Castlevania is a beloved game franchise, but not really for its story. The tangling of demon-fighting Belmonts and the sometimes morally ambiguous Draculas has gone to some silly places over the years, and it’s to the credit of the new, brief adaptation on Netflix that it manages to get something relatively focused out of the whole mishmash. But it also tries a little too hard to find profundity in a series that hasn’t been terribly concerned with it.
The series, which is really more of a movie divided into four half-hour episodes, has some pacing problems; the entire first episode and most of the second is basically elaborate backstory. In part that’s because it’s a faithful adaptation of Castlevania III, a prequel to the other games. It pulls most of the plot from the NES games, and two of Trevor Belmont’s (voiced by an amusingly deadpan Richard Armitage) companions, Sypha the Mage (Alejandra Reynoso) and franchise favorite Alucard (The Saint Of Killers himself, Graham McTavish). Yes, poor Grant DaNasty gets the shaft yet again. It’s surprisingly detailed, too, right down to Sypha’s backstory being straight from the game, in-jokes about being mistaken for a man and all.
Despite that, using the game as a series means the creators have something of a blank slate, at least in the West. The original game had a fairly poor translation and even without that, NES games weren’t known for their complex storytelling. Even so, the plots have some intriguing bits; Trevor had been, according to the game, excommunicated along with his whole family due to their superhuman strength, and only returned since, well, who else is going to fight Dracula? So Warren Ellis, prolific and beloved writer of comics and novels, fills in the blanks.
Unfortunately, he chooses to do so with a rather lengthy discourse about his opinions on organized religion. This is already a show about a vampire mad with grief inflicting gory death on peasants with bat monsters; it’s difficult to sell a serious debate on religion as a tool of political oppression when your hero whips out people’s eyes and beats up drunks ranting about some guy who had sex with their goat. It does make Dracula more interesting. Instead of just being a monster, he’s a husband taking out his grief on the rest of the world. But Dracula also barely shows up. The main villain is a religious zealot whose motivations begin and end with “Doing the worst thing possible out of bigotry and/or spite.”
Castlevania wraps up with a promise of a second season, one Netflix has already delivered on. But when it does come back, it’ll hopefully leave behind the attempts to be quite so serious in favor of picking up the pace.