Vampires. Ancient fiends of myth. Their adventures – oft as humanity's foes, occasionally as its saviors – have been endlessly chronicled. Yet despite all the books and movies dedicated to these blood-suckers of the night, there aren't many games about them. We've only once witnessed the birth of a successful franchise based on the vampire: a series known to us English-speaking folk as Castlevania. In its past several years, it's eschewed the typical stake-through-the-heart stylings for a futuristic yet antiquated sort of setting; coincidental, perhaps, considering that Order of Ecclesia is presented in a very "classic" package.
Although the prior DS Castlevanias have sold well, those still fond of the originals tended to criticize the newcomers' lack of challenge. While that middle-ground was just right for common players, Order of Ecclesia is a return to the tough-as-nails difficulty – at least if you're one of those aforementioned "common players." For a well-versed platforming fan, it's no more challenging than any well-made title, and that's a compliment. However, to those comfortable with its DS forefathers, such as Dawn of Sorrow, that may seem more like a downside.
This entry carries a story about the Ecclesia organization itself, born from a desire to permanently eradicate Dracula. The time of the Belmonts has long passed, and you're in control of Shanoa, an emotionless yet chivalrous fighter. With nicely-drawn character portraits and enjoyable dialogue, it's a demonstration of how a loving translation can go a long way – and how complementary an enjoyable storyline is to excellent gameplay.
During your journey, you'll never use the touch pad once, and that's as it should be. While I've no doubt someone could've brainstormed a fabulous use for it, their focus was clearly on fine-tuning the rest of the game, and avoiding shoe-horning in unnecessary features. The result is fantastic overall, but nonetheless has its flaws, such as the lack of variety within its environments. Many sprite designs and map segments are used more than once, with another "classic" technique applied: the palette swap. Considering how lovingly crafted numerous aspects of the game are, this stands out like a sore thumb. A DS cartridge easily could have held more graphical assets than what Ecclesia demonstrates.
Yet that's a minor gripe considering the sheer amount of variety on display in Dracula's massive castle. With several separately named and differently designed segments, it's a thing of beauty – if you're willing to tolerate its length. You could debate that the warp points present within his colossal mansion are the equivalent of stage breaks. Even so, the lack of save statues and an occasionally excessive enemy count provides more frustration than fun. Having to frequently backtrack to record your progress is cumbersome, and since the average player is going to do that anyway, why didn't they simply add more save points?
Complaints aside, Ecclesia is a shining accomplishment within the already admirable Castlevania series, melding fine artistic direction with sufficiently challenging gameplay. It earns its classical feel, and forsakes certain "modern" features (e.g., the touch screen), while embracing new things, such as its magic-like Glyph absorption system. In a sea of brightly-colored, too-often disappointing DS titles, this dark and polished 2D romp stands out strong.
Spend a day or two engaging in the latest digital hunt for Dracula; it's doubtful you'll regret it.