This review contains some spoilers for Castlevania and the Castlevania video game series.
When news first hit the wires that Netflix would be debuting an animated adaptation of the iconic Castlevania series back in February, reactions were understandably mixed. With nearly 30 named-titles alone in the main series, the show would have a lot to live up to. Some fans reacted with immediate suspicion, while others expressed cautious optimism; all fair reactions regarding a series that, along with the Metroid series, defined an entire generation of games. Film and TV adaptations of video games are prone to failures (no one wants to talk about Warcraft, trust me) and Castlevania‘s deep well of material presents both tremendous opportunity and tremendous risk.
While the May 24th trailer seemingly implied that the show would be an anime adaptation from a Japanese studio, a perusal of the show’s arduous creation reveals it was a joint effort that included a script by Warren Ellis (of Marvel fame among others), Konami consultants, and an almost ten-year process to reach audiences. Almost miraculously, the show has largely avoided pitfalls of video game film/TV adaptations: point-for-point story adaptations, live action, and insufficient budgets. The choices made by the showrunners are reflected in the show’s quality, and give both newcomers to the series and old fans reasons to be excited.
Warren Ellis took pains to respect the original story, but expanded it where necessary
Ellis’s script, thus far, is a faithful, but not an exact-copy, adaptation of the sixth entry in the Castlevania series–Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. The core of the story is still Trevor Belmont’s battle against Dracula and his armies summoned from Hell. Several familiar faces also make their appearance in the first season: Sypha Belnades, a witch and member of the Speakers; and Alucard, Dracula’s damphyr son. Both are Trevor’s eventual allies in his fight against Dracula.
Longtime fans of the game series will immediately notice some key differences in the story: Dracula’s backstory and eventual campaign to eradicate humanity from Wallachia are shown in greater detail, and the Church, exemplified by the smarmiest of smarmy corrupted officials, is now the major catalyst for Dracula’s reign of terror AND the reason why the Belmonts were exiled from Wallachia. These changes and a number of others contribute to a story that is tremendously immersive, even for those previously unfamiliar with the plot points of the game.
Interestingly, Ellis also chose to steer clear of making Dracula a thoroughly evil villain (the Church gets that job), instead giving him a far more sympathetic history by introducing Lisa, his wife and Alucard’s mother who, though mentioned, never appeared in the original game. This is a rather modern choice on Ellis’s part and very much falls in line with recent trends in storytelling that favor more complex villains and heroes in order to better portray the paths to evil and good. For Castlevania, this decision makes the story all the more compelling to watch.
Also worth a mention is the voice acting talent behind the animation. Though Netflix did not spare any expense in pulling in star power, with Richard Armitage voicing Trevor for instance, they also largely avoided ensemble casting the show as a way to pull in more viewers. The show is appropriately casted for its characters and the actors have done a great job so far in Season 1. Special shoutout to Matt Frewer, a relatively less known American-Canadian actor, for voicing the rage-inducing, skin-crawling Bishop responsible for horror terrorizing Wallachia–the hypocrisy of the character feels almost uncomfortably real.
If there are issues to be taken with this show’s story, it’s that it leans very heavily into the tropes of the original game. The plot beats will be familiar, perhaps wearily so. Moreover, though Lisa gets more screen-time than she did in the original game, she appears for a mere 10 minutes in Episode 1 before she is burned at the stake to kick off Dracula’s deeper descent into evil. There are tantalizing tidbits dropped about her in these few minutes, of an interest in science and an aspiration of greater things for humanity. Sadly, she largely disappears into Dracula’s backstory as the narrative shifts to focus on Trevor and his allies. In the end, it remains to be seen if the narrative will continue with Dracula’s complexity or favor a more conventional good-versus-evil plot.
The animation is beautifully done for the most part
This probably goes a bit without saying if the trailer was anything to go by, but Netflix really invested in the animation quality of Castlevania. The look and feel does lean very much on the original game’s design as well as several classic anime series (namely Cowboy Bebop and Beserk) while still keeping a certain Western sensibility in terms of emotional expression and artistic design. The animation also employs film noir, chiaroscuro, and color grading techniques to heighten the impact of the story. With a few exceptions, the entire color palette of the show is of a bloodred hue, hinting at the violence and death to come.
As with most contemporary animation, Castlevania does also include 3D animation, particularly for dramatic effect around Dracula’s castle and later elements in the catacombs beneath Gresit. Though not a key part of the storytelling, the 3D seems to appear to accentuate the contrast between medieval Wallachia and the more advanced technology available to vampiric characters.
While the 3D animation is skillfully deployed in most cases, there are a few instances when it bumps into uncanny valley territory and jars the viewer from the story. For fans who love the more traditional look and feel of the rest of the show, this may be even more of an attention-breaking problem. However, these moments happen sparingly and are not a reason to skip out on the show.
Overall, with a strong script, strong voice talent, and beautiful animation to back up a classic story, Castlevania has thrills and fun to offer new viewers and fans of the original game. For viewers who have not played the original game, fear not, Season 1 offers a great primer and intro to the story. Season 2 is expected out sometime next year.
Castlevania is available on Netflix in most regions.