It is for our friend the video-game industry a time of uncertainty. As the console and technology wars rage on in the race for an empty prize, the anger and contempt of the partisan consumer growing greater by the day, those who have been long-time industry followers silently tally up the casualities and come to sense that the obvious stagnation means that we've simply run out of places to go as we wait for the next big leap. It's fortunate, then, that it's also a time of rediscovery, where thanks to the Big 3's (Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft's) download services and companies like GameTap, we can introduce to newcomers the industry's past and the games on which the very foundation was built--this with the hope that they'll come to harbor for the industry a deeper respect and become anything but the mindless market-speak parrots who mass-populate a message board near you.
It's that sense of rediscovery that made necessary the creation of Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles, which as its name suggests rescues from the shadows Dracula X: Chi no Rondo, the lost PC-Engine title, and after a painfully long wait releases onto long-suffering series fans the game they've for years been waiting to play. Dracula X Chronicles, our second entry into the Chronicles sub-series, is a much bigger undertaking than the first in that its developers have taken a classic title (in this case Rondo) and have created using its very mold a reimagined version of it as opposed to Castlevania Chronicles: Akumajo Dracula X6000, whose highlighted work was merely tempered.
The project's scope was dictated by Konami's plaform of choice, the PlayStation Portable, on which Sony would never allow simple ports of older titles or, it seems, anything that has to do with old-school 2D gaming. In light of this boundary, Igarashi, who for reasons unknown continues to bend over backwards to please Sony, and his crew put together a compilation of sorts, a three-part package that showcases not just one piece but the entirety of the Dracula X saga. The three works include (1) Dracula X: Rondo of Blood, the reimagined original as remade in full 3D (in the style otherwise known as 2½D, where the action is fixed to sidescrolling, as seen in titles like Contra: Shattered Soldier and New Super Mario Bros.); (2) the original title as it played on the PC-Engine back in 1993, tweaked for purposes of presentation and localization; and (3) Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, a port of the 1997 PlayStation classic which due to revision has to it an exclusive treat--the ability to play as Maria Renard not as she appeared in the 1998 Sega Saturn port but as a newly realized fighter as dictated by her appearance in Rondo. The two former titles have already been reviewed on this site, so, for the sake of convenience, this review will deal in the Rondo remake, Chronicles' main feature.
It should first be said that the remake, branded Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, is structarlary similar to the original but has been rebuilt to portray a new asthetic--its graphics, as discussed, 3D-based; its story and cut-scenes scenes now animated and reanimated with accompanying voice-acting; its stage design shuffled a bit to present some new challenges, which will please those who knew the original by heart; its soundtrack remixed; its menu options more plentiful; and its length extended by the newly encountered search-and-rescue mission that now sees the addition of new bosses. Otherwise, it's faithful to the PC-Engine classic in that the heroes control and function as they did in the original, the familiar enemy characters behave as remembered, the missing women are rescued in the same manner, and the system of items and sub-weapons, including item-crashes, is much the same. All told, the heroes will traverse eight stages of madness (twelve overall, considering the regular and alternate routes) in infiltrating the Count's castle, rescuing the missing women, and hunting down Dracula and his enabler, the dark priest Shaft.
There are as mentioned certain changes as a result of Rondo's reimagining. For one, there are interspersed between portions of gameplay several new storyline sequences, which show us, for example, a town meeting between Shaft and Dracula in planning out the abduction of the town women. Others, in more animated fashion, show us the intros to events such as the heroes breaching of the castle drawbridge, the Behemoth breaking through the walls of the Main Hall, and the arrivals onto the battlefield of the respective bosses. Taking center stage is the locating of Iris and Tera, who when rescued will augment the heroes' respective weapons with two new powers which in practice give them the ability to break through the crystal and red-skull barriers (and, by extension, the propensity to permanently destroy Blood Skeletons) that hide certain secrets; these powers are the necessary ingredient in the rescuing of Annet Renard, Richter's girlfriend, who if not located will later succumb to vampirism and become the L. Vampire, a boss in place of Shaft's ghost, which will thus offset the real final battle and the prevent you from attaining the game's best ending.
The new powers will help, also, in the full navigation of the castle, whose stages now have some new branches and secret areas that house more desired items like the money bags that allow you to purchase boss strategies from the mission menu. More interesting is the presence of CD icons, which the developers have hidden game-wide; there are a great many of them to be found as you explore the regular and alternate routes and any of the split paths sewn into a given stage. The collection of these CDs, which represent individual song tracks from any of Chronicles' three separate games, counts toward your mission-completion rate; they can otherwise be used in the mission menu's "Song Assign" mode, which allows you to customize Rondo's soundtrack. Add in some new stage puzzles, which put the heroes' abilities and advanced item-usage to the test; two additional bosses as encountered on Stage 5', The Hidden Docks, depending upon which path you take (where in the original you skipped right to Stage 6's Shaft battle); a potential three-step Dracula battle that makes for a much greater challenge; and newly crafted intro (though still voiced in German) and ending sequences, which more naturally lead into events in Symphony of the Night; and you've got yourself a product to which not even Sony could object. While these new gameplay elements lend the game a greater sense of depth and replayability, their addition will, I suspect, have the reverse effect in that some veterans of the PC-Engine title will long for the much more simple original work.
The move to 3D breeds mixed results. Rondo's world, now wholly polygonal, isn't really superior to one sprite-based as much as it is enlightening; throughout your adventure, you'd be robbing yourself of the experience if you were to speed past stages without savoring the landscape and capturing yourself in the far-stretching background environments (like the bristling-with-life, spooky woodland; suppressive, cavernous depths; and the castle keep attic confines), where activities and strange happenings are always on display. Successfully married are old stage design and the three-dimensional world as seen in titles like Lament of Innonence (areas from which you'll actually see if you pay attention while, say, battling a bird for a key). You'll come to understand what the developers really had in mind when they created the original title's world. True, the 3D look works to dampen that sense of nostalgia most closely associated with titles of old, the reminder of those new repellent, but the game's graphical presentation, though not spectacular, is nicely crafted and rife with animation, parallex scrolling, and a feeling of depth that's just different from what you get in a handdrawn 2D effort.
It's tough to fully appreciated the game's look as viewed on the LCD screen of a portable system; since they're trying something new, with the visual overhaul a selling point, I would prefer to see it on a larger screen as projected by a console. I say this with in mind the characters, who are done no justice. That is, the fine-looking heroes and many of the smaller enemies are difficult to read due to their small size, their full expression and respective antics begging to be noticed. Only those much larger are perceived as well-animated and the natural extension of their 2D selves. Attacks and explosions, as rendered in 3D, are more convincing, more frightening, and overall more pleasing to the senses (with beams, fire, water, steam and the like spreading in seemingly all directions and planes), and each character has its own death animation, which shouldn't be missed.
But then the move to 3D begins to beget some unforunate quirks. Most apparent is that Rondo of Blood is just too busy for its own good. There's just so much going on--so many overly detailed textures plus a whole lot of foreground and background activity--that everything begins to blend together; there are instances where an enemy will seemingly pop out of nowhere when in truth you just didn't see it standing against a similarly colored cave wall. You'll other times take a plunge into a pit because something in the background only appeared to be a reachable platform. "Can I climb those stairs?" and "Is that a platform or really murky water?" aren't really questions one should be asking while playing a game where desparate scenarios are forcing you to think quickly. Constant motion blur, a common nuissance in portable sidescrollers, will be a problem for people with eye problems and will generally make it tougher to focus on and spot smaller foes. If I had to guess, I'd call it a case of the designers' ambition outweighing the stage planners' vision.
Also of concern is that polygonal enemies present no clearly defined hit-detection; sometimes you'll get really close to an Ape Skeleton and take no damage, and then you'll be sent flying by a Sword Lord whose sword attack didn't even come close. It gets to a point where you'll hesitate to take the fight to a larger enemy even when getting up close and personal is the most effective means of attack; other times, you'll psyche yourself out so badly that you'll be diving into gaps to escape enemies and projectiles that were probably no real threat.
Still, Rondo of Blood moves along at a brisk pace (though, from my experience, a bit slower than the original--probably in response to the motion blur) as you plow your way through its complexly functioning world. The cut-scenes, which use the actual stage and character models, are well done in how they flow into and never take you out of the action, nor do they intrude too heavily on the mission (since they can be skipped). None of this will convince you that 2½D is better than straight 2D, but the graphical presentation is interesting enough to where the team probably deserves another crack at presenting 3D-based sidescrolling action--this time on a console, so that it's quality can be better-judged.
The original Rondo's biggest breakthrough was perhaps its soundtrack, which thanks to the PC-Engine's CD-ROMē add-on was an orchestra-level feast and a strong case for CDs as the dominant video-game media. Now that it's the norm, Chronicles' soundtrack, which features remixes of the orginal's tunes, doesn't really have the same impact. It's all high-quality work (make no mistake about that), as is usually the case when considering the music-composing talent of Michiru Yamane and associates, but it doesn't in any way trump the original's soundtrack. If it comes down to a matter of differing musical taste or the case of some tunes being better than others, there's no need to complain--just use the game's "Sound Assign" feature to swap in the original's tunes or even use some from Symphony. It's a nice option to have.
Following the lead of the original, which was the first series title to take to the next level the idea of using voice and sound samples to define the action, Rondo's cast is one best described as "chatty." Characters are always making some type of noise as they go about their wild jumping, crazy attacks and horrifying deaths. Most sounds are ripped right out from the original, some others are newly created, and the rest (in the staff's usual cheating way) are taken directly from Symphony of the Night. Newly recorded voice-acting highlights the conversational cut-scenes, but while doing a good job of explaining character motivations without delving into Symphony's bag of self-righteous psychobabble, it's still highly corny and without its original luster, especially in the case of Maria, whose auditory assault is painful to the ear when fighting words amount to "You're not nice, Mr. Bad Man!" In the case of the final-stage and ending scenes, the rewritten script does its best job at better portraying the Richter-Dracula exchanges as later duplicated at Symphony's start.
Rondo's control scheme is one that's great in theory. I mean, how can it not be when considering the game on which it's based? Our problem here is the PSP, which has in place of a true directional pad four buttons only positioned as such. This makes it near impossible to consistently pull off moves like Maria's rolling and the spot-on descending of stairways, which require diagnoal movement and not the pushing of two buttons that don't seem to want to register such a direction. The PSP's very set-up (which has, as an example, its "Start" button hovering below the right side of the screen, nearly blacked out) hurts your responsiveness when dealing with moves that require timing, which includes walking backwards ("the moonwalk"), quickly turning in the air, and escaping from structure-embedded stairways, on which you'll be prone to become stuck as the enemies surrounding it pick you apart. I don't think there was much the developers could do to remedy this, as allowing for analog control, in deference, would only make things worse as to cause control confliction in the areas of stair-climbing and weapon-tossing.
When you add up all of its graphical intrusions, its control ineffeciencies, and the fact that the original was more difficult than anyone gives it credit, your sum is a game more challenging than its inspiration. Not previously mentioned is that graphics are so impressive, in terms of pure scale, that the action is a bit confined in instances of horizontal gameplay, cramped into a space perhaps too small to contain it (look at screenshots for evidence of this), and this works against you when you're placed in areas where enemies are piling up and zigzagging platforms are the norm (when your head and whole middle are passing through the platforms above each time you jump, you know the game is too big for its britches). This isn't to say that the game is not challenging in light of its platforming perils and boss fights (and this variety of boss is certainly tougher, especially when we're discussing newcomes like the Hydra and L. Vampire), but it's disappointing that even part of the challenge is bred from game elements that should have no bearing.
Rounding out the experience is perhaps the finest assortment of "extras" we've seen in a long time. In the case of the remade Rondo of Blood, our focus, the crew has integrated into the new design a trademark of current games--a "Boss Rush" mode (whose menu theme is Dracula's Curse's own Demon Seed), which has three separate levels of play. In building upon Portait of Ruin's "Co-op" mode, you can now take on the Boss Rush challenges with two players thanks to the PSP's AD-HOC (local wireless) capability. But no doubt a way bigger draw is the inclusion of the two classic titles--Rondo of Blood and Symphpony of the Night, which can be unlocked only by playing through the remake and locating the games' logos as hidden in, of course, hard-to-reach areas (so even those who couldn't wait to play the original Rondo still have some work ahead of them). Included, too, is our omnipresent friend, the "Sound" mode.
The emulation of the two classic titles isn't perfect, about which you can read more by visiting the original titles' respective game pages and checking under "Port Differences" to see what's been added or changed. Know, however, the both titles suffer from the same control problems as faced in the Rondo remake, with diagonal movement made more random (most evident in the original Rondo when climbing stairs and in Symphony when trying to swing weapons toward the ground while crouching). Also, the titles aren't made to fit the PSP's screen resolution, not even in height, and are instead boxed into a Super Gameboy-like frame, which is a pretty big disappointment when you consider that newcomers to the games will be unable to fully appreciate the sprite-work and handdrawn graphics (it's more disappointing in the case of Rondo, which hasn't been as widely experienced as Symphony).
While being able to play these games on the go, virtually anywhere you want, is a really nice luxury, it just has to be said: The re-release of Rondo of Blood needed a much bigger platform for its grand re-release, and I'm of course talking about TV screens via consoles, to which Rondo is native. The Dracula X Chronicles is a nice package, but it's not blasphemy to admit that it wasn't entirely necessary. By re-releasing Rondo of Blood on an Xbox Live Arcade or, more likely, a Turbo-Graphix-ready Virtual Console, Koji and his team could have saved themselves a lot of trouble in not remaking a game that didn't need to be remade. Since it's inevitable that Rondo will be coming to download services, anyway, you wonder what was the point. The remade Rondo is a fine game, yes, but it isn't any better than the original, which sets a bad precedent. Should original works be superior to their high-budget remakes? If we're talking about Hollywood, maybe--but then we get into another area where the video-game industry should never be a follower.
It's a testament to the growing contempt of the modern consumer that Rondo of Blood has had so much trouble making it to consoles--mainly because it wouldn't sell very well considering the current climate. It's sad that (a) the game has to be made "more presentable" to stand a chance and (b) many a so-called "fan" has to otherwise be tricked into buying it by the developers including Symphony of the Night as a bonus. It's heartbreaking to discover that the majority has purchased Chronicles only to get its hands on another version of Symphony while balking at the notion that Rondo is anything special (because they believe it to be too difficult). The move to consoles with a much smaller pricetag will hopefully net Rondo of Blood a better audience for a much more concentrated dose of rediscovery.
As is, The Dracula X Chronicles is a great package to have if you're either a learned Castlevania fan or if it's your thing to avoid consoles. The Rondo remake, in failing to supplant the original, teeters between being good and very good. It's the inclusion of both the original title and Symphony of the Night, which in terms of direct sequels is probably the best one-two punch in video-game history, that bumps Chronicles off the seesaw and springs it to a level of greatness. No matter the reason you purchase this title, you'll certainly be spending a lot of time with it. (Note, still, that these scores represent only the remade Rondo of Blood.)
For the PC-Engine version review, please click here.