In all the video game discussions I’ve seen, I’ve rarely (if ever) seen anybody talk about clones in a positive light. People use the term to dismiss whatever games they don’t like, or to discuss the very serious problems that plague mobile markets. While I can understand why people deride clones (especially on the mobile market, where they’re so easy to make), I don’t believe clones have to be a bad thing. In fact, I’d argue that in responsible hands, they can lead to the sort of tinkering that makes video games thrive.
I would argue that if not for Holy Diver. While Irem’s 1989 platformer is an obvious homage to Castlevania, it doesn’t understand what makes Castlevania a compelling game. So while it captures the easy-to-emulate surface elements just fine, it lacks any kind of meaningful base to layer them upon. The predictable result of all this is a hollow adventure.
From the very beginning, it’s clear how much Holy Diver borrows from Castlevania. The game is a Gothic platformer/action game where you guide the mighty warrior Randy across six fantasy locales on his quest to restore the royal family and defeat the Emperor of Darkness. A goofy execution on a worn premise, but given how little of that manifests in the play, I don’t see it as much of an issue. No, the game’s real problems start with poor mechanics. By that, I don’t mean that the game is unbalanced or glitchy or anything like that. The mechanics function well enough. (Knockback might be a problem, but not enough for me to criticize the game on.) Yet therein lies the problem: they only function. Not a single mechanic has weight, or depth, or presence, or anything it would need to have personality. Instead, all they possess is a dry, utilitarian air that does very little to draw you into the world.
This problem is especially prevalent in the game’s magic mechanics. As Randy progresses on his journey, he collects various spells. The vast majority of them are some variation on attacking, and it’s to that end that they’re designed. Their behavior is routine, almost computer calculated. They don’t announce themselves any more than is necessary. It’s as though the spells never want to attract attention to themselves, meaning that all they really communicate is their immediate function. The Blizzard spell is a good example of that: it amounts to little more than a tool for navigating the occasional bed of lava. Make no mistake, though; what I describe is by no means exclusive to the magic. It applies equally well to Holy Diver’s other mechanics.
With its mechanics failing, the game places a heavy onus on its scenarios to get the job done. Unfortunately, they don’t do much better, for many of the same reasons. Until the last few stages, the game is comprised almost entirely of straight hallways. Within said hallways, Randy will no doubt encounter monsters to fight and platforms to jump between. Sounds innocent enough, but upon closer inspection, these ingredients alone aren’t conducive to good game design. They don’t leave a lot of room for player input. With the world quite blatantly telegraphing its solutions, the player has no interesting choices to make. For Holy Diver, the player exists not as an agent for the game to engage with, but rather, as something to fill in its gaps.
The game has multiple options for fixing this problem. It could introduce branching paths earlier, and distinguish them enough that the player would get something out of choosing one over the other. Pace things out far enough, and it could introduce an element of exploration where the player finds at the end of one path something that unlocks another they encountered earlier. It could even be as simple as adding a time limit, forcing the player to balance two different play styles.
Ultimately, the game chooses to fix its problems with challenge. It’s an admirable goal, and I must admit that the game is challenging. I often found that I was pushing through levels at a very slow pace and on the verge of death. However, this alone isn’t enough to redeem the game. We must consider how the scenarios challenge the player, and once again, the game fails this test. Some of that goes back to the lack of meaningful choice I’ve already elaborated upon. However, I see pacing as the much larger issue. One of the main sources of difficulty for Holy Diver is enemy respawns. New monsters enter the fray almost as quickly as Randy can put them down. In a game that’s so reliant on magic, and with monsters being the most reliable way to refill said magic, enemy respawns make sense. (Of course, that erroneously assumes the magic system is strong enough to support the game.)
But it’s the game’s over-reliance on this one tactic that does things in. The speed at which monsters come on screen stops poor Randy dead in his tracks. Your only options are to slog through the horde at the speed of molasses, or to suck it up and hope Randy can take the punishment. This is hardly the kind of interesting challenges that Holy Diver requires. In fact, I’m beginning to doubt how challenging an unending procession of enemies really is. Taking them down isn’t that difficult; it’s just repetitive filler that takes a while to slog through. Like so much of the design before it, the game’s level structure appears to be a cheap and easy way to make the game more challenging without making it more engaging.
The only truly positive thing I can say about this game is that it looks great. And I don’t mean to be snide or dismissive when I say that; it really does look fantastic. However, Holy Diver isn’t a holistic enough experience that strong art direction can save it. With every element of the game’s design relying on the other to pick up the slack, the game lacks a solid foundation to work with. What we’re left with is a stark reminder of why copying the greats isn’t enough. One can mimic every part of a great game down to the most minute detail and still fail to capture an ounce of its substance.