I don’t have much experience with Castlevania. I once watched about a third of a Let’s Play of Symphony of the Night, played Castlevania III for as long as it took the first floating Medusa head to appear and knock me into a river, and vaguely remember a game existing on the DS with a giant crab in it. I haven’t exactly been following along with the adventures of the Belmont factory pipeline, an endless supply of vaguely posh blokes with whips and impractical hair traipsing up a hill to spank a bat in a cape, but I get the gist. It’s vampires, right? Dracula? Blood and Holy Water? Stakes through the heart, lightly salted with a hint of garlic? Yeah it’s vampires.
Safe to say, then, that I have very little prior investment for this new Netflix series, and, given I first heard of it about two days after it came out, no real anticipation of anything either. Nevertheless, I was intrigued to find it sitting at a princely 91% on Rotten Tomatoes, with some critics calling it a new gold standard for videogame adaptations. There was even a giddy review from GamesRadar which claimed that ‘it has enhanced the Castlevania franchise in ways a video game could never do’. Aside from a fair amount of damning with faint praise going on, given that game adaptations are notoriously abysmal, and the GR quote being total sycophantic gibberish (pray tell what can an animated series do that a videogame can’t), this is some high praise indeed. So is it any good, or does it reek harder than the goatee of a thousand year old man who only drinks blood?
Castlevania is a four-episode adult animated series that re-tells the story of Castlevania III, with a bit of added backstory from Symphony of the Night and a bit more that’s totally made up. It follows the adventures of Trevor Belmont, exiled vampire hunter, as he bands together with a magician and a plot spoiler to try and stop Dracula’s hordes of monsters from slowly and inefficiently killing everyone on the planet. You might notice that it’s not a very complicated plot, which isn’t surprising since Castlevania III was an NES game that didn’t really have a plot anyway. They even removed the pirate in a belltower, which was probably a wise decision upon reflection.
This simple setup is a good starting point and lends itself to a more character focused affair, as Castlevania has always been one part swashbuckling adventuring to two parts ghastly horrors from alternate dimensions. The potential is there for boundless personal growth and discovery, since all the main characters are introduced with so much implied backstory that I’m surprised they can remember it all without a personal library.
Unfortunately, this never really happens, and ties into my biggest issue with the series – Castlevania is simply far, far too short. Four 25-minute episodes is no time at all to both introduce a world of this size and leave a satisfying self-contained story, or at least not the story that they attempted to tell. The phrase ‘leaves you wanting more’ has been thrown around, but for that to apply it really has to give us something in the first place.
When I said that the series re-tells Castlevania III, what I probably should have said is that it aims to tell the first third of a story based on Castlevania III, with the other eight episodes coming out as a second season at some point. This essentially means that sod all happens in the four episodes we have; the first episode, while quite good, is nothing but backstory and setup, the second and third are mostly expositional filler with about 3 minutes of action thrown in to stave off narcolepsy, and only in the fourth episode do we get the heroes fighting anything supernatural. I’m fairly sure Trevor kills more priests than demons in this series.
Wait, he kills priests? Yes, for some reason Castlevania flips its own source material and makes the ruling religious folk absurdly, cartoonishly evil, being lead by a bishop that wouldn’t look out of place at the head of a Nazi experimentation facility. This is probably an attempt to add more human stakes to what is essentially a big stabby fight against some oversized rodents, or to make an edgy point of some kind (possibly that religion is bad, but that needed implying another billion times before I can be certain). It doesn’t really add anything to the core story, and given that there’s a TV Tropes page for this already maybe it’s not as novel as the writers seem to think it is.
Sadly, this isn’t the only problem with the script. For example, our hero is an arsehole.
Trevor Belmont is presumably intended to be a lovable rogue, an apathetic scoundrel armed with a sarcastic quip or weary sigh for every situation. Unfortunately, he quips sarcastically and sighs wearily in every situation, which becomes annoying rather than endearing. To compound matters, this deliberately posh-voiced British man randomly litters f-bombs throughout his conversations, and monologues about how much he hates things and just wants to be left alone. This only serves to make him dark and edgy at a level of nuance not seen outside of the more depressing corners of Tumblr. It jars with his visual design and constant attempts to help people, and combined with his lack of enthusiasm and the borderline comatose vocal performance from Richard Armitage, Trevor becomes actively unlikable. For crying out loud, Dracula is more developed and sympathetic, and he’s barely in the fucking thing.
Other plot wobbles include the ‘legend’ of a soldier resting under a town for centuries despite him only being there for a single calendar year, leading me to believe that these townsfolk run on advanced dog years or something. This plot point also has a twist that a deafblind newt would be able to see coming if they knew anything at all about either Castlevania III or Symphony of the Night, ruining any tension the series might have been building. Even me saying ‘blonde hair’ is probably a spoiler.
Similarly, there’s a fight towards the end where a magic user creates massive ice walls to ‘trap in’ the demons, which somehow works despite the demons having wings and the ice walls not having a roof. It also begs the question that if you can make 6ft thick walls of ice appear from the ground then why are these demons any trouble at all? Just drop a concrete block on them or something.
On top of this, there seems to be an awful lot of utterly pointless violence. When it happens it’s genuinely disturbing, such as one close-up of a child’s mangled corpse in the first episode that made me feel a bit ill, but this, along with the swearing, feels like an exercise in excess. It’s like they knew that they had an R rating from the get-go and pushed the envelope as hard as they could without it popping open and it’s entrails leaking out, but didn’t integrate it fully into what is a very generic adventure story. None of the gore is necessary; it’s pretty infrequent, is always insanely violent, and all happens either off-screen or to extras who’s entire screen presence is them being ripped to shreds. At one point there’s a market square with intestines as bunting and heads on spikes, which is just absurd. Did the demons kill some people, then instead of killing everyone else they made parade decorations out of the corpses? They must have been in a very jovial mood that evening, those horrifying fanged monsters of the night.
At this stage it’s probably a good time to re-iterate that Castlevania definitely isn’t terrible. In fact it could be amazing if given the right amount of love and care, as the characters all appear to have depth, the world is theoretically huge with a lot of scope for extended adventures and new characters, and the fight scenes are often directed extremely well despite how scarcely they appear. On top of this, some things look really, really cool.
Unfortunately, the majority of things don’t look cool. In fact, some are flat out bad.
A bit of context; Castlevania is a product of two Western production studios (well, technically five, but two did the majority of the work), including the one behind Fairly Odd Parents and Adventure Time. These companies decided to go with a distinctively anime style for this series, presumably on a dare, as it’s a bit of a departure from the aforementioned kids cartoons. Unfortunately, this lack of expertise shows. It really shows.
The action scenes are decent, such as the final fight with its awesome looking whip stuff, and most other things look alright from a distance, but little details will frequently break everything and make the art look frankly amateurish. In the slower scenes some of the geometry can go beserk; in one conversation, I completely missed what they were talking about because I was distracted by the varying dimensions of the room they were in, and how people seemed to completely disappear from it depending on the shot. Sometimes it’s hard not to notice these things.
Here are some examples.
1) Belmont’s face changes from the key frame on the left to the key frame on the right during a conversation scene. During this movement his eyes have gotten bigger and closer together, his nose is now longer and has changed direction completely, now pointing down instead of up, and his shitty hair strand has grown. I don’t even know what’s going on with his ear and sideburn, but they seem to have moved as well. This was the first obviously bad thing I noticed, since it was so weird looking in motion.
2) This old man regains his hairline after being stared at by an angry priest. I think his eyes have changed colour as well but I can’t be sure, and someone’s smashed his nose in with a frying pan.
3) The same old man, when sat down, appears to have a perfectly cylindrical body made entirely out of putty, because the artists drew themselves into a corner with this rounded cloak thing and had no idea how to draw the inside of it. Also, his nose is suddenly straight, his face only occupies the bottom half of his head, and his hairs changed yet again. He also seems to be naked.
4) This things neck is not supposed to be telescopic, and his wing folds into nothingness behind his right arm. Some of the muscle definition changes as well.
These might seem like the most nitpicky nits I’ve ever picked, and while you’d be right, this sort of thing happens incredibly frequently. Maybe none of the artists got on and were assigned their key frames via broken tombola, or the lead artist died on the way back to his home planet, or they all swapped desks one crazy Friday. There’s really no excuse for it.
It doesn’t help when the motion itself is often choppy and stuttery, with surprisingly few inbetween frames for any large movements; for example, the man in the shot below is on screen for a total of three frames, which is barely enough to register his existence before he’s vanished back into the comforting embrace of the void.
This can leave some scenes feeling very static and awkward, or, in the worst examples, leave the viewer with no idea what’s happening because the animation is so jumpy and the art is so baffling. The first episode is largely alright for this, especially anything related to Dracula’s fantastic looking fire powers, but the others can be downright hard to watch at times. For a first stab at an anime style it’s not bad, but it’s also not good by any stretch of the imagination.
On a lighter note, the sound is generally decent, with a fitting orchestral score that swells and fades at the right times, and some pretty solid sound effects, if that’s what you’re into. The voice acting is largely good, although it can vary. As stated before Richard Armitage has apparently fallen asleep in his cereal, and the female speaker sounds like a girl from Leeds attempting an Italian accent. While it’s always nice to hear a variety of rural English accents (ignoring the fact it’s supposed to be set in Romania), some of the plebby farmers can be a bit indecipherable, even for someone who grew up in the north of England. Maybe that’s the point, who knows. Anyway, it’s a nice change of pace from the usual suspects, and I’m glad I didn’t have to listen to Johnny Yong Bosch shout-cry his way through all his scenes again.
Overall, the Netflix Castlevania isn’t particularly bad, but it’s not distinctly good either. It’s suffocatingly short and extremely forgettable, more of a pilot than a real series. What is there lacks polish, with a surprising number of plot holes for such a short series, and the art could do with another editorial meeting or twelve. There’s also not enough Dracula.
If the inevitable second series matches the highest points of the first episode then I’m all in, but as of right now go watch Hellsing Ultimate instead. Castlevania’s just not worth your time.