Review: Netflix’s Castlevania is a blood-soaked love letter to fans
EDITOR’S NOTE: This review contains spoilers
Over the years the story of Castlevania has gotten a bit convoluted. The series started as a fun monster killing platformer, with no backstory needed beyond “hey look. It’s Dracula. Let’s go kill him.” However, Lament of Innocence turned Dracula into a long standing friend of the Belmont family who was seeking revenge on god, and Lords of Shadow turned him into a long lost ancestor of the Belmont clan, and now it’s completely unclear who Dracula really is. Not to mention, the Castlevania series has done so many “what if” and alternate universe games that it’s now hard to tell who the actual protagonists are.
The Castelvania Netflix series decides to do away with this melodramatic anime plotline and go back to a simpler time, when Dracula was just Dracula, and is better off for it. It retells the story of Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse and while you can enjoy the Netflix series having never played the NES original, there are tons of nods and references that will make hardcore fans squeal with delight.
For those of you who missed out on the NES era of Castlevania games, the plot of Dracula’s Curse was astonishingly simple. It’s 1476 and Dracula has begun waging war on humanity with an army of darkness. His sole purpose is to exterminate all of mankind out of some wretched hatred for their very species. Why?
Well we didn’t get an answer to that until Castelvania: Symphony of the Night when we learn that Dracula had fallen in love with a human woman, Lisa. Lisa was a woman of medicine, caring for the people of Europe who had been ravaged by a plague. However, her knowledge eventually branded her as a witch, leading the church to execute her and pushing Dracula to wage war on humanity in revenge.
The thing is, all of this was told in backstory. Fans have put together the general time-line from cut scenes in Symphony of the Night and the Dracula’s Curse instruction manual, but we never actually get to see Lisa on screen. We don’t really know why Dracula fell in love with her or why he was pushed to war. The Netflix series changes all that.
Almost the entirety of the first episode is dedicated to Dracula’s love of Lisa, and her eventual death. It’s revealed that she sought out Dracula to learn the ways of science in a time when most people shunned scientific thought for zealous commitment to the holy ways of the church. Unfortunately, the church itself had become less than holy, falling to greed and corruption.
This is also given as the reason that the Belmont clan was exiled and excommunicated by the church, a plotline that was never explained in Castlevania III. The church despised the Belmont clan for their skill in monster hunting, and fearing that the people would turn to them instead of the church in times of need, they excommunicated the Belmonts in the hopes their clan would eventually die off. After episode one finishes the retelling of Dracula and Lisa’s tragic story, we join our true protagonist, Trevor Belmont, drunk and on his last dime in a bar.
If it wasn’t clear that this was written by Warren Ellis, now it should be.
Dracula vs. Humans
While episode one focused on Dracula’s motivations in his far reaching war on mankind, episodes two through four localize the conflict to one town, Gresit, and its struggles against Dracula’s demon hordes. However, Dracula is never quite frame as the primary antagonist of the series. Rather, its humanity’s own fear and greed that takes the villain spotlight. In fact, Dracula doesn’t even show up in the latter half of the series. This makes his premise something more akin to the zombies in The Walking Dead rather than the big baddy in a monster movie. He is a constant and ever- present threat that makes humanity show their true and horrible nature.
The last four episodes focus on how he meets Syfa Belnades, his eventual wife and the magician from Castelvania III, and Alucard, Dracula’s son and another ally from Castlevania III (although the series, intelligently, uses his character design from the much more popular Symphony of the Night). The Netflix series rebrands Syfa’s order from random witches to a sort of druidic sect of nomads who travel the world, passing down their tradition and helping people in need. Obviously the church uses them as a major scapegoat. Alucard, on the other hand, doesn’t really show up until the latter half of episode 4, and even then it’s only briefly. This may just be the fan in me talking, but his portrayal by James Callis AKA Gaius Baltar from Battlestar Galactica was so amazing, his short screen time is entirely forgivable.
What’s not forgivable, however, is the complete omission of Grant DaNasty, obviously the best character from Castlevania III, but I suppose the series couldn’t be perfect.
The plot is crafted in a way that can be appreciated by anyone, but you get a lot more out of it if you are a long-time fan of the Castlevania series. The references are everywhere. The one time Trevor throws an axe, he throws it in an upward arc. At one point Trevor and Syfa fall onto a pair of rotating gears and have to jump off to avoid getting crushed. Even Alucard’s teleport was animated like a cheap PS1 era special effect, just to press on those nostalgia buttons.
The writing is absolutely amazing. Trevor Belmont is a fantastically witty drunken protagonist. In fact, it’s the show’s wit that hooks you in from fight scene to gory fight scene. As a Castelvania fan you always want to see how they will portray the next character, weapon, stage, or enemy, but if you’re someone who has never played Castelvania before, you’ll still love the way the characters play off each other. By the end of this incredibly bingeable four episode series, you’ll find that you have come to deeply care about the protagonists and spend much of your time hoping they won’t be disemboweled by a stray demon.
Short but bloody sweet
Did I mention that this series was bloody? Because it is. It loves its ultraviolent imagery. In the very first episode you see a baby get cut in half, entrails and all. This isn’t a show for the kids, despite being animated. Think of something along the lines of Ninja Scroll or Berserk but without all the sexually explicit content. If you get squeamish at the sight of blood and gore, you’ll probably want to pass this one up, though I’d implore you to try and stick through it anyway because it’s just that good.
If Castlevania has one flaw, it’s that it’s just too short. The series ends on a cliffhanger with 0 conflicts resolved. Dracula is still on a rampage, the church is still oppressing and exploiting the common folk, the village of Gresit is still in peril, and no actual progress has been made aside from killing a bunch of demons and priests in several rapid fire moments of catharsis. The whole thing feels a bit more like a prologue for a bigger series which, in a sense, it is. It’s already been picked up for a season 2, but we will have to wait until 2018 for that. They say you can measure a series’ quality by how much it leaves the audience wanting more, and if that’s the case, Castlevania is a solid 10 out of 10.
If anything, it left me sad that the IP has been repeatedly mismanaged by Konami in recent years. It reminded me that I love these characters, love this setting, and love the franchise in general. I hope that the success of this series will cause Konami to revisit the franchise again, and not as some sort of pachinko machine.