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The Castlevania series has always been a boys club. From Simon to Richter Belmont, and even as the heroes started getting a little androgynous (here’s looking at you, Alucard), the franchise has been fixated on basically one thing: dudes playing with their whips in dark, musty rooms.

It’s also been in dire need of a real shot of life for some time now. Castlevania is one of gaming’s most flagrant repeat offenders, with its years-old recycled sprites, tired rehashes of old ideas and cleverly placed veneers of fan service to throw us off the scent of lazy design. The Belmont boys have been sitting on their whips for some time, so leave it to the first Castlevania game with a female protagonist, then, to make the most drastic and successful changes to the franchise since Symphony of the Night seven years ago.

Order of Ecclesia is in the same vein as Symphony, to be sure. Like every handheld Castlevania, Ecclesia‘s a mashup of Super Metroid‘s vaguely non-linear map and Castlevania‘s undead slaying with some light-RPG elements (item drops, magic, experience) thrown in for extra addiction potential.

Ecclesia‘s changes to the formula begin with Shanoa, the game’s heroine. Clad in knee-high boots, flaunting a thick head of waist-long, night-black hair and a bare back tattooed with burning red glyphs, Shanoa isn’t exactly going to spark a gender revolution in the ranks of videogame protagonists, but she certainly is unique among the Castlevania pantheon, in more ways than one.

Not being of Belmont blood and thus lacking Vampire Killer-wielding abilities, Shanoa instead absorbs magic glyphs into herself (thus the funky tattoos on her back) and uses them to conjure a vast array of weapons, magic spells, familiars and more. Glyphs drop off enemies, and while there are plenty of them to collect, grind-a-holics and compulsive completists might be sad to hear there aren’t nearly as many as in past Castlevania titles.

The rest of us, however, can be thankful. Having fewer weapons means that the ones you do have actually count for something, and finding new glyphs always feels like you’re adding something to your arsenal rather than your collection. Glyphs can be combined to do screen-filling super attacks or, with the right combo, normal attacks can be used in rapid succession with precise timing – a neat little detail that keeps combat constantly fresh. You equip glyphs to X, Y and R and can customize three separate loadouts that you can switch between on the fly.

Unlike in previous Castlevanias where the only reason you’d ever switch ability sets is because you thought “hey, maybe watching that fire spell could be cool,” using the right glyphs is crucial to survival Ecclesia. Enemy weaknesses are conveniently documented and can make or break a tough fight when it comes to both boss encounters and skirmishes with your everyday skeleton warrior. Ecclesia actually utilizes the variety it creates, keeping you constantly on your toes: You’ll run into devilish scenarios that test your muscle memory as well as your magical aptitude, like rooms populated with one breed of giant floating monster that’s weak to Holy attacks and another that’s weak to Dark.

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The crucial difference between Ecclesia and every other post-Symphony game in the series is the gameplay’s equal emphasis on exploration and survival. Since Symphony, enemies in Castlevania have been nothing more than roadblocks on your way from one end of the labyrinthine map to the other. Maybe that’s why they were the same enemy sprites every game – because they didn’t really matter. A good fraction of Ecclesia‘s baddies are brand-spanking new, nicely detailed and fluidly animated monsters – and they all matter. No more cruising through Drac’s hallways, double jumping over enemies to avoid pushover fights here. Boss fights will crush you, and devious enemy placement will keep you constantly in stick-and-move mode as you explore. Ecclesia demands active attention if not skillful play – it’s still an action-RPG, but the emphasis is certainly on the first half of that formula.

Being an action game first and foremost, Ecclesia feels more faithful to its bloodlines (that’s a Castlevania reference, see?) than any Castlevania in a long time. That shows through in its overarching structure as well, with Ecclesia following a similar blueprint as its NES forebearer Simon’s Quest. Doing away with the huge Metroid-style castle, Ecclesia instead features a hub village and an array of separate levels on a world map. Once a level is unlocked, you can transport there using the map as many times as you want, or return to the hub village to restock on items, heal up or get quests from the villagers.

Essentially the effect is the same as taking the individual subsections of the gigantic castle and breaking them up into separate stages. It certainly makes Ecclesia a leaner, more efficient game – no boring backtracking through stages to get to save points or warps – but the stages themselves, pretty as they are, are sometimes no more than long hallways with the same enemies. Luckily it’s good fun cracking skulls and slaying werewolves, but boring level design is still a sore spot for this series.

The other issue with the game’s structure is that it partially does away with the gigantic, sprawling nature that defined previous Castlevanias. Warping between each individual level, you never get the sense of uncovering the depths of something massive that made Symphony and Super Metroid so memorable. Not that there’s less to discover in the mountains, shipwrecks and haunted monasteries that populate Ecclesia‘s world. If you go for a 100-percent completion of Ecclesia, you’ll be busy for months. There are plenty of cool glyphs to farm, breakable walls hiding treasures and secrets to find, but in the bigger picture, the scope of the game isn’t nearly as breathtaking as other series entries.

Is Ecclesia the Best Castlevania ever? It’s certainly the most addictive, deep and surprising the series has been in a long time. Whether it’ll ever overtake Symphony in the minds and hearts of gamers (we are such a sentimental breed) is unlikely, but at the very least Order of Ecclesia is a long time coming: a Castlevania that doesn’t play like a retread of past glories. Instead, it takes a dying series and brings it bright-eyed back to life.

Bottom line: Constantly engaging combat, ramped-up difficulty and a no-fluff approach to world design make this the best Castlevania since Symphony of the Night.

Recommendation: Buy it. Between the unlockable goodies, oodles of spells, weapons and items to collect and the castle at the end of the game, this is easily one of the biggest games on the DS, and there’s enough content here to last you for weeks.

Keane Ng read Harry Potter I-IV while blind-grinding to 99 in Symphony of the Night.

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