French studio Migami Games made a name for itself with excellent Castlevania fan games like The Lecarde Chronicles 1 and 2, but fan games don’t keep the lights on or put food on the table, so the team has understandably embraced commercial ambitions with Wallachia: Reign of Dracula. One might expect that, given Migami's pedigree and the presence of a certain world-famous literary vampire, that this would be a Castlevania-type game with the serial numbers filed off. But in practice, it’s actually quite different, particularly being that the heroine, Elcin, wields a bow and arrow as her main weapon. It results in a game that feels more like a classic run-and-gun akin to Contra or Rolling Thunder, with a tiny bit of Shinobi mixed in for good measure.
Elcin is quite versatile with her bow and can shoot in eight directions, but she also wields a sword, which is not only useful for close-quarters combat but can also be used to slice enemy projectiles in mid-air. Special arrows with limited ammunition can be found as well, include piercing arrows, explosives, and three-way projectiles. Arrows can also be charged by holding down the attack button for more powerful blows.
Elcin is also accompanied by the spirits of four helpers, whose abilities can be selected at any time and activated when you’ve collected enough orbs. The white wolf Silviu blazes across the screen while Radu fires a flare that attacks everything on the screen. Offering different utilities, Christian can grant temporary invincibility while Konstantin can strengthen your arrows. Rather than floating candles or orbs, power-ups are dropped by helpful birds that routinely fly at the top of the screen, requiring that you pay careful attention to them and shoot them accurately so you can grab their goodies. Enemies regularly drop items too, encouraging you to slaughter as many of them as possible.
While many modern indie retro throwbacks try to offer some concessions to the player by making the difficulty level more manageable, Wallachia: Reign of Dracula has little patience for such things. It’s very much patterned after 8 and 16-bit style action games, complete with checkpoints and limited lives. There is an easy mode, but in classic Konami style, you can only play partway through the game before being asked to challenge a harder mode.
There are unlimited continues, plus you can jump to any level you’ve been to when starting the game, essentially allowing you to save your progress, so it’s not totally hardcore – but it’s definitely a game that expects you to play, and die, and replay, several times until you’ve memorized the level layouts and boss patterns, and developed sufficient strategies to overcome them. Much of the game is relatively generous with this, with judicious checkpoints and short levels, though the last two become quite a bit less forgiving. Elcin can take four hits by default, so you’ve got more room for error than in your average Contra game.
For the most part, Wallachia: Reign of Dracula plays very well, offering full control over your character’s jumps and double jumps, and a button that keeps Elcin in place while you aim in any direction (though there’s no way to strafe). A few control quirks manifest; there’s a slide move that’s executed by pressing down and jump, which is easy to use accidentally, and ally special attacks can’t be used when ducking, for some reason. There’s also an occasional glitch where Elcin shoots out blanks when firing a stream of arrows. It’s rare enough that it’s not a huge problem, but it is noticeable.
The difficulty, however, does contain some kinks regularly seen in classic 2D action games. The ally special attacks are hugely overpowered, and they’re easily the most ideal way to cheese bosses. If you’ve managed to play the stage all the way through without dying, then you likely have enough orbs to simply overwhelm the end-of-level guardian. Meanwhile, if you die during the boss battle, all of your ammo is depleted, making it quite a bit more difficult, albeit not impossible. Many power-ups, particularly the ones that enhance your weapons, disappear when you get hit, something that limits their usefulness.
The visuals in Wallachia: Reign of Dracula are much like Migami Games’ other titles, utilizing higher resolution pixel art than most other retro games. A nice touch is that the game is based more on the historical Vlad Tepes than Bram Stoker's literary creation (and the assorted movie monsters it inspired) that tend to be featured in Castlevania games. Most of the fodder enemies are human soldiers, and tougher foes include catapults, cavalrymen, and wooden tanks. There’s even a boss fight that’s just against a small clock tower. That’s not to say there aren’t any supernatural enemies, though – it’s easy to forget that “Dracul” means “dragon”, which is the form the villain takes for the final boss fight. Some of the battlefields are also filled with fallen soldiers skewered on stakes, the horrific pastime that earned the real Vlad Tepes his infamous reputation.
The soundtrack is excellent as well, with music that’s catchy in the same way as classic Castlevania tunes while still carrying their own unique identity. Wallachia: Reign of Dracula also takes its story quite seriously, hiring top name Kira Buckland (2B from NieR: Automata) as the voice of Elcin, with Robert Belgrade (the original voice of Alucard from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night) appearing as Radu. That’s quite a bit of effort put into it, considering that the plot is mostly just some bits of dialogue interspersed in the levels and some interstage narration. It's a shame, then, than the static artwork which accompanies the cutscenes looks so primitive.
At seven stages, Wallachia: Reign of Dracula isn’t too long, and while the difficulty may seem high at first, it’s still something that can be conquered with some tenacity. A hard difficulty mode is available, as well as several “challenges” for performing top-level feats, like beating a stage without getting hit. The game also keeps records of best times, making it a good candidate for speed runs. There’s even an unlockable costume allowing Elcin to dress up as Miriam from Bloodstained.
It might be more old-school than other similar games, but Wallachia: Reign of Dracula still offers rewarding action, skilful level design, and some excellent music. With Konami seemingly content to sleep on its popular Castlevania series for the time being – outside of smartphone games, of course – this (alongside the likes of Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon and its sequel) might be as close as we're likely to get to a brand-new "old-school" Castlevania outing on Switch. It's a good job, then, that Migami Games knows Konami's franchise so well that it has created a truly convincing imitation – but one which has enough ideas of its own to stand out from its inspiration.