Real Talk By: CMack Tha Don
(Warning: this review may contain minor spoilers.)
Castlevania has been a video game standard for over 30 years since the release of the very first game in 1986. It’s been a hit with gamers and critics alike, and was one of the very first widely successful games with a horror motif. Even though vampires, ghouls, and the man himself, Dracula, have been staples of movies and books for over 100 years, Castlevania itself hasn’t had much media outside the game franchise until now, with the release of the direct-to-Netflix anime written by comic book author Warren Ellis, simply called “Castlevania”.
Castlevania on Netflix draws heavily from the third Castlevania game, Dracula’s Curse, made in 1989 for the original Nintendo. The time period, most of the plot, and the lead character, Trevor C. Belmont of the famous vampire hunting Belmont clan are all lifted from Castlevania 3, with some elements also inspired from the famous 1997 Playstation Vania release: Symphony of the Night.
With such a long history in modern gaming, a lot of people, including myself were anticipating this animated release pretty heavily, and I can say that for fans of the games: it’s worth checking out. Casual viewers, and especially non-gamers or anime fans will probably not bother at all (which is fine, because a lot of the majorly successful video game adaptations lose a lot of the source material when they cater to mainstream audiences *hackResidentEvilokaynowhack*!!).
The most jarring thing you’ll notice when you pull up the show on your Netflix profile is that what’s called a “season” is really 4, 23 minute long episodes that could’ve easily been condensed into a movie. The day it was released, it was announced that we’ll see a second 8 episode season, but that could be a year from now. A 12 episode season is about standard, so putting out 4 episodes and waiting on only 8 more seems like a tease for fans, and very rushed and unorganized. Maybe the idea was to get people interested and hooked with these 4, but even from a decently enthused fan who knows the game’s reputation, that might not be enough.
A lot of things about the show are uneven: the animation and art style is good for the most part, the colors remind me of the game, and the settings have a great gothic look that will remind players of the stages you play through, but when the characters aren’t moving or fighting, you can see that some corners were cut, especially during walking, crowd, or dialogue scenes.
The voice-acting brags some pretty decent industry pros, including British star Richard Armitage from The Hobbit franchise, as well as Play Legit favorite and “Rambo” legend Graham McTavish as Dracula, amongst others. Either the voice director didn’t coach the actors well, or the sound mixing is off, because unlike any other animated project I’ve ever watched, I actually had some trouble understanding the mumbling lines of some of the voices in the show. At the end of some lines, the volume of the actor will drop off, sometimes drowned out by the music of the show. As far as I know, my years of loud concerts and video game soundtracks pumped through headphones hasn’t caught up with me yet, so I’m pretty sure it’s not just me. I don’t know what part of the production was responsible for the voices sounding this way, but sometimes after characters speak, you’ll be left more in the dark than the catacombs of Dracula’s castle.
(Side observation: Why does the character Sypha Belnades, who is a citizen of Wallachia where it takes place, have a thick Eastern European accent and nobody else in the town/country does? She sounds like an extra from an 80’s Bond Film set in Russia, with everyone else sounding English.)
The pace of this show is the largest thing that might throw you off from sticking with it, and will probably be what stakes the interest of casual fans in the heart. With only 4 episodes, a lot of time is spent on dialogue and not a lot on plot or character development, with several long scenes devoted to discussion about what we already know is happening, as well meaningless exchanges that either go in circles or contribute nothing to the story (there’s a long scene about the nighttime habits of local villagers in episode 2 that goes on forever that could’ve been funny with some editing). Sometimes the show devotes a lot of time to what seem like simple exposition scenes, and rush past other things that you would think are important and need explanation, like the development of Dracula’s relationship with a human woman, and why the heck he gets convinced to wander the Earth like a mortal for over a year, leaving her unprotected.
(Side observation: Why didn’t Dracula at least try to convince Lisa into turning into a vampire like him, so she would have powers as well? Seems like him at least thinking of the idea would be something the show would want to discuss.)
When there’s action and intrigue, the show picks up and is legitimately interesting, but it’s an uphill battle to get there at times, and not enough interesting character building or conflict happens at those times when characters aren’t slaying monsters. Even before some of the great fight scenes, you have very long, droning scenes of dialogue that seem forced considering it’s about to jump off.
Episodes 1, where the conflict and story is built and everything is introduced, and 4, are the best, with 2 and 3 being mostly filler. Almost everything that happens in those 2 in-between episodes could’ve been covered in part of 1 episode instead, leaving more time for the battle against Dracula’s armies.
(Side observation: Episode 1 has an awesome, well animated, and creepy full length intro-theme that really sets the tone, and the other episodes don’t, why? Theme songs can be one of the best moments of any TV show.)
I totally understand the desire to world-build and set the stage, and it’s important not to have non-stop action, and flesh out the story, but if you’re not going to have horror-action in a horror-action game inspired anime, then what’s in-between had better be important information and tense character-building filled scenes, or something more interesting than the downtimes of this show. It wouldn’t be such a complaint if it were a standard 13 episode season, but considering the anticipation and the 4-episode length, it leaves you wondering “Really? That’s it?” at the end. Considering the slow pace of the other episodes, it might not be enough to have some viewers keep their teeth sunk in until another few months, if not year, when those other 8 episodes are released.
Overall, when Castlevania is good, it’s good. When they happen, the action and platforming segments are great. Episode 4 had one of the best animated fight scenes I’ve seen in a very long time, and Dracula, who if you haven’t played the Vania games, is awesome when he uses his almost god-like powers to terrorize the citizens of Wallachia. Dracula in this series isn’t just a simple bloodsucker, he’s like a Swiss-Army Knife of superpowers, and the colors and animation style when he lets loose looks great. More time should’ve been spent on the characters worrying and wondering how exactly mere mortals can possibly beat a being that powerful, to make things more tense. Episodes 1 and 4 have enough good content to make me want to stick with it, but again, I couldn’t blame anyone for dropping off after this “season” or during the filler episodes. If it were up to me, for only offering 4 to begin with, I would have at least a 13 episode second season, and those new episodes had better bring it. This isn’t that tough of a story to adapt, and they have a good groundwork for it, they just need to pace it right and make the best use of the long storyline from the games, because there’s lots of excellent material there they can mine.
For having pacing issues that shamble along slower than the walking undead and some confusing plot choices and shortcuts taken during the animation, as well as a too-quick microseason, Castlevania on Netflix slays 2.5 MFs out of 5. I’d even put it slightly above half if we did that sort of thing at Play Legit (we like round numbers and round figures, fool, don’t wait on that), but I can’t justify it having a full 3. It was still good enough at moments to have me stay with it until the next season, but if the new episodes don’t have the quality content of episodes 1 and 4, the animated Castlevania can stay in the crypt.
Castlevania Season 1 Gets
2.5 out of 5