This Castlevania review contains spoilers.
When Netflix’s Castlevania animated series first released in 2017, it was nothing short of a miracle: at last fans had a video game adaptation that was not only worthy of its beloved source material but was also a hell of a lot of fun to watch in its own right, especially in its early, Dracula-focused seasons. Netflix got the formula very right back then and its sequel, Castlevania: Nocturne, largely nails it too, even if its 8-episode first season sometimes drags in the middle.
Set in 1792, about 300 years after the adventures of Trevor Belmont, the events of Nocturne unfold during the chaos of the French Revolution, a very suitable backdrop for all the gruesome violence that ensues at the crack of a Belmont whip. Returning directors Sam and Adam Deats go for broke with action sequences that extract every last ounce of blood, guts, and body parts from the Night Creatures that stalk the darkest corners of Paris (there are some really sick monster designs on this show). The original series wasn’t exactly kid-friendly, but Nocturne makes the guillotine look like a children’s toy in comparison.
The show follows Richter Belmont, this era’s own smart-ass vampire hunter, voiced by Edward Bluemel, who has a lot of fun with the more fresh-faced Belmont. Richter is a bit of a departure from Trevor. While he has a dark past like Trevor did, Richter embraces his Belmont heritage and it’s clear from the start of the series that he feels he has something to prove, whereas Trevor just wanted to be left alone to drink. His motivation for fighting monsters is a lot more personal too, going back to his mother Julia Belmont (a new Belmont created for the show) and her death at the hands of her vampiric nemesis Olrox (a terrific Zahn McClarnon).
But Richter isn’t so much the star of Nocturne as one part of a larger ensemble of monster killers, which really works in this case, since most of the other characters are just as interesting, sometimes more so, such as in the case of the reimagined Annette (Thuso Mbedu), who is by far the highlight of the series, along with her partner Edouard (Sydney James Harcourt), an opera singer whose story turns out to be quite heartbreaking.
Like its predecessor’s take on Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, Nocturne is inspired by the Konami games but not completely beholden to them. The show definitely takes some liberties with Rondo of Blood, which is the game this sequel is largely based on. A lesser known installment that was originally released on the TurboGrafx-16, Rondo of Blood is your classic Castlevania fare: Dracula has kidnapped Richter’s beloved Annette and now the young Belmont must venture into the vampire’s castle to save her. But the Annette we meet in Nocturne, an ex-slave who’s arrived in France on a quest for vengeance, is no damsel in distress in this adaptation. She’s a badass sorceress who needs no saving and is at the best of times the driving force of the series.
It’s through Annette, and the show’s main antagonist, the cruel vampire queen Erzsebet Báthory, that Nocturne also explores its other big influences beyond the games and the history of the French Revolution: the religion of Voodoo and Egyptian mythology. It’s an interesting mix of inspirations that takes the series in some unexpected directions, including in its final act when Bathory’s plan comes into full view.
Both Bathory and her vicious lieutenant Drolta Tzuentes (Elarica Johnson) are technically inspired by the games, but they’re basically whole new characters in Nocturne, which works just as well. Also accounted for is a new take on the Shaft character from Rondo of Blood, although the villain is somewhat more sympathetic here, even if he does turn out to be a grimy sleazeball by the end. (This show is about as kind to the clergy as the original was, which means not at all.) But all the other villains of the series pale in comparison to Olrox, who is easily one of the better baddies these shows have produced. While Bathory, Drolta, and the other vampiric French aristocrats are your power-hungry antagonists, Olrox is a bit more complicated than that, and he’s again a big departure from his video game counterpart. You may even sympathize with him a bit by the end.
The story, penned by Clive Bradley this time around, is well-told overall and keeps the pace up for the most part, especially when it’s focused on Annette and why she’s so determined to take down the vampire plot in Paris. But some plot threads fall pretty flat as well, such as a major third act twist that changes what we thought we knew about Richter’s partners in crime, Tera (Nastassja Kinski) and her daughter Maria Renard (Pixie Davies). Their story in general drags along, and so does Richter’s after a particularly embarrassing defeat sends him cowering away from the central conflict for a spell. A big reveal about Richter’s past at the midway point is an eyebrow-raiser but also doesn’t really end up going anywhere interesting — presumably it’ll get some payoff in a second season.
Indeed, Nocturne ends on a very clear to be continued that will leave fans buzzing and demanding more. But this first entry is satisfying, full of brutal action sequences, cool character designs and weapons, plenty of easter eggs and references to video game lore, and even a bit of history thrown in for good measure. Most importantly, it bravely separates itself from the original and goes in its own direction instead of just retreading Trevor, Sypha, and Alucard’s quest, and we’re very much looking forward to seeing where Nocturne takes us next.
Castlevania: Nocturne is streaming now on Netflix.