Out of all of Konami's illustrious back catalogue, Castlevania holds a very special place in the hearts of gamers. From its humble beginnings as an 8-bit take on Bram Stoker's famous Dracula story, it has gone on to create a self-contained world which uses the vampire legend as its foundation but adds layer upon layer of depth and complexity, introducing the famous Belmont clan as well as many peripheral characters in a tale which spans centuries.
It's little wonder then that various individuals have been trying for quite some time to adapt the Castlevania story to other mediums of entertainment; a live-action movie remains in development hell, but thankfully another take on the franchise has finally made it into production. Way back in 2007, esteemed British author and comic book scribe Warren Ellis wrote that he was working on a movie based on Castlevania III, and that it wouldn't feature Grant Danasty. He also posted a sample of the script, which featured a rather worrying passage about people making love to goats. As it turns out, the majority of what Ellis discussed has made it into Netflix's Castlevania animated series (or, in the case of Danasty, hasn't), which premiered on the streaming service last week.
Beware, fellow traveller; what follows contains spoilers, so please don't read if you want to go into the show without having any of the story or surprises ruined.
You have been warned!
Divided into four parts – each roughly 25 minutes in length – Castlevania has it all; buckets of gore, plenty of swearing and some incredibly witty dialogue. While the series uses the third NES outing as its base, Ellis has expanded on the world dramatically, fleshing out characters to make them much more believable – not to mention relatable – than the pixelated individuals we wrestled with during the 8-bit era. However, it's the manner in which Ellis pulls in elements from later games – most notably Symphony of the Night – which really makes the tale interesting. The story begins in the mid-15th century, with a largely reformed Dracula opening his castle door to Lisa, a young woman who wishes to gain the knowledge required to save and nurture life. Drac – whose connection to the real-life dispot Vlad "The Impaler" Tepes is not only mentioned, but illustrated by the rows of impaled skeletons which surround his abode – has seemingly changed his ways, even saying that he gave up putting people on spikes "a long time ago". Instead, he now fills the void of eternal life dabbling in science, stunning Lisa with a laboratory filled with incredible equipment (a location that instantly calls to mind Alchemy Laboratory in the aforementioned Symphony of the Night). Lisa is keen to learn and pleads with Dracula to share his knowledge with the world to make it a better place; his cold heart thaws and the two marry, with the former impaler promising to live his life as a normal man in order to be with his love.
However, several years later Lisa is burnt at the stake by the church after accusations of witchcraft (events which are also detailed in Symphony of the Night), causing Dracula to revert to his old ways and raise an army "from the guts of hell" to enact his revenge against those who took the only woman he ever loved. This setup superbly borrows some of the best dramatic elements from Symphony of the Night, lending Dracula a sympathetic dimension which means we can almost understand his motives. It also perfectly illustrates Ellis' broad knowledge of the series as a whole, and all of it takes place in a rather hurried first episode; we're not introduced to our hero (anti-hero is perhaps more accurate) Trevor Belmont until the end of the episode, which also showcases that infamous goat speech.
As you might imagine, Trevor is the character who has been fleshed out the most by Ellis; in sharp contrast to the pious figure seen praying in front of the cross at the opening of the classic NES game, he's perilously close to be being something of a deadbeat. Bitter about the way his family has been persecuted following accusations of black magic, Trevor seems to do little more than stalk from tavern to tavern consuming ale, getting kicked in the family jewels and repeating the cycle each day. However, once Dracula's army appears and begins to ravage the innocents of Wallachia, he finds himself in the middle of a particularly gory genocide and is forced to act.
In the beleaguered city of Gresit he encounters a sect of "Speakers", who, like the Belmonts, stand accused of consorting with the devil and bringing calamity down on Wallachia. When he is told that one of these Speakers has not returned after venturing into the catacombs of Gresit to find the legendary "Sleeping Warrior" – a hero who will rise from his slumber to save the land – Trevor agrees to do some investigative work if the remaining Speakers promise to save themselves and leave the city. What he eventually finds underground is a cyclops, which has turned the missing Speaker – Sypha Belnades – into stone. Returning with her very much alive after besting the beast, Trevor finds out that the church is planning on wiping out the Speakers. With Sypha's help he is able to convince the townspeople to come to their senses and turn against the church, and thanks to his tactical planning a minor victory against Dracula's hordes is achieved at the same time.
There's not much chance to celebrate as the chaos of the battle causes the ground to gives way, revealing the resting place of the "Sleeping Hero" – Alucard himself, Dracula's son. Alucard tried to prevent his father's vengeance on the world but was defeated and sealed himself away underground in order to heal his wounds. After a thrilling tussle with Trevor – who is convinced that Alucard is the true evil in the land – the three join forces with the common goal of defeating Dracula and restoring peace to Wallachia, bringing the curtain down on the first season of the series.
Some might feel a little bit aggrieved that this season is more about "getting the gang together" rather whipping Dracula's behind, but it sets the tone nicely and we already know that a second, longer season is in development. What these four episodes do very well is establish the character of Trevor, who is superbly voice acted by Richard Armitage, famous for his roles in The Hobbit and the BBC's Robin Hood TV series. Armitage relishes every insult and put-down, and has some of the best lines in the whole production, most of which aren't suitable for reproduction here. On that topic, it should be noted that although Castlevania is animated, it's certainly not for children; there are some seriously disturbing scenes and the language would make a sailor blush. There are times when it feels like dialogue is crude just for the sake of it, but it remains effective in giving characters a certain edge; for example, the noble Speakers refrain from such gutter talk, whereas Trevor's potty mouth reflects his position as a former nobleman who has lost his way.
Produced by Texas-based studio Powerhouse, this isn't anime in the strictest sense and this fact alone may annoy some purists. However, the quality is generally good, with some brilliant character designs which reference the original games very well indeed (Trevor's outfit appears to have been inspired by his look in Mirror of Fate and the costume worn by Leon Belmont in 2003's Lament of Innocence). Fan favourite Alucard also looks sharp, showcasing the design seen in Symphony of the Night as opposed to the short-haired version of the character witnessed in the original Castlevania III. As is often the case in modern series animation there are moments when things get a bit choppy; a few more frames would have smoothed things out but that would also have bumped up production time and therefore overall cost. All in all, when it needs to look impressive Castlevania does so, and while you could argue that these four episodes are a little short on gripping set-pieces, those included more than make up for that.
We've already briefly touched upon the quality of the voice acting with Richard Armitage's excellent portrayal of Trevor, but it's worth highlighting the other cast members. Battlestar Galactica's James Callis doesn't get a lot of screen-time to assert himself as Alucard, but he uses that time to imbue the tragic prince with a sense of grace, hinting at a troubled past and a keen sense of justice inherited from his mother. Graham McTavish's Dracula is limited to a single episode but like Callis, he absolutely nails the role, making Drac's transition from reformed character to genocidal maniac convincing when it would have been all too easy to ham it up and venture into pantomime villain territory. Matt Frewer - of Max Headroom fame - relishes every syllable in his role as the sinister, power-mad Bishop, while Tony Amendola and Alejandra Reynoso round off the main cast neatly as the Elder and Sypha Belnades, members of the shadowy order of Speakers. Elsewhere, there are a few too many stereotypical English "ow's ya farvar" accents for comfort, but on the whole the cast is brilliant and delivers Ellis' cutting script with gusto and panache.
It's a shame then that two-time Emmy winning composer Trevor Morris' soundtrack is so forgettable and weak. Castlevania as a franchise is famous for its amazing music and iconic themes, so we're not entirely sure why the team behind this series decided to abandon all of that good work and commission an entirely original score which has none of the impact or appeal of the music heard in the video games. A composer of Morris' stature will have understandably wanted to stamp his own authority on the soundtrack, but including some of Castlevania's signature tunes - such as Bloody Tears, Vampire Killer and Simon's Theme - would have struck a chord (no pun intended) with fans and would arguably have had much more of an impact than the rather pedestrian score the series has been lumbered with.
On the whole though, this attempt to transfer the fractured and often confused world of Castlevania to the small screen is much better than we could possibly have hoped. Getting a writer of Ellis' calibur involved has clearly helped, as the series neatly avoids stumbling into cliche and creates a tapestry of interesting characters which will be compelling to see evolve over the course of the second season; it's also tantalizing to consider if Netflix will choose to adapt other games in the Castlevania timeline once Castlevania III's story is exhausted – Symphony of the Night is an obvious choice, given that Dracula, Lisa and Alucard are present in both. But we're getting ahead of ourselves; what's been offered here is a delicious love-letter to long-standing Castlevania fans and one might hope that the groundswell of interest in this animated series will convince Konami that franchise deserves a resurrection in video game form, as well.