Wed. Dec 6th, 2023

For being a series about immortal vampires, Castlevania sure has been dead in the gaming space for a long time. It even went out on a sour note, too, as 2014’s Lords of Shadow 2 was plagued by inconsistent combat, level design, and storytelling, as well as frustrating stealth segments that had no business being in a Castlevania title. Since then, it has been up to other developers like Motion Twin to fill that void with games that were heavily influenced by Konami’s Gothic series. Its roguelite, Dead Cells, felt like a modern reinvention of the series, something that was made even more clear with its Return to Castlevania expansion. And while already an excellent roguelite at the genre’s pinnacle, this DLC not only makes Dead Cells better, but is also a great way to kick off Castlevania’s oft-reported revival.

Return to Castlevania improves Dead Cells because it is fan service with tangible benefits. Its new lineup of weapons recall Castlevania staples like the boomerang-like cross and the Belmont clan’s whip, all of which add something new to The Beheaded’s combat repertoire. That legendary whip is a mid-range beast since it crits if foes connect with the very end of it, while Death’s scythe turns the souls of the slain into temporary allies. Maria’s cat also seems like a funny joke at first, but the ferocious feline can both passively swipe at foes and also be actively summoned for more direct damage. The references inherent to the lineup of new tools is a nice touch that adds flavor, but their effectiveness in combat and utility means there’s all sorts of new ways to experiment with Dead Cells’ expansive and ever-evolving arsenal.

Not every callback has such a direct impact on the gameplay, but it’s all there to more thoroughly douse the game in the series’ signature blood. The Beheaded pokes fun at some more famous moments of the series like the flesh ball boss fight in Symphony of the Night and the crashed carriage at the beginning of Rondo of Blood. And they’re mostly silly goofs that are in line with Dead Cells’ surprisingly solid humor. 

But it’s not a takedown and only done out of reverence because of all the other references elsewhere. There are Rondo of Blood-esque title cards that introduce the levels, killer remixes of classic Castlevania tunes, characters from games like Order of Ecclesia, infamous dialogue lines, recreations of famous cutscenes, and small level design touches that all evoke a decent variety of Castlevania titles, although it is heavily skewed toward the most popular ones. 

It’s a loving collage of Castlevania that works so well here because of the team’s remarkable attention to detail and ability to create gorgeous retro visuals and soundtracks. Evil Empire even goes a bit further by implementing a few dastardly secrets that are clever references in and of themselves. Inputting the Konami Code isn’t a new Easter egg, but it has more weight here because it complements every other detail and is in a homegrown Konami franchise.

Return to Castlevania is a reference-heavy expansion, but it’s also a Trojan Horse for a new Castlevania game since it gives players the chance to play as Alucard and Richter Belmont (among many other familiar faces) through a variety of costumes. While Dead Cells made it easy to imagine how a new Castlevania would play, these additions are a visual trick that make that feeling more concrete, even if these skins are only cosmetic. Dead Cells’ impeccably smooth controls would translate perfectly to a Castlevania game, and that’s even more obvious when slaying Dead Cells‘ version of Dracula as the nimblest version of Alucard.

Its Richter Mode, a callback to similar modes in other installments, goes one step further by locking players to a self-contained level with Richter’s more traditional move set that has to be unlocked over time. It’s not exact one-to-one replication of Dead Cells — Richter’s jump arc is locked, his signature back flip takes the place of the double jump, he can’t carry health flasks, and his weapons are limited to his usual kit — but it’s a tantalizing tease of what a more traditional Castlevania would look like with a Dead Cells-level of fluidity.

Konami has a few outside teams making Silent Hill games, so giving Motion Twin and Evil Empire the keys to the castle doesn’t seem as implausible as it did five years ago. Evil Empire even noted that Konami was surprisingly very open with this DLC, giving the team an impressive amount of freedom. The teams have shown that they are capable of making slick 2D action games, and that fresh perspective would be an excellent way to reinvent and modernize the aging series. It could use some sort of revitalization, as Konami has not confirmed any plans to pull Dracula out of his coffin.

Unofficially, however, reports have been swirling of Dracula imminent reawakening. Video Games Chronicle reported in October 2021 that Konami was planning to resurrect Metal Gear Solid, Castlevania, and Silent Hill. The Silent Hill revival came to fruition, and the outlet followed up with another report earlier this year saying that a 3D Castlevania was set for a summer reveal. And given how Silent Hill’s arrival in Dead by Daylight foreshadowed its return, it wouldn’t be out of the question for this Dead Cells DLC to play a similar role for Castlevania.

Even though it plays splendidly and adds more tools to Dead Cells’ ever-growing item pool, Return to Castlevania is also an excellent reminder of why the Konami series was so beloved in the first place. Striking environmental and character design, thumping regal music, and fast action were all key parts of the series that have been lovingly recreated (and thoughtfully expanded upon) here by teams with irrefutable respect for the source material. While also an incredible application for a full-fledged Castlevania game, this DLC, if the reports are accurate, would be a fitting forebear for a series resurgence since it is just the fresh blood Castlevania has been waiting quite some time for.

By Dave Jenks

Dave Jenks is an American novelist and Veteran of the United States Marine Corps. Between those careers, he’s worked as a deckhand, commercial fisherman, divemaster, taxi driver, construction manager, and over the road truck driver, among many other things. He now lives on a sea island, in the South Carolina Lowcountry, with his wife and youngest daughter. They also have three grown children, five grand children, three dogs and a whole flock of parakeets. Stinnett grew up in Melbourne, Florida and has also lived in the Florida Keys, the Bahamas, and Cozumel, Mexico. His next dream is to one day visit and dive Cuba.