Understanding it could not topple the landmark Symphony of the Night by simply emulating its constitution and knowing the portable titles that had come before it had already exhausted the formula, Order Of Ecclesia sets out to discover its own niche and finds it
Published in 2008, Order of Ecclesia was the sixth and final entry in a line of portable Castlevania games that were evenly split between the Game Boy Advance and its successor, the Nintendo DS. And anyone who navigated through that rich trove of Gothic adventures could clearly see a distinct pattern of evolution that unfolded during the seven years that separated the first and the last titles that made up that sequence. On the Game Boy Advance, both Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance were, despite their good quality, clear displays of the growing pains involved in translating the iconic nonlinear Symphony of the Night gameplay to a more limited machine. Later on, though, with Aria of Sorrow, Konami would find a way to completely smooth the rough kinks of those installments whilst uncovering a notable mechanic the adventure could call its own to deliver what seemed to be the definitive handheld Castlevania experience.
Given the strength and success of Aria of Sorrow, when it was time for the property to move on to a new portable system, the Nintendo DS, the company opted to play it safe and deliver more of the same to its fanbase, creating Dawn of Sorrow, a direct sequel to that title and an effort that, regardless of a misguided choice in the way it used the handheld’s touch screen, was met with equal enthusiasm. To follow it, though, maybe realizing that yet another entry that firmly stuck to the Symphony of the Night mold would perhaps be a little too much, developers created a fifth portable work, Portrait of Ruin, that started to break away from that pattern via not only a dual protagonist system, but also the introduction of segments that took place outside the castle and were of a more straightforward and linear design.
Coming after Portrait of Ruin, Order of Ecclesia had no choice but to continue the work its predecessor had begun. Surely, going back to a totally nonlinear Castlevania quest that fully happened inside Dracula’s Castle was certainly possible; however, since both Symphony of the Night and Aria of Sorrow had already squeezed everything out of that format, such decision would produce a dull retread. Therefore, Order of Ecclesia does what is right: it pushes forward and, in the process of doing so, unearths a powerful gameplay combination that puts it in a rather special place within Konami’s historic franchise.
Chronologically, Order of Ecclesia happens sometime in the 1800s, after Symphony of the Night. By then, the Belmont clan – a legendary family of vampire hunters – had vanished, which led to the appearance of several organizations dedicated to stopping Dracula from emerging once more. One of these groups is the titular order, and when the adventure starts a rather important event is about to occur. The group’s leader, Barlowe, plans to perform a ritual in which he will use one of his two closest followers as a vessel for a trio of magical artifacts that are to be employed to halt the rise of the Dark Lord. Due to her unique abilities, a young woman named Shanoa has been given that honor; however, upon hearing of it, the other pupil, Albus, feels rejected. Interrupting the ritual just as it is being performed, he steals the artifacts, runs away, and leaves Shanoa – now without memories or feelings as a consequence of Albus’ action – as the only one who can stop her former friend from harming himself and the world.
Compared to previous installments, be them handheld or not, Order of Ecclesia has a decidedly more straightforward storyline. After all, even though there are other characters around, the plot is focused on the trio of Barlowe, Shanoa, and Albus. Yet, that simplicity is by no means bad. With their focus on gameplay, the scripts of Castlevania games tend not to get a whole lot of space for development, and – for that reason – many are the games in the franchise whose stories are decent but show clear signs of failing to achieve what they set out to do. By keeping it all basic, Order of Ecclesia manages to, with the little time it has for dialogue, produce a story that besides feeling complete and well-developed, also happens to be engaging and somewhat surprising.
As soon as Shanoa steps out of the building that serves as the headquarters for the Order of Ecclesia, players will be greeted with the first new element the title brings to the table: a world map with selectable areas. At first, there is really not much of a choice to be made, since only the nearby Monastery will show up. However, as the quest progresses, the map will eventually be rather crowded, as the game contains nineteen distinct locations, with two of them being entirely optional. To those who went through Symphony of the Night or any of the five portable entries that preceded Order of Ecclesia, the very concept of multiple settings neatly spread out on a chart seems odd; after all, those efforts – without exception – unfold almost entirely within the dark halls of a single scenario: Dracula’s Castle. Order of Ecclesia, then, starts out by breaking a pattern that had been in place for quite a while.
Truth be told, the game’s predecessor, Portrait of Ruin, had already played around with that idea, even if lightly. In that quest, during half a dozen moments, the heroes had to step into paintings that took them to external areas. Yet, the bulk of the adventure was still an indoors affair. Order of Ecclesia, therefore, looking to finish what Portrait of Ruin started, radicalizes and chooses to split its quest into two parts: a first segment that has Shanoa chasing Albus throughout the locations of the world map; and a grand closing portion, which can only be reached by those going for the best ending, that – to the relief of purists – happens inside Dracula’s Castle. As far as length goes, both sequences are just about the same, with perhaps the former being a little longer; when it comes to their nature, however, they could not really be more different.
The opening half of the game feels like a homage to classic Castlevania titles: the linear and level-based experiences that came before Symphony of the Night transformed the franchise with its fully connected labyrinthine castle that required a lot of backtracking. Progression through these locations is as simple as it can be: upon getting to the exit of the Monastery, Shanoa will gain access to a village; after checking the place out, she will learn Albus was seen in a forest and will then be able to select that area on the map; after clearing the forest, she will reach a channel; and so forth until she knocks on the door of Dracula’s Castle. Therefore, essentially, Order of Ecclesia wears the hat of an action adventure game during its first half, since it will be all about powering through hordes of enemies while navigating locations that play like levels.
Nevertheless, even if those scenarios only have one way in and one way out, which may or may not be protected by a boss, there is a bit of non-linearity thrown into their fabric. For starters, even though they are not very confusing, these locations do have occasional branching paths as well as a handful of optional rooms with valuable treasures or other important collectibles; and to make matters more interesting, buying a map to completely reveal how they are setup is not an option, meaning their halls and shafts have to be revealed via exploration. More significantly, whether searching for extra goodies or looking to clear mandatory parts of the quest, some locations will require that Shanoa return to them later on with new abilities: on her initial trip through the Kalidus Channel, for example, all the heroine will be able to do is cross it by sticking to the water’s surface; down the line, though, when she gains the ability to dive, players will have to go back there to explore its much more complex and dangerous depths.
Simply put, there is absolutely no downside in Konami’s decision to build Order of Ecclesia’s first half in such a way; there are only benefits. The move makes it standout massively among its portable peers aside from also creating some safe distance between it and the unreachable classic that is Symphony of the Night. Moreover, the variety that design choice brings to the game is immense. In terms of scenario, it lets the series walk out of the restricted confines of a castle to find areas like a swamp, a ridge, a prison, a lighthouse, and others. When it comes to structure, it allows developers to embrace everything from more complex areas that almost threaten to be labyrinths to locations that are a series of flat screens with dozens of enemies. And in relation to obstacles, it lets the saga run wilder than usual, as Shanoa has to deal with challenges like mud that makes her run much slower in the swamp; jumping on crates so she does not fall into the water while going through the canal; and prison spotlights that summon powerful enemies if they happen to notice her.
A more indirect, but still great, result of Order of Ecclesia’s unique design appears in the shape of the village. When Shanoa first steps into it, the place will be basically deserted; as the quest advances, though, she will come across – sometimes in plain sight and occasionally very hidden – the thirteen missing inhabitants of the place, which have been frozen by Albus via a spell. Once they are set free, they will return to their home and the protagonist will be able to talk to them. Because it has a save point as well as the game’s sole merchant (from whom players can buy potions, antidotes, armor, and accessories), the village works as a handy support hub; and thanks to how the game implements a greatly practical warping system that lets players travel to the entrance or exit of any location once they leave another, the town can be easily reached.
However, other than being a helpful stop and paving the way to the good ending in case all of its villagers are found, the place is also of interest because all folks who live in it hand out quests. These side missions, which debuted in Portrait of Ruin, feel more well implemented this time around for a number of reasons. Firstly, because they are closely related to the nature of the characters: a child will beg Shanoa to locate her cat, the blacksmith will demand metal ores, an old lady will request that the heroine produce paintings at specific locations, a journalist will ask for photos of rare enemies, and so forth. Secondly, because a handy menu will allow players to visualize how many quests they have completed for each character. And thirdly, because their rewards are more meaningful: giving ores to the blacksmith, for instance, will make better armor available at the store; and handing ingredients to the chef will unlock better healing items.
Eventually, though, to those who rescue all villagers, Shanoa’s quest will culminate with the sudden appearance of Dracula’s Castle. And when that happens, Order of Ecclesia will transition from an action adventure title to a Metroidvania effort. As a natural consequence of the fact the quest features this division, the Gothic building explored here is not as big as those seen in the five portable titles that preceded Order of Ecclesia; moreover, its halls contain far less secrets. Yet, featuring seven areas that are fully connected to one another to form a labyrinthine map, the place still poses a considerable challenge.
While in Dracula’s Castle, Shanoa’s goal will be tracking down a trio of artifacts to open the way to the throne room in which the final boss awaits. And to do so, players will have to go through the traditional progression of finding out which part of the castle is accessible, entering it, navigating its branching halls, fighting its challenging enemies, beating down a big bad boss, and moving onto the next area. An element of that cycle, however, is missing here, which happens to be the acquiring of a new ability that will then open the way to a previously unreachable segment of the map. Such absence is explained by the fact that, despite its size, its relative complexity, and the existence of a couple of new skills to be gathered, the castle of Order of Ecclesia itself unfolds in a way that is a bit more direct than that of its predecessors. Rather than having to track down places where they can use their new ability in order to advance, players will almost naturally gain access to a fresh area once the boss is defeated. To some, it may be an overly simplistic approach, but the bottom line is that besides working quite well and being fun to explore, the castle of Order of Ecclesia is a pretty good display of Metroidvania design – even if it is of a more straightforward kind.
Underlining and unifying that divided structure is a clever system that gives players plenty of room to get creative with Shanoa’s moves. Found as mandatory parts of the quest, as hidden collectibles, or as items dropped by enemies, Glyphs are skills that can be equipped by the protagonist. Offensive abilities, such as axes, lances, sickles, swords, hammers, and all sorts of spells can be assigned to the X and Y buttons individually; meanwhile, more general actions, like those that temporarily boost a stat or moves like walking into special walls, using wings to fly, and employing magnetic power to catapult Shanoa vertically or horizontally can be set to the R button. At first, therefore, Glyphs are not all that different from the Souls found in Aria of Sorrow and Dawn of Sorrow. However, there are significant distinctions that make these valuable artifacts be a unique mechanic.
For starters, unlike Souls, which worked like extra special moves that complemented the main weapons, Glyphs are both at the same time: they can be standard weapons or more unique forms of attack. Additionally, the fact the X and Y buttons work as separate entities allows players to deliver very fast hits by alternating between the two quickly. As if all of that was not enough, using any type of Glyph – even a basic sword – will consume some magical power; and although the consumption is low and the bar is quickly refilled automatically, that decision stops gamers from mindlessly mashing their way to victory against more resistant foes. The biggest twist brought by Glyphs, though, is the how they can be fused into a more powerful move provided players have enough hearts to execute the combination.
It is in that fusion that Order of Ecclesia goes absolutely wild. If the Glyphs equipped to X and Y are the same, then the result will simply be a larger version of that attack: if a hammer is set to the two buttons, a gigantic hammer will come down on any bad guys unlucky enough to be standing in the way. It is pretty effective in most cases, but the fun part is actually matching different Glyphs to see what comes up: placing a sword on X and a lighting bolt on Y, for instance, will give birth to a thunderous slash. Since the game has dozens of different Glyphs, it goes without saying that there is a lot of room for experimentation, and because bosses and enemies can be challenging and have unique weaknesses, it is not rare to fall into situations where players will be looking for the best pair of Glyphs to employ, whether in conjunction via the fusion attack or separately.
Overall, be it in its action adventure half or in its nonlinear second part, Order of Ecclesia boasts plenty of qualities that could also be seen in many of (or in some cases all of) its handheld predecessors. Its soundtrack is absolutely spectacular in its Gothic orchestral grandeur. Its save points are well placed, and when their careful positioning is coupled with the fact foes do not drop healing items, the portions between them end up playing like fairly difficult and thrilling survival gauntlets. Its combat is simple, but fun. Its enemy variety is solid. Its RPG layer, with levels, stats, and experience points, gives extra incentive to defeating the horrors that walk the world. And its ten-hour quest has its value boosted thanks to the challenge of getting full completion, to a couple of optional brutal dungeons, and to a boss rush mode.
However, on a couple of fronts, Order of Ecclesia is outright better than its portable peers. In addition to story, in which the game tackles a limited scope that is far more suitable to its gameplay-oriented constitution, the final entry in the line of six handheld Castlevania efforts also outmaneuvers its predecessors in graphics and boss battles. Concerning the first, the adventure is helped not only by its wider palette of scenarios, but also by Konami’s fully matured grasp on the system’s capabilities; aside from exhibiting gorgeous backdrops brimming with details and solid character models, the game shines in its usage of colors and unique visual assets, some of which feature movements and tridimensional effects. Meanwhile, as far as bosses go, even if it has the almost standard encounters against Death and Dracula, the quest has a bunch of big bad guys whose design is far more adventurous than the series’ usually classic approach to that matter.
Besides featuring a massive pile of considerable qualities, it is simply hard to find fault in Order of Ecclesia. Some may say the locations of its first half are at times too linear; some may accuse its castle of not being sufficiently complex; some may wish the game had a more difficult unlockable version of its main quest, like it was the case in Aria of Sorrow as well as Dawn of Sorrow; some may try to argue the characters of the village could have been more developed; and some may claim scenarios are occasionally reused. These are not invalid complaints, but aside from the fact it is unlikely they will emerge in the minds of most players, they are also rather subjective. The linearity of the locations and the more straightforward castle are traits that are not inherently bad, they are like that by design and they are a lot of fun; the game does not have a harder mode, but its main quest is already quite brutal on its own; the characters of the village do get some development, even if it is not greatly deep, thanks to their quests; and the recycling of settings is minimal, only happening a couple of times.
Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia is an absolutely incredible entry in the franchise. Part homage to its classic action adventure origins and part labyrinthine exploration of a massive castle, the game wisely abandons the format of its five portable predecessors to unearth a framework that feels wonderfully refreshing. In doing so, it establishes itself as the peak of the line of Castlevania games that graced both the Game Boy Advance and the Nintendo DS. Understanding it could not topple the landmark that was Symphony of the Night by simply emulating its constitution and knowing the handheld titles that had come before it had already exhausted the formula, it sets out to discover its own niche and finds it. Order of Ecclesia is one of a kind; more important than that, though, is how its uniqueness is not vapid. It is there for a purpose, and in combining linear levels taking place in varied scenarios with the often visited Dracula’s Castle, it feels grand, it is stunningly fun, and it becomes a mandatory stopping point for both fans of the franchise and all gamers who value the power of originality.