Konami finally released Rondo of Blood to the global audience -- the one Castlevania that eluded us (legally) for many years. It's the title that takes place four years prior to Symphony of the Night, making the two essentially part of a chronicle. Thus the title Dracula X Chronicles -- a 3-in-1 deal with the original RoB, the new 3D/2D remake, and SotN all in one place. Sounds like the definitive collection for a Castlevania fan, right?
For the most part, it is. You get the best of both worlds -- the classic Castlevania gameplay that veteran gamers will immediately recognize from Rondo of Blood, and the revamped gameplay Symphony of the Night brought to the stage with multiple weapons, skills, leveling up, and the castle map. However, getting to experience everything this game has to offer can sometimes be a chore and once done, there's little left to keep you around. That said, everything up until that point is well executed and incredibly enjoyable, if sometimes infuriating.
Rondo of Blood puts you in the shoes of Richter Belmont, descended from Leon Belmont who was the first to face Count Dracula (for those who believe the stuff jumbled into the PS2's Lament of Innocence). His girlfriend Annette was abducted by Dracula, since that's always part of the pale vampire's game plan, and so Richter rushes off to save her. That's really it for the story -- this is classic gaming at its finest. By classic gaming, we mean learning enemy patterns, branching paths for multiple playthroughs, and the one word that's almost absent from most of today's gaming: difficulty.
The game takes you across eight stages, four of which are mandatory. The four in the middle (stages 2-5) have alternate levels (2'-5'), so there's two entirely different paths to take. Of course, each stage has different paths so you can cross between the two different sets of levels, but if you want to get the good ending on your first run through, you'll need to take all of the alternate paths. Sound confusing? It's not once you play the game for a little bit. If you go through the game without taking much effort to seek extra paths, you'll go the normal route and get the bad ending. We'll not spoil it. If you seek crumbling walls or brave to fall into some pits, you'll find the ways to the alternate levels ... or as the game seems to indicate, the right levels. To access the good ending, you need to save two maidens hidden in two of the stages, then free Annette in the second to last stage. You can also rescue Annette's sister Maria, who becomes a playable character.
These rescue bits are challenging and unless you really try everything (who would have thought to let the blue frog follow you to the empty pedestal?), you'll likely miss them on your first run through the game anyway. Not to worry, you have the ability to select the stage to play once you've beaten it. That makes a lot of things easier. In addition to saving these lovely ladies, you can collect song records hidden throughout the game to unlock the soundtracks of the three games -- the remake, original, and SotN. Our qualm is this: why soundtrack records? Why not artwork or commentary or something interesting? Looking solely for music tracks doesn't really yield much reward for players, since they play the game with the music already. A minor gripe, but still irksome.
As said before, you have two playable characters: Richter and Maria. Richter plays like most Belmonts -- brandishes a colorful whip and uses a plethora of sub-items like the knife, axe, or cross. His ability to backflip as a double jump should not be overlooked -- it's necessary to master if you want to survive. Playing as Richter is easily the harder of the two characters. Maria, on the other hand, might as well replace the Belmont clan as the vampire killer. Instead of using a whip, Maria shoots out two doves from her arms. It's hardcore. These doves have the same reach as the whip, but go in a slight oval so they reach a wider range. Her sub-items are other animals: two red birds, a kitty cat, a turtle, a wyvern, an egg, and for some reason, a book that shoots music notes that slow the enemy down. Her sub-items are insanely powerful and she can double jump as well as slide. Play as her if you just can't stomach it as Richter.
I say that because this game is hard as hell. You will die and die often the first time through the game. Maybe even the second time. Once you've played every level, there are still different paths to take within the levels. Each room should kill you once, your first time through. But don't worry -- after you've done it all, you could possibly get through the entire game without any damage. All it is, is pattern identification. How to face each enemy. That said, the game is hard, but easy to master. Also, you can't skip the ending credits after you've beaten the game once. That's sort of annoying.
Unlocking the original Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night is awkward. Instead of rewards for beating the game as Richter and Maria, for example, you have to solve little puzzles in the game and find these unlockables hidden around. Using specific sub-items or taking peculiar routes are necessary. It's a bit odd, but once you know where the puzzle is, it's just a matter of replaying the level to solve it.
Speaking of Symphony of the Night, they rewrote the dialogue and gave the characters new voiceovers. Not all change is good, Konami. While the lines themselves are less cheesy/campy, they've lost that charm. Alucard's new voiceover sounds like an angsty teen instead of the vampire badass hundreds of years old. The upside to this SotN port is the fact Maria is playable once you've beaten the game as Alucard. Since I didn't have the time to explore everywhere, I'm not sure if that makes this version the Sega Saturn port, with added areas to explore, but if so, all the more reason to keep the game solely for that.
The original Rondo of Blood doesn't really merit much mention in this review. It's an accurate port, and the remake is an accurate port of the original, so there's not much reason to play it outside of nostalgia. It also seems like the remake was given a higher difficulty, but that could be nonsense.
Load times aren't really an issue in any one game, except for when you initially choose to play Rondo of Blood or SotN. The UMD will scream for about a minute before you even get to the title screen. It's not that important, since in-game the loading is dismissable, but for SotN at least, a lot of us have the title downloaded onto our PSP from the PS3 with zero load times.
In all, Castlevania: Dracula X Chronicles is a great collection of two/three of the greatest games in the franchise: the first perfected the classic formula just in time for the second to revamp everything the series is known for nowadays. If you love Castlevania, this is the definitive game to get. Even though the difficulty vanishes and replayability is limited after about four hours, you'll never have held in so many urges to toss the PSP against the wall. Along with the inclusion of the original game as well as the best port of Symphony of the Night to date, it's hard to pass this one up.
PSP Fanboy Score: 8.5
Update: I neglected to mention a few things, actually. First off, you get both the Japanese and English tracks for the game and, while nice, doesn't really add anything at all to the story. It's a nice touch, but you generally get the idea even if they were talking Zulu. Fight Dracula, end.
Also, Boss Rush mode is activated as you progress through the game. At first, you only have "Random" as your selection, but as you complete each of the two branching paths, you get to face that particular strand of bosses in order. It's a nice touch to test your skills, but if you've gotten through the game, you only have one life to fight the bosses anyway, in a sense, so it's really just a way to see if you can keep yourself alive against all the bosses in a row. It's pretty cool.
With those bits added in, the score stays the same, just needed to add in a bit more. My apologies for mucking up!