Konami doesn't seem to be too interested in doing much with the Castlevania series these days, leaving Netflix to keep the franchise in the public consciousness – which it has done admirably, via four seasons of animated adventures focused around Trevor Belmont, Alucard and Sypha Belnades, characters that were first introduced in the NES title Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse.
With the conclusion of that story arc – and the rather less-welcome accusations against its writer, Warren Ellis – Netflix now turns its attention to an arguably more famous period in the Castlevania timeline: the time of Symphony of the Night (or, to be more precise, its immediate forerunner, Dracula X: Rondo of Blood). Richter Belmont, vampire hunter and Smash Bros. combatant, is the hero this time around; quick-witted and a little wet behind the ears, he's joined by Maria Renard, a young sorceress and pivotal character from Rondo. Pleasingly, both Richter and Maria are based closely on the designs created by the legendary Ayami Kojima for Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles, the 2007 remake of Rondo of Blood (which also happens to include its PlayStation sequel).
The story begins with a spot of scene-setting in Boston, where the reason for Richter's lifelong obsession with slaying vampires is laid out in not-so-subtle fashion (he needs to have a reason beyond being a Belmont, it seems). Jumping forward in time, we end up in Revolutionary France, with vampire society somewhat at odds with the principles of 'liberty, fraternity and equality' – namely because it upsets the natural order they have established in which peasants are their primary source of food.
Against this melting pot, Countess Erzsebet Báthory (based on the real-life Elizabeth Báthory, who was, in her lifetime, accused of bathing in the blood of young women and is loosely referenced in Castlevania: Bloodlines) is moving to unite the vampire world with designs on a global campaign of subjugation, aided by her feisty second-in-command, Drolta Tzuentes. Thrown into the mix for good measure are former slave (and magic-user) Annette and her close friend Edouard, as well as Maria's mother Tera (voiced by Hollywood royalty Nastassja Kinski, no less), who possesses similar supernatural powers to her daughter.
While Richter and Maria constitute a formidable team when it comes to killing bloodsuckers, they aren't at the height of their collective powers when the series begins; Richter, especially, does a lot of learning during the course of the season, and that includes meeting a figure from his past who neatly connects Nocturne to a previous game in the Castlevania timeline (we won't spoil the surprise). Similarly, the season's conclusion does a neat job of linking in with the original four series on Netflix, setting up what should be an exciting second series.
As much as we loved Warren Ellis' dark and often crude dialogue in previous seasons, the plotting and writing is arguably tighter here, with new writer and showrunner Clive Bradley (The Vice, Trapped) clearly possessing a good understanding of what makes the video games – and the associated world of weird and wonderful characters – tick. Olrox, a vampire from America, is particularly interesting; his motivations are less clear than those of his undead brethren, and it's fascinating to watch his character develop as the season progresses to its bloody conclusion.
The voice work is also excellent. While we miss Richard Armitage's cutting insults as Trevor Belmont, the new raft of actors knock it out of the park here, with Edward Bluemel's Richter and Elarica Johnson's Drolta being particular stand-outs. There's even room for Iain Glen (Game of Thrones) in there, too.
As for the design and animation, well, we've already established that the series takes a massive amount of inspiration from Ayami Kojima's work, and it's actually hard to find a single character who doesn't look absolutely spot-on. In fact, when things are peaceful, Castlevania: Nocturne looks like a million dollars – however, when the action hots up, the animation can become a little choppy; a few more frames would have helped massively.
We levelled the same (minor) criticism at the previous four seasons, but it's important to keep in mind that the company behind all of Netflix's Castlevania adaptations, Powerhouse Animation Studios, will be working to a budget that is likely to be much tighter than your typical Japanese anime or Hollywood animation. And besides, while the battle sequences can sometimes be jumpy, they do their job brilliantly (one sequence, set to the tune of Bloodlines from Rondo of Blood, will have the hairs standing up on the back of any self-respecting Castlevania fan's neck, we can assure you of that).
Unlike the initial season of Warren Ellis' Castlevania, this opening series feels much more self-contained and less focused on establishing the second helping of episodes, which is undoubtedly around the corner. While the animation could do with a few more frames here and there, everything else is practically beyond reproach; Castlevania: Nocturne proves the franchise is in good hands with Netflix, but it does make us pine for a time when Castlevania video games were released on a regular basis.
Perhaps, with the assured critical success of this latest season, Konami will finally wake up to the latent potential of this beloved bloodline.
Castlevania: Nocturne is available to watch on Netflix now.