Video game adaptations have a poor track record, to say the least. Concepts of player agency and input translate poorly into more traditional narrative forms and little heed is often paid to actually rendering the central appeal of the game into the new medium. More often than not, you get a more broad genre knock-off with some accoutrements of the video game property.
Now Netflix has entered the ring and in a rather atypical style. They’ve opted not to produce a film or one of their binge-bait television series, but a short anime-influenced cartoon series based on the Castlevania franchise. Castlevania is a long-living franchise of games that usually concerns the efforts of the whip-wielding Belmont family to vanquish the perennially resurrecting Dracula and his demonic forces. The series became known for developing a distinctive dungeon design, where your character had to navigate the labyrinthine Castle of Dracula in a nonlinear fashion, as opposed to the usually strictly directed corridor approach of most games.
Who can’t see the appeal of fighting sexy anime vampires with whips?
The appeal of developing these games is clear, in that we have a familiar and well-defined element for audiences to grasp onto even if they have not played the games – namely, Dracula – and with SO many entries in the franchise, there’s a sizeable established fan base and ample material to potentially adapt. The series’ writing is being helmed by Warren Ellis no less, which attests to the efforts being thrown at this project. This is further embellished by a rather prestigious voice cast, which is being led by Richard Armitage as the disgraced Trevor Belmont.
For all this though, Castlevania (the cartoon series) is an odd entity and I am not sure it is entirely successful. It has potential, certainly, and is a lot better than many video game adaptations, which treat their heritage with contempt, but it doesn’t feel quite fully formed. Part of this is simply down to its length. This is very much a taster series. It’s composed of four 25-minute episodes and acts as a prologue to what will obviously be a larger storytelling endeavour (more episodes were commissioned on the day of release). Intentions and series strategy aside though, the offering is a touch insubstantial and the content that is here does feel stretched to fill the running time.
It simply feels like this series is one episode too long
I also have some gripes on the production quality. The art style is itself well-executed and shows its anime influences openly (befitting the Japanese origins of the games), but you can see the obvious measures to curtail animation costs in the bulk of the episodes. It’s never choppy or abrupt, but the story heavily favours longer static shots. Only in the final action sequence – which seems very much to be based around the idea of video game platforming and a boss battle – do we see a lot of very fluid and elaborate animation. I suspect the budget was mainly allocated on delivering this showstopper than a more consistent animation quality across the episodes.
There’s also something odd about the sound design, specifically the voice direction. There’s a great preponderance for embellishing the script with a lot of sighing and gasping, and on a few occasions, the voice work does not integrate well with the ambient noise levels of the wider scene. This bug does not crop up throughout but it does happen in some crucial scenes. These remain, however, largely technical gripes and I have forgiven shows for far worse.
Could the production values be the result of a studio trying animation for the first time?
No, the problem is that the overall thrust of the taster series of “Let’s get our band of vampire hunters together” is drawn out too much and does not tie into the other (far stronger) strand of the story about the abuses of a corrupt church in an era of terror. Castlevania has a bad habit of isolating certain storytelling roles within specific scenes. So you get a scene delivering exposition, one establishing characters and another for action – never a scene that can deliver all three. The characters are defined but are yet to develop much depth. That might be an unfair demand for four episodes, but I’ve seen series establish characters beyond their basic archetypes far more efficiently.
Ultimately, Castlevania does not quite come together as a satisfying taster though it clearly has potential. By the end of this micro-run, we’ve at least established the heroes and given them a clearly laid out objective in a reasonably defined setting. Compared to other dark fantasy anime, it’s nowhere near as repetitious as Claymore, doesn’t suffer from the arbitrary plot twists of Attack on Titan, and is trying much harder on its character work than the new and abysmal version of Berserk. This may bode well for when Castlevania gets a full cache of episodes, but for now, the Netflix original is more a curiosity than a cohesive and compelling show.
Verdict: Castlevania is not without merit but it’s an underdeveloped taster that doesn’t quite come together.