Warning: The following review contains outright spoilers for the first two seasons of Castlevania, as well as slight spoilers for the third season. Consider yourselves warned!
After enduring a development period that stretches back an entire decade, Warren Ellis’ vision of the Castlevania universe has turned into something of a surprise hit. The first two seasons were superb, mixing mature writing, fan-favourite characters and plenty of gory scenes to produce one of the most successful animated adaptations of a video game series ever witnessed. With Dracula’s demise at the close of the second season, it seemed like the story arc had reached its natural conclusion – but here we are with a third helping of ten, 30-minute-long episodes, giving Ellis the chance to flesh out his characters and the dark, foreboding world they inhabit even further. The end result – produced by Frederator Studios and executed in the ‘anime’ style by Powerhouse Animation – is still enjoyable and long-standing fans will lap it up, but it perhaps struggles to match the brilliance of that epic second season.
Season 3 picks up almost immediately after the events of the previous series. Alucard, having rid the world of his troubled father, is at something of a loose end; while he savours the peace and quiet of the now-empty castle, he misses his companions Trevor and Sypha, who are travelling the land by cart killing any night creatures they meet along the way. Alucard eventually bumps into a pair of Japanese vampire hunters who are searching for the bloodsucker who made them her slaves. As such, Alucard’s story arc in this series is perhaps the least engaging, as he and his new friends spend much of the time training – although, by the penultimate episode, this particular plot strand takes an unexpected turn which we won’t spoil here. Suffice to say, we can see it upsetting a lot of hardcore Castlevania fans.
Trevor and Sypha, meanwhile, end up in the town of Lindenfeld, which is home to a priory full of monks who have recently rejected Christianity and are instead dabbling in more occult practices. Here, they meet the town’s leader, known only as The Judge (voiced by Harry Potter star Jason Issacs), and the mysterious Saint Germain (voiced by the legendary Bill Nighy). Saint Germain – who appears in the PS2 title Castlevania: Curse of Darkness – is investigating the shadowy practices of the monks, but he has another reason for wanting to uncover the secrets of the priory, and therefore forms an alliance with our two vampire hunters.
Speaking of Curse of Darkness, the two forgemasters, Hector and Issac, find themselves many miles apart when season 3 begins. Hector has been taken prisoner by Carmilla after she tricked him into betraying Dracula at the close of the previous series, while Issac – who was spared death when Dracula hurled him through a portal that spat him out in an eastern desert – has become twisted with vengeance and travels to the vampire fortress at Styria with the intention of killing Hector. Issac’s story is therefore dominated by the distance he has to cover to reach his goal, but he gifts the series with some of its best moments of pure dialogue.
Hector ends up bruised, battered and naked in the dungeons of Carmilla’s castle, where Lenore, Morana and Striga – other members of Carmilla’s vampire ‘sisterhood’ – also reside. Carmilla, brimming with confidence thanks to the death of Dracula, has plans to control a vast corridor of land where she and her vampire allies can feed on the constantly-replenishing human population. However, she needs Hector’s skills as a forgemaster to create a demon army, and enlists the alluring Lenore to befriend him and gain his trust.
With all of these plates in the air, series 3 of Castlevania has a lot of work to do, and this results in a rather disjointed pace at times. Everything comes together in the end, but, as was also true to a lesser extent of the first two seasons, it feels like things take too long to really get moving, with the majority of the action taking place in the last two episodes. Prior to that, there’s a lot of talking and scenes with limited animation, which means that Ellis’ script and the skills of the voice cast have to do most of the heavy lifting.
The good news is that they succeed; Richard Armitage is still brilliant as Trevor, and Toby James (Hector) and Adetokumboh M’Cormack (Issac) turn in superb performances that lend their respective characters a real sense of depth, and the rest of the cast is equally assured. There are some moments where the script descends into cringe-worthy territory – unwelcome and unnecessary expletives fall like rain during an English summer and talk of “burning devil goat turds from the sky” just sounds absurd (although, we dare say that is the intention). Overall, though, Ellis’ skill at crafting unique dialogue that both informs and entertains is beyond debate; his fame as one of the best comic book writers alive today is well-earned.
While the storyline is entirely original, Ellis has taken the time to integrate some nerdy references to the Castlevania video game series. During one battle, a wizard creates a ball of human followers not entirely dissimilar to the Granfalloon boss from Symphony of the Night, and there are occasional cameos from monsters which are lifted almost wholesale from the games. Even Grant Denasty, the missing member of the Castlevania III trio, is alluded to at one point, which should go some way to pacifying those fans who have been calling for his introduction since series one.
One thing that’s worth noting this time around is how sex has become a key focal point in this latest season of Castlevania. It was almost entirely absent from the first two series, but, as the story reaches its conclusion in this season, it feels like everyone starts shedding their clothing at the same time. We wouldn’t say it feels forced as such, but it does seem a little jarring and out of place, and – given that this is a 15-rated series in the UK – perhaps a little too gratuitous. You’re clearly not going to be prudish if you’re watching a series as blood-soaked and curse-riddled as Netflix’s Castlevania, but still, some of the couplings in this series are sure to raise eyebrows. And the gore? That was always present in past seasons, but here, it feels like it’s been turned up to eleven.
The animation in the first two series was often a mixed bag, which is to be expected from a long-form series such as this one. While the character design is strong, the jerky animation is still there – and in some action scenes, the lack of frames becomes seriously disconcerting. Granted, we’re talking about a five-hour series here – not a 90-minute Disney money with an unlimited budget – so to expect silky-smooth animation is unreasonable. Even so, it does make certain scenes feel a little cheap and rushed.
As the dust settles on series 3, the door isn’t so much left open for a fourth season – it’s busted right off its hinges. While there’s the feeling that this could have been trimmed here and there to make the pace a little more agreeable, it’s still an enjoyable ride and gives Ellis and the rest of the team behind the production – including director Sam Deats and showrunner Kevin Kolde – some exciting opportunities in terms of story, as well as the tantalising promise of the somewhat predictable resurrection of a pretty key figure in the Castlevania franchise.
Castlevania Series 3 premieres on Netflix on Thursday, March 5th.