Review – Castlevania

This is my third Netflix review in four weeks, time to ease off a smidge… or double down and aim for that sponsorship deal?

Produced by Adi Shankar – the Punisher mini-film Dirty Laundry, Dredd, and The Grey – and written by Warren Ellis – Red, Hellblazer (or Constantine), and Transmetropolitain – the first series of the show based on a video game was very well received by fans, and a few weeks ago it was confirmed for a third season, no surprises with such enormous names attached to an enormous video game title, a veritable sub-genre of platformer.

I have admitted in the past that I am not a platformer person, so it’s not a huge logical jump to conclude I have not played Castlevania, so I do not approach the series knowing much about the game and its lore, but I know good entertainment and I know how hard it has been to marry video games with a more linear form of entertainment. A handful of moderate successes on the big screen marred by a parade of shoddy attempts, but historically television has already had a better time of it. Tie-in anime to games like Pokemon and Digimon, Earthworm Jim, Sonic the Hedgehog, are all more favourably remembered than the vast majority of cinematic efforts.

So this is a recipe for success, right?

Well yes, actually.

Season 1

The ancient vampire Dracula is given a glimpse of humanity, and perhaps redemption from his eternal darkness, a glimpse that is snatched away when the human woman he loved is burned at the stake for consorting with the Devil’s greatest minion and practising witchcraft. In fact she was plying medicinal science lost to humanity for centuries, drawn from Dracula’s own library, and helping people suffering from various ailments while her new husband wandered the world in pursuit of a deeper understanding of his food. He returns in time to find her body, and gives the world a year to prepare for his terrible vengeance.

Speaking as someone entirely new to the concepts within the series – I mean obviously I was expecting vampires – I found that the first four-episode season did an excellent job of giving me characters to give a damn about without pouring boiling exposition straight into my eyes. Villains are generally unlikeable, both protagonist and antagonist are tragic figures for whom we can have a moment of sympathy, and there’s a richness of world building in very short order that separates this world from ours.

Video game parallels are pretty obvious, especially during the mini-dungeon crawl beneath Gresit, traps and monsters assail our reluctant hero Trevor Belmont as he seeks a lost adventuring party, culminating in a boss fight. And yes, at the series finale it starts to feel a little cheesy – the show does not escape a few moments of hackneyed combat – but the characterisation by this point is strong enough that the combat becomes only a slight change of pace.

Season 2

The far longer series gives us a more in depth look at how the vampire forces have martialed under Dracula, and the politics within his court as a new power enters, Carmilla, who steps in to upset the fragile balance. We meet a pair of necromancers, “Forgemasters”, who – aside from presenting an interesting new take on the idea of a necromancer – fit in with the bleakly appealing cast, and who form the backbone of the political intrigue plot within Dracula’s castle, which became the major focus of season 2.

Our team of protagonists, now including the half-vamp son of Dracula, Alucard (James Callis, Gaius Baltar, who knew?), delve into the history of our Trevor Belmont, and learn the secret monster-hunting history of the Belmont family, the weapons they gathered, the trophies they keep, and the knowledge they have amassed. The team spend some downtime developing character relationships, working on a plan to kill the Vampire Lord, and explore a little in-game history. The trophy room is filled with references, and the treasure chest hidden behind a wall was a joke that I got without ever having played Castlevania.

The ending is… ambiguous. I don’t want to give too much away, so let me say that season 3 will most certainly be taking a new narrative direction, but that need not be a bad thing, just a little strange with so few episodes under the show’s proverbial belt.

As A Whole

Sensibly, the focus is laid heavily on the characters in play, rather than the action. Be prepared for some fairly lengthy conversations, but that’s no criticism, it’s the characters who make Castlevania worth the watch. Oh the action’s fun, but I found I preferred the monsters when they were expressing character rather than getting violent: taunting the Bishop who burned the “witch” for the hell he has brought upon mankind; the blundering night creature as it takes its first faltering steps; even watching how they act in combat, whether they fight smart or dumb and brutish. It’s a quality that the show must be heavily praised for.

And it shows for being in the hands of geeks, Shankar knows how to handle an intellectual property because he’s well practised, and Ellis has been in the comic book industry for decades, 2000AD, Marvel and DC amongst others. Castlevania is awash with video-game jokes like the info-gathering section, references to the source material (yes, I had to look them up), and mixing and matching from other geeky fantasy references.

All in all, worth a watch, and I have to say that I’m looking forward to another season, but I think we’ll be a while before we hear a release date just yet.