Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia gives the Nintendo DS its third "let's borrow liberally from Metroid" Castlevania entry, this time putting the lovely empty vessel Shanoa in the Dracula-slaying lead.

Yes, that's a girl in your Castlevania, taking on the burden of saving the world from total annihilation and scores of Dracula-faithful minions. Order of Ecclesia switches up standard "Metroidvania" gameplay with a new weapon system, using collectible glyphs to generate magic-powered axes, lances, swords, rapiers, shields, spells and more. It's loaded with Castlevania cliche as well as innovative new tactics.

Is Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia just what the Castlevania fan ordered?

Loved
A Kick In The Metroidvania Formula Pants: Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia drops a massive castle in favor of a world map. That makes the game feel more linearly progressive than the "Metroidvania" formula that the Castlevania team has been employing for the series' most recent portable entries. It means less backtracking than you'd expect, but not a total elimination of it. That might not sit as well with fans of the established design, but it's a welcome change and gives players an opportunity to explore more varied environments than they're likely used to.

Stunning Presentation: Ecclesia delivers in the visual department, offering an impressive graphical leap from Portrait of Ruin and Dawn of Sorrow. Beautiful environment art and splendid character design make the smattering of re-re-recycled enemies less offensive.

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Villager Quests: Wygol's villagers aren't just another batch of collectibles heaped upon the mountainous pile of things โ€” glyphs, armor, usable items, monsters, etc. โ€” stuffed into Order of Ecclesia, they add real substance to the experience. You'll receive quests that net you worthwhile rewards, unlocking new items in the village's general store while fleshing out the game's storyline. It may be the Castlevania II: Simon's Quest nostalgia kicking in, but the villager quests were a brilliant addition that help to separate Ecclesia from its forebears.

Great... Voice Acting? In addition to a lovely opening cinematic, Konami has managed to pack some excellent voice work into the experience. It's not fully voiced, but smartly peppered throughout. The soundtrack may have a few curious duds, but it alludes to classic themes expertly.

The Glyph Sleeve: Essentially a set of weapons load outs, the Glyph Sleeve lets you switch between three sets of glyph configurations without having to resort to the menu system. It's handy when you need to figure out what type of weapon attribute an enemy is vulnerable to or you need to get around with the Magnes glyph.

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Hated
Obscene Difficulty: While the Nintendo DS and Game Boy Advance entries prior to Ecclesia may have bordered on too forgiving, this entry borders on punishing. No, I don't want the game to have a big red "Win" button to press, but this Castlevania ratchets up the difficulty, particularly in the numerous boss fights, into sadistic territory. Long-time fans may be surprised at just how hard Order of Ecclesia is and new fans may be turned off from the experience.

Still Vague After All These Years: It's pretty clear that the Castlevania team aimed Order of Ecclesia squarely at its hardcore fans and only its hardcore fans, as the game doesn't bother explaining crucial item attributes outside of sometimes cryptic icons. It also doesn't quite stress how important saving all those villagers is to completing the game โ€” you know, really completing the game, a design tactic that's starting to wear thin.

Outside of Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia's fiendish difficulty, there's little to dislike about the latest "Metroidvania" slog. The gameplay is tried and true, mixing it up just enough to reduce Dracula-slaying fatigue and the Castlevania team finds a way to keep the combat system interesting with the new glyph weapons and unions. There's less of an emphasis on retreading ground and actually getting your hands on new armor, jewelry and health items takes more than just harvesting gold, making this entry feel less gimmick driven than other Nintendo DS games in the series.

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If, for some bizarre reason, you were still on the fence about Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, get off that fence. This is a solid release, one that any long-time Castlevania fan will feel happy with โ€” provided they stock up on patience.

Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia was developed and published by Konami, released in North America on Oct. 21 for the Nintendo DS. Retails for $29.99. Played story mode to completion.

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