Release Date: October 23, 2007
For over 20 years, Castlevania has been gracing various video game systems, providing us with the action of various Belmonts in their endless and often difficult quest to eradicate the latest revival of Dracula from the world. From the classic original on the Nintendo Entertainment System to the most recent offering of Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin on the Nintendo DS, the series has evolved in leaps and bounds to gain surprising depth and replayability. Even the ill-fated 3D ventures on the Nintendo 64 were little more than growing pains, serving to teach the producers of this franchise what should and should not be done with it. The series has grown to such great size that remakes and compilations can be released as entirely separate titles worthy of a gamer's purchase, and Castlevania: Dracula X Chronicles is such a creation.
It is relevant to keep in mind that the buyer will not, in fact, be receiving any new games with the purchase of this title. The central game is a remake of Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, widely hailed as one of the more difficult games available for the series. It is also noteworthy that one of the two unlockable titles that can become available via thorough exploration of the game environment is the original Rondo of Blood, created for the TurboGrafx-16 (PC Engine) and previously only available in Japan. Compare the original to the remake, and you'll see that even if you went to the effort to import this mercilessly challenging title from Japan back in the early 1990s, this game is worth a purchase for the updates and improvements that were made.
In terms of graphics, the remake of Rondo of Blood is simply stunning. From the moment you turn on your PSP, you will be struck by the quality of the cinematic scene that is laid out before you, involving the sacrifice of an ostensibly pure maiden in order to revive Count Dracula and bring him back to the world. Start the game, and you will see graphics of an unequalled caliber in the series; the most recent console-based title, Castlevania: Curse of Darkness on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, failed to come even remotely close to the graphical standards this handheld title sets. Our hero moves in smooth and easy motions, with everything from the animation of his walking to the backgrounds through which he makes his way displaying the visual capabilities of the system with finesse and eye-widening skill.
The audio portion of Dracula X Chronicles is also far from lacking. The opening cinematic is accompanied by a voice speaking in German, with subtitles (thank you, Konami) to explain what's being said, but even an illiterate child would be able to understand the severity and dire nature of the situation being described simply from the tone of voice. The musical selections are engaging and do a great deal to set the mood, varying from urgent and dire warnings to the player that he is setting foot in places man was never meant to see, to eerie and haunting melodies that send shivers to slip up and down one's spine. That these selections can be obtained for use on-demand by going to the trouble of collecting the record-shaped icons found throughout the game only adds to their appeal, as the musical connoisseur can choose which track best suits his style of gameplay.
Also unlockable through gameplay is the PlayStation classic, Symphony of the Night. Widely regarded by many (including this reviewer) as the strongest and most diverse title in the series, it is a truly welcome addition to the portable gaming market. The translation is flawless; the cheesy dialogue during the very brief cut scenes has changed slightly, so classic gamers will be somewhat disappointed if they wanted to hear Count Dracula wax philosophical about man being nothing more than a pile of secrets and challenge Richter's views on the nature of religion, but the delivery of this deep, exemplary title is otherwise unchanged. Bravo, Konami!
Gamers who are concerned about getting the maximum value for their dollar will be pleased to know that this title is loaded to the brim with unlockable content. Whether it's discovering hidden maidens that offer you access to points that were previously unreachable, recruiting new characters for use in play or obtaining the aforementioned sound titles, there are enough secrets and goodies in this game that playing it once, or even a dozen times, will not be enough. Even more interesting is the fact that levels two through five have alternates, more difficult versions that can be played through while still advancing to the same confrontation in the end. Sure, you can just blast through it (assuming you have the skill to do so) and beat the game, but any player who resists the temptation to really explore and find those hidden stages is ignoring almost half of the experience. Throw in the Boss Rush mode, and it becomes clear that this title has a lot more to offer than is immediately obvious to the casual observer.
This is not to say that Dracula X Chronicles is without its flaws. First and foremost, the point is driven home often enough through the course of gameplay that it must be mentioned as a warning to prospective buyers: This game is hard — mercilessly, brutally, teeth-gnashingly hard in ways that will make players with poor self-control want to turn their PSPs into high-value projectiles. While Maria (of Symphony of the Night fame) is an unlockable character with a more diverse series of moves, players will be stuck with Richter until they can figure out how to get Maria to cooperate, and Richter moves like he has lead weights attached to each leg. There is no whip-dangle feature, no double-jump —just Richter, his whip and a backflip maneuver that gets him into trouble more often than it saves him. Additionally, while there are checkpoints in the game, they're a bit too few and far between; it's true that each stage can be started fresh once it's been unlocked, but actually completing those stages can be difficult enough that the prospect of infinite opportunities to advance still isn't enough.
Load times for the original games are a bit on the heavy side (though once they get started, those times diminish), and the original version of Rondo of Blood has visual issues that make it clear why the game never made it to American shores; scrolling is somewhat dizzying, and the controls are a touch on the unresponsive side, though it has been made clear to me that this is an accurate representation of the original title. Additionally, both of the original games must be unlocked through gameplay and discovering secrets; while a canny player will find those secrets in due time, neither one of the original games is available from the moment of purchase, meaning that those who are purchasing this title for anything other than the remake will have to do a bit of work to reach their prize.
From the moment you power on your PSP to the moment you turn it off, Castlevania: Dracula X Chronicles does a remarkable job of pulling you into the Castlevania universe and immersing you in the difficult, but ultimately rewarding gameplay. With startlingly luxuriant audio and visual elements, unlockables that will keep the player working on the title long after he's sent Count Dracula back to sleep for another hundred years, and the addition of two original games (including one of the best Castlevania titles of all time), there is no reason for any PSP owner to resist adding this title to his or her collection.
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