Release Date: October 29, 2020
Developer: Migami Games
Platform: Switch (reviewed), PC
What a Horrible Night to Have a Curse
Few series evoke as much nostalgia for those who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s as Castlevania. The 2D action-platformers (specifically the NES trilogy) were hugely influential. Not only for their gameplay, though, but for their dark, gothic atmosphere (as close as you’re going to get with an 8-bit game, at least) and catchy music. Migami Games, an independent French developer, has its roots in unofficial Castlevania games such as Castlevania: The Lecarde Chronicles. So, it’s only natural that their latest game, Wallachia: Reign of Dracula, draws heavy inspiration from the classic series.
Wallachia Is Like A “Contravania”
Wallachia is the story of Elcin, a young woman in the 15th century who is on a quest for vengeance after Prince Vlad Dracula and his troops burn down her village and kidnap her brother. The story is rather barebones, with the occasional cutscene between levels, but that isn’t the focus here. Wallachia is a loving tribute to classic arcade “run ‘n gun” games such as Contra and Rolling Thunder, but with a gothic aesthetic straight out of one of Simon Belmont’s adventures.
Elcin is an extremely versatile character with many attacks and techniques at her disposal. She can run, slide, and double-jump her way through levels. And it's all while using her bow to rapidly fire a steady stream of arrows, which is her main form of attack. A sword attack is also available, but is best used for smaller or closer enemies. Unlike the games Wallachia draws inspiration from, this isn’t a “one hit kill” sort of action game. Elcin can withstand at least four hits before dying, but that doesn’t mean the game is a cakewalk in any capacity.
Who Needs a Whip When You've Got a Bow?
Beyond the simple “run ‘n gun” gameplay, there are plenty of power-ups and special attacks available. Crystals collected throughout the levels can be used to summon companions (including a badass wolf named Silviu) for devastating, screen-clearing attacks. These “helper abilities” can turn a difficult boss encounter into a simple ten-second affair. However, they require quite a few crystals to use, and your number of crystals resets to zero after each death. You can also power up your bow and sword attack, but the power-up disappears if Elcin takes any damage.
The game consists of seven stages, each with a mid-stage checkpoint. In true classic arcade game fashion, you are constantly bombarded by enemy troops. Some of these fire projectiles, and most can be taken down with a single arrow. A charge shot that is similar to Mega Man’s Mega Buster exists as well, but action is so frantic that it is difficult to use in most situations. Enemy ambushes occur frequently and will keep you on your toes, all while encouraging you to keep moving forward and quickly tap that attack button. There are some moments that require precise platforming, but they’re few and far between, with most of the action focusing on managing waves of approaching enemies.
Soldiers and Eagles and Bears, Oh My!
Each stage ends with a boss battle, but most bosses are simply oversized soldiers. One memorable boss is a gigantic wooden war machine that rolls back and forth across the screen while attacking you with fire from several different angles. While none of the other boss encounters are bad (with the worst being a standoff against a group of bears), I really hoped to see some gruesome, screen-sized monsters to face off against. For a game that is clearly inspired by Castlevania and Contra, the enemy designs are surprisingly grounded, with very few nods to the supernatural.
Both the graphics and sound excellently emulate those of an early ‘90s arcade game, with large character sprites and detailed background art. Whether you’re dashing through the burning remains of a European town or traversing a forested mountain path, there is plenty of variety in the game’s locations. No two areas look too similar. The music is pitch-perfect with catchy, up-tempo melodies that will be stuck in your head long after you complete the game. Sound effects do their job admirably as well, with plenty of loud crashes and dying groans accompanying Elcin's bloody quest for vengeance.
It will only take a couple of hours to get through the main game, but there is some unlockable content to help pad out the experience. There are challenge modes that are geared toward those with speedrunning ambitions and even an unlockable costume that references a certain other Castlevania-inspired series. Even without the extra content, the main game has plenty of replay value and lots of opportunity to experiment with different helper abilities throughout the game.
Wallachia: Reign of Dracula is a wonderful way to spend a weekend, and it will surely appeal to those with a soft spot for the bygone era of action-platformer arcade games. It respectfully pays homage to classic Konami games while effectively setting itself apart and providing a decently-challenging experience that doesn’t overstay its welcome. We might not ever get another proper Castlevania entry, but as long as games like this exist, I won’t complain.