Review by Arkrex
"It was not by my hand that I am once again given flesh. I was called here by humans, who wished to pay me tribute."
I'm sure you've all heard about that famous game - Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. It was first in the series to really make a dent in the market. It borrowed the concepts of exploration and self-discovery from Nintendo's Super Metroid and fused them together with good ol' vampire whipping. Needless to say, it was an unprecedented success and it is widely regarded as one of the best games ever made.
It was a strange one, though. You see, as soon as you began a new game, you were already at the final stage. All you had to do was climb up a set of stairs, grab a cross or some holy water, sit through some ridiculously cheesy dialogue, and then pummel Dracula's ugly mug until the monster within him died. Your girlfriend's little sister, Maria, would even come to refill your health if you got hit too many times; piece of cake. After this 'prelude', the real journey began. You were no longer in control of wannabe ninja boy, Richter; as it turned out, he became evil. Thus as Alucard, son of the persistent Dracula himself, you had to find out what in the world was going on. The question in the minds of many gamers, though, was what's the deal with this 'final' stage?!
Symphony of the Night was, in fact, a sequel to a lost Castlevania title: Dracula X: Rondo of Blood; a Japanese-only release for the Japanese-only PC-Engine Super CD console. (Not to be confused with Dracula X for the SNES which was an entirely different beast set in a parallel timeline.) It is arguably the greatest classic Castlevania game, yet it was never officially released to mainstream audiences. After hearing many pleas from devoted fans, the charismatic Castlevania director/producer affectionately known as IGA finally comes bearing gifts. He has even gone a couple of steps further with a complete remake of the original game packaged together with a spruced up version of the highly-acclaimed Symphony of the Night. Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles is essentially three games in one, and all of them are a bloody good time.
I will be looking at the remake of Rondo of Blood in particular here. Back in 1993, this was an unbelievably good looking 2D action-platformer. It also had a god-awesome soundtrack (as is expected with all Castlevania games) that really showed off the power of the CD-based system. Now in 2007, Richter and all the monsters of the night are fully modelled in 3D. The atmosphere has been made even darker with excellent use of transparencies and a myriad of lighting effects; Dracula's castle has never looked as beautifully decrepit as it does here. There are a couple of cutscenes that are used to introduce the bosses in cinematic fashion, as well as a few that are triggered during key surprise moments. If you are at all familiar with the original game, you'll love what's been done here - especially the raft sequence; that looks pretty sweet now. But even if you're new to all this, the frequent scene-crashers are still mighty impressive.
But what is a few graphical improvements? An aesthetic component that counts for naught if the music isn't up to scratch, right? All of the original tracks have been remixed with a more orchestral vibe (cf. the original's tendency towards synth). Is it better than before? I would say no, but it really depends on your own preferences. Incredible music is what drives every Castlevania game forward and in The Dracula X Chronicles, it's no different. Some new tracks like Moon Fight are simply incredible, though, and they make playing through the gorgeous, difficult levels all the more worthwhile. If you want, you can even assign different background tracks from Rondo of Blood OR Symphony of the Night to accompany you in each level (you must unlock them for Sound Assign mode first; more on this later). However, it's a shame that you're not able to use of your own MP3 tracks; having a customised soundtrack was my wish, and it only half came true here.
IGA was smart enough to give Rondo of Blood a complete audio-visual overhaul whilst leaving the gameplay relatively intact. This is still pretty much the same game that the Japanese (and a few importers) played all those years ago. As such, Richter can't run; he strides - not too fast, not too slow. However, compared to his Castleroid contemporaries (the term 'Castleroid' or 'Metroidvania' definining the more recent 2D titles that exhibit exploration and RPG elements), his movement feels very restrictive. As soon as you commit to a jump, there's no turning back; Richter has extremely limited air control. His response rate isn't the best either. Get hit and you will incur a relatively long stun plus a large hit-back to boot. This means enemies can overwhelm you with constant attacks or else easily knock you back into a pit (which is an instant death). But with a little patience, you'll soon get a hang of what you can and cannot do. The controls may be a little archaic by modern standards, but they do work and you'll be surprised at how fast you improve so long as you stick with it.
The level designs in Rondo of Blood are what makes it stand above the rest. They are still mostly straightforward affairs, but now and again there are alternate routes to take that may lead to somewhere special. Not all of them are as obvious as diverging sets of stairs; you will have to pay close attention to your surroundings: that wall looks a bit suspicious - why don't you try breaking it? I just let a spiked ball drop down that pit. It must've broken something down below, maybe a new pathway? Do you jump in knowing that it may just be another instant death pit? If your instincts are correct, though, you may discover a secret lair with an alternate boss fight, a maiden to save, or a shortcut entry to the next level. This makes the game somewhat non-linear and clearly, these mechanics were the threads of the masterpiece that was to follow (Symphony of the Night). The ideas aren't as developed as in its sequel, but when you do discover one of many surprises, it's a cause for celebration kind of thing. Remember, this was during times when virtually all action-platformers were simple left to right affairs. Although the design isn't as remarkable anymore, it's still as satisfying to make a surprise discovery.
It's a good thing that you have a degree of choice regarding level progression; some of them can be really tough. (The whole game can be quite a challenge if you haven't touched a retro game in a while - or ever.) As I've already said, gameplay differences to the original are minimal. The speed is a tad slower (at 30 FPS) making the boss fights slightly easier, and a few of the enemies have more telegraphed attacks (a consequence of meticulous animation), but for the most part, this is one of the toughest games released in recent times (taking into account normal difficulty settings; unfortunately, there is no hard mode). It only takes about an hour to finish the game if you don't die, but I doubt 99% of people could manage that feat. And if you're new to the game, I mean it in the harshest way possible that it will last you a very long time. Good thing that the game is damn addictive then.
But once you've smashed Dracula's face into the red carpet lining his throne room and the credits start rolling, don't think it's over just yet. If you are able to save all of the maidens, there's an incredible all-new final form of Dracula to battle. You can also unlock Maria as a playable character who attacks by throwing out doves. She plays quite differently to Richter with a double jump as opposed to a somersault, plus the ability to summon mythical creaures to help her instead of Richter's more physical approach with the typical Belmont sub-weapons (knives, holy water, cross, axe, bible, stop watch). It's fun kicking ass with Maria; she even has a special move that can make mince meat of bosses within seconds. She also makes things a lot more cruisier due to her increased manoeuvrability, speed and her somewhat over-powered doves; a great way to disguise an 'easy mode' for newcomers who need time to get used to the old-school gameplay. Don't forget you've also got alternate levels to unlock, plus different boss battles for each of them.
There is also a whole stack of music discs to find and they are all very well hidden throughout each stage. Collecting these will unlock Castlevania music tracks that you can assign to levels via the Sound Assign mode. It's really not much of a reward, but it's still fun (and challenging) to acquire them all. Plus, we all want that 100% rating, right? In keeping with recently released Castlevanias, there's also a boss rush mode. You can even pair up with a friend and lay the smackdown on Dracula's minions together. You also unlock more music discs here, as well as a special mini-game that's cute for all the ten seconds it lasts (seriously). The original Rondo of Blood in all its retro 2D glory is here, too, First you must find an item that unlocks it in the main game, but it's not too hard and it's totally worth it. Wouldn't you like to see how impressive the original lost Castlevania was? It's still a cracker of a game and some even argue that it's superior to the remake!
The ultimate unlockable is definitely Symphony of the Night. It is based off the PlayStation version so no Saturn-exclusive levels here (really, that isn't much of a loss). Voice tracks have been redone so that they aren't as cheesy which is a shame, since that's what made them so good in the first place - being so bad! There are new familiars to play around with and you can even take Maria for a whirl this time around. But by and large, it's still the same Castleroid that ALL Castlevania fans have already run through countless times. (You're not considered a 'fan' if you haven't played this masterpiece!) This is a good thing - if it ain't broke, don't fix it. And since it was already nearly perfect, I'm glad that IGA didn't make any significant changes (gltiches included); just some new additions.
Between Rondo of Blood, its beautiful 3D remake and its legendary sequel, there's a lot of quality gaming here. You've got the best of both worlds - old and new - totally covered. It goes without saying that fans of the series must get this now. As for anyone who is mildly interested, don't be put off by the old-school difficulty of the remake; you can unlock Maria (AKA 'easy mode') early on without too much hassle (or else scrub a complete save file off the internet). The graphical and audio makeover is amazing, as is the full widescreen presentation (limited only to the remake, though). And being able to take both Rondo and Symphony along with you wherever you may go is a dream in itself. The bottom line is: if you have a remote interest in vampire killing, tough-as-nails action or quality gaming for that matter, you can't go wrong with The Dracula X Chronicles. But enough talk... Have at you!
VERDICT - 9.5/10 The best of both worlds; PSP owners rejoice! This is one of my Top 10 games, ever!
Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 10/30/07, Updated 11/05/07
Game Release: Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles (US, 10/23/07)
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