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Castlevania returns with an army of monsters and a heart ful

Castlevania is doing double duty this holiday season. Anyone with a taste for gothic gaming has already picked up Dawn of Sorrow on the DS -- easily the best entry in the series since the groundbreaking Symphony of the Night on PlayStation. History has shown that the 3D renditions of Castlevania haven't been must-haves like their 2D portable counterparts, however, so we've waited with bated breath on this one. Well, the verdict is in: Curse of Darkness may be the best 3D Castlevania yet, but it still can't hold a candle to the side-scrollers of the series.

Main character Hector may not have any blood ties to Dracula (no pun intended), but he retains the white-haired, androgynous look of Alucard and Soma Cruz rather than one of the clean-cut, whip-wielding Belmonts. One area this Castlevania bests Dawn of Sorrow is having Ayami Kojima doing character designs; Kojima having done this for all entries in the series for the last several years except the DS game. This aids an air of style to the cast that was sorely lacking in Dawn of Sorrow.

Hector is a resourceful chap, and he takes the do-it-yourself approach when it comes to equipment. Using base accoutrements and the materials he finds on his way, he'll craft a variety of swords, axes, staves, gloves, and armor. Eventually, you'll have a mammoth and varied arsenal to pick from. This is a great addition to Castlevania, and beats buying or finding new gear on your quest.

While having a host of weaponry to use is great, the actual combat in Curse of Darkness leaves something to be desired. It's far too easy to get stuck in long combos, and far too hard to hit the monsters in the game. You can target one specific creature, but even then they'll run all over -- with the camera whipping around just as wildly. When you can expect to fight literally thousands of enemies during the course of the game, this is definitely not good news.

You have one main attack button to mash, then a harder blow that ends combos. Blocking comes in handy, and if timed right can tip the scales in your favor. A quickstep move is designed to let you quickly maneuver out of the way, but the fact that you must hold both the block and jump buttons, and hold a direction, makes it too complex for its own good. Often, you'll accidentally jump rather than dodge, which leads to taking damage. A button to run faster would've been appreciated.

Instead of having one major castle to explore, Curse of Darkness is broken up into several smaller areas. There are branches to your path, but they're much simpler than in the 2D games -- usually consisting of a small looping route or a dead-end room. There is some of the backtracking that makes the side-scrollers so fun, but it just takes a lot longer to get from point A to point B, and there's not as much to keep you busy. Some rooms have literally nothing in them, while others just throw the same enemy at you endlessly. Still, this game is massive, and you'll relish the amounts of nonlinear play it tosses your way. Special warp tickets and teleport spots ease the burden of long treks, too.

As a devil forger, Hector commands a crew of familiars known as innocent devils. Some will heal you, while others fight alongside you. Familiars are nothing new to the Castlevania series, but they're much more versatile in Curse of Darkness. Hector has the ability to dish out orders, and each one has its own little bonus -- the ability to open chests or heavy doors, for example. They even gain levels, earn new powers, and follow an evolutionary path that you can pick. The innocent devils definitely save the otherwise-mediocre gameplay from dragging the whole game too far down.

Curse of Darkness ' graphics are heavy on style, but still don't look particularly nice. It's kind of an abstract messiness that you'll either love or hate. The big bosses and cutscenes look good, and there are some cool effects, but on the whole it's not visually stunning. Castlevania 's audio treats you to the same brand of catchy organ-centric tunes we've come to expect from the series -- they haven't gotten old yet. The quality of the voiceovers is pretty surprising, coming from a series known for cheesy actors, and the accurate lip-synching is welcome, too.

Castlevania: Curse of Darkness picks up after a few hours, but never really hits its stride -- despite nice bosses, cool abilities, and the large amount of real estate. Hardcore Castlevania fans will stick it out and get their money's worth, but those with no ties to the series will merely see it as a mediocre action game. The Castlevania team (who also did Nanobreaker) just doesn't have the hang of 3D gameplay. None of their polygonal exploits are awful games, per se, but with the 2D titles shining as some of the best games on the market, maybe Igarashi and crew should leave that third dimension behind for good.
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