For the serious fan of the 2D action-adventure looking for new games, there have only been two real choices for a while now: Metroid and Castlevania. Both have their devotees, but whereas the Metroid series has made the transition to 3D very successfully, Konami still hasn't been able to capture the essence of Castlevania in three dimensions. Curse of Darkness is the fourth attempt to update the classic whips and vampires formula and has some success, but still falls short of fan expectation.
Curse of Darkness forgoes the heroic Belmont family in favour of Hector, a man who left the employ of Dracula, but finds himself forced back into the fray after the betrayal of his former friend. As in other Castlevania games without a Belmont as the main protagonist, Hector is not limited to the traditional whip and can find a range of swords and other weapons with which to tackle Dracula's minions. This adds a certain amount of variety to the battles and means that levelling up never becomes too much of a chore.
Combat is one of the things that Curse of Darkness does fairly well. Most of the time in the game is spent fighting through rooms of enemies, so thankfully the combat is solid enough, and though it can get monotonous to fight the same creatures in room after room, most are dispatched quickly enough to not become an annoyance. At first combat is essentially limited to pressing the attack button to reel off your basic combos, but as you level up and begin to grasp Hector's special abilities, it not only makes the typical enemies even less of a chore to fight, but also adds plenty of new attacks to your arsenal. The camera can be slightly temperamental in battle, often not choosing the most practical angle to rest at, but is thankfully very quick and easy to reset behind the player.
Hector's aforementioned special abilities take the form of his skills with the dark art of Devil Forging, which allows him to take raw materials that you'll find throughout the castle and use them to create 'innocent devils' - demons which can be summoned and used to fight alongside you - as well as more conventional weapons. They start off basic and weak, but level up with you and can be evolved into bigger and tougher versions of themselves.
'The forging system works well and can be quite good fun...'
The forging system works well and can be quite good fun, playing like a cross between the soul system from Dawn of Sorrow and Pokémon. It also takes the place of the usual relic system, used to control your access to later areas of the world. Functionally it's exactly the same as before - you find an impassable obstacle and hunt down the necessary ability to bypass it and continue your quest - but now it's your roster of devils that provide these powers.
So far so good, but it's once you get past this admittedly interesting system that the cracks begin to show and Curse of Darkness becomes a fairly generic action game which falls short of its prestigious heritage. The visuals are technically accomplished, but they lack creativity - particularly with the gothic theme that characterises the series - and instead settle for a drab and identikit spooky castle setting. Similarly, although there is exploration to be done it's almost entirely horizontal, rarely letting you venture into elaborate multi-tiered rooms seen in Dracula's previous homes. To be fair, that may actually be a boon to a 3D game, but it nonetheless contributes to the game lacking that certain something that the series has enjoyed. The game isn't limited to Dracula's castle (he's presumed vanquished again at this point, after all) so there is some variety in the places to explore, even if they all follow the same corridor-room-corridor format - even in supposedly outdoor settings.
Despite the lack of any real defining aesthetic, the presentation isn't half bad. The storyline is told through CG cutscenes that suffer slightly from the hamminess that slightly marred previous games, but are otherwise pretty competent and well directed.
Technically Curse of Darkness is also pretty good. While the environments are drab, Hector looks good, bosses are impressive, and the frame rate holds steady even with a large number of enemies on screen. Sound is decent too, with the usual high standard of Castlevania tunes and adequate sound effects, with support for Dolby Pro Logic II (PS2) and DD 5.1 (Xbox) for those with the necessary hardware.
Curse of Darkness is a reasonable length for an action game, taking around ten to twelve hours to get through, but much of it really isn't going to provide any great challenge and it tends to feel a lot longer. Most enemies are mindless sword fodder and those who aren't don't really take too much thinking to dispatch, and as with other recent games in the series you'll eventually level up to the point where standard enemies are little more than a mild inconvenience. The difficulty spikes a bit towards the end and bosses can be tough, but anyone familiar with 3D action games should be able to work through it.
Overall, Curse of Darkness isn't a really bad game, with much of the disappointment with it stemming from the fact that it doesn't live up to its name. It makes important steps towards translating Castlevania into 3D, but leaves the player with the impression that with some more variety and tweaks it could have been a much better game. Games like God of War have shown just how good many of the conventions of Castlevania can be in 3D, leaving Curse of Darkness feeling outdated before it even hits the shelves.