Thanks to Cart Boy for edits.
One of the most enduring questions for games based around combat is how to encourage the combat at all. It’s an odd paradox important for the medium. In many ways the conflict against enemies and bosses is not just what’s important, but the selling point of the game; typically, brawler fans play brawlers and shooter fans play shooters more often because of those mechanics than in spite of them. At the same time, these fights are repetitive. I mean, video games are about repetition entirely, and even the most innovative and unique ones are going to run into that. That isn’t a problem, in and of itself, but it does mean that the appeal will start to slow. What was exciting can start to grate a bit or, worse, become a bore.
Some games work with this in interesting ways. The Super Mario games smartly treat enemies as part of the environment and not just progress blockers; enemies can interact with each other, be used as platforms, or be avoided altogether for speed or safety. Games with complex movesets like Bayonetta or Pokémon can allow a wealth of player expression, making fights with even similar groups interesting over a longer period. Turn-based RPGs or games with upgrading systems can literalize the sense of becoming more powerful or skilled. Some, like SOMA, offer the option of cutting combat encounters entirely for those struggling with the difficulty or who just want to experience a more compelling story without hindrance. But even the most innovative, deep, and accommodating loops are going to lose their spark, at least to some degree and after some point.
This is an issue that long haunted Castlevania, Konami’s series of late Eighties and Nineties side scrolling action games. They had style, great music, and a striking weapon in the Vampire Killer whip, but movement was sluggish and combat often irritating. And with stages typically being timed and cramped, players mostly had to bash their way through difficult and linear levels. Combat was often a chore, and arguably one of the reasons why the appeal of the series did start to fade. The best games made spins to the gameplay with alternate paths or unique mechanics, but the series was in something of a rut.
In 1997, director Koji “IGA” Igarashi and the Castlevania team at Konami decided to revamp the franchise with Symphony of the Night. It featured a variety of changes to the formula – most famously an introduction of a Metroid-esque nonlinear map which helped codify a whole new game genre – and one of the more odd was a shift into using mechanics from Japanese RPGs. The vampire Alucard still had to slice and dice evil monsters with a sword, but the damage dealt and received was governed by an experience system; after getting experience from enemies, the character leveled up and incrementally increased his powers. There were also better weapons and gear to find, though more often than not the tools you’d find were long obsolete by the time you got them.
The thing is, though, that what should be a massive change to how players approached combat didn’t end up changing much. Less confident players could grind as much as they’d like (at least until the game simply stopped awarding points from weaker enemies after Alucard hit certain levels), but the stat increases are often minuscule compared to just acquiring stronger swords and shields. And you can’t really treat the combat as missable, either, because of enemy placement. They’re often grouped in large herds and take up a lot of screen space, so evading them, even when it’s possible, is rarely worth it. It leads to this odd experience where the value of fighting enemies – and I mean this on a visceral, direct level, not as a judgment of their experience points and item drops – isn’t quite as great as it should be. Baddies are still the same kind of progress blockers; only a few optional ones even drop valuable items, like the sweet end game Crissaegrim sword.
Later Castlevanias would address some of these problems with better level design (Symphony of the Night has incredible environments, but more from a greater perspective than on a room to room level) and enemy placement, but they never fully solved it. But it’s not for a lack of trying, and one of my absolute favorite attempts to deal with it comes from 2003’s Aria of Sorrow, by far one of the best of the series’ “IGAvanias.” Some narrative context is needed, though. Aria takes place in 2035, thirty-six years after the series’ big bad Dracula was killed in a grand, offscreen battle. Japanese high school student Soma Cruz winds up trapped in a bizarre floating collection of architecture, only to learn that he is not merely some mild-mannered kid with a trenchcoat and glare but the reincarnation of Castlevania’s villain. So aside from getting to wield the typical collection of swords, spears, and hammers, Soma can fight the castle’s menagerie of monsters using the powers of the dark lord.
Not his vampire powers, mind; Soma is only the reincarnation of his identity as this universe’s equivalent of Satan. But it does give him the power to dominate the souls of beasts, demons, and monsters…in a way. Basically, alongside having a chance to randomly drop money, weapons, or items like food, almost every single enemy in the game also has an independent chance to release what’s called a “tactical soul”, which Soma automatically absorbs. Each of these constitutes a special kind of power, functionally replacing previous Castlevania tools like sub-weapons or relics. Over the course of the game, Soma will find better weapons and gear, but he’ll also start getting all sorts of random, potentially useful souls that can be used or useful.
Aria of Sorrow organizes them into four categories based on how they’re used. “Bullet” are magic draining attacks, like firing an sword or a lightning bolt or a bunch of webbing. “Guardian” instead stay active for as long as you hold the shoulder button, more attuned to things like summoning a monster to shield or battle alongside you. “Enchanted” ones provide a passive effect, like a strength buff or poison immunity, while “Ability,” the rarest, give abilities needed for exploration, like a double jump or slide kick. There are 113 enemies in the game, and since only three of those don’t have a soul to give, there is a plethora of powers you can potentially access.
Now, at first, most of the souls early on are somewhat normal, mostly in that Bullet category, and largely analogous to typical Castlevania moves. Axe Armor has you throw an axe like the boomerang-like cross. Flame Demon shoots three fireballs, one of Dracula’s main final boss attacks. Skeleton Knight’s increases your strength by four points. But over time, they start to become weirder and more experimental. Curly surrounds you in a massive demon to rush through enemies and obstacles, while Mimic rewards you for getting hit by giving you money proportional to the damage you take. Using Dryad, you throw a seed onto an enemy that leeches them for health. Kyoma Demon lets you become invisible for a few seconds. In some cases, just the sensation of discovering a crazy new power is great on its own.
That’s also tied to a different value: making enemies potentially “matter.” Every single enemy can (or in the cases of bosses, will) provide you with a new tool, whether a new attack, a change to your mobility, or a new way to approach the game. Not all of these are equal – many are outright mediocre to bad – but there’s potential in all of them. And that makes it worth fighting each enemy, even ones that are too tough or even too weak, because they may end up holding a power that’ll aid your journey immensely. There’s value in dealing with the series’ notoriously unpleasant Medusa Heads, for instance, because their power for letting Soma freeze himself in midair is really useful for platforming.
In fact, this reminds me of something…
It’s almost funny just how much this kind of enemy interaction is like Kirby. Any opponent can end up “helping” you, albeit rarely of their own free will. And more to the point, you generally have a good idea of what you’re going to get with each one. Souls that let you shoot fire come from fire-themed enemies, weapon themed ones come from weapon users, and even the more nebulous passive abilities still make some sense (Tsuchinoko’s, for instance, lets you get a big discount at the game’s one shop, referencing its place as a popular cryptid in Japanese culture). As in the Kirby games, it’s a very clear and intuitive approach to getting power-ups, where you literally have to encounter an enemy and its attack before getting it for yourself. The game puts a very clear distinction between enemies dropping generic items and them releasing their soul; the latter carries more weight and value. And some souls even bring out the monsters like the Valkyrie and Creaking Skull to help you, just like how Kirby can often spin his enemies off into partners and friends.
Like Kirby, Aria of Sorrow is also dotted with optional rooms or parts of rooms that are blocked off by obstacles that can be countered only with certain powers. Perhaps the weirdest of all, just as an example, is the Killer Mantle soul, in which Soma hits an enemy with a cape, thereby switching its magical and physical health. This is a system that’s not seen or explained, will be ignored by most players, and has effects that are hard to fully understand. But along with just looking cool, it’s a secret one-hit kill device for an opponent so physically tough that it would take upwards of an hour just to kill it otherwise. This monster, to be clear, appears in one pace on the other side of the map from where the Killer Mantles are, guarding an optional but incredibly useful soul. A number of souls are like this, unofficial keys to unofficial locks. Of course, the game has obstacles for continuing the plot, which require fighting bosses. Not for their own souls, mind; most bosses appear later as generic enemies and, by extension, drop them randomly. Instead, they just block lanterns holding the souls of bosses which don’t appear, and theirs are the ones which give you new skills.
Now, I’ve obliquely implied this, but it is still a deeply flawed system. It’s not just that many of the powers are not worth using, though far too many are kind of generic. Part of the appeal of the souls is that Soma won’t be limited to the same variety of weapons as previous characters, but perhaps inevitably, there are a number of fairly similar or bland ones. There are two souls for slightly different kinds of knife throwing, and a ton for throwing something in a light forward arc or firing a projectile straight forward. Those are widely differentiated by style, to be fair, and that does go a long way. But at a certain point, debating whether to throw a slow moving fireball or a slow moving Metroid laser donut ultimately reveals how similar a lot of the moves really are in practice. I mean, that’s essentially the price of a system so wide in scope: there’s little balancing of any kind. And the lack of balance really isn’t the problem, but it can definitely be frustrating to grind through dozens of the same enemy only to receive something with no real application.
That randomness is also an issue, because while it can drastically change any playthrough in interesting ways, a run of bad luck with collecting souls can be a real pain. Typically chance favors me early on in a playthrough for earning a decent number of souls, but it’s easy to just run afoul of Lady Luck and just not get many – or even any – for hours. That’s bad for less skilled or familiar players, especially in the early game when you’re reliant on worse weapons. It’s also tied to a problem of redundancy. Several souls just increase one particular stat, often the same stat. For strength, for instance, you can capture a Skeleton Knight (which increases it by four), but also Minotaur (eight), Golem (twelve), or Triton (sixteen). If you try to farm Skeleton Knights to see what their souls are after getting one of the others, it’s inherently going to be a waste. Three Guardian souls let Soma temporarily turn into a monster that rushes forward, and several that grant you familiars often feel useless.
Last and least, it’s odd how bosses are used. It’s a weird sticking point, I know, but I do feel you lose something this way by having the bosses guard the real powers. Castlevania is known partially for its grandiose, over the top boss fights, and it does feel like a bit of a missed opportunity to let players finally use the powers of these monsters. Part of the appeal of a game like this is getting to really let loose with abilities that have been used against you for decades of this series, and that doesn’t happen nearly as much as it should. It’s bizarre getting the soul of Galamoth, who was last seen terrorizing Symphony players as an optional end-game boss, from a lantern after fighting the striking and grotesque corpse mountain Legion. Meanwhile, Legion’s own soul, shooting three lasers from tendrils that pop out of your back, is…fine. It’s okay; mostly feels more like a bit of a hindrance, honestly. Despite looking and sounding cool, it feels far less useful than a soul from a generic enemy that fires one concentrated laser.
It’s a system that was in need of improvement, and thankfully, it wouldn’t be abandoned. The next major Castlevania was a direct sequel to Aria, Dawn of Sorrow for DS, and it pushed the idea further. Soma had both more souls and more distinct ones, and even the ridiculous gimmick powers were more fun (like being able to sit in chairs in the background to regain health). And the issue of having redundant powers was solved by simply adding a feature where having more of the same soul would make some of them more powerful, such as the Ghost Dancer giving you more Luck points for each extra one you had. It’s still grinding, but it’s more acceptable grinding, and a kind where souls which haven’t been captured carried more potential.
Plus, that whole thing with the bosses is cleared up; while two (optional but very useful) soul lamps exist, all your required powers come directly from bosses in ways that are mostly very satisfying. Want to turn into a bat? Fight a gang of bats! Walking underwater? A giant underwater leviathan. Getting through a small space? Turn yourself into a puppet by killing a giant, horrific puppet monster. It gives the powers a bit more weight, partially because each one of them feels like a real reward and partially because it feels like you’re actually taking control of these monsters. There are about four which are just attacks with no exploration purpose, and they’re mostly really cool in a visceral way (releasing a swarm of insects from a locust conductor boss, for instance, is a great eleventh hour ability). Many of same issues did remain, but there was a definite polishing of how it all worked, and a great expansion what these souls could do.
So the Soul system doesn’t fully work, and it had a lot of problems. But that’s also okay. It’s a system where some of those issues are inevitable; it’s the result of trying to ensure that almost every one of a hundred-plus enemy roster can give you a unique tool or ability. And the benefits really help to overcome these issues, most especially because the appeal of taking over something that threatens you is really compelling. There’s a sense of wonder and chaos to the whole process which could never be a thing in regular Castlevania outside the occasional magic or demonic blast. It feels audacious, almost like it’s breaking the rules at times. And for a series that was starting to fall into a bit of a rut by this point in time – many of the initial “IGAvanias” stuck too closely to the formula Symphony inspired and struggled to assert an identity of their own – that feeling was and is wonderfully satisfying.