Castlevania Season 1 Review

It’s easy to forget at times just how important the name Castlevania used to be.

     Developed and released by Konami in 1986 for the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Family Computer Disk System (Famicom), the series’ original title was a side-scrolling action platformer known for its tough-as-nails, punishing yet rewarding gameplay that presented an amalgamation of all sorts of pop culture ephemera blended together into a style all its own. Its version of Dracula was basically a god that commanded an army of zombies, Universal-style monsters, Greek mythological creatures and even Death itself inside of a castle that’s basically a medieval style Death Star, and the guy who’s gonna bring an end to all of it is a Frank Frazetta style beefcake with a magic whip.

Basically, it was Die Hard plus monsters and it was dope as hell.

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     One sequel and a sorta prequel later, it became one of the most important and recognizable third-party franchises on its system. Two console generations later, its landmark title Symphony of the Night, along with the continued popularity of Nintendo’s Metroid franchise, would establish its own unique kind of video game: 2D platformers with emphasis on action, exploration and progressive increase in power for the playable character that came to be known as “Metroidvania”. After some failed attempts to make the jump to 3D, the series remained in the second dimension, making the jump to handheld consoles where it would thrive for a few years, such as with the critically acclaimed Nintendo DS title Dawn of Sorrow. Then, something funny happened: Konami basically decided that people didn’t like the franchise the way it was anymore, so they decided to shake things up by teaming up with Spain based developer MercurySteam and Konami subsidiary Kojima Productions (founded by Hideo “Metal Gear” Kojima) to make a third person action-adventure game with a primary focus on combo-based combat in the style of series like Devil May Cry and God of War. While it had a generally positive reception, the same couldn’t be said for its sequels. This has been the last anyone had seen of the franchise, and it didn’t help matters how Konami had emerged in recent years as one of the most disgustingly evil companies to work for (seriously, look up what they’ve been up to) who see no value in any of their iconic intellectual properties anymore.  Koji Igarashi, who had been the driving creative voice behind the franchise since SotN, left Konami in 2014 to make his own off-brand Castlevania game that’s currently in development.

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Koji Igarashi

Along this long, winding stretch of time, a story about adapting the franchise into other mediums had been brewing for several years.

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     In 2007, the rights for a film adaptation were acquired by Frederator Studios, best known as the animation house behind The Fairly OddParents and Adventure Time. Originally, it was meant to be a straight-to-home-video adaptation of the franchise’s third game, Dracula’s Curse; the script would be written by comic book writer Warren Ellis, known for projects such as Red, Transmetropolitan, The Astonishing X-Men, and the Extremis storyline for Iron Man, which would become the basis for the film Iron Man 3, just to name a few. While not familiar with the franchise, he worked closely with Igarashi to find the best way to adapt the story. The game chosen to adapt was pretty loose on story, allowing for plenty of flexibility in terms of tone and fleshing out the world. It could’ve been as campy, serious, dark, etc. as they could. A producer on the film wanted specifically to not make this a family-friendly project, something Ellis was more than OK with as he largely felt the franchise to be akin to a very Japanese take on Hammer Horror films he was a fan of. Eventually, complications began to arise that led to the project to be stuck in development hell. News on the project would go dormant until 2012, when film producer Adi Shankar, best known for pop culture satirical short films like “Power/Rangers”, was contacted to make a live-action version of Ellis’ script, but turned it down because he felt a live-action version wouldn’t do justice to the project. He would eventually change his mind in 2015 after learning that Frederator would work with Powerhouse Animation Studios, who would secure a deal with Netflix to adapt the scripts into a series. Since then, the project found new life. Described by Shankar to be “R rated as fuck”, it draws its inspiration from multiple sources, from Ayami Kojima’s art direction for SotN, anime known for violence such as Berserk and Ninja Scroll, with a splash of Game of Thrones for good measure.

The team is aware of the stigma that has surrounded video game adaptations pretty much for as long as they’ve existed, where more often than not, they aren’t just bad, they’re pretty terrible, such as the recent film adaptation of Assassin’s Creed. Shankar in particular has confidently stated that he guarantees that this show will break the trend. So, was he correct?

Short Version: Yes. Mostly yes.

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Box art for Dracula’s Curse

The first season consists of only 4 episodes, each about 25 minutes in length. The general outline of the story can be described as so: When Dracula unleashes his hellish army to devastate the country of Wallachia, only three people stand in his way: Trevor Belmont of the Belmont monster slaying family, Sypha Belnades of the mages known as The Speakers, and Adrian Tepes, AKA Alucard, the half-vampiric son of Dracula who disapproves of his father’s actions.  That’s not just a setup, it’s basically a summary of the entire story presented here. Turns out this is less a full-blown season as it is an extended pilot/proof of concept to see if a Castlevania series can take off (A longer second season has already been greenlit, so I guess it did); an introduction to the world and the characters to try and hook the viewers into this world of dark fantasy, something that should be very profitable what with the aforementioned of GoT and the popularity of The Witcher series, presenting a very gothic horror take on the concept.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s break down the story episode by episode to see whether they accomplished this:

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Dracula and Lisa

     Episode 1, “Witchbottle”, starts with a Beauty and the Beast-esque scenario where a woman named Lisa travels to Vlad Dracula Tepes’ castle. She wishes to become a doctor and has heard rumors of him possessing advanced technology that would allow her to do so. Impressed by her ambition, he agrees to share his power with her, with her in turn promising to help him reconnect with humanity. The scene establishes that Dracula’s existence has been well known for a while, and has spent many years locked in his own castle, having very little esteem for humanity and its superstitious, fear-mongering ways. Through her strong character and mutual fondness for science and its value for enriching life, the two begin a romance that rekindles some level of appreciation for mankind. Unfortunately, we see very little of this because next thing you know, it’s 20 years later and Lisa is being burnt alive at a stake after the church found scientific equipment in her house and accused her of witchcraft. The Bishop overlooking the process is the scariest fictional “man of the cloth” since Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Infuriated by this, Dracula swears revenge upon humanity, giving them an ultimatum: the people of Wallachia have a year to make their peace and leave, or else they will all die. This threat falls on deaf ears, and one year later, the church is celebrating how Dracula totally didn’t kill them…only to be immediately killed by Dracula. He summons his castle into the middle of town, unleashing an army of monsters from hell itself, who tear through villagers like butter. (Disclaimer: if you’re squeamish about violence inflicted upon people by monsters who don’t discriminate on level of innocence, sex, and age, this will probably not be a show for you).

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     So, surprising right off the bat (heh heh heh), the story is setting up Dracula as a sympathetic villain in the vein of Magneto from X-Men: he’s had atrocities committed to him by humanity, causing him to shelter himself and eventually put plans in motion to get back at humanity, asserting his superior power over them. While you can empathize with his hatred for the “inferior” people, he still takes his actions too far. Instead of simply targeting the few responsible for what happened, his aims are far broader than that. The little time we get to see him with Lisa, it’s easy to see why he came to like her so much and why she would fill a need in his life. It’s a shame you really can’t say the same for Lisa, who ends up feeling largely like a device for Dracula to go off the deep end. It’s effective for establishing a motivation behind his evil instead of a “just ‘cause” thing, but it’s oddly uncommitted to it by fast-forwarding through important chunks of story. I’m not sure whether this was a budget issue or if it had to be scrapped from the story to fit the time, but if the intent was to make us give a damn about Dracula and make him a believable adversary, maybe skipping over this wasn’t a great idea. Then again, Dracula is depicted as a champion of science and its enriching values, while the church is presented as prejudiced, backwards-thinking, and having a corrupt stranglehold on the lives of the common people, so I don’t think it had to try THAT hard to make them look more “evil” by comparison, even though it makes me question (a little) whether we should REALLY treat Drac as the bad guy in this scenario. Also, his favorite method of communicating to the masses is by projecting his face on a giant wall of fire. This dude is fucking cool.

     This is also our first taste of the kind of violence to expect from the series, and it’s plentiful to say the least. Blood flows like wine (even raining down from the sky at one point) and blood and guts of innocent bystanders fly in stylistic fashion. It’s not exactly cathartic (a lot of these people arguably didn’t have it coming), but it’s at least poignant to what’s going on in the plot as opposed to just existing for its own sake. Dracula may be a victim in this scenario, but it needed to be established why he needs to be stopped.

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Trevor Belmont

     The tail end of Episode 1 and the beginning of Episode 2, “Necropolis”, show us how the people are coping with the ongoing destruction of their country: by blaming their problems on other people, particularly the noble family of Belmont, who were banished and ex-communicated from Wallachia by the church for dealing with monsters in ways it didn’t see fit (namely, by killing them instead of the more “reasonable” approach of praying them away and killing other people who allegedly involve themselves with them). Overhearing one such conversation in an inn is a drunk Trevor Belmont, who gets the shit kicked out of him when he’s found to be a Belmont by some surly patrons. He travels to the town of Gresit, which has been walled-off from the outside to protect itself from Dracula’s forces. After sneaking into the city and a bit of recon work, he finds out that the townspeople largely blame these attacks on a group of mages known as The Speakers, who they believe work for Dracula. Trevor ends up saving the elder Speaker from some corrupt priests. He insists they should get out of town, but the elder says they can’t ‘cause they’re waiting for his grandchild, who has traveled into some catacombs to find a Messianic myth known as “the sleeping soldier”, who’s said to have the power to kill Dracula. Trevor reluctantly agrees to go retrieve said grandchild under the promise that they’ll leave town when he returns.

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              The main goal of this chapter in the story is to introduce us to the series’ main lead: Trevor. While he’s still got some moves, it’s clear that his glory days as a monster slayer are far behind him, something that he deals with by being a boorish, snarky asshole to just about everyone. He’s definitely chuckle-worthy, but he’s far from someone worth looking up to. In fact, anything he does in the series that comes close to “upstanding” feels motivated either by his contempt for the church that disgraced his family or being begrudgingly strung along by the more noble Speakers. He says so himself that before running into them, he had no plan of saving the town from Dracula’s monsters, and believes the church should live with the consequences of what they’ve unleashed. In fact, he even shares Dracula’s sentiment regarding the so-called innocent people of Wallachia, how they’re just as complicit in the church’s wrongdoings for not speaking up against them. The only reason he has any respect for The Speakers is because of the history they share with his family and their mutual standing as infamous public figures. It’s a solid foundation for a character and future drama, but I think we’ll only get a better appreciation of what can be done with him once he’s teamed up with someone he can bounce off of (more on that later. It’s here were we also get some video game-esque elements thrown into the mix: Trevor sneaking into Gresit feels very reminiscent of platforming. We also get to see his whip-wielding abilities in action. The idea of using a whip as not just a tool, but a weapon, seem pretty silly on paper, but Trevor makes it work by showing what can be done with it. While he can use it as a sort-of lasso, it’s at its best when he can use it to whip off fingers and eyeballs from crooked priests. Personally, it reminds me of Ashitaka from Princess Mononoke, who can blow people’s heads and limbs off with his arrows.

Also, a fair Trigger Warning for your consideration: Baby + death. Like I said, this won’t be for everyone.

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Sypha Belnades

     Episode 3, “Labyrinth”, begins with a scenario the feels ripped straight out of any Castlevania title: Trevor exploring the catacombs to find the missing Speaker. Here, he encounters booby traps and a giant cyclops that petrifies its victims with laser beams it fires from its eye. After disposing of it with a baller whip + short sword combo, he finds the Speaker, Sypha Belnades, who had been petrified but was restored after the cyclops was killed. The two immediately clash as Sypha is still determined to find the sleeping soldier while Trevor believes that it’s just a myth. He recalls descriptions of Dracula’s castle that match the catacombs (electric torches and hot pipes), giving credence to his belief that there’s nothing in there but traps. He returns Sypha to the other speakers, but before he leaves, he’s cornered by several priests who take him to the Bishop of Gresit, who’s the same man who oversaw Lisa’s death. Here, Trevor learns of the church’s plans to make the town kill all the Speakers by sundown, and if he’s still in town by then, he’ll be killed too. If he leaves, his family name will be pardoned. He returns to The Speakers to warn them, but they refuse to leave, preferring to stay and fight. Sypha and her grandfather end up prodding Trevor into joining them by convincing him of receiving a chance to restore his family’s name on his own terms. While The Speakers hide in the catacombs, Trevor confronts the mob at nightfall, being chased by it across town while Dracula’s forces begin to gather.

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The Bishop of Gresit.

     While mostly a setup for the climax, this episode introduces us to Sypha who, along with Trevor, is a prominent playable character in Dracula’s Curse. She embodies the benevolent ideal of her people, which are a mirror opposite of what Trevor is currently standing for, establishing the ground floor for their dynamic going forward. Her grandfather argues that Trevor is just a shadow of what remains of the Belmonts, and that while he may not admit it to himself, he chose to not act when the church turned against his family. This leads to Trevor having a statement of purpose in front of the mob, declaring that the Belmonts act on their on behalf, regardless of what anyone says or does. It feels a bit empty given who it’s coming from and what we know about him so far; I have to agree with grandpa about Trevor not deciding to do something about what was done to his family, especially given his statements about laying fault about Dracula at the feet of the masses, but further down the line we get enough evidence to suggest this is the beginning of his face-turn, or at the very least, becoming more willing to uphold the Belmont name. This gives way for a fun chase scene, complete with throwing knives and axes (classic Castlevania items) and more POS priests getting what they deserve. We also spend a bit more time with the Bishop, who continues to embody the twisted, not-so-fictional version of old-timey organized religion presented here. He’s pretty one-dimensional as far as villains go, his only real motivation is that he claims to kill in the name of God, doubling down on that despicableness with not much else going on. Tankfully, it won’t be long before we see the last of him.

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     In the final episode, “Monument”, Dracula’s army arrives in Gresit, with the Bishop being one of the first to bite the dust. The demon who kills him even brings him down a couple pegs before tearing his face off by telling him that Dracula’s invasion was all his fault, and that God is detested with what he’s done. Meanwhile, Trevor is chased into a town square by the mob, only to be saved by Sypha, who reveals her magical abilities. It’s here that Trevor exposes the clergy for their beyond-shady behavior and rally up the townspeople to put together a winning strategy to fight back against the demons. During the skirmish, the ground beneath Trevor and Sypha gives way, sending them to a deeper level of the catacombs. After navigating through several traps and questionably stable environments that further remind Trevor of Castle Dracula, they find a coffin and inside is the gorgeously haired Alucard, which Sypha believes to be the Sleeping Soldier but Trevor mistakes for Dracula (apparently, records of his actual appearance are nonexistent). After testing Trevor’s conviction and fighting ability, he introduces himself to him and Sypha, telling them of how he tried to stop his father a year ago but was put to sleep because of it. He also tells them of how he’s aware of the Sleeping Soldier tale, and that it was told that he will meet a hunter and a scholar, with whom he shall defeat Dracula.

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Alucard

     This conclusion keeps pushing the Castlevania fan service, such as with the use of holy water as a weapon (like in the original game), the revelation of Sypha’s spells, and the official introduction to Alucard, who at one point pulls off a move that’s bounds to make SotN fans giddy. His fight with Trevor is bound to be the action highlight of the season. While light on blood, it makes up for with fun choreography, some of Trevor’s best whip work, and Alucard’s powers and mere presence. The design of the catacombs continues to feature classic Castlevania designs (the gears are a real nice touch), even if it feels a bit extent, as if the show were to say “Hey, check out this thing we did!”. I’m not sure what exactly Trevor’s whip is made of, but it’s specifically designed to kill vampires and other monsters, and by kill, I mean make them EXPLODE with a well-placed strike, which may be the most satisfying thing in this entire season. By having our trio of heroes (all main characters in Dracula’s Curse) come together, the series approaches something resembling a unifying theme of family legacy (verbalized by Alucard); how these three characters’ have a reputation to uphold and how one way or another they’re inescapably tied to them. It’s not exactly thought-provoking, but at least it’s more than what could be expected out of a series that could coast by on references to its source material and action spectale.

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Also, this means that our heroes are a reckless vagrant, a headstrong woman, and a stoic badass. Can’t help but be reminded of something else…

Side-bar: Those villagers seemed a bit too eager to accept what Trevor said about the clergy being secretly evil as truth. Next thing you know, that one priest is getting repeatedly stabbed before Trevor can even get his kicks in.

…and that’s it. Like I said, this feels mostly like setup for potential future seasons, dealing with character backstories, motivations, introductory relationships/dynamics, and establishment of tone. I believe it’s certainly enough to get me on board for an ongoing series, though I feel like they still could’ve done a little more with this; at the very least, establish how the three of them can work/fight together. While the stuff meant to pay lip-service to the games is still there, it never depends on it to keep the engagement up. It’s there, but it doesn’t overshadow the need of making a compelling world and populating it memorable characters. It understands that an adaptation has to pick its battles, and its choices feel like they draw directly from the games, respecting key aspects of the lore, making room for the video-gamey feeling moments and story moments to inform them at the same time. While it’s violent at its core, it goes hand-in-hand with the plot itself rather than existing for its own sake, which is the best kind of fictional violence. While it doesn’t try much new with the themes of genocide and persecution by religious organizations, it blends them well into the fabric of its central character’s story, adding an extra layer of pathos. Best of all, it finds a sweet spot in its tone, where it takes itself seriously enough to make a connection with the viewer, but not serious enough where it takes the fun out of what it’s doing. Let’s not forget that this is based on game about killing monsters with a fucking whip. If I had any other nitpick, it would be that some of the monsters we see are kinda generic demon-like monsters. Maybe they’re saving these for future episodes, and were hoping that just having Dracula (who looks spot-on to the games, BTW) and that one cyclops guy would be enough, but I don’t think it would’ve hurt to throw in, I dunno, some gill-men or those damn Medusa heads.

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     Castlevania Season 1 is certainly worth checking out. Your mileage for the onscreen violence may vary, and it may be a bit too short to suck you in, but it establishes itself as a series first and a videogame specific thing second, making it pretty damn successful as far as video game adaptations go. It presents a lot of promise going forward, so here’s hoping Season 2 builds on it and delivers the goods.

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