TL: DR(eview) - Castlevania plays out more like a made-for-TV cartoon movie than the four episodes it has been divided into but the animation and performances are great, with a wonderful mixture of humor, action, and character.
Growing up, I never fell into the Castlevania games. I was going to my Super Nintendo collection recently and discovered a copy of Castlevania IV but I have no memory of it so if I did play it, it clearly didn’t leave an impression. For all intents and purposes, the first and only Castlevania game I have a connection with is Symphony of the Night, which I only played for the first time a couple years ago as part of the now-defunct Kinda Funny Video Game Book Club. My connection to the series is so limited that I probably would have let the recent Netflix series slide right on by me. I had no real reaction when it was announced and certainly hadn’t been following it. But enough of my friends started tweeting about it last weekend that I decided to check it out.
And I’m glad I did. The 2D animation feels wonderfully refreshing compared to the 3D animation that often dominates the landscape today, appropriately striking a chord of 90s nostalgia to coincide with the source material. The action and fights scenes scattered throughout are fun and vibrant. There’s more humor than I anticipated a gothic animated movie based on a game about hunting vampires would have, but Trevor Belmont’s frequent attempts to warn of opponents who are well out of their depth is a frequent highlight. And I think the fact that I found myself invested in the story might be what surprised me the most.
Without delving into spoiler territory, the show starts off by establishing Dracula as a sympathetic character and keeps him from being a one-note evil character. The season then shifts its focus to Trevor Belmont, a vampire hunter from an excommunicated lineage of vampire hunters. Despite being shunned by commoners due to his family name, he fights to defend them from Dracula’s forces as best he can. He eventually comes across and temporarily allies himself with a group of Speakers, another group branded heretics by the Church, attempting to discover their own means to defend the world from Dracula’s destruction. But Belmont has grown so accustomed to his solitude as the last Belmont, he struggles with the idea of allies.
My biggest real gripe might be that the 4-episode “season” feels like it was conceived as a movie that could be split into episodes, if needed, that itself is very clearly only a Part One to a larger story arc. It ends having very clearly set up some pieces for the next chapter of the story but as a self-contained tale, doesn’t really move the needle in the war against Dracula as much as it would if it had been fleshed out into a proper season’s length. It’s already been confirmed that there are 8 more episodes in the works, which will presumably actually service the show’s grander arc.
It’s definitely an interesting experiment. The closest analog that comes to mind is the series of four direct to DVD movies of Futurama that Comedy Central produced as a test case for bringing the show back. Each movie works best as an hour and a half adventure but they’re also each structured to serve as four stand-alone episodes for the purposes of syndication, effectively creating a 16-episode season. Right now, this feels more like a 2-hour pilot for whatever those next 8 episodes hold than a truly self-contained story, but I’m nevertheless excited to see where it goes.