Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (2008)

Risen from the hoard this week!

I once peered up at my towering game hoard and reached two conclusions: 1). I’ll probably never beat a single Mega Man game, but my cartridges are worth too much for purging. 2). I’ll never finish anything Castlevania related, but I’m retaining those games on the off-chance I’ll triumph and wallow in personal pride.

Excuses, excuses. This disorder is maddening.

Well, I’ve conquered one of those absolutes. For the first time in almost 30 years, I have completed a Castlevania game. My mental scars are many, but the dopamine numbs the pain. This is a damned good feeling, especially since getting there was equivalent to climbing Mt. St. Helens on one of its bad days.

As someone who has finished one Castlevania game, hell, as someone who never got past the first few screens in Symphony of the Night to my ongoing shame, I’ll attempt to explain the Castlevania mythos as far as I know it. In the world of Castlevania, Dracula is equal parts vampire lord and a literal Satan, commander of all the forces of Hell and darkness. Ever since there has been a Dracula his foil has been the Belmont family, renowned vampire hunters with final boss slaying proficiency in their bloodline. Dracula rises to pick up where he left off every 100 years or so, only to have a Belmont whip his ass, and his castle, back into the desecrated earth.

The Belmonts have been dealing with Dracula going on 800 years now. Now it’s the 19th century and closing in on that time again, with one caveat: the Belmonts are absent. This is the equivalent of firefighters disappearing before a California dry season.

To remedy the Dracula problem, a group of monster slayers form the Order of Ecclesia. They discover the ability to combat the vampire’s forces through magic attacks called Glyphs. The greatest of these is Dominus, a Glyph powerful enough to destroy Dracula himself.

Ecclesia opens with the plight of two Ecclesia members, Albus and Shanoa. Albus is supposed to wield Dominus in the next absolute final battle against Dracula, but Ecclesia’s leader Barlow picks Shanoa in a last minute decision. An enraged Albus runs off on a strange errand that involves kidnapping the local villagers, but not before robbing Shanoa of her memories and emotions. This turns Shanoa into your typical stoic Goth chick, void of feelings, emotive expressions and long sentences. Barlow sends Shanoa on a mission to stop Albus and retrieve Dominus.

The game starts out rather linear. As Shanoa, you pursue Albus through a series of unlocking unique environments, such as forests, mountains, oceans and foreboding infrastructure. At first the objective is surviving long enough to reach the next area. As the game unfolds, you gain Glyphs and abilities that allow older stages to be further explored. About halfway through, Order of Ecclesia becomes an open-ended hack-and-slash arcade frenzy.

Amnesic though she may be, Shanoa is tough as titanium, and as one of the first female protagonists in the Castlevania series the most agile runner and midair flipper this side of Samus Aran. She’s as badass as they come, a worthy successor to the men of the whip. She’s not bad looking, either.

Unfortunately, the odds are against Shanoa in every conceivable fashion. She starts with a weak health meter, even on normal mode. Survival requires lots of leveling up and Glyph acquisition, and enemies permeate the screen. Gone are the Konami traps from the old games, replaced by a whole bunch of mobile crap that can kill you even faster: skeletons, wolves, demons, sea monsters, deadly birds, robots, even Leatherfaces and Frankenstein Creatures. Their insistent presence forces the player to move slowly and methodically. This isn’t a game where you want to rush forward with a suicide-by-monster death wish.

Every weapon Shanoa utilizes is a Glyph. She doesn’t come packaged with an unlimited melee or ranged attack. Glyphs consume a regenerating magic meter, meaning Shanoa must wait after dishing out pain.

Furthermore, the regular fiends are nothing compared to the bosses, ranging from (deceptively) weak looking foes to behemoths that fill the screen. Their weaknesses are the fixed patterns they move in, but learning these patterns usually requires dying a helluva lot. Frequent ragequitters beware. Those walking into boss fights need the right combination of Glyphs, consumable items and healthy blood pressure.

This game is hard. Right out of Ecclesia’s walls, it’s hard. It is not soft on newcomers. It does not ease players into it. It is hard. Order of Ecclesia is a rare anomaly these days; you don’t usually find this level of difficulty outside indie retro throwbacks.

But there is hope in this trial by fire. Shanoa is a notably stronger powerhouse at higher levels. Rescuing villagers opens up side quests, the rewards of which are helpful accessories and better healing items. In short, plenty of diversions that make the experience smoother, but none of them negate the need to be careful.

Order of Ecclesia is brimming with extras for completionists and masochists alike. There are plenty of unbreakable walls, hidden areas and rare treasures to find. But the real buffet gets served up after finishing the game. There’s Albus Mode, which is not only a harder run with Albus in the lead but a different experience. Boss Rush pits Shanoa against a gauntlet of the game’s notoriously tough monsters. Finally there’s Hard Mode, which comes in two flavors, setting the level cap at 50 or 1. Anyone who can survive a level 1 run can then grind to 255, a real game breaker if I’ve ever seen one.

In short, Order of Ecclesia rewards the brave. This is not a game for players wanting something easy to finish over a weekend. It’s a brutal struggle from start to finish, but the sense of euphoria derived from dusting Dracula is well worth it.

A keeper.