Castlevania: The Seal Of The Curse X
Review by Mike Finkelstein
I try to be fair to fangame creators. They aren't professionals on the same level of the designers at big corporations. They're usually just one person or two working on a game that would, otherwise, have an entire team of designers coordinating together. And it's not like most fangame creators have the luxury of doing designer work full time. More often than not their fan projects have to come together in their free time, however much they have. You judge these games differently because of he limitations placed upon their development cycle. I get that.
Even with those qualifiers set in place, though, I found myself struggling with Castlevania: The Seal of the Curse X. It's not that the game is hard (although there are baffling design choices that do make the game more annoying to play than it should be) but because the game feels under baked. It's especially confusing considering this the ten year anniversary release for the game (hence the "X") and should be the improved and refined version. And yet, to be blunt, I just wasn't feeling this game at all. I hesitate to call it outright bad, but it certainly does feel like it's still two or three revisions away from even being something fun to play.
Setting itself as a sequel to Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, Castlevania: The Seal of the Curse X finds hero Simon Belmont still wandering around Romania fighting demons and working against Dracula's machinations. It seems that despite the hero resurrecting Dracula and ridding the land of the demon prince's curse, some among the populace (Simon included) are still cursed. Now, to free the land and rid it of this new, dark blight, Simon has to venture out and find runes that can be used to break the seal of the curse (name drop) and finally break the curse once and for all.
As a sequel to the very second Castlevania game ever, the game is designed to follow a very specific template. As Simon, you get to venture around familiar parts of Romania, exploring towns, the overworld, caverns, and more, all in search of new locations to unlock and items to collect. Those items largely come in the form of new runes which sometimes act a keys and sometimes grant new powers. The powers are limited, mostly protection runes that you can activate to deflect damage, while a good portion of your journey finds the hero working with just a leather whip and some knives. All to explore an overworld that's barren and empty.
This is one of the main decisions of the game that really confused me. If you've played Castlevania II (which, being a reader of this site, I'm expect you have) then you know that the whole game was teaming with enemies. You couldn't go more than a screen or two before you had hordes of Dracula's minions coming from you. Hell, if you waiting in town long enough the zombies would even arrive at night, ruining the one safe place you presumed you had. The world is filled with danger, but it's also filled with life, making it feel full and rich and, well, alive.
That's not the case in Seal of the Curse. Here, instead, the whole of the overworld is empty. The overworld is big, with long stretches between the towns you have to explore, but there's no life in it. It's just you, the lonely hero, wandering through one screen after another without a single enemy in sight. No monsters, no townspeople (outside of town), nothing to break the monotony. It's so curiously devoid of life that I found myself wondering why these long stretches of emptiness even existed. Wouldn't it have been better to cut them out so that the game could focus on the dungeon combat instead?
See, instead of a day/night cycle where the monsters reveal themselves, and then mansions were the teaming hordes lurked, the game relegates all the enemies to specific zones Simon has to find. There will be some kind of dark passage that leads the hero into an evil realm. Here the enemies lurk, waiting for an unsuspecting hero to wander in. Once you work your way through these parallel dimensional passageways of evil you'll then find a short mansion section. Navigate through this and you'll reach an orb to break, a rune to collect, and then a boss to fight. It's a basic formula and it's where all the action resides. If this is a Castlevania game then its needs that action.
I will note that the mansion sections aren't exactly great. They're packed with cheap enemy placements and traps that have hit boxes far larger than you can see. Sometimes you'll bounce off a spike or hit a pit and be forced back along a path you didn't intend to take, stretching out the experience even longer. It wasn't hard to get through these stages, just annoying to navigate them around the poor design choices the creators made. And since this was the only action in the game, this is where I had to focus my attention. These were deliberate choices by the creatives (especially in this X edition) and this is how they wanted it to play. That confuses me greatly.
I might not have come down so hard on the mansion sections as they're an interesting way to handle things -- a peaceful overworld with the evil hordes lurking through gaps in reality. But to pull that off half the game can't be completely devoid of action. There needs to be more going on in the overworld or the overworld need to be much smaller. Pacing is all wrong, and then when you finally get to the real meat of the experience, it's obnoxious and tedious. That's not really how the balance should work.
With that said, the presentation of the game really is lovely. Graphically Seal of the Curse X is quite the looker. It has smooth pixel art with almost a painterly style to it. It's coupled with very nice rearrangements of classic Castlevania music, making it almost look and feel like a proper title in the series. I had high hopes when the game first started up and I explore the first town, looking at all the fine little details of the background, the character animations, and lush style of the title. It really is presented well... it just doesn't have that great of a play experience.
I think a little more balance between overworld and evil realm was needed. More to do in the overworld, even if its not fighting monsters, could have picked up that experience. That, or much of the overworld needed to be cut. But then if you cut out the overworld does it even really play like Castlevania II at all. Maybe the better route would have been to not have it be a sequel to the second title in the series and just let it be its own thing instead. More combat and less wasted time, with just a little more refinement on the dungeons really could have made this game interesting. As it is it's too tedious and too annoying to really recommend it, pretty as it may be.
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