Castlevania Series Review

Video game adaptations are almost always bad. The best of them excel only on the condition that you overlook large caveats, be they performances, the script, or how faithful the project is to the original. Video games are hard to adapt. You’re either trying to appeal to fans and alienating movie-goers or vice-versa. Both can fail depending on what is being adapted and how.

In the mid-2000s’, Warren Ellis wanted to make a direct-to-video animated film based on Castlevania. While the script was approved by Konami, the work ended up stuck in production hell for years. Adi Shankar, a producer who went viral with his “Bootleg Universe” series of fan-films, eventually was approached about producing an animated series based on Ellis’ script. While he turned down the same idea for a live-action film, believing live-action wouldn’t fit, he was more than happy to work on this one.

Opening Title Rough Animation by Spencer Wan

So eventually, Netflix adapted Ellis’ script into an animated series produced by Powerhouse Animation, an American studio. The first season – all four episodes of it – came out in July of 2017 and took the internet by storm. Everyone, myself included, was instantly clamoring for more. With the release of the second season in the fall of 2018, the show revealed even more of its potential with a longer season, more character drama, and even better animation.

With the recently released and certainly shocking third season fresh in our minds, it might be good to look back on the series as a whole thus far. It’s certainly the best video game adaptation, but is that saying a whole lot? Is Castlevania more than just the sum of its gorgeous animation?

Season One

When you start watching and inevitably finish the first season in one night, it makes perfect sense that Ellis’ script was initially a film. It plays out exactly like the kind of dark action film you’d rent from Blockbuster back in the day.

Vlad Dracula Tepes is visited by a woman, Lisa, who wishes to be taught science and medicine so she can help people. Vlad shares with her the advanced technology and knowledge in his castle, charmed by her desire to help people, including him. The two come to love each other and eventually even have a son.

The romance turns to tragedy when Lisa is burned at the stake by the church, accused of being a witch. Dracula turns his anger on the human race and summons demons to kill the people of Wallachia. Enter, Trevor Belmont, the last of the great monster-hunting Belmont clan, and current wandering bum.

Trevor finds himself involved in a dispute between the city of Gresit and wandering missionaries accused of bringing the demon’s wrath down upon them. In getting involved, Trevor finds allies to turn the tide against the monster plague threatening Wallachia. The first season acts as a simple and fun self-contained story, while also joining together a trio of characters to take on Dracula in season two.

In interviews, the creators cite a lot of inspiration from the works of Yoshiaki Kawajiri, the director of Ninja Scroll, Wicked City, and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust. That last film, in particular, is where I think a lot of the narrative similarities come from. A wandering hero travels a wasteland plagued by beasts and comes upon a city where he is compelled to aid, like a gothic cowboy.

It’s not just the art direction – inspired by both Kawajiri’s work and Ayami Kojima’s art from the Castlevania game series – but also the pacing that feels reminiscent. Of the four episodes, the first is entirely dedicated to Dracula and the tragedy which puts these ghastly affairs into motion. The second and third follow Belmont as he meets various characters in Gresit, begrudgingly aiding some and combating others with small bursts of well-directed action.

A big part of season one’s story, far from just creating the veritable D&D party needed to kill Dracula, is Trevor shedding his reluctance to do what he was trained to do. In Gresit, he meets the Speakers, monks who pass on verbal records of history from place to place while offering aid. Despite the church convincing the town they are the reason for the demons’ recent attack, the speakers don’t wish to leave. They wish to help.

Trevor is a drunk who would prefer to be done with magic and demons and vampires. However, compelled to act, he finds himself falling into old habits and becoming a true Belmont again. By the end, he’s almost actively seeking combat with demonic terrors and leading people into battle as well. The buildup and mild themes of redemption are handled super well in such a short time.

The fourth episode functions like a two-part climax, first a battle with demons and second an adventure beneath the city. Joining Belmont is Sypha Belnades, one of the speakers and a magician to boot. The two work well together in combat and even share some good banter, usually at Trevor’s expense.

Did I mention this show can be funny? You wouldn’t expect it to be and the humor which creeps in towards the end of episode one can be a little jarring, but the balance of gothic horror and occasional humor beyond that is balanced well. More importantly, it fits with and builds up the characters. Richard Armitage does a great job conveying Trevor’s hard on sleep demeanor as well as his grizzled, well-studied expertise.

Every performance in Castlevania is wonderful. An abundance of British accents, fitting both cockney villagers and regal vampires alike. I’ve already praised Trevor, but Alejandra Reynoso does a magnificent job as Sypha. While humble in season one, she only gets more funny and charming with each new season. There isn’t a single vocal performance I didn’t like throughout these three seasons.

I suppose I should mention Adrian Tepes, AKA Alucard, Dracula’s son. When doing a review of three seasons worth of storytelling, it’s hard to avoid mild spoilers. YES, by the end of season one, Trevor and Sypha join forces with Alucard to stop his father. I won’t say how or why they meet or what the meeting entails, but if you are reading this having gotten interested in the series from any recent promotional material, you likely gathered that this happened.

The first chapter of the series ends as swiftly as it begins, and waiting for a second season was torturous. At the time, Castlevania felt like such a refreshing take on video game adaptations, channeling the spirit of the games through action, lore, and most notably style. However, looking back it’s far too short and seen as a film, it’s rather anticlimactic and sudden.

Right as it became clear how successful the first season was, a second was greenlit and confirmed to have eight episodes. Ellis’ original story had a trilogy in mind, the first season acting as the first part. The second season acts as the final two pieces of the story combined. In a big way, season two is the end of the first book of the story.

Season Two

Double the episode count also means double the characters as Castlevania returned for what felt like the first true season of the series. I loved the first one, but it almost felt like a really exciting pilot film preceding the actual meat of the narrative. And boy oh boy what juicy meat it was.

Season two of Castlevania focuses its attention on two converging theaters over the eight episodes. The first being that of Dracula and his war council of vampire generals preparing to wage war against humanity. Upon the arrival of Carmilla, another powerful higher vampire, doubts are raised about Dracula’s health and ability to rule. Criticisms are raised at his choice to put two humans in charge of the war effort.

The last part is what immediately made this story so compelling. Isaac and Hector are two humans with a disdain for their species who Dracula came to find a kinship with, similar to his fondness to Lisa. However, even those two humans disagree with how the war against humanity should be fought. Isaac shares Dracula’s desire to kill all humans despite him being one but Hector only wants humans to be punished and then treated like cattle, “humanely.”

Whereas one might expect Dracula to be this relentless tyrant at the forefront of monstrous attacks on humanity, the reality is appropriately tragic. Dracula is griefing, but in all the wrong ways, slowly losing his grip. At first, it seems like a waste of the buildup given to Dracula in the first season, but it feels so much more meaningful for the story to depict this slow fall throughout the season. My only wish was that the show spent more time picking Dracula’s brain or treating us to his internal monologue.

Much of the theater at his castle is a game of conflicting motivations, manipulation, and betrayal. Think of it like the vampiric Game of Thrones. Carmilla’s plotting manipulates the war council and especially the hilarious Godbrand (played by Peter Stormare) and the naive Hector to suit her own goals. All of this drama serves to expand the world of the show. It all feels so much larger than what the first season conveyed, and the second season opens itself up to a huge swath of potential paths to take the characters.

One can’t forget the other major story permeating this season; the trio of Trevor, Sypha, and Alucard. The gang debates, appropriately so, how they should start their quest to kill Dracula. This leads Trevor to suggest that they go to the Belmont estate, where all of the family treasures are.

And after a short journey, they arrive… and stay there for most of the season. When the story isn’t flashing back to backstories such as Isaac or Hector’s, both theaters are fairly stagnant. The vampires argue over what their next move should be and the heroic trio studies the Belmont’s library looking for information that can help them. In the end, both stories cleverly converge for the climax.

While the prospect of the heroes spending three full episodes just exploring a library might not sound exhilarating, it’s the character drama that helps elevate these moments. For Trevor, this homecoming awakens a lot of memories that he spent many years trying to forget. Now here he is, deciding to be a monster hunter again.

It tests the already shaky bond between Trevor and Alucard, the latter of which is not only battling conflicting feelings about fighting his father but sees the Belmont hold as a monument to the hunting of his people. It’s a study in how setting alone can test characters.

Sypha is as adorable and charming as ever but also proves herself to be a badass. In no subtle way at all is it conveyed that Sypha is beginning to enjoy the adventuring lifestyle. And she’s well-suited for it. She is just as if not cooler than the other two, which is saying something. She begins to reject the speaker mentality of spoken history and becomes inspired by the sheer amount of history stored in the hold.

Key Animation by Spencer Wan

The action in season two could be called an upgrade if the first wasn’t already really well-produced. Throughout both, the slower, grand character animation is coupled with a slower frame rate. One could call it choppy at times, but it always struck me as a signature. Animator, episode director, and Animation Director Spencer Wan confirmed via twitter that Castlevania‘s animation is part American and Korean.

Spencer Wan and director Sam Deats, in particular, have impressed me with their cuts across all three seasons. The final battle of the season, with the stark shadows and the visual weight of impacts, channeled the work of masters like Yutaka Nakamura. Effects animations were consistently eye-catching (so basically, every time Sypha did anything),

Thank god that Sam Deats and Spencer Wan are active on so we can properly recognize all of the animators who worked on this insanity. Powerhouse Animation may be the American animation studio I am most excited to see work on more in the future. Of course, let’s not forget the talented Korean studio MUA Film that provided additional animation. Still, though, to have this much in-house talent without completely outsourcing, that’s some American animation pride you can take to the bank.

The climax of season two is just about everything I could have hoped for when I finished the first. The music, the animation, the surprisingly emotional resolution, but mostly the character writing that built up to the finale. The closest to a negative I have with the ending is how the writers try to have Sypha spell out the resolution of her character arc in a not so subtle way. Even then, She and Trevor are so adorable that I brushed it off.

Season two achieved the full potential of Warren Ellis’ original three-part story and more. The vampiric political theater was not simply a nice window dressing, but the means to open up the series to a continuation beyond just Dracula’s vendetta against humanity. Whereas season one left me in dire need of more, season two sated my desire with the added benefit of knowing it would continue.

It’s important to note that it is hard to avoid spoilers for season two when discussing season three, so I’d ask that if you are interested in watching the show and this review has further piqued your interest, go watch it. However, I do encourage you to scroll ahead to my sections on whether or not Castlevania is an anime, as well as my final thoughts. If you don’t mind one or two spoilers from season two, though, feel free to read below.

Season Three

With the conclusion of Castlevania‘s first major story arc, the third season’s story is a lot looser and the storylines are less connected. Don’t expect the storylines to converge at the end as they did with season two because they don’t. This can be both disappointing but also a bit liberating as Castlevania embraces a longer 10-episode season.

There are four major stories we follow throughout season three. Let’s begin with my favorite one, ‘Trevor and Sypha’s Bizarre Adventure‘ as I call it. In the months since the battle at Dracula’s castle, they have wandered, originally to reunite with the speakers, but now mostly hunting monsters and helping people.

The series doesn’t waste time confirming what we already knew was going to happen, and the two are a certified couple. I don’t have much to say other than I’m glad they didn’t waste time with a “will they won’t they” side-plot. Instead, time is spent reflecting on the kinds of people they have become by being together.

Sypha is crazy but… in a good way – NO. A fantastic way. She was already fearless before given that she had no qualms facing off against vampires. Here, though, she has gotten addicted to the danger to the point that she smiles in the heat of battle. She’s not numb to pain and suffering, but she has no doubts about her abilities or her potential to stop that suffering. It’s astounding how much she has changed since season one, and her character design reflects this beautifully.

Trevor has also had a visual makeover, sporting a decidedly darker outfit and black cape, though he isn’t as enthusiastic about the adventure. Trevor frequently questions what he is doing no matter the season, but now he finds himself in love with a woman who wants them to dive into even more danger.

While much of their adventuring in the interim between seasons is discussed, much of their time is spent in one place; The town of Lindenfeld. After a mysterious night creature entered the town’s priory, strange things began happening. Shady characters from all around come to Lindenfeld, joining the priory’s shady cult which worships Dracula. The judge of Lindenfeld asks Trevor and Sypha to investigate.

Meanwhile, investigating the priory’s paranormal happenings for his own reasons is the eccentric Saint Germain, voiced by none other than Bill Nighy (Shaun of the Dead, Underworld). Saint Germain immediately makes an impression. He’s a man out of time, possibly literally, with a swagger that wins your affection quickly.

Saint Germain’s banter and way of weaseling his way out of trouble in such a gentlemanly manner was a delight. He stole the show the entire season, even up against MVP’s like Trevor, Sypha, and Isaac. His inclusion is also clever, as his motivations and the end of the road for the mystery in Lindenfeld open up the series for a veritable multiverse.

Some time ago it was confirmed that the creators of Castlevania would be producing an animated Devil May Cry series. Oddly enough though, executive producer Adi Shankar said it would be part of a shared multiverse. The potential is awesome and it makes total sense that Shankar would push for something like this, given his past talk about such a concept.

An almost Lovecraftian cosmic horror is hiding in Lindenfeld and I’m happy to say that characters like Saint Germain make even the lulls of the story a joy to sit through. His partnership with Trevor and Sypha keeps their story from being boring either. It’s easy to look at those two’s involvement as somewhat dormant for the first half of the mystery. All that considered, there are appreciable moments of calm for characters to simply talk. The town might be sketchy, but it is, for the most part, peaceful and it isn’t as though Trevor and Sypha don’t pick up pieces of the puzzle along the way.

My second favorite story this season was Isaac’s. Last we saw him, he was just beginning to create a new army of night creatures after being teleported far away from Dracula’s castle. His journey across the world plays out like an old fable. Isaac resents humans but finds himself attempting to avoid conflict. Often, those attempts end in failure and bloodshed, but it brings out an inner conflict within him.

He speaks with several characters with unique perspectives, be they human, monster, or magician. He hates humanity and wishes their destruction in the same way that Dracula did, but he also realizes that he and Dracula have been on the receiving end of human kindness.

Isaac is conflicted, repetitively making the same mistakes. He is looking for what to believe in because he doesn’t know. He knows he wants Carmilla and Hector to pay for what they did, but he can’t figure out what he believes beyond that. He doesn’t necessarily find the answer by the end either, but there is no one I am more anxious to see more of in the next season. The intersection of these disparate storylines is going to be a sight to behold.

On the darker side of things, Carmilla has returned to her home in Styria after a hellish journey home with Hector in tow as a prisoner. Carmilla and her sisters plan to close off the borders of Wallachia and imprison the humans as a food source. However, they need more manpower. With a forge master like Hector at their disposal, they can make one but they need bodies and more importantly, they need to convince Hector to help them.

So one of the sisters, Lenore, takes it upon herself to negotiate with Hector. This is where I start having some more complaints with the story. I enjoy the conversations between Hector and Lenore. Good points are made about why he could gain from helping them. There is great banter between the two. However, you know exactly how the story will end right from the beginning.

Lenore has to convince Hector to devote himself to their efforts. By the trailers, promotional art, and the first fucking conversation between them you can guess how that will pan out. I found the resolution annoying because it makes Hector seem short-sighted and stupid.

I would say that Hector is the Theon Greyjoy of Castlevania, but that would be an inaccurate comparison. Sure, both make bad judgment calls which lead to further punishment, but Hector gets to keep his penis and have way more autonomy as per Lenore’s plan than simply “undead army maker” or “male sex slave.” I won’t act like it’s ideal, but he still got the best deal out of every protagonist in the plot.

Ultimately, the arc felt predictable and a bit confused towards the end as to how the resolution should be taken by those involved. But at least Hector’s scenes with Lenore were interesting and got me excited to see how it would end. The final and my least favorite arc of season three reached its peak excitement only through an exercise in frustration.

Animation by Tam Lu

Alucard deserves better. After the end of last season’s huge battle, he finds himself lonely until travelers from Japan come to him, looking to be trained so they can return home and fight vampires to save their people. That’s the long and short of it. Also, I enjoyed the vocal performances of Rila Fukushima and Toru Uchikado a lot.

On its own, it’s an inoffensive arc that set my mind alight with the potential of Alucard passing on the knowledge stored in his family castle and the hold of the Belmonts. But to properly illustrate why I hate this arc, I have to explain the experience of watching its conclusion.

Episode nine is huge. Two of the four storylines are in the midst of huge battles. Trevor and Sypha are slaughtering demons in hands down the best fight of the series, while Isaac takes on an entire army of foes. The creativity, choreography, and especially the music are at all-time highs.

Animation by Tam Lu

Simultaneously, the other two storylines are both at their climaxes, but as opposed to battles, there are sex scenes. One of these makes sense given context and the story leading up to that point. But not Alucard’s. A sex scene happens which appears so out of left-field and so disjointed that the intermixing with it and the battles feels unnecessarily jarring.

Characters who never showed any kind of interest in Alucard in this way decide to take him to bonetown. Worse yet, the resolution of the scene brings to light character motives we never saw hinted at in any substantial way. Everything about the end of Alucard’s arc feels as though character logic was thrown out in service of capitulating to the theme of the season.

The biggest problem with Castlevania season three is that, in ending on a sadder note, it seems to forget that tying together emotionally draining experiences per a theme only works if the moments conveying those themes feel earned. It’s not just Alucard’s arc that suffers from this.

In the Lindenfeld storyline, a new character whom we get to know over the season is revealed to be a total piece of shit, posthumously, in a way completely unrelated to the main plot AT ALL. It’s baffling and left me more confused than anything.

When season three ends, the story brings out the worst parts of the world it inhabits, giving little victories followed by disappointments. While the above-mentioned issues impeded my enjoyment of the ending, I think this season also was needed to build up the new main villains.

Castlevania had to prove it still had something to offer in a post-Dracula story and I think they absolutely do. Carmilla and her sisters are in a position to take the stage by storm, the wildcards like Isaac are gaining strength, and the heroes are at low points which will challenge them even more.

Season three may have been a mess at times, but it is still one of the best produced animated series in a long time and one that I’m more than excited to see grow, even if I’m a bit more skeptical than I have been in the past.

Is it Anime?

A long time ago, I made a post about what is and isn’t anime, according to me at least. I still stand by my statements in that essay and encourage you to read it if you’ve found yourself unsure of how to answer. Anyway, Castlevania is one of those shows that blur the lines considerably.

Part of the reason I decided to review Castlevania was that I figured that I already wrote like six reviews of RWBY that no one ever read, and I don’t consider that series to be anime at all. So why would I suddenly exclude a show far more deserving of attention and praise?

The other reason is that I genuinely believe that the craftsmanship in producing a show like Castlevania pushes it closer to that middle ground I spoke about in my essay. I said that when the time comes that more American studios adopt east Asian animation styles and techniques, we won’t have to distinguish between animation and anime; we’ll just call them good shows.

This is more or less how I feel when I look at the work by Sam Deats, Spencer Wan, and many other talented animators from Powerhouse. Castlevania has a little over 100 submissions on, where, as I’ve mentioned, Deats and Wan are vocal about their work. They’ve been just as vocal about their inspirations from Japan which I’ve also pointed out are big parts of the style of the series.

So… is it anime? Answering that question would result in a sort of indeterminate, high pitched noise that, transcribed to paper, probably looks like “muuwweehhh?”

In motion, it’s more Korean-inspired than Japanese. In terms of artwork, it draws direct inspiration from striking masterworks by Ayami Kojima and Yoshiaki Kawajiri. It’s as blurred as you can get on a technicality. So… I don’t know, fuck it… sure. Just remember, as I say in my essay on the topic, I will never say that something is or isn’t anime and mean it as an insult. It really doesn’t matter at the end of the day so long as it is a good show.

Final Thoughts

Watch Castlevania.

Despite my issues with season three it remains the best video game adaptation not just compared to its peers, but as a work of art in the realm of television dramas. And as a work of animation? It is a miracle. This is what any semi-serious adaptation of a video game should aspire to be.

Castlevania is available for legal streaming through Netflix

What did you think of Castlevania? Which season is your favorite? Which character is your favorite? Leave a comment below and tell what other animated Netflix originals I should check out.

Next week is gonna be something a little different and I hope it comes together nicely. It’s an analysis and it’s about one of my favorite shows… So it could potentially be one of four shows. Can you guess which one? You probably can.

Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next week!

Oh and wash your hands, stay home, and stay healthy. Fuck Coronavirus.

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