Game Pile: Castlevania: The Order of Ecclesia

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My parents warned me about witches growing up, but one thing they’d never warned me about is how bloody difficult they were to handle. Oh, sure, there were threats and vague warnings about things being hard or getting hard but I think that was just the typical prurience of fundamentalism, while Order Of Ecclesia is instead hard in a much more typical videogame sense. That is to say, it cleaned my clock ten times over and now I, bruised and defeated, have to find something to say about it.

Come, come into the realm of the witch, and see what bested me.

Confessional

See, I’m a Castlevania fan but it’s always been a fandom in the same way I’m a fan of say, fine food, or a fan of high-level starcraft play. I’m not a Castlevania player. They were games that existed on platforms I didn’t play, and to this date in my life, I own precisely one Castlevania game: Order Of Ecclesia.

I’ve played other Castlevanias, on emulators, as part of enormous suites of games, but always when presented with 50 games, the one game that looks interesting but proved punishingly hard or exceptionally tedious was the absolute first game to be totally ignored until I ran out of other things to play, and that’s what happened. I’d finish a level or two, realise I was doing something deeply, fundamentally wrong with them, and give up.

That’s always been Castlevania and me. They’re games designed to know what you will try, then punish you for it. And Order Of Ecclesia is no exception.

Order Of Ecclesia is a game of rude shocks and startling awakenings. Finding enemies that shoot down through the ground, or when skeleton archers are smart enough to wait for you to pop up rather than just shooting randomly. It’s finding a boss who can lash out at you in different ways but mess you up differently with each one, or, most damningly for me, the boss that you cannot hurt but have to kill with the environment, these things shake what you knew of the game you were playing.

Still, there’s some very interesting stuff to dig into in this story – and in this game.

First of all, Order Of Ecclesia is not a Castlevania game in the way that term’s normally used. Most Castlevanias are linear to start with and open up as the story goes on. In Order Of Ecclesia, the game is exceptionally linear until you reach the final level; the levels have very little variance – less alternate routes and more side passages. This linearity isn’t a bad thing, but it does mean that when you hit a hard point in the game, you have only one real option – to try it again and again. This happened to me, with a giant zombie and then a giant crab, and I am told that that particular crab may have a bit of a reputation.

This linearity plays into another major difference the game has from previous Castlevania games.

Harsh but Fair

When it comes to videogames that beat me, I usually have to accept there’s something about the games that either don’t connect with me, like with No Time To Explain, or a game element that is so poorly executed the whole game suffers for it, like Deus Ex: Human Revolution. That isn’t the case here. What I have to say, after numerous attempts to best the game, is that this game is just very hard, and I am not skilled enough to complete it.

Every single thing I played with felt like it was fairly well tuned, a game designed to work by what I understood as the Tao of Nintendo: Move Correctly, Do Not Die. The enemies move sensibly but predictably, and it is not a chaotic arrangement of emergent mess (as with say Luftrauser), nor the puzzley precision of games like Escape Goat, but closer instead to the daring-but-wary style of Hotline Miami. It doesn’t work on the same frustration level that you’d see in a game like Dark Souls, since you can grind and outmuscle all the non-boss encounters in the game.

Still, the game will ask of you either skill, or time, neither of which I can offer it enough of. A wonderful game for people who want to spend their time exploring nooks and crannies and playing around with combinations of glyphs and weapons, Order Of Ecclesia is so wonderfully compliant to, but varied from its formulaic roots that it can appeal to old hands of the series as well as the newer fans.

…Just the difficulty curve spikes kinda ludicrously, and you may wind up with a very rude shock. It’s the kind of experience where I honestly thought that cheating my way through some parts to see the greater experience and follow the plot would be better, but there are basically no cheats for it. It’s a game where the difficulty only really scales up in one direction – and it scales up and up and up.

The Witch’s Way

Order Of Ecclesia is at its core a game about…

Well, it’s a game about an excuse to go exploring an enormous dungeon, hit things with swords and hammers and rapiers and daggers, and look at a variety of excellently drawn classic horror-movie bad guys as trash in a brightly coloured landscape.

… but that’s sort of just the stuff you have to have. The stuff that’s kind of there. The greater narrative is something I really enjoy thinking about, thinking about in terms of how it’s expressed in the game. Shanoa doesn’t collect weapons; she uses magic to internalise an understanding of weapons.

First, this game is the first Castlevania I know where you don’t play a Belmont. After game upon game where the problem of Dracula is an inherited one, this is one where you take on Dracula for your own reasons, as a person outside the Belmont lineage.

Secondly, Shanoa’s identity, not just as a non-Belmont has been made central to the story. Shanoa’s memory is lost at the start of the game, and throughout the game it’s mostly played with in very subtle ways. Happiness, for example, joy, is hard for Shanoa to understand and feel, because she doesn’t have context, or memories, of what things mean to her; what’s important and what’s not are sort of intangibles for her. it’s even shown that she can eat awful food, and doesn’t seem to recognise it.

Thirdly, most of this game is about Shanoa, a woman with power based on knowledge, dealing with the men in her family screwing up. It starts with Albus who is basically your brother screwing up, then Barlowe, who basically is your dad screwing up, then you go searching for Albus but along the way, when he meets you, rather than do something interesting like explaining himself, he just runs on along without you. He’s got his aim, but you’re off killing bosses that he’s avoiding, running through these elaborate death-mazes, and so much of what you have to do, you have to do because that dingus didn’t bother explaining himself.

What I’m saying is that Shanoa is an interesting metaphor for socially awkward women with problem-solving interests. Her life is heavily influenced by two male figures, one a paternal figure, one fraternal, who are unable to solve the problems they are sure they can fix, and when they are both removed from their positions around her, she’s free to take command of her own life and as an encore, conquers Dracula’s castle and kills the lord of all darkness.

No big deal.

Still really bloody hard though.

Verdict

You can get it wherever you normally get Nintendo products. I don’t know if it’s available as an e-shop download.

Verdict

Buy it if:

  • You enjoyed earlier Castlevanias with high challenge levels.
  • You want a good game for a lot of long-term time investment.
  • You like secrets, collectables, catgirl transformations and interesting, elaborate boss fights.

Avoid it if:

  • You need something you can finish in a week for a review.
  • You want a game that’s very forgiving.
  • You like to cheat at videogames.

Addendum:

I’ve seen been informed that there are both other games where you Don’t Play A Belmont, and also, way, way more Castlevania games than I understood there to be. Sorry!

 

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