It has now been seven years since Konami last released a new Castlevania game that wasn't either a gloomy, overwrought retelling of the original games or else a slot machine featuring "erotic violence." And while the fact that Konami went to the trouble of dredging up the moribund Bomberman property for a brand-new Switch launch title might mean that there's some hope for new entries in its classic franchises, the odds are pretty good that the best hope for a new Castlevania experience any time in the near future rests with former series overlord Koji Igarashi's Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night.
Unless, of course, you don't mind dabbling in works by people with no official connection to Konami. In that case, our prospects for a proper Castlevania follow-up suddenly double to include not only Bloodstained but also the excellent-looking indie project Brave Earth Prologue.
Produced largely by a single man—Kayin, the creator of brutally difficult NES mash-up I Wanna Be The Guy—Brave Earth makes no pretense of being anything besides the most loving tribute to vintage Castlevania imaginable. From subweapons that you activate by holding up as you press the attack button to those infamous stairs, this is very much a game cast from the mold of 8-bit Castlevania. The pacing, the visual style, the mechanics: It all lines up. And it feels absolutely spot-on; frankly, I found my demo of the game more satisfying than I did M2's legitimate WiiWare throwback creation from a few years back, Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth.
According to Kayin, Brave Earth began as something of a programming exercise and blossomed into a proper game project. It also began as a tiny, bite-sized production — hence the "Prologue" subtitle — before exploding into a full-sized game featuring dozens of stages and three different protagonists.
Brave Earth does such a good job of impersonating Castlevania that some people will undoubtedly dismiss it as being too derivative. Make no mistake, though; despite its creator's open acknowledgement of his influences, this is no mere ROM hack. The game draws inspiration from the full gamut of Castlevania games, but the moment-to-moment action has its own personality, and the similarities stop at mere familiarity rather than lapsing into full-on theft or duplication.
Consider the triad of protagonists. The heroes consist of a female knight, her brother, and a witch, each of whom is tied to their own specific stages. While the decision to restrict the different protagonists to their own path through the game might seem initially limiting, it simply reflects the enormous differences in their play styles. The lady knight controls most like a traditional 8-bit Castlevania protagonist; while she wields a blade rather than a whip, but her movement, physical range, and speed line up pretty close with that of the Belmonts. Her stages feel very much like the NES Castlevania games, with familiar pacing and similar gameplay beats; you deal with devastating swordsmen, irritating flying foes, and a massive armored boss with crushing physical power... and a very obvious and exploitable attack pattern.
Her brother, on the other hand, wields an enormous double-handed sword whose mechanics were only ever seen in the most RPG-like Castlevania games of the series' latter era. As when Alucard or Soma carried zweihander blades, his attacks can take out most standard enemies in a single hit (whereas his sister often requires multiple strikes against trash mobs); the challenge comes from the enormous vulnerability that results from his wind-up time. That big double-hander moves slowly, and there's a pretty sizable window of opportunity for enemies to launch a preemptive strike as you move to attack.
On the other hand, the witch character has the speed and range he lacks. If you were to draw a parallel to any previous Castlevania protagonist with her play style, it would have to be one of Eric Lecarde's daughters from the unlockable Sisters mode in Portrait of Ruin. She gets about by floating, and her attacks consist of magical projectiles. This makes her extremely nimble—an edge counterbalanced by her extreme physical frailty relative to the well-armored knights.
Like the protagonists, the bad guys present throughout the Brave Earth demo nail the overall style of Castlevania without directly copying any one element of the source material. Swordsmen might remind you of classic foes like Dullahan or Spear Knights, but their movements and patterns don't quite line up with any of them and require players to learn their actions. Flying enemies behave a lot like the older games' crows—swooping around and pausing in mid-air before launching a beeline attack at the hero — but if you try to take them with the expectation that they'd obey the same timing and patterns as the birds in Dracula's Curse, as I did, you'll definitely regret it. Likewise, the boss of the first demo stage swings a chain blade that moves with a boomerang pattern; it definitely resembles the Disk Armor that appears in Symphony of the Night, as well as the omnipresent Axe Armors, but it's different enough to be incredibly difficult to conquer on a first attempt.
Likewise, the game's music, graphics, and sound effects all manage to stimulate the nostalgia center of your brain without actually committing copyright infringement. It feels like the ultimate holistic fan game: A tribute to everything good across the entire span of Castlevania's existence, capturing the series' spirit while putting forward its own new ideas and mechanics. If there's a downside to Brave Earth Prologue, it's the uncertainty that hovers over the prospect of it ever making its way beyond the boundaries of Steam despite seeming a perfect match for consoles. The development tool Kayin used to construct Brave Earth has poor support for platforms besides Windows, and he admits that his project has pushed the tools beyond what they were really intended for. On the plus side, though, Brave Earth is one of several games picked up by Dangen Games for publication in Japan, where Steam has very little mainstream traction; with luck, they'll be able to help bring the series to other systems.
Even so, Brave Earth Prologue comes across as the platonic ideal of games like this: Fresh yet familiar in design, sincere but not slavish in its admiration. And, from what I've seen so far, difficult-yet-fair in its balancing, with coherent design unifying it all. Kayin has even done that thing that was so great in the original Castlevania, where every bit of interactive foreground makes architectural sense in the scenery. No floating platforms here; just lots of tricky footing linked by crumbling, broken backgrounds.
Oh, and yes—there's wall meat, too.