Castlevania became a classic video game franchise on the strength of labyrinthine level design, endearingly stilted dialogue, and bombastic aesthetics. The Netflix series based on the Konami property doesn't use those elements in exactly the same way but finds its own path to being a great adaptation of the games' whip-cracking, demon-killing lore.
Born in the Wallachia region of Romania, Lisa of Lupu is the first character we meet in Castlevania. She wants to be a doctor. In 1455, frustrated by prevalence of superstition and the lack of real science, the young woman goes to a foreboding castle surrounded by impaled bodies and asks Dracula for knowledge. A tense yet playful negotiation follows and Lisa's desire to improve the lots of both humanity and Dracula convinces the undead lord to open his laboratory to her.
Twenty years later, the science she wanted to heal with has been deemed witchcraft and Lisa Tepes is being burned at the stake in the town of Targoviste. And Dracula, who lived as a man according to her wishes and married her, becomes enflamed with genocidal rage. He gives the humans of Wallachia one year to settle their affairs before he enacts a vengeance that will wipe out the whole town and, eventually, humanity itself.
That's the set-up for Castlevania, scripted and executive produced by Warren Ellis — writer of comics, movies and novels such as Transmetropolitan, G.I. Joe: Resolute and Normal and many more. The show showcases all the proclivities of the British scribe's work, which meld wonderfully to the quirks that have made Castlevania games distinctive. So, Trevor Belmont is a world-weary noble, a last scion of a monster-hunting family burned out on saving others and caring only about where his next meal and drink come from.
Likewise, the Ellis favourite theme of knowledge-seeking as a threatened common good shows up in the form of the Speakers, a nomadic society of oral historian-magicians. Trevor reluctantly agrees to save the life of Sypha, a Speaker gone missing in search of a possible saviour who could stop Dracula's demon hordes. Readers of Transmetropolitan will also recognise the supercilious venality of the church functionaries as kindred to Spider Jerusalem's enemies-in-chief the Beast and the Smiler.
In fact, persecution by the Church is the major engine of character motivation in Castlevania and that decision frames this story in a appropriately grandiloquent context. Dracula is a recluse, no longer a menace to mankind when we first see him. The Lord of Darkness only returns to terror because of the horrors committed by the Church's supposed holy men, who see science — and damn near anything else — as transgression against God, punishable by death. Similarly, Trevor Belmont's family was exiled and disgraced by the Church, who blamed the presence of demons on the people who fought them. As a member of the Speakers, Sypha too runs afoul of the Church, when the same evil bishop who angered Dracula lays blame on her people and orders them killed as scapegoats.
None of the show's narrative ambitions would work without good execution, which is strong all across the board. The anime-influenced styling done by the Powerhouse animation studio fits well with the game franchise's over-the-top atmospherics, especially in the gore-splattered fight scenes and melodramatic confrontations. In the same vein, the voicework feels leans hard on high-keyed emotional responses or matter-of-fact line readings that make the characters seem blase about the incredible happenings. As Trevor Belmont, Richard Armitage delivers a fantastic version of inebriated-yet-lethal arsehole, hitting just the right notes of disaffected and stumble-drunk. Graham McTavish is also great as Dracula, skillfully alternating between ethereal aloofness and flying into all-too-human rages.
From the very start, the show captures the tragic melodrama tone of the Castlevania games and the four episodes deliver a satisfying chunk of set-up for this adaptation. The anti-Church element works extremely well as a throughline because it's grounded in real-world history and operates on a deeply personal vector. People choose to embody their beliefs — or not — in certain ways and respond strongly when told they can't do so. Castlevania mines that truth for great drama and puts a bunch of stylised shiny violence on top of that. This is a strong opening for a project that fans had every right to be wary of.