Boy, do I love Castlevania. But you know what I don’t love? Crappy cash-in movies based off my favourite franchises.
I don’t trust Hollywood with any of my beloved IPs for a second, not after what they did to Warcraft and Monster Hunter. When I heard Netflix was adapting Castlevania into its own anime series, my immediate reaction was to beg God not to let Capcom whore out their product just to make a quick buck.
But really, I was being a negative Nancy. Whilst movie adaptations of videogames suck pretty much 100% of the time, TV series’ seem to have much better luck. Plus, Netflix’s track record is already pretty good for this kind of thing. I mean, the Witcher turned out pretty well, right? So maybe the Castlevania Netflix series won’t be that bad?
Well it wasn’t that bad. It was actually really good! Most of the time anyway.
I like my anime how I like my men – dark, brooding, gothic
If there’s one word I would use to describe Castlevania, it would be sophisticated. Gone are at lot of the more
cringy eccentric anime tropes; instead, we get an anime that clearly takes itself quite seriously.
Visually, the presentation here is stunning. The art and animation takes on a beautiful, mature style – no kawaii schoolgirls in overly-short school skirts here, no sir. Instead we get a gloomy, gothic aesthetic which fits in perfectly with the rest of the Castlevania universe.
Like any Castlevania anime should be, the series is full of high-intensity action sequences, all of which are beautifully choreographed and seasoned with a generous helping of gratuitous gore. We have come a long way from the goofy pixel skeletons and bedsheet ghosts of the 80s – this is Castlevania all grown-up; life is short, everything is terrible and everybody’s out to murder one another. It’s even got some saucy vampire sex scenes and who doesn’t love those?
The voice acting and dialogue is like nothing I’ve ever heard before. The producers clearly encouraged the voice actors to really make each characters voice their own – the voices are low in the mix, rustic and heavily accented in classic English dialects, so much so that it wouldn’t surprise me if non-native English speakers (including Americans) needed to use subtitles to understand some of it. As bizarre as that sounds, I found it gives the series personality and distinguishes it from the more traditional over-acted anime style.
As for the writing itself, for an anime set in the dark ages, it has a surprisingly humorous and down-to-earth tone. If there are two things that Brits like myself go in for, it’s cursing and sarcasm, and Castlevania has plenty of both.
Speaking of characters, the first two seasons of Castlevania are loosely based on the third Castlevania game on NES, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. With the exception of Grant who is missing, the series follows the game’s three protagonists: Trevor Belmont, the magician Sypha and Dracula’s son, Alucard, on a quest to defeat Dracula (again). It’s so, so awesome to see the classic trio brought to life in a way that really allows us to explore their characters beyond being a collection of vaguely human-shaped pixels on a TV screen. As anime protagonists go, they are all extremely likeable. The producers did a fantastic job building the relationship between the three, as unlikely allies thrust together in the face of adversity, in an entertaining and, more importantly, believable way. The funny love-hate relationship between Alucard and Trevor might be my favourite part of the whole show.
One of my favourite things about the series is finding the various Eastereggs hidden throughout the show. Picking out the subtle references to games in the franchise was a lot of fun, but I liked that it was subtle and certainly not necessary to understand the plot or the characters – just a sly little nod and a wink. They’re mostly hidden in the character’s weapons, costumes, abilities and locations: Alucard’s magical sword from Symphony of the Night, the infamous clock tower level from Castlevania III, even the spinny-boomerang special weapon from the NES games makes an appearance. If you look closely at Dracula’s castle, you can see it’s ripped straight from Symphony of the Night, right down to the inverted towers and turrets. So awesome!
Dracula: Simultaneously the best and the worst character in the show.
The Belmonts might be the ones you see all over all the Castlevania marketing but we all know the real star of the show is Dracula himself. Yet unfortunately, his character seems to be one of the least developed of the whole series, and the writers don’t give him anywhere near the attention he deserves. I would have loved to see Dracula’s relationship with his beloved wife Lisa and his son Alcucard explored in greater detail – the show never really shows us anything about what their life was like as a family.
Even when Dracula is clearly established through the story as being the most powerful vampire in existence, we barely ever get to see him in action outside of the opening episode and the season two finale – all he does is sit and mooch around his ginormous castle whilst the side characters do all the work.
But even in spite of how weak Dracula’s character is, it still doesn’t stop the show from almost falling apart once he is ‘removed from play’ at the end of season 2. I won’t spoil the whats, whys and hows, all I’ll say is that it’s only after Dracula disappears in season 3 does it become clear how much of the show’s quality was riding on him. Without him, the storytelling suffers a huge and sudden dip in quality.
As season 2 ends and the writers run out of source material from Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, they attempt to keep the show going by
making stuff up writing their own original plot. They shift the show’s focus away from Dracula and Team Trevor and zone in on side characters and miscellaneous plot arcs that are just nowhere near as interesting as what was going on inside Dracula’s castle in seasons 1 and 2. The Styrian vampires, the Japanese vampire hunters, the residents of Lindenfield; they are all poor substitutes for Dracula and Team Trevor, who get less time than ever together onscreen despite them being the only ones who might have been able to redeem the season.
Dracula always was and always will be the ‘final boss’ of any Castlevania game or show. Is it only to be expected then that the show would lose its momentum without him there as a leviathan against whom the rest of the characters could be framed.
Thankfully, Season 3 has a very satisfying and climactic ending as a reward for having made it through the previous 4 hours of filler. By the time Season 4 comes around, the story falls back into it’s stride, and whilst it never quite manages to equal Seasons 1 and 2 in terms of quality, it does tie up its lose ends, with plenty of twists and turns, and a set-piece Hollywood ending that is pretty epic if a little bit ridiculous.
Videogames Make Me Happy concludes… You don’t need to like anime to love Castlevania
It seems the writers of Castlevania fell into the same trap as the writers of Game of Thrones – they found out that making a great show out of source material written by someone else much more talented than you is a lot easier than making a great show out of source material you’ve written yourself from scratch.
Regardless, Castlevania is still a great anime. The key offerings are its standout, break-the-mould dialogue and gorgeous visuals – extra points are awarded for the sheer nerdiness of the whole affair, and for hopefully introducing new blood into the Castlevania fandom.
Most of all, Castlevania is an anime that non-anime fans will find easy to enjoy. It feels like “proper” television in a way that traditional anime doesn’t – some members of the community say that Castlevania isn’t a proper anime at all, which could be either a compliment or an insult depending on your perspective.
The best of what the series has to offer can be experienced by the end of season 2, so even if you don’t have the energy to invest in all four seasons, seasons 1 and 2 are definitely worth your time.