I’ve always enjoyed the Castlevania series. Starting with Castlevania on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), I played most of the major entries through to Symphony of the Night on the Playstation. Whenever I had access to a new console, one of the first games I would seek out was whatever Castlevania title was available on the platform. I remember being in awe of the large sprites on Super Castlevania IV. Years later as my interest in video games waned, I would still occasionally go back to Castlevania titles, catching up on ones I missed like the Rondo of Blood for the PC Engine and Bloodlines for the Sega Genesis.
The series’ combination of vampires, horror, and exploration in a side-scrolling format really appealed to me and for a longtime, they were sort of the gold standard of console games for me. Sure, there were better titles out there, but I really liked them. After getting a Playstation 2 (and later a 3), I was surprised to see that the series had changed drastically. My beloved platformers had become (like so many other games) modern 3D adventures. I never got a chance to play the PS2 titles, but I did give Castlevania: Lords of Shadow a try on the PS3. Unfortunately, the series had changed so much, I barely played an hour and moved on to something else. It seemed Castlevania hadn’t made a successful transition to the 3D space and it seemed that many other titles did the action and exploration in 3D much better.
I still held out hope for a “classic”-style Castlevania game. As a result, I was excited when I read news that a mobile 2D Castlevania was being planned. I don’t really enjoy playing games on my phone, but I was willing to set that aside for a chance to play a new entry in one of my favorite series. Sadly, the game only had a limited release in Japan and Canada before Konami closed it. I was thus excited to see that the title was revived for Apple Arcade.
When I started the game, it felt like a classic Castlevania. It had the usual side-scrolling action and a references to past characters — the Belmonts, Alucard, Maria, and more — all of whom I was vaguely familiar with. I can’t even pretend to understand the lore of the Castlevania universe, I’ve played the games mainly for their action. I was definitely lost pretty quickly by the story, but that may have been less a fault of the game and was more tied to what I want out of a Castlevania game.
Jumping into the game, it looked nice enough and I was able to use my 8BitDo Pro 2 controller with my computer without issue. However, as soon as I got control of the character, things seemed to break down pretty quickly. The game play was quite simple and it had an auto-attack mode that I was prompted to turn on almost immediately. While you can turn it off, it made it clear that this was a mobile game first. Along with this, there was a pretty complicated skill upgrade system that was tied to daily challenges and various other mobile-style gimmicks designed to keep players “engaged”. Thankfully, there were no microtransactions, but it did feel like a game that was designed to have them. As I progressed through the levels, I liked seeing the upgraded takes on classic Castlevania enemies and abilities, but the levels were short and largely uninteresting. Similarly, the story failed to grab me.
After putting in a couple of hours, I ultimately gave up on Grimoire of Souls. My nostalgia and past loyalty to the series just wasn’t enough to hold my attention. It felt less like a return to a great series and more like a reminder of something that once was. By contrast, when I played Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night (with development led by former Castlevania series producer Koji Igarashi), I was reminded that the formula of the Metroidvania can still be enjoyable, it just needs to be executed well. That game took all the classic features — a great soundtrack, a variety of monsters, a sensible upgrade tree, and a steady challenge — and made it something new. Maybe I’ll try Bloodstained’s 8-bit style prequel, Curse of the Moon, next time I find myself wanting a modern take on the Castlevania series. If nothing else, I suppose I did at least learn a new word — “grimoire” — from the experience.
Castlevania: Grimoire of Souls. Available on Apple Arcarde.