The action-exploration genre typically referred to as "Metroidvania," is a really interesting one to slide under the lens and examine. As the nickname implies, two franchises were heralded as the pioneers of this sub-genre of games. Many games in this genre are typically defined by non-linearity, and the use of upgrades to progress onward, but anything beyond that varies heavily on the title. With so many different takes on the genre, ranging from the cryptic La-Mulana, the extremely non-linear Hollow Knight, and the recently released Touhou Luna Nights, it's a genre with no shortage of variety.
Within a genre filled with yet more and more nuanced offerings by the year, what does Midnight Castle Succubus add to the mix?
Midnight Castle Succubus is an action-exploration title released on English DLsite on February 16th, 2019. Though the game is unmistakably part of Libra Heart's series of Succubus games, this title wasn't actually developed by Libra Heart. In fact, if one were to visit Libra Heart's own website, they'd find this game entirely absent. Instead, Midnight Castle Succubus was developed by Pixel-Teishoku, with Libra Heart on-board as its sole artist. Incidentally, Midnight Castle Succubus released mere days after the next Libra Heart-developed title in the series, The Sword of Succubus.
The presentation wasn't the only element in Midnight Castle Succubus lifted from other games in the series, either. The game's basic premise involves the arrival of a succubus. threatening a medieval land once every 100 years. Tragedy strikes as women are abducted; the men perishing. The task of slaying the succubus, rescuing the kidnapped maidens, and restoring order to the land falls to a lone, whip-wielding heroine from distant lands. It should all sound like a similar tune to those who played Akumajou Succubus, which this title derives several more elements from.
Gameplay in Midnight Castle Succubus is a sidescrolling affair, not unlike that of the whip-wielding Belmonts of old. You control the succubus hunter in a 2D plane, leaping over obstacles and whipping enemies in your path, but this particular adventure isn't a level-based affair. The game's world is much, much larger than any other in the series. Right out the gate, the game wastes zero time explaining some of the basics in what to expect of the game going forward.
Though the map stretches from one end of the screen to the other, the individual areas are actually rather self-contained, each following a somewhat rigid formula that the game seldom deviates from. Amidst the different rooms and areas to explore, there will be a maiden trapped behind a locked door, presumably to be raped for all of eternity until someone slays the boss and acquires the key to the door. After defeating the area's main boss, you are bestowed with a new ability required for further progression, leading you to the next area where it will all begin anew.
The game's areas vary a decent bit in setting, with some taking place in overgrown forests, others in half-sunken ships, and yet more in strongholds, but the core objective always remains the same. While there is a tinge of repetition in the formula, it's alleviated by the game's level design. Some areas will test your platforming prowess, while others are mazes that test your navigation abilities. The differences aren't always pronounced enough to feel as though each and every area offers a wildly distinct experience, but it does help keep things fresh.
While the level design generally keeps things interesting, the map layout falls a bit short. Sure, the areas hold treasures of their own, usually hidden keys or secret crowns to unlock additional content for NG+, but they don't twist, wind or intersect into one another. I can appreciate each area tucking away alternate paths or hidden goodies, but the main route will always start from the left and stretch to the right. For what it's worth, the game's latter half is a little better in the ways it connects these areas to one another, but it's a far cry from even the earliest entries of the genre.
The grievance with the map layout is exacerbated somewhat by the handling of upgrades in Midnight Castle Succubus. Rather than finding stronger whips or new movement upgrades, all of these items must be bought or learned from shady old men scattered through the land. Despite acquiring all manner of movement upgrades, it never feels like the game makes full use of them in interesting ways. While fun to play with, the upgrades sometimes feel no better than glorified keys to unlock a door to the next area.
It bears noting that these required upgrades must be purchased using currency collected from whipping candles and slaying monsters. Their cost isn't so great that grinding becomes mandatory, especially if you've been finding hidden money bags off the beaten path.
That being said, your sub-weapons also cost money per use. That's right, every time the succubus hunter taps into the power of the game-breaking stopwatch, it's another deal under the table. While sub-weapons won't make or break your success, relying too much on them means you could lock yourself into grinding for more money. While this theoretically means managing sub-weapons is crucial during the game, one could simply afford these upgrades by eschewing sub-weapon use altogether.
Now, here's the crazier part still: all of this is flipped on its head in the game's second half, serving as a huge homage to several entries in the series, even branching out to a certain Simon's quest. Without saying too much, the second act of Midnight Castle Succubus no longer requires upgrades to be purchased, changing the purpose of currency as there's nothing left to buy. The level design starts getting more inventive, areas become even more open-ended, and the player's own abilities gradually become more broken. In fact, the game's second half does a great job at imbuing the player with the feeling that they're getting stronger, despite the lack of any major offensive upgrades.
That all-important feeling of bolstering your offense in these types of games is aided by the inclusion of party members. As the game progresses, you can find and recruit other adventurers on your journey, the likes of which have no real good reason for sticking around until the credits. As it turns out, these adventurers are yet another asset to even further cripple Midnight Castle Succubus's difficulty. From the warrior, whose bloodlust will compel them to frequently attack any living thing onscreen, to the monk, who can heal the player with no major consequence to speak of, the additional party members can make short work of almost everything encountered in the game.
In fact, the difficulty in Midnight Castle Succubus is a fickle little thing. Though it has multiple difficulty settings, including one that amounts to "Dante Must Die" difficulty, they're merely damage modifiers. Even with the risk of 1-hit kills, it's all too easy to cripple the game with little more than 2,000 gold and a stopwatch. By the game's end, much of the focus is on avoiding level hazards or tricky enemy placement, all of which is a cinch with late-game abilities and a ludicrous amount of HP upgrades.
In terms of presentation, Midnight Castle Succubus continues the series' trend of capturing a retro, 8-bit aesthetic, with simplistic sprites and chiptunes, abound. There's little to discuss in regards to the music, with a few songs actually being rather catchy, but nothing that truly sticks after the credits roll. Be it good or decent, all songs suffer from an issue where the songs don't actually loop properly, restarting from the beginning. It can get just a bit distracting, given the brevity of much of the soundtrack. Beyond that, sound effects serve to add much-needed punch to certain attacks, but that's honestly about it. In terms of visuals, though? That's where things get interesting.
The game's art is once again handled by Libra Heart, but there's a bit of a small asterisk with that fact. See, the game features new spritework and art assets but also lifts assets from earlier games. This includes elements such as tilesets, enemy sprites, and sub-weapons. It's worth noting that the old assets actually blend in pretty well with the new ones, to the point I wasn't able to pick up on it until close to the halfway point of the game. Everything comes together into a unified, retro aesthetic pretty nicely. During gameplay, it's not obvious unless you've, say, played just about every entry for a review.
Part of the reason I even noticed the reused sprites was, unfortunately, because the same principle applies to the CGs. Midnight Castle Succubus has two ways of gracing the player with adult content, the first of which is the main goal of rescuing maidens. All of the CGs related to the maidens aren't actually original to Midnight Castle Succubus, however, all of the CGs and sprites seen upon death are completely unique to this game.
On the one hand, these death CGs are even more lovingly crafted than the older ones, highlighting the subtle and major ways in which Libra Heart's artwork has improved over the years since. On the other, it's disappointing that the original adult content is locked behind death, especially when the series had begun to move past this common design trap in H-games.
Strictly going by the content available in the game, though, there's quite a bit to chew on. Between almost every CG lifted from prior games and the original game over CGs, there's just over 60 CGs altogether. If Libra Heart had but one strength, it would be in the ability to draw incredibly well-endowed women. There's a certain softness that he captures well, no matter what compromising position the women are in. The only drawbacks to the CGs are that audio erotica is not as pronounced here as it is in older games and that the actual ratio of gameplay to adult content isn't quite as even as, say, Tower of Succubus.
Midnight Castle Succubus is something of a Frankenstein's monster within the franchise. Elements from all across the series appear in this game in some form or another, be they mechanics, characters, or even recycled artwork. While the purpose behind some of this may have been to save on resources, it all comes together for an experience that feels almost like a celebration of the series. At times, it even feels like a reimagining of Akumajou Succubus. While there's still a bit of room for improvement in its eight-hour run-time, Midnight Castle Succubus comes recommended to fans of the series, as well as fans of the action-exploration genre.
Those interested in Midnight Castle Succubus can purchase the game from English DLsite for $12.60, estimated from ¥1,404. It bears noting that, even with an English release, the game may not start properly unless your system locale is set to Japanese.