#47: Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia
The most revered Metroidvania since Symphony of the Night — but does it deserve the accolades?
Initial release: 2008
Platform: Nintendo DS
Few games in the Castlevania franchise hold truly mythic status. most of the ones that do are older — Castlevania III, Rondo of Blood, Symphony of the Night. Order of Ecclesia easily stands square with the other giants in terms of fandom reception. For a while, fans had been complaining that the series had gotten too easy. It’s easy to see why, especially given how forgiving Harmony of Dissonance and Aria of Sorrow can be. Order of Ecclesia promised a return to form, and that return came in spades: it’s brutally difficult.
In fact, it’s such a marked turnaround from the earlier metroidvania games (sans Circle of the Moon probably) that it can be offputting. Most enemies hit hard and can take harder, and you’re often doing low damage, requiring careful progression and thoughtful weapon use. On paper this sounds like a welcome return to meaningful challenge. unfortunately it shakes out to a heavy reliance on artificial difficulty to pad out what’s actually not a terribly content-heavy game. Making every enemy a heavy-hitting damage sponge with health resources scarce and expensive is a lazy way of increasing difficulty.
Right, the story: sometime after the events of Symphony of the Night, the Belmonts have disappeared (likely in response to Richter falling temporarily under the spell of the forces of darkness) and various organizations have arisen to fill the gap. Among these is the titular Order of Ecclesia, which seems to derive from the Catholic Church’s dabbling with magic as far back as Castlevania III. Anything to fight Dracula I guess. The Order has been studying the power of glyph magic for some time, in the hopes that they can match the kind of power that the famed Vampire Killer whip can inflict on ol’ Drac. The most feared of these is something called Dominus.
The story opens with the two top students, Shanoa and Albus, meeting up before Albus is due to leave on an errand. Shanoa casually mentions that her ritual to learn Dominus is that day, which enrages Albus, who was told that he would be the one learning it. Soon after, he interrupts the Dominus ritual and makes off with the glyph himself, depriving Shanoa of her memories or emotions, and she’s forced to relearn her training all over again. Eventually it becomes clear that Albus is up to something, and she’s sent after him.
That’s just the beginning; there’s quite a bit more plot after that, as Shanoa chases Albus around Wallachia. Of course, all this is just a leadup to the fact that for the first time in over a decade, the main character in a Castlevania game is a woman. And it’s canon this time!
In terms of overall style and aesthetic, it’s somewhat less anime than the last few games, with a new artist bringing in a darker vibe. While some old Rondo of Blood/Symphony of the Night sprites have been recycled yet again, there’s still plenty of new spritework to keep the aesthetic fresh.
The structure has been altered greatly, as well. Portrait of Ruin saw the castle turned into a hub to access multiple, separate levels, like the streets of London or a pyramid in Egypt. In Order of Ecclesia the castle doesn’t even show up until halfway through the game! Instead, the first half of the game is split up into multiple small areas, most of them rather linear, and they’re accessible via icons on a map. As the story plays out, or when you traverse an area that logically links to another, more areas become available. In this sense it’s a lot like Castlevania II, though of course structured in a far less irritating way. There’s even a village you unlock early on that you’ll be frequenting, home to a shop, a save point, a heart refiller, and several NPCs, though you’ll have to rescue them first to unlock their services.
While these early areas are mostly rather small, they do hold their fair share of secrets, some of which contain villagers you need to rescue. Fail to rescue everyone, and you’ll get a bad ending… but at least then the game tells you where to look next.
The castle itself, while not possessed of more than a few distinct areas, at least boasts some non-linearity as you poke around looking for three bosses you’ll need to defeat in order to unlock the final area. Scattered throughout the castle are teleport points to make life easier. A big part of the village is doing sidequests; you’ll want to do them, even the stupid hard ones, because you can really rack up rewards and unlock items in the shop. Some of them are impossible to do until the very end of the game, others can be done trivially easily.
Probably the most irritating ones are anything that requires a random drop from an enemy, especially the mandrake root, which you’ll need if you want to unlock health items that are worth a shit. Mandragoras only spawn in a single, annoying swamp and they drop roots very rarely. There’s a lot of that in this game, really — you’re going to be spending a lot of time frustrated at how much this game wants to kill you, and it can take a while before you reach the point where you can reasonably push through areas without much trouble.
An early giant skeleton boss in the prison area serves as an absolute brick wall: if you can’t defeat him, you might as well give up, because he’s there to serve as a wake-up call. Most of the other bosses aren’t difficult once you learn their patterns; but our giant skeleton friend feels altogether more random, making for a difficult early encounter that can be a turn-off.
The glyph system works on an elemental basis. Aside from the obvious fire/ice/lightning trio, plus light and dark, your actual weapon glyphs have slash and blunt damage attributes. Blunt works great against skeletons and other “hard-bodied” enemies, slash is best on soft targets. (This is starting to sound like I’m describing Dark Souls…) You can assign glyphs to both arms (each one having their own animation — nice) as well as a special back glyph for things like stat boosts or flight. And you can combine glyphs for powerful spells. Glyphs are powered by a quickly-recharging MP bar that works a lot like the stamina bar in a Dark Souls game (see? I told you.) With high enough MP and the right glyphs you can put out a high DPS, overcoming the high HP a lot of enemies have. Glyph unions, however, use hearts, which don’t refill. It’s a neat system, and more intuitive than the card system from Circle of the Moon.
I have to be straight with you: this game nearly broke me. It’s fair to say that, coming at this years later, there are a lot of unintentional similarities with Dark Souls, particularly the second one (and this game predates Demon’s Souls!) And much like Dark Souls, the game is punishing, but also rewarding so long as you approach the game with the proper mindset.
The fandom certainly seems to adore it, but the unusual structure and brutal difficulty can be an insurmountable barrier to those used to the easier difficulty of even Symphony of the Night. And while nobody plays Castlevania for the plot, I think Konami went overboard here with how perfunctory it is.
It’s still a great game with a great aesthetic and a great, iconic player character, and it’s easy to see why IGA’s next game, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, takes some of its modeling after this one. But I can’t help but think that gamers really should stop confusing artificial difficulty with challenge.