I was pretty down on Portrait of Ruin. The "Metroid-vania" format's a successful one, and it's perfect for portable gaming, but by the time I was about 75% through Portrait's castle, I was tired of it.
Half the sprites were recycled from past 2D Castlevania games, the storyline came in small bits located hours apart, and once you mastered the character-swapping mechanic, the general gameplay goals were all too familiar. By the time I reached the post-game content, which involved beating the crap out of all the bosses from Dawn of Sorrow again, I was fairly thoroughly dissatisfied with it all.
Order of Ecclesia is different, though. It's not incredibly different, granted; you're still exploring 2D labyrinths while wielding a relatively familiar set of weapons. It is different enough, though. It doesn't have that recycled feel that Portrait of Ruin did.
Order of Ecclesia is set in the 1800s. After the events of Symphony of the Night, the members of the Belmont family have disappeared, taking their holy whip with them. With no one left to defend Europe from the forces of darkness, several different organizations are trying to fill the void.
Shanoa is a member of one of these organizations, called Ecclesia. They've developed a method of imbuing a person with magical glyphs, allowing them to wield supernatural powers.
One evening, as Shanoa is preparing to absorb the final and most powerful glyph that Ecclesia has created, a renegade named Albus disrupts the ritual and steals the glyph. Shanoa, left weakened and amnesiac in the aftermath, pursues Albus through the countryside, trying to find out what his true plans are. If you suspect that this may eventually involve Dracula, you win a cookie and a pat on the head.
Order of Ecclesia is set up a bit like Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. Instead of the entire game being set within a single enormous map, Shanoa gradually unlocks a series of dungeons as you proceed. A couple are literally straight lines, while others are somewhat complex. It's only when you reach the final areas that the game expands, putting you into a more traditional "Metroidvania" environment.
Shanoa doesn't use equipment in the same way as past protagonists have, either. You find various glyphs scattered around the maps or as drops from dead enemies, which you can equip much as you would weapons. Some of them work like standard-issue Castlevania weaponry, such as axes or throwing knives, while others provide more interesting powers like homing lightning bolts, stat boosts, or transforming Shanoa into monsters.
You can equip up to three Glyphs at once, much as with Soma; two work as weapons, while the third provides passive buffs or various mobility-based abilities. Depending on which weapon glyphs you have equipped, you can spend Hearts to fire powerful Glyph Unions. These tend to do a lot of damage, but they use up a lot of Hearts, which means you can't get money from the ubiquitous Castlevania candles until you're back at full Hearts. If you rely on Glyph Unions to power your way through normal enemies, you'll end up scrambling for cash.
That's just one of the ways in which Order of Ecclesia turns up the challenge level. Normal enemies can hit like trucks, while bosses hit like trucks that are carrying a load of smaller trucks. At the same time, it's difficult to gather money expediently, and even if you could, you can't buy any of the really good healing items until you're most of the way through the game.
In most of the past games, you could theoretically farm your way past various bosses and obstacles by powerleveling, shotgunning healing potions, or abusing powerful moves like Jonathan and Charlotte's team-up attacks; here, that's not an option. Each boss will test your platforming skill and pattern recognition, with additional awards in place if you're able to beat them without taking a hit.
The story, admittedly, is somewhat disjointed, and the challenge factor is occasionally daunting. One early boss, for example, is a four-stage encounter, forcing you to start over from scratch if you fail any particular part.
That's good, though, even if it's occasionally frustrating. There are two major criticisms you can level against "Metroidvania" games: they're easy to break and they're repetitive. Ecclesia avoids the first by making its most powerful tactics extremely expensive, and avoids the second by virtue of creative design.
The first glyph you get that enhances your mobility, for example, allows Shanoa to magnetize herself at special points on the map, then fling herself like she's winding up a spring. This lends itself to some truly vicious platforming challenges later in the game, as well as one truly memorable boss fight. By itself, it breaks the old Castlevania formula, which used the same tricks in every game--slide kick, double jump, high jump and/or flight--for quite a while.
I'd imagine that if you're a newcomer to the franchise, Order of Ecclesia may be a little daunting; it's extremely difficult and doesn't offer the same shortcuts as past games. If that describes you, you may be best served by buying Dawn of Sorrow cheap and playing through that before trying Ecclesia.
For hardcore Castlevania fans, though, this is the title that you've been looking for. It's long, it's challenging, and it doesn't fall over and die once you find the right weapon/subweapon combination. It's not a fresh start for the franchise, but it fixes a lot of what's been going wrong.