The kid in me would be tempted to begin this review with as many vampire puns and fan-gushing moments over the Castlevania franchise as possible; when your first console is an NES and Castlevania 3 the game you played most often with your brother, that leaves a lasting impact.
As I got older, I became swept away by the story and grandeur of PlayStation’s Symphony of the Night—hell, my first Dungeons & Dragons character was a working-version of Alucard. We even worked Dracula and the Belmonts into the campaign universe. Honestly, I could go on about the days spent learning lore and backstory for each character (which eventually led to reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula), but I think the point’s been made. I’m no longer a child, but this series isn’t meant for children.
The first commercials for Netflix’s new Castlevania anime-inspired series from Powerhouse Animation Studios left me skeptical, I’ll admit; fans will recall that this specific adaptation of Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse had been in developmental Hell for nearly a decade, with seemingly no one capable of resurrecting the project. There have also been a slew of bad video game adaptations in that interim, including Prince of Persia, Alone in the Dark, and the never-ending Resident Evil sequels that refused to go away.
I thought to myself, “Here’s yet another series trying to sell itself on nostalgia-factor alone.” Netflix’s Castlevania seemed doomed to fail because so many others before it had—couldn’t be more elated to be wrong about something in my life. To put it simply: Castlevania is so good that it left me feeling like a kid again.
For a little backstory, the Castlevania video game series tells the tale of the Belmont family and their fight against the evil vampire Dracula. The games have been legendary for their ability to blend together classic horror tropes with brilliantly original stories and solid gameplay. Even with gameplay thrown out of the equation this time, Castlevania the series does well to have the story and horror aestetic front-and-center.
Serving as an introduction to the story at large, as mentioned before, the series takes place in the Castlevania III setting. Our story begins with a woman named Lisa (Emily Swallow) seeking out and meeting the vampire Vlad Dracula Tepes (Graham McTavish) in hopes of learning chemistry and science from him to become a doctor. Years later, Lisa—now Dracula’s wife—is burned at the stake by the Catholic Church as a witch, leading her husband to swear revenge on humanity as a whole; it’s a “vampire with a heart” tale a la Vampire Hunter D. The world is being overrun by monsters and demons, and it’s up to Trevor Belmont (Richard Armitage), magician Sypha Belnades (Alejandra Reynoso), and Alucard (James Callis)—Dracula’s son—to storm the vampire lord’s castle and save humanity from the armies of Hell itself. Epic, isn’t it?
Right from the first episode, Castlevania does an excellent job taking direct moments from the game and translating them into 2D computer hand-drawn animation; Lisa’s death, Trevor’s fights with various hordes, and Alucard’s first intervention with Dracula certainly don’t fail in rousing nostalgic glee. As an adaptation, the series doesn’t stray far form the original source material, actually expanding the setting by adding in lore and elements from the other franchise installments.
This, to me, is probably the best part of the Netflix series, as it’s one of the first video game adaptation projects to successfully do what it intended to: Honestly tell the known story rather than invent a new one (looking at you, Assassin’s Creed). Rather than fabricating new characters for lead rolls, Castlevania rightly uses familiar faces and expands on them to create relatably likable ones from the start.
Now, this doesn’t mean writer Warren Ellis and director Sam Deats haven’t added in anything new to the story, as a true straight retelling of Castlevania III would be rather clunky. The third game, which was released in 1989 (we’re old), problematically crashed characters into the story as you found them with little to no explanation as to who they were and what they were really about. The most you knew was that they all wanted to kill Dracula, which obviously mattered in a gameplay sense. Trevor is just another Belmont, but in the series? He’s the last son of the Belmont family who’d been excommunicated from the Catholic Church and has to fight the hordes of darkness out of necessity rather than duty—at least at first. He’s a drunkard drifter with a rather nihilistic outlook on the world around him, having learned life lessons through hard experience rather than the player’s button inputs.
Sypha Belnades was simply a Speaker Witch who showed up to join the party, whereas in the series she’s a scholar who’s chosen to make use of her knowledge in a hardline stance. It’s character expansion like that that truly adapts the source material into something we can hold on to. The only character that doesn’t receive this treatment is Alucard, because why reinvent the wheel when the general characterization found in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night already covered it amazingly? This was the best choice made for the character, although finally seeing Alucard’s actions against his father rather than hearing about them was certainly a treat.
Kudos need to be heaped on the project for the spot-on voice actors chosen, and attitudes for their respective characters. Richard Armitage and Graham McTavish steal the spotlight whenever they’re speaking. McTavish’s Dracula resounds with perfect crescendos of malice combined with small twinges of sorrow and humanity. Our villain came across as subtly relatable rather than some tired, over-the-top vampire stereotype. Every great villain needs a protagonist, and Armitage’s portrayal of Trevor Belmont delivers the perfect smooth, sarcastic tone befitting a defeated drifter.
While I must admit, I’m a sucker for well-done wit, Armitage is certainly a master at this art. To sum it up, the voice cast as a whole did a wonderfully respectable job bringing this series to life, and you can tell that a lot of love went into the sound production.
The other standout point of this show is its aesthetics. Castlevania is nothing without its horror tropes and themes. When first released in 1986, the original Castlevania NES game was quite the outlier from the typical cartoonish games surrounding it. The NES was marketed as a family-friendly system with characters at the forefront: Mario, Mega Man, Link, etc. Scary monsters and horror undertones were honestly a little out of place when the game dropped, which is why its runaway success upset the video game market.
Castlevania succeeded both because of and in spite of the horror imagery and inspirations that enveloped the story—just wouldn’t be the same without it. Lucky for us, the Netflix adaptation delivers on the imagery of classic horror and gothic scenery. Moments like Dracula’s announcement of vengeance are animated brilliantly with chilling flames and shadows. The monsters and gore are a feast for the eyes, realistic but not too over-the-top. Each fight has genuine tension and characters befitting the setting. Sure, CGI pops up every once and a while, but it mostly relegated to the background rather than forefront, helping to enhance the illusion the series is spinning rather than detract from it.
Current video game-to-film/television adaptation producers should be taking notes from all this; Castlevania succeeds aesthetically where so many others have failed.
That isn’t to say the show is without its flaws, primarily how short the first season is; don’t expect several weeks of binge watching for this one. As I mentioned, the initial four-episode Castlevania run serves as more of an introduction to the story and character rather than a complete epic telling of the tale. As such, the abrupt ending is a little saddening—I wished there had been at least one or two more episodes to at least leave off on a better note. There are moments where the animation shortcuts are apparent in the quality changes between drawings during the fight scenes. It’s understandable why they chose to do those scenes as they did, but one would think the short-order in episodes would’ve lent itself to avoiding such things.
Lastly, the soundtrack doesn’t measure up to expectations from the video game series—I found it to be sadly uninspired and mediocre. The Castlevania franchise boasts some of the most iconic music in the medium, with tracks like “Vampire Killer”, “Bloody Tears”, and “Beginning”, whereas the series sadly fails to deliver on adapting it. For me, that’s the biggest flaw preventing the adaptation from being potentially perfect. As an aside, diehard fans should listen to the Video Games Live performance of Castlevania music for a real treat.
That being said, the Netflix Castlevania adaptation is more than well worth your time. If you’re a fan of the games, you won’t be disappointed with the overall portrayal of characters and stories; for anime fans who’re newcomers to the franchise, the overall horror aesthetic is a real treat to the eyes with rather with rather well-done 2D-animation and reasonable CGI (again, only for background purposes, thank God).
Sure, the series isn’t perfect by any means, but given the critical lauds we’re in for a stellar second season with solid themes on-message. Some might be quick to categorize this as yet another nostalgic cash-grab of mediocrity, but I’m pleased to say Castlevania may be the best adapted work from a video game source in the last decade. If you have a Netflix account, put this series on the top of your “To Watch” list; you may, as I did, just feel like a kid again.
Netflix's Castlevania, Season One
- The poster child for video game adaptations.
- Adds to the original source material without betraying or changing it.
- Spot-on voice acting cast choices.
- Classic horror tropes and themes.
- So short and sweet that the wait for season two is going to be painful.
- Music is sadly uninspired and mediocre compared to the video game series.
- Occasional animation quality dips during the fight scenes.