Review: Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles (Sony PSP)

Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Konami
Genre: Platformer/Action RPG (SOtN)
Release Date: 10/25/2007

Another year, another portable Castlevania. If anything is proving that 2-D gaming is still thriving, it’s this series.

Originally released in 1993 for the Turbo-Grafx 16 CD-Rom extension known as the PC Engine, Akumajo Dracula X: Chi no Rondo was one of my very first imports. Not to be confused with Castlevania X that came out for the SNES and Sega Saturn, Chi No Rondo had never seen American localization – until now. Considering it has long been considered the third best Castlevania game of all time, North American and European gamers alike were foaming at the mouth when this title’s release was revealed.

Although Dracula X Chronicles contains 3 games, only the Rondo of Blood remake is available from the start. In order to unlock Symphony of the Night and the original RoB and make them playable, you have to find them within the Rondo of Blood remake similar to how you found the original NES Ninja Gaiden games in the remake for the Xbox and PS3. Because of that, this review will ONLY focus on the Rondo of Blood remake just as my Ninja Gaiden review only focused on the core game being pushed at you by the publisher.

One little minor complaint is that I should point out is that really, this is an incomplete collection. To make the DXC complete, it really should have included Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, as it was the first appearance of Alucard, the star of Symphony of the Night. This would give you the entire story and let some gamers understand things that occur in SotN that are related back to that 8 bit classic. Still, 2 versions of Rondo of Blood and SotN are nothing to sneeze at. In fact, this is arguably the best compilation put out this year simple because of the SotN inclusion. Knowing Konami and the popularity of Alucard, I’m sure we’ll be seeing the adventures of Trevor Belmont either remade or ported to the Nintendo Wii Virtual Console in the near future.

Now, let’s take a look at the remake of Castlevania: Rondo of Blood.

Let’s Review

1. Story

Like most pre-SOTN Castlevania games, Rondo of Blood doesn’t have much a story. Dracula rises from the dead. AGAIN. A Belmont surfaces to take him out. AGAIN. That is 99% of all Castlevania games in terms of story depth and character development. Thankfully, like the original, Rondo of Blood has a little more put into it.
Maria, a secondary character standby is available as a playable character if you unlock her in Stage 2 of the remake. Although she’s a bit older in this version than the original, she still retains her power of animals and is quite powerful. Her back story is sparse, but at least there is some. Maria has powerful undefined abilities that led the dark priest Shaft (No, not Richard Roundtree) to kidnap her and offer her to his master. Richter, the star of the game, saves her and she joins his quest.

There are several other women to rescue in the game, but they aren’t playable. This aspect of Rondo of Blood is both a welcome diversion and reward to longtime CV gamers, who are used to just running through a castle mindlessly.

There’s a little more character development with Shaft and Dracula. Again, this is pretty rare for these games, but a few lines of dialogue given to the villains outside of a final speech is very rare in old Castlevania games, and so its nice to see here. A little motivation goes a long way.

The plot is thin, the characters are two-dimensional, and there’s little substance to the story. Truthfully, old school CV games are played for gameplay and the fun factor over the plot. These games are like bad horror or summer blockbusters. You don’t pick up a Castlevania game looking for an RPG quality plot. You play because you want to whip monsters and throw holy water at vampires. ‘Nuff Said.

Story Rating: 4/10

2. Graphics

Oh my god, is this game beautiful. I mean it. From the opening cinematics, to the various cut scenes, to the in game revitalized graphics letting me see old faces with new shining brilliance Rondo of Blood will make your jaw drop. Not only is this one of the prettiest Castlevania games I have ever seen, it’s one of the prettiest PSP games. Yes I know, this is the first PSP game I’ve reviewed for IP, but I have played a few before this.

Much like the Final Fantasy series, Castlevania games are pretty much a lock that they will be beautiful and the music is award winning. Thankfully unlike FF, Castlevania games bring a little something to the gameplay table and try new things before the twelfth installation of the series.

There’s so many little things worth bringing up about the visuals, that it would be impossible to cover them in this amount of space. The bosses are simply amazing in appearance and it’s hard not to gape at how well done they are. The fact you can see individual “rain drops” in the item crush version of Richter’s holy water attack. Dracula’s robe fluttering as he moves. Maria’s animal friends’ attacks. Everything is amazing here and well worth applauding. CV: RoB may not be a 360 or PS3 game, but it pushes the PSP to its limits without any slowdown or graphical glitches and that is the most impressive aspect of all.

This is easily one of the best looking games of the year.

Graphics Rating: 10/10

3. Sound

It’s Castlevania. Since the very first game, the music of each individual game has been praised by reviewers everywhere. There is a reason the big Portrait of Ruin preorder special was a collection of tracks from assorted CV games.

The music here is phenomenal. You’ll probably recognize a remixed track or two, but the score is still classic and amazing. The funny thing is, while playing the game, you’ll barely even notice the background tracks, because you’ll be so intent on whipping things left and right. During the cut scenes, or once you’ve become good enough to just relax and listen to the music, you’ll be amazed at how incredible every stage sounds in addition to how it looks.

The voice acting is excellent as well. Well, Maria’s voice actress is awful, but everyone else is quite nice. Here’s a hint Konami: If you age Maria about 5-10 years physically in the game, the voice should reflect that. But then that is one minor complaint, and it’s not enough to keep Rondo of Blood from taking a full score here as well.

Aurally and visually, DXC is one of the most impressive games I’ve encountered this year.

Sound Rating: 10/10

4. Control and Gameplay

If there is one genre I can say without hesitation that I suck at, it’s platformers. Specifically, I suck at any game where I have to time jumps perfectly or where the character can’t swim for some insane reason. As such, I freely admit I suck at Rondo of Blood, yet have always been crazy awesome at SotN.

I only had two real problems with the remake of RoB. The first is more my own fault. I HATE HATE HATE Richter’s back flip. This is mainly because I am so used to the modern double jump in Castlevania (and a lot of other) games that in the heat of things I instinctively think he will do that. Instead I end up backflipping into a monster or down a pit. Dammit.

The other big issue I have is that there is a pretty serious bug in the game. It could be that it’s just my PSP/copy of DCX, but it was enough to make me swear in amazement, so take heed: In a boss fight, if you hit Pause while doing an attack or use an item, your screen will go completely black, even when you unpause it. You will be unable to see anything until you die. This is rather bad, wouldn’t you say? I discovered this against the werewolf boss, and then to see if it was a real bug or a one off I tried it on a few other bosses. Yep, it kept happening. Again, be warned. The chances of this occurring are rare, ala the save game bug in Phantasy Star Collection’s PS1 port, but it still can. This knocks the score down here big time if only because it’s a pretty bad bug that can occur in the worst of all possible times in the game.

Now that the bitching is done, I will say the rest of the control scheme is quite decent. Maria and Richter play totally different from each other, and each one has their own strengths and weaknesses. I prefer Maria due to the slide attack, her lack of the back flip, and because her special attacks are incredibly powerful against bosses. Still, there are times when you’ll want Richter over her (the mini boss giant floating three eyed skull of stage 3 for example), because Maria is pretty useless there, yet Richter with an axe or stopwatch = quickly dispatched mini-boss.

If you’ve played SotN, you know how to work Richter by now. You play him at the very start of the game, and you can unlock him as a playable character once you beat it with Alucard. Maria is probably more familiar to those of you who own the better but far more expensive Sega Saturn version of SOtN, as she was playable on there, something NA and European gamers never got to experience until the slightly botched port for Xbox Live in the 360.

In all we’ve got decent controls. Occasionally there will be a collision detection issue, or a jump won’t go as planned, or the controls will be a wee nip sluggish, but in the end, it’s like most other Castlevania games you’ll experience.

Control and Gameplay Rating: 6/10

5. Replayability

With the remake of Rondo of Blood, you know have alternating paths, a ton of out of game items like music tracks and other games to find an unlock, and even alternate stages featuring different bosses and subquests. You’ll have to play through the game multiple times to see and do it all.

Then there’s also Boss Rush Mode where you can fight all the bosses in the game until you die, either in order or randomly. There is the level select option so you can bypass bits of the game to play the aspects of levels you missed in the first go around. Of course, there’s also playing as Maria once you’ve unlocked her.

Did I mention you also have the original Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night, the latter of which has multiple endings, additional content, and multiple playable characters? Trust me, this is the only PSP game you will need for quite some time if you are a completist. By including both a platformer and an action RPG in the collection, you’ll be able to find something enjoyable in the game, regardless of what genre you’re in the mood for.

Replayability Rating: 8/10

6. Balance

Castlevania games are always a mixed bag here. People either find them incredibly hard or pretty easy. Each monster and boss has limited AI and specific patterns they follow. It’s just a matter of memorizing them and finally getting past each hurdle until you hit a new one.

That being said, there have always been levels of frustration in the CV games, regardless of your skill level. Medusa heads, for example, or respawning bats and ravens have always brought out a bit of ire, even from the most diehard of CV fans. In RoB’s remake, the floating eyes of stage 2 are going to be the things that make you swear the most. I’ll admit I was swearing like a sailor over them.

Don’t get me wrong, Castlevania is a well made game, but I’ve always said the biggest detraction I have from the series is that in all the games, you have more trouble with the cannon fodder than you ever do with the bosses. That’s a little backwards and underwhelming for me.

You’ll find a decent amount of challenge and reward with Rondo of Blood. It’s just the challenge is backwards from how games should be, which can lead to some frustrated gamers (especially as the remake is harder than the original) and some anticlimactic end of level encounters.

Balance Rating: 6/10

7. Originality

A remake, a rehash, and a port. Well, if there is one aspect of our review system that is going to hamper DCX big time, it’s right here. I have a hard time letting a remake of a game score high at all here, and I have to admit the changes made to SotN detract far more than they add to it.

Still the remake is fresh and new to 95% of North American gamers. SotN is also the best of all CV games, and easily the most original and innovative game in the series compared to when it was made. Still, Konami won’t leave well enough alone, as like the 360 downloadable version, the PSP version of SotN isn’t on par with the original, mainly due to the god awful loading times. I felt like I was playing Smackdown vs Raw 2006 when I first booted up Symphony.

I have to say in terms of originality, this collection is pretty poor. As a compilation it’s amazing though. Think of it as being akin to how Tetris would score pretty low in Story/Modes.

Originality Rating: 3/10

8. Addictiveness

With excellent graphics and sound and enjoyable gameplay, it’s easy to get sucked into ANY Castlevania game. Rondo of Blood makes it a little easier to accomplish this by having the stage variants, extra playable character and a few other bonuses. It does get a bit irritating to have to replay a level from the beginning once you die, but there’s no point in complaining. I mean, you have three lives and you don’t have to start all the way back at the stage beginning until you’re out of those. Take note Dementium fans – this is how you do an old school save method.

RoB can be frustrating at times, especially for younger/newer gamers who aren’t used to 2-D gaming, only being able to save once you’ve beaten a level, or a bit of challenge. Either way, you’ll still find yourself being engrossed in the game, even if you’re replaying the same level a dozen or so times.

Addictiveness Rating: 7/10

9. Appeal Factor

It’s old school 2-D Castlevania goodness with updated graphics, sound, and bonus features. If Rondo of Blood had been released on its own, it still would have had a $29.99 price tag and sold like hot cakes, received strong praise from reviewers, and been a nice piece of profit for Konami. Instead they went the extra mile and put in the most popular CV game ever as an added bonus and localized the original Rondo of Blood as an unlockable. How is that not sweet?

Castlevania is one of those franchises that rarely seems to disappoint. There is a lot of care and love put into the games, and as such, it has a pretty fanatical fanbase. Even those new to the series will be impressed by the level of technical excellence in the game, and they’ll be hard pressed to deny that its fun. It is HARD compared to a lot of other games currently on the market, so keep that in mind. Still, this remains one of those rare games that should have people happy across the board.

Appeal Factor Rating: 10/10

10. Miscellaneous

I won’t lie. The fact this game has SotN as an unlockable guarantees DXC a perfect score here. Heck, having the original Akumajo Dracula X: Chi no Rondo would have accomplished that as well. We’re definitely seeing a shift with publishers where they are realize it can be to their financial well-being to re-release or finally bring over old games. The virtual console sales of originally import only or retro games have been pretty phenomenal, and Konami took note of these trends.

You’ll be hard pressed to find a better deal for the PSP right now. SotN is worth the price of admission alone, and the RoB remake is one of the better CV games I’ve played in years, and is certainly a stronger title than last year’s Portrait of Ruin on the DS, which I believe got a 5.5 from me.

This is the second best title I’ve played on year (Pokemon D/P is the first simply because it was such a massive improvement of R/S/E) and it was a great way to kick off my PSP experience. Interesting that both my GOTY nominations for 2007 are portable titles.

Miscellaneous Rating: 10/10

The Scores
Story: 4
Graphics: 10
Sound: 10
Control & Gameplay: 6
Replayability: 8
Balance: 6
Originality: 3
Addictiveness: 7
Appeal Factor: 10
Miscellaneous: 10
Overall Score: 74/100

Final Score: 7.5 (VERY Good)

Short Attention Span Summary
If you have a PSP, you should own this. If you’re a Castlevania fan and you don’t have a PSP, you should buy a PSP. This was a system seller for me, and I was not let down. Portable Rondo of Blood and portable Symphony of the Night? What a crazy mixed up but totally awesome world we live in.