Save State: Dusk or Dawn Gaming?

Welcome to Save State, where Dracula’s castle parked itself outside my house on the lawn. It wouldn’t be so bad if not for the wailing and gnashing of teeth. In the last couple weeks, I stumbled across a my old DS games case that had all of my Castlevania games in it. Among them was Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, a game which I bought over ten years ago but never actually finished playing. I determined to do so now, not just because my driveway was blocked or because of self quarantine, but because I actually recall quite enjoying what little of the game I played at the time.

Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia was like a return to form for the Castelvania series: Portrait of Ruin, this game’s predecessor, was quite fun but very easy. Order of Ecclesia, on a fresh save file, should boast a reasonable difficulty level that requires you learn boss patterns rather than leveling up and brute forcing them. Order of Ecclesia also has more linear sidescrolling segments, especially at the beginning of the game, than previous Castlevanias like Symphony of the Night or Dawn of Sorrow, but Ecclesia still manages to maintain a strong sense of exploration thanks to liberal use of side quests and other activities you can do as you progress through the game.

In Order of Ecclesia, you control Shanoa, a spell caster from a church who believes they are the only ones who can slay Dracula in the absence of the Belmonts. Shanoa is able to slay enemies and acquire glyphs, which function very similarly to Soma’s souls from Aria and Dawn of Shadow, and like in many Castlevania games she is able to wield swords, greataxes, lances, hammers, and many more. Shanoa also packs some pretty devastating magic that ranges from long distance damage spells, to complete breaking the game with good equipment synergies, but that’s pretty much par for the course.

What really sets Order of Ecclesia apart from the rest of the DS Castlevania titles is how much they added to the level designs- not being bound by Dracula’s castle until the last third or so of the game allows for more visually distinct locations. You’re also encouraged to explore practically everything, because there are actually sidequests that you can be given all throughout the game, and venturing back through areas you’ve previously explored to find new goodies is also additionally rewarding with the glyph system, because you can power up your glyphs by repeatedly killing the enemy that gave them to you. So the core backtracking for new items that is inherent to many Metroidvanias is doubly so rewarding here, but less grindy than Dawn of Sorrow.

Players have armor and glyphs to equip, as well as items you can carry, but that doesn’t keep Order of Ecclesia from being one of the harder Castlevania titles with RPG elements. Enemies can resist physical or magic attacks, so brute forcing is substantially more difficult especially early game, because if you really only use blunt weapons and the enemies in the next passage almost universally resist those, odds are you’re going to have an insanely difficult time. The same holds true for elements, as well, and the way Order of Ecclesia gets around this is impressively transparent: Killing an enemy reveals its strengths and weaknesses to you, plus drop rates and stats. Order of Ecclesia basically demands that you deal damage using a target’s weakness in order to survive, and the difficulty progresses along a pretty steady curve all throughout the story campaign.

Also interestingly, because the glyphs form the weapons and spells Shanoa uses, the game really never puts you into a place where the player can get stuck. If enemies in an area all resist slash damage, there’s never a chance that players could accidentally sell all of their slash weapons and get stuck, somehow. You will always have the tools at your disposal, it’s simply up to the player to be flexible, modify your loadouts, and overcome the challenges- or you will meet the game over screen.

The visuals of Order of Ecclesia are top notch- the 2D sprites still hold up today, and while the 3D transitions or effects do look a little inelegant by today’s standards, the game still looks gorgeous in spite of this. The soundtrack is also one of the best in the series, with rich gothic themes ever present throughout your adventure.

Order of Ecclesia is easily one of the best Metroidvanias that I had never had the opportunity to really sink my teeth into until now. In fact, I thought quite highly of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, and a lot of elements from that game are present in Order of Ecclesia, sometimes more successfully implemented, other times less so. The environments and challenge of Order of Ecclesia is tough but never unfair, so if you felt that Bloodstained was kind of underwhelming in difficulty, Ecclesia is an easy recommendation, as it has replaced Aria of Sorrow as my favorite Metroidvania title.

The second game we’ll talk about this one is one that isn’t exactly extremely old: Lapis x Labyrinth, on the Nintendo Switch.

Lapis x Labyrinth is a type of action RPG that’s equally flashy, simplistic, and addicting due to its abundance of rogue-lite and constantly giving positive visual feedback via new loot or jewels. Smacking enemies? Jewels. Smack enough enemies? Now everything you hit explodes into jewels. In fact, the positive visual feedback this game gives you is so overwhelming at times that it can be kind of hard to tell what’s going on through the cascade of jewels and coins raining down from the top of the screen! It’s effectively Dynasty Warriors in a platformer, as it’s addicting but also quite repetitive.

The way that Lapis x Labyrinth largely separates itself from its contemporaries by giving you up to four adorable chibi characters to control- and you control them by stacking them one on top of the other and running around caves. This memorable gimmick allows you to just straight up toss your party members for an assist attack, and each member contributes a jump, so not just your fighting power but your mobility is increased by having your full party of four. You control the leader, but can swap control through the list at almost any time, and perform a mixture of weak and strong hits by alternating the attack buttons.

With your characters chosen, you descend into a dungeon- and you start from level 1 each time and build your way up as you progression through the many floors of your selected level. This is where the roguelite elements come in, as your levels are soft-reset every time you pick a level. Assuming you’re sufficiently geared, you should be able to easily level and make your way to the boss of whatever stage of the dungeon you selected. While this game does have RPG elements, it’s effectively an action-platformer. This particular gameplay loop of select a dungeon and get treasure chests and loot form the core loop of the game, and your performance, like how high of a score you built, determines how many of the treasure chests you get to open once you’ve completed the levels.

There are multiple character classes and you gear them up with loot found in the dungeons, and you can pretty much pick whatever you want, but always save a slot for the Shielder. He’s basically the only way to get hit and preserve your combos, as there is no dodge button. Each of the characters you create can have their stats individually boosted by equipped items, grimoires that provide boosts to stats, and temporary boosts by snacks that you can only use while in the dungeon. There is an upgrade system that is effectively spending money to buff stats, which becomes more and more valuable as you progress in the game as the levels become quite challenging pretty quickly if you’re undergeared.

Killing enemies and scoring treasure chests gives you treasure points, which are then multiplied by your combo and added to your overall score which determines your rank at the end of a dungeon run. Taking any damage sets the treasure combo to 0- which obviously lowers your overall score. At the end of each stage, you get a set number of keys determined by your rank, which you can then use to unlock the treasure chests you found throughout the stages- so for example, going through a level while finding every chest without getting hit will typically give you an SSS rank and 9 keys. So performing well also means you get more gear- so efficient farming means you need to play clean.

While playing Lapis x Labyrinth, you may get a fever- and the only cure is more treasure (maybe the treasure is a cowbell?). Eliminating enemies fills your fever meter, which gives you invulnerability, fireworks, and causes every enemy you so much as flick to spew jewels all over the screen like you’ve just opened a glitter bomb stuffed full of dopamine. But yes- the game just outright lets you become invincible for a short time to let you track up treasure combos and points. There is also the EX Meter you can fill which lets you consume it for powerful attacks, though you can equip items that give it a secondary use. There’s also the action gauge, which primarily gets consumed by chucking your teammates at enemies for powerful assists, though other equipped items may also consume your action gauge for various reason.

There’s a metric ton of loot to acquire as you play through Lapis x Labyrinth. Each piece of gear for each of your characters can have different stats and effects- Dark Contract items can cause your characters to consume the EX Meter to deal increased damage, effectively sacrificing room clearing get out of jail free cards for a slight damage boost. I never particularly found these worthwhile, honestly. Some skills like blocking will consume the action gauge while you hold it, too, so it’s important to know what you can do and at what time, and always read your gear descriptions.

The visual aesthetic of Lapis x Labyrinth is if someone shoved confetti bombs inside pinatas, and then shoved those inside of slot machines, and placed those slot machines into your living room. This game is a lot to look at, visually. The UI is just kind of docked off to the top of the screen and, when you’re looking at it, it performs admirably. The issue is that getting hit ruins your combos, which in turns harms your effectiveness in grinding, which means you’re going to spend a lot less time looking at the top of the screen and more watching an enemy’s every move so you don’t get hit. Unfortunately, the screen can become so busy that you can get love-tapped without even noticing, which sometimes can cause one of your characters to fall off your stack, and you just never notice it happened. A “freeze frame” or something when a character is ejected or dies would have been preferable, but this is a mostly minor gripe.

For the most part, what you do in the first hour of the game will be what you do in the 50th. It’s in this way that Lapis x Labyrinth is pretty repetitive, though the grind for gear can be addictive in spite of this. The game is bright, cheery, and the constant carrot-and-stick approach to upgrades can easily lure the player along for many hours. Lapis x Labyrinth is effectively what you would get if you took Maplestory’s visuals, Diablo’s loot, and Dynasty Warriors and tossed them all into a blender. This is distilled platforming action cake with loot addiction as frosting. The game is outright repetitive, but if you’re the type to enjoy running Greater Rifts in Diablo or mapping in Path of Exile, Lapis x Labyrinth might be a great time killer for you at a moderate price.

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