Apple Arcade’s Castlevania would probably be better off dead
Earlier this year, the gone and but not forgotten free-to-play mobile game World of Demons was revived for Apple Arcade. Former Destructoid writer Brett Makedonski actually flew to Japan shortly after it was first revealed to take the title for a spin, finding the game was able to capture the action gameplay PlatinumGames is famous for even if it was shackled to some questionable monetization schemes. Said schemes are probably what kept it from finding an audience because not long after it had its soft launch, Platinum pulled it from app stores. While it might not have been a good fit for the free-to-play market, it worked out for the best because World of Demons is one of the better games to release on Apple Arcade in 2021.
Castlevania: Grimoire of Souls shared a similar path to the service. Originally announced as a free-to-play title, it had a soft launch a few years back before it was pulled from app stores. Last month, we found out the game would be given a second chance at life on Apple’s subscription service. Unfortunately, unlike World of Demons, there isn’t a gem hiding here when you remove all the free-to-play restrictions. Or maybe there is. Truthfully, we won’t know because Konami didn’t get rid of those restrictions. It kept most of the bullshit; it just got rid of anything that’d require you to pay or wait.
The narrative driving Grimoire of Souls is simple enough. A bunch of books chronicling the history of the fight against Dracula have become possessed, and you need to take control of the heroes of the Castlevania timeline to set things right. As you go through each book, you’ll revisit locations from the series’ past, fighting familiar monsters in bite-sized levels. Each stage of the game is divided into two parts: a linear area you explore and fight monsters in and a boss area where you’ll face a small selection of strong enemies. Along the way, you collect a bunch of shit you’ll use to upgrade and strengthen your weapons. And this is where Grimoire of Souls’ origin as a free-to-play title is most evident.
As is the case with a lot F2P games, Grimoire of Souls was originally designed as an app encouraging players to engage in a little gacha gambling. The move to Apple Arcade hasn’t changed that one bit. While you’ll unlock new characters as you play through the story, their weapons and armor are trapped behind the luck of the draw. And those draws can be excessively stingy. I think I’ve received two four-star items in the dozen or so 10-pulls I’ve done over the past few weeks. Compare that to something like World Flipper, where I get at least two or three four-star draws for every 10-pull I do.
Beyond the gacha pulls, there are other tried and true tactics from the free-to-play sphere at play here, including seasonal events with exclusive weapons, daily missions, and log-in rewards that are designed to keep players artificially engaged with the game. When you take into account the poor menu system and a bevy of currencies to track, as well as dispatch timers and limits on certain modes, it’s not hard to understand why this game wasn’t able to stand out in the free-to-play market. If there was a universal checklist in which to design F2P games wite, Grimoire of Souls has certainly checked off every box on it. Those menus in particular are gallingly awful, and while I can work my way around them now, my ability to do so didn’t come easy. It took a lot of patience and replays of the same levels to gather all the supplies I needed to actually strengthen my squad.
The central appeal of Apple Arcade is that it is supposed to do away with all of the nonsense mobile games are known for. A service like this doesn’t need its titles using FOMO and confusion to keep players engaged. An Apple Arcade Castlevania game should be nothing more than a delightful jaunt to kill Dracula again. And maybe without all of these leftover concepts from its origin as a free-to-play app, that’s what Grimoire of Souls would be. Unfortunately, we may never know that for sure because all of those F2P systems are alive and well in this version of the game.
All of this is a real shame because Grimoire of Souls is actually fun to play. Like this year’s Contra Returns, it’s a decent recreation of the Castlevania experience. The action is fast-paced and tight, the music is great, the levels are well designed with items hidden in walls and secret areas to uncover, and the demon whipping combat we’ve been enjoying since the mid-‘80s still feels damn good. The boss battles in particular are a highlight as they require players to use all the skills at their disposal. There are also some pretty interesting experimental ideas here, such as a difficulty checklist that lets you change certain settings before you play a level for greater reward. As for the controls, the touch screen will get the job done but the whole package works better when you tether a controller to your device.
Also, the game can be quite lovely to look at. The art direction here really captures the spirit of the Castlevania series. The character models look great, enemy design is true to the franchise, and the artists more or less nailed the gothic aesthetic the series has cultivated over the decades.
But all of that loveliness is for naught if the game is just no fun to play through, and Grimoire of Souls is too much of a hassle to bother with. It’s clear the two-year gap between when the original soft launch ended to when it arrived on Apple Arcade wasn’t spent trying to figure out how to redesign this game for a non-free-to-play environment. Instead, it seems like the developer just made a few small adjustments and called it a day. You’re better off sticking with Apple Arcade games designed with the service in mind or dropping a few bucks on a Castlevania game actually worth playing.