This was a Christmas present, and my brother insisted I play it before he went back to school for the new semester, so I did. I have always had a healthy respect for the Castlevania series, even though I didn't have much of a personal history with the games. For a long while this series appeared only on Nintendo systems so my first exposure to Castlevania was at a friend's house where I learned very early on that the Belmont clan never learned to swim. Then miracle of miracles, Castlevania appeared on the Genesis as Castlevania Bloodlines. Now that I've done some research on the series I can see that Bloodlines is perhaps the bastard child of the bunch (it's divided into linear stages!), but at the time I was just happy to finally play a Castlevania game. Of course, though, being an action game, I sucked at it and never got to the end.
Fast forward several years. With the dawning of the 128-bit era (Dreamcast and onward I suppose) I discovered that I suddenly could play action games again. And I don't mean just play, but actually complete; something that was virtually impossible for me to do before. I didn't know if it was because I had started working in the video game industry or not (by this time I had completed Prince of Persia 3D due to my job and it's the sort of game I would've never thought possible before), but I think some of it might have to do with games being more forgiving. Characters can keep inventories now so I can stow a healing item for later if I don't need it immediately, and there are save points so in case a particular mission goes bad I don't have to start from the beginning. And there was something else.
E3. The E3 convention let me try before I buy. True, that's what rentals are for, but rentals still cost money and I don't want to pay for a game I'll quit before an hour's even passed. So at E3 2003 I did my usual run of checking out all the games (mostly RPGs) I might be interested in for the coming year. Since I had played Devil May Cry at E3 2001 and subsequently bought and enjoyed it, I was hoping for a similarly interesting action game I could also beat. At the Konami booth I found Castlevania: Lament of Innocence, and that looked to be just the ticket. (I had even joked with several of my coworkers that I wanted to run off with the Leon Belmont standee at the end of the convention.) My brother had also played Lament of Innocence at E3 and apparently decided it was a good game to get me as a Christmas present (it's not like he didn't know I already wanted it ^_^) and that took care of that.
Aside from being a nifty action game where I can slay undead (always a high point with me) Lament of Innocence was billed as the origin story of the Belmont clan's war against vampires. Sure I might have missed most of the intervening installments (prior to Aria of Sorrow, Bloodlines was the furthest in the future the series had gone), but it's hard to miss out on anything when playing the chronologically earliest installment in the series.
I was a bit surprised to discover that this first mega-vampire to face a Belmont was not Dracula, but then as was wisely pointed out to me, Dracula simply hadn't been born yet in the 11th century. The man who would later be known as Dracula would not be born until the 15th century. Not that continuity bothered the Castlevania series much before (Konami's official timeline put Sonia Belmont, the first to fight Dracula, at 1450 AD, while Vlad the Impaler was still very much alive). And actually, I had a bit of an issue with the end of Lament of Innocence because of this, which I'll get to later.
Rather than the gameplay, or even the story itself, perhaps the first thing that struck me when I first loaded up Lament of Innocence is that it actually has dual language features. Yes, for all those people who hate American dubbing, there is the option to play in Japanese. Subtitles for both languages are in English. I had to think about this for a while because if I haven't listened a dub before, I generally have no preference which language I listen in. I just watch whatever is shown me. Here I actually could make a choice. I initially decided English, just because that's the default language I hear things in, but at the last minute switched to Japanese, reasoning that that was the original language the script was meant to be performed in and that my Japanese language skills could use the practice anyway. And incidentally, there was one line at E3 where Leon said (in English), "Then I'll kill you and the night!" That line sounds pretty ridiculous anyway because, as people at the convention readily quipped, just how do you kill the night? But in Japanese the actor doesn't emphasize the word "and" (which draws undue attention to the night part) and indeed doesn't emphasize any one of the words more than the others. His whole mannerism is different. If I play through Lament of Innocence again as Leon (I've since unlocked the alternate character Joachim) I'd like to do so in English and see what other differences I can find.
Having chosen my language and started playing, there was something else I noticed (perhaps wrongly considering this is an action game) about Lament of Innocence. I wasn't getting enough cut scenes/plot in my game. The opening scene was fine, but when I (as Leon) was told that I would need to defeat five generals to open the path to Walter's inner sanctum I was understandably irritated, because the five generals and their five areas in the castle could be taken in any order, and that meant one thing: whatever happened in one would have no bearing on the other, and thus plot revelations could not build on each other. Maybe I'm just spoiled by all my RPGs, but Devil May Cry seemed to have more little cut scenes worked into the game, where as Lament of Innocence only had them before and after boss fights and one when Leon is reunited with Sara (though granted they are much longer). Maybe to DMC did that too, but there were more boss fights since Dante had over a dozen of them and multiple times with the same boss, which allowed for more conversation between enemies before they died on him. I guess what I might be getting at is that Devil May Cry's format allowed the player to get things in smaller bit-sized chunks than Lament of Innocence did. I would have rather had the cut scenes a little shorter and more liberally sprinkled throughout the game.
Lament of Innocence casts Leon Belmont as the first of the Belmont vampire slayers. In an interesting bit of historial flavor, he starts out as a knight in service to the church, but upon learning that his fiancee has been kidnapped, he gives up his rank and title so he can go rescue her (because the church is too busy with the Crusades to allow him to take care of smaller problems at home). The funny thing is the whole way it's been presented. Leon's friend Mathias tells him that his fiancee, Sara, has been kidnapped by a vampire that has set up shop in Leon's domain. What is never explained is why Leon never asked Mathias how he came upon this bit of information. Nor does the game ever mention that Leon noticed his fiancee was even missing. It sounds like Mathias told him Sara was gone and then Leon took him at his word and ran off to save her. Now I know that Leon doesn't really have any reason to disbelieve his best friend, but you'd think he'd at least check for himself that Sara is really gone in the vain hope that Mathias was wrong. Maybe he did this "off-camera" but it just struck me as rather funny. What if Sara was really still at home and Mathias just sent him off on a wild goose chase so the two of them could get together and be rid of Leon at the same time?
The prologue is actually quite important though (despite hardly being mentioned once the game has begun), because all the storytelling explaining the history of Leon and Mathias, including the untimely death of Mathias's wife Elisabetha, comes into play at the very end. The master of the castle who kidnapped Sara is Walter, but after Walter's defeat, Mathias appears, having used the power of the Crimson Stone to make the fallen Walter's power his own. Mathias, it turns out, engineered the whole thing. I don't know how he managed to convince Walter to kidnap Sara, but apparantly the whole thing was conceived to get Leon to kill Walter, which Mathias knew Leon was capable of doing if given the right motivation. Mathis gives a good speech about how God screwed him over, depriving him of the love of his life, and how he'll now life forever to spite the power of God, but he makes a mistake in offering Leon immortality as a vampire. Aside from the fact Leon personally determines that an eternal life without Sara would be a hell anyway, Mathias should have considered that Leon wouldn't agree to join forces with someone who planned for Sara to die as part of his own personal plans to gain immortality. Unlike Mathias, Leon wasn't screwed by an act of God. He lost his love to the vengeance of his best friend.
When I first started playing the game I actually expected to rescue Sara. Perhaps in a way I was naive, like Leon. But while talking with my brother about the game I told him "I think it would be kinda nice if Sara died." Not nice for Leon or the player of course, but as a story point. I'm a writer. I can't help myself from thinking like that. And also, I knew that something terrible would have to happen in order for Leon to swear his clan to forever fight the vampires wherever they appear (because let's be realistic, Dracula isn't around all the time and they need to practice). The only thing holding me back was that I figured Leon was the budding patriarch of the Belmont vampire hunting clan and well, he hadn't married Sara yet and obviously needed to do some procreating in order to have the future clan members who would take up the hunt. Of course, Leon's still young and attractive (if a medieval girl will go for a broody type who spends more time hunting the dead than minding the homestead) so he'd probably get married eventually anyway, but it's much more romantic thinking he'd never get over Sara. ;)
When Walter gave Sara back to Leon I knew it was too easy, something had to be wrong with her. And of course, she had been bitten and would turn into a vampire shortly... unless Leon killed her. But that allows for the genesis of the Vampire Killer whip that so many Belmonts have used. It's always been rather silly that the Belmonts have used a whip against all manner of enemies when in reality the whip is not a very effective weapon at all. It's good for some things to be sure, but a zombie's not going to be intimidated by any fancy whip cracking and those old bones don't feel pain. Even before Sara's death the whip is created with alchemy, so it's inordinary by that measure, but with her willing death at the lash of Leon's whip (that part was kinda hokey--bad enough he had to kill her, but with a whip?), her now-tainted soul infuses the weapon with a hatred of the children of the night and thus the Vampire Killer is born. So if you think about it, Sara's spirit is with every Belmont who ever picked up the whip.
The scene where Sara died also brought up another point, why this game is called "Lament of Innocence." I had never thought to wonder who's innocence it was. Since Symphony of the Night all the Castlevania games have had poetic subtitles, usually along the lines of pieces of music. There was no need to wonder why a particular game had a particular title other than it was pretty, but with Lament of Innocence, there is a definite reason why. It's Leon's innocence that is lost. And that's a bit ironic in a way since by the time he goes in there he's already a seasoned knight and presumably knows what he's getting into. He might not know exactly how he's going to do it, but he knows the risks and is willing to face them. But losing Sara wasn't one of his options. He might die trying to reach her, but I don't think the thought ever occurred to him he might find her only in time to see her die. Killing the vampire would be victory, but it wasn't supposed to have been at the cost of Sara's life and at his own hands at that.
As a side note, I'd have to remark that the Japanese version of this game had no subtitle. It was just called Castlevania, probably because in Japan the main series is called Demon Castle Dracula and since there's no Dracula in this game, let alone his castle, they needed a title change and used the American name. So in chosing the "Lament of Innocence" subtitle, the US producers had remarkable taste in picking a name. If I'm not mistaken, "Lament of Innocence" is also the title of the music track that plays on the second floor of Walter's castle after Sara has died. (Interestingly enough, the Japanese Harmony of Dissonance and Aria of Sorrow also sport the Castlevania name, though none of the previous installments did. The Playstation2 Castlevania still has no subtitle though, whereas the GBA games did.)
At the end of the game, Mathias flies away as a newly made vampire, leaving Leon to die at Death's hands, and Leon swears that he and his kinsmen will hunt his former friend Mathias. After the credits roll, an epilogue plays saying that the Belmont clan would not encounter Mathias again for centuries and that in the meantime Mathias went into hiding, eventually acquiring the name of Lord of the Vampires or something such. I thought this might be interesting, setting up for a different vampire villain that the Castlevania games could use to allow for more games prior to the 15th century (because if you've ever looked at the Castlevania timeline it's damn crowded).
But then it was brought to my attention that Konami might have actually been setting up Mathias to become Dracula. While it does have a poetic ring to it, shoulder friend of the clan patriarch becomes the nemesis the Belmonts hunt for countless centuries, this is a problem because of 1) Dracula not being born until the 15th century and 2) even if Konami wanted to say their Dracula is not the "real world" Dracula, they can't because Castlevania Bloodlines linked the Bram Stoker novel to the Castlevania series. (And actually, if you look at the Castlevania timeline, there is no game set during the 19th century when Dracula should do his 100-year revival because that's when the book takes place.) I know at times there's a point where it may be better to chuck continuity for the sake of a better story, but it's not something I would be happy about. Since Mathis is not flatly called Dracula in the epilogue, I prefer to look at them as two separate vampires until some future game explicitly spells out otherwise.
To be fair to the Mathias is Dracula camp though, Mathias does control Death, who has served as Dracula's minion in all previous Castlevania games. Death claims he obeys the master of the Crimson Stone, who in this case happens to be Mathias. I have been unable to discover any information of Dracula possessing a Crimson Stone in previous games, but I don't think Death has ever been expanded upon as anything other than a boss who always appears in a Castlevania game. My own thought upon completing the game was that at some point in the 15th century Dracula acquires the Stone, probably after some Belmont finally took down Mathias. Having Death obey the master of the Crismon Stone worked better for Lament of Innocence than arbitrarily putting him in the game just to make it Castlevania, especially since the head vampire of the castle is Walter instead of Dracula.
As a final minor thought, I was rather miffed the Philosopher's Stone didn't appear in this game. It was only mentioned in passing, but since the Crimson and Ebony Stones were created in pursuit of that holy grail of alchemy I thought the Philosopher's Stone might have been a hidden item. Hm... now that I think about it, I don't think we ever see what happened to the Ebony Stone. I guess Leon must've shattered it because the eternal night lifted from the forest around Walter's castle.