many fiends and creatures that make eternal work for our master of the night. The five main dungeons are accessed from a central area, and all lead to a unique monster-iffic experience topped with hidden treasures and climactic boss battles that make you wonder if defeating evil is really worth it in the end. The bosses you fight are predictably huge and very nasty - ranging from Medusa to fearless mace-toting golems - and you know you're in for a tussle right from the start. While not the toughest of adversaries to defeat, you need to be on the top of your game to avoid incremental damage - as one mistake can see you lose control of the fight and be pummelled into oblivion. Big monster with big, chunkier weapon versus small man with magical whip... theorise for yourselves the likelihood of attrition.

Performing the basic functions will see you through the game in around six hours - but unlike most games, you really feel compelled to unlock a lot of the hidden bits in the dungeons (just to see what you'll uncover). So, basically by 'finishing' the game you will miss all of the magic whips and just about all of the magic relics as well. There's also an entire two levels of the castle that you will not be able to access; not to mention a host of things unspoken - trust Gamestyle: you most definitely need to know what's behind that sealed door in the first-level basement. An 'especially enormous evil'? Now that would be telling...although we can tell you there's a host of unlockable characters that are actually worth playing for a change.

Overall, Castlevania: Lament of Innocence has turned out to be a change for the better - and much better than anyone could have imagined. It has the right feel, the right look, and the combat system has yet to be bettered in this genre. Granted, there's a fixed camera but rarely does it exclude the player (bar one or two occasions). But really, hard as we tried, Gamestyle could find very little to complain about and the 'finished' game rather makes a mockery of our fears. When previewed at ECTS, there were utterances that we were entertaining merely above-average fodder (with the expectant grades to match) - however, time has gladly turned things around; and Castlevania: Lament of Innocence has arrived in far better shape than both Devil May Cry titles combined! In fact, it is hard to recall the last truly epic, monumental experience where Good versed Evil to such magnanimous applause (at least on Playstation 2). In closing, it's simply magnificent.

Game Score: 9/10 Reviewed By: Gareth Chappell