Lament of Innocence review
Not everyone seems to know that there were two Castlevania games on the PS2. The thing is, when Castlevania Lament of Innocence launched in 2003, Castlevania had little pedigree on consoles. It had been six years since Symphony of the Night had come out and Konami had struggled to bring the Castlevania series into 3D. Not just that, but new franchises like Devil May Cry were beating Castlevania to the PS2 punch.
Konami closed two studios in 2002 and they certainly weren’t about to throw good money after bad. Lament of Innocence’s PS2 development budget would have been very limited. Despite the obvious low rent, Lament of Innocence ended up being a real diamond in the rough. I want to look at how Castlevania Lament of Innocence did so much with so little and wonder if there’s a lesson for games developers even after all these years.
Castlevania PS2 development
Series producer Koji Igarashi originally conceived of Castlevania Lament of Innocence as a sort of soft reboot, telling the origin story of the Castlevania series. Making an origin story makes logistical sense because after 20 years of making Castlevania games, the Castlevania storyline was packed. Plus it makes thematic sense to start fresh on a clean slate. In fact in Japan and Europe, the game was just called “Castlevania” as a way to show this was a new beginning. Here in the UK, the game shares its name with three other games. To avoid confusion, this review will be referring to the game by its US title, Lament of Innocence.
The origin of Leon Belmont
Lament explains the origin of the Belmont clan, the Vampire Killer whip and Count Dracula himself. Lament of Innocence is about Leon Belmont, the first ever Belmont to take up arms against the spooky creatures of Wallachia. You might have seen Leon Belmont mentioned in the Netflix Castlevania animated series. He’s treated like a saintly figure, the founder of the Belmont clan. Leon was originally an ordained knight, in the employ of the Church during the 11th century. When he hears that his betrothed has been kidnapped by a vampire lord called Walter Bernhard, Leon petitions the church to go after her. The church refuses his request, saying he needs to concentrate on fighting the enemies of the church. Leon turns his back on the church and goes it alone, losing all his power and influence to go on his quest.
Early on he meets Ronaldo Gandolfi, an old alchemist wizard trader living in a hut in the forest. Gandolfi tells Leon that Walter Bernhard lives in a castle in the middle of the forest called Endless Night. He’s been kidnapping damsels for decades. Luring brave adventurers to his castle so he can kill them as part of his hedonistic games. Vampires mate. If you’ve played a lot of Castlevania, the name Gandolfi will mean something to you. He’s the bloke who invented the Vampire Killer whip. And so Gandolfi gives Leon the “Whip of Alchemy” and send him on his merry way.
Lament of Innocence story
The story is good. It’s mature, one of the more involved stories. Not a game franchise famous for involving narrative. Jumping ahead to Lament of Innocence’s finale, there’s a pretty good twist right at the end which helps to set up the franchise’s roots. It lifts concepts whole cloth from Bram Stoker’s novel but that doesn’t matter, the book is canon with Castlevania lore. John Morris from Bloodlines (and his son Jonathan Morris from Portrait of Ruin) are descendants of Quincy Morris, the Texan who stabs Dracula in the heart in the book.
The story’s execution is hobbled by that low budget. The opening cutscene is a mega long text intro. If you skip it (totally understandable) you will miss out on the games surprise ending. The writing is worsened by poorly directed voice acting. Most of the English voice cast are bit-part actors who had little to no principal cast experience. I’m not slating the actors, I certainly couldn’t do better. You can see Konami were hampered by budget constraints here, which explains why they were hiring in cheaper actors. It is a shame, because the story is surprisingly deep and sticking with it will reward you with some pretty solid twists. If you skip the cutscenes though (and I wouldn’t blame you) then those twists will be wasted on you. The good news though is that Konami spent the money where it matters. Gameplay.
Castlevania Lament of Innocence game
Leon finds that Walter’s castle is divided into five stages, linked by a central hub room. The final sixth stage won’t unlock until the bosses of these dungeons have been defeated. This is really cool, and unique among Castlevania games. Leon can tackle the stages in any order and each stage is different. You’ve got all your horror classics in there – the spooky theatre, spooky gardens, spooky science lab. I love it. Each location has your classic Castlevania baddies but each area has its own variations and unique enemy types.
In classic Castlevania fashion you’ve got pretty big levels and big bosses but also plenty of variety and creativity. Simple stuff like pallette swapping enemies keeps costs down, but still gives us variety. Konami weren’t capable of delivering on the N64 games. Regrouping on the PS2 and focusing on what makes Castlevania Castlevania gave Konami the opportunity to realise a true 3D Castlevania game, this time working with the hardware instead of fighting against it and spending the smart money due to that budget constraint.
This is where Lament of Innocence sings. Action, level design, creature design, sound and music. For the most part, Lament of Innocence is classic Castlevania gameplay. XP and levelling from previous games has been dropped. Lament is all about explorating a spooky castle and whipping a ton of skeletons. The whip is Leon’s main weapon and he can carry one sub-weapon. The types of subweapon are your usual knife, axe etc and as expected holy water is by far the best. Sub-weapons use hearts for ammo and whipping candlesticks gets you hearts and/or money. Where Lament of Innocence departs from the classic Castlevania formula is by adding the hallmarks of the PS2 3D platformer. Things like combos, block and a dodge roll.
What Lament of Innocence does differently
Crucial differences are the addition of accessories, relics and orbs. Accessories grant passive buffs or damage resistance. Relics are active, doing anything from setting the ground on fire to recharging Leon’s HP. The big unique different in Lament of Innocence is the use of orbs. When each boss dies, it drops an orb which Leon can equip. Each orb alters your chosen subweapon with a unique attack. HERE YOU CAN SEE. The full combination of orbs and sub-weapon gives Leon a potential of 42 unique special attacks. Each one ranging from area of effect attacks, projectiles, crowd control and more. Once you have a couple of orbs, switching between them and your subweapons makes the combat really stand out.
Finally, the Whip of alchemy which Gandolfi gave you at the beginning can be upgraded. Three alchemical elements (fire, ice, thunder) can be acquired by fighting three very well hidden boss fights. I like this a lot. What’s mad is you could complete the game and not even know they’re there. The alchemical whips do increased damage as standard, but they deal extra damage to enemies weak to that element. It would have been nice to see some custom combos. Maybe some freezing solid or bursting into flames finishing moves. Again, I think Konami spent the smart money here.
It’s just enough. There’s a lot of content, but it’s not bloaty. Castlevania Lament of Innocence’s levels aren’t enormous. But there’s enough to them that you can get to the boss without fully exploring. Hidden bosses, relics and special items help to incentivise backtracking and reward spending more time with the game. Sort of that metroidvania vibe. Most of this is optional, but having it in helps to level the playing field. Because Lament of Innocence gets hard. If you’re not looking to upgrade your gear and improve Leon’s skills then the game will be harder than it needs to be.
That said, then end game is loads of fun. The last 25% of Lament of Innocence was really rewarding for me. Revisiting the dungeons, seeking out hidden areas really got me into the swing of things. Switching out orbs, relics and whip types on the fly. It gives the combat a lot of depth for comparatively little work. This was the most addictive part of the game for me. The downside to that was that the first 25% of the game was so stark by comparison. Without knowing the endgame, it would be hard for someone to put hours into Lament of Innocence. Symphony of the Night and Lords of Shadow 2 gave us the prelude tease. Lament of Innocence had the opportunity to do the same thing with the character of Joachim.
Castlevania 2003 PS2 reception
Castlevania Lament of Innocence was released late in 2003 worldwide, early 2004 here in the UK. Manhunt, Star Wars and Return of the King would have made launching at Christmas a big ask. Just one week after Castlevania launched, Ubisoft released Prince of Persia the Sands of Time. Prince of Persia absolutely killed it, far overshadowing other Christmas releases and is still getting praise to this day.
Castlevania’s launch marketing must also done on a shoestring. Games like Jak & Daxter, Beyond Good and Evil and Ratchet and Clank were all definitely on my radar that year. I don’t even remember hearing about a Castlevania game on PS2. Devil May Cry 2 had released earlier the same year too. Along with Prince of Persia, DMC2 was one of the top best-selling games of 2003. Here were these newcomers that did everything Castlevania did, but better and sexier.
Reviews at the time gave Castlevania a solid “alright”. Your 7s and 8s. Lament of Innocence didn’t set the world on fire. It did make enough to warrant Konami making a sequel, which is a small victory in itself.
If you’ve followed the wesbite and YouTube channel you know I champion this ideal. By keeping their development costs down and making realistic targets, Konami stopped Lament from being a total flop. Lots of great games fit into this category and I guess I love an underdog. Lament of Innocence isn’t the best PS2 game from 2003. It’s certainly not the prettiest PS2 game from 2003. But it’s more than serviceable and running in 1080p 60fps in PCSX2 it’s not a bad little game at all.
Michiru Yamane’s soundtrack was praised at the time and is the part of the game which has aged best. Yamane composed Symphony of the Night and Bloodlines. The score has none of the Castlevania bangers, but it’s still very good.
Is Lament of Innocence worth playing today?
Konami tried with the N64 Castlevania games, but they couldn’t nail it. A lot of franchises which jumped to 3D suffered from the same issues in those early days. Lament of Innocence is Konami hitting their stride with a 3D action game, despite the obvious lack of resources. By having just enough money to make a focused action game kept the team dialled in on a small range of achievable goals. The same thing which made the Lords of Shadow games so good. I’ve played Castlevania Lament of Innocence through twice and there’s no fat on it. I recommend you try it, especially if you’ve already played those flashier titles from 2003.