Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles is hard. Really, really hard. It's a reminder of how things used to be, before everyone got hot and bothered about making games appeal to more casual audiences, about making games easy enough to finish and about making games for the Nintendo Wii. Is this a good thing? For hardcore Castlevania fans it will be, but, in the grand scheme of things, a really hard game, so hard it makes you mad, isn't that good. It's a relic of a bygone era.
Unfamiliar with the whole Castlevania thing? Allow us to enlighten you. The Dracula X Chronicles is a remake of 1993's Japan only 2D side-scrolling action game Castlevania Rondo of Blood. It's essentially the same 2D game but with a lick of paint (there are a couple of new touches, like a brand new boss, the Hydra). By lick of paint we mean some 3D cut scenes, complete with voice acting, and new side-scrolling 3D visuals - this isn't a gameplay overhaul, just a modernization. That'll please hardcore UK Castlevania fans who never had the opportunity to play Rondo of Blood back in the day. Also thrown into the mix are unlockable versions of the original Rondo of Blood (I can hear the fans cheering now) and a port of 1997's PlayStation game Castlevania: Symphony of Night.
Unlockable is the key word here. You don't need to finish the game to unlock the classics, instead you have to find secret items. The big question is why not make them playable form the beginning? We can only guess that Konami felt hardcore fans would avoid the remixed game and immediately head for the original Rondo of Blood, and this was their way of forcing gamers to experience the fancy new graphics. Either that or they're just being cruel.
Whatever your position, for the most part you'll be playing Castlevania Rondo of Blood. Here, you play as Richter Belmont, who, along with his trusty whip, sets out to rescue various damsels in distress from the evil Dracula himself. His basic attack is a crack of that famous Castlevania whip. Unfortunately he can only attack straight ahead, meaning overhead enemies pose a problem. But he can crouch and attack, and jump and attack at the same time, not that this makes the game any easier. He also has an alternative attack, initiated by pressing up and attack at the same time, which usually involves chucking a weapon picked up during the level, including knives, axes, holy water and crosses. But, in our opinion, these attacks feel pretty useless - much better to stick to the whip.
Each of the game's nine chapters follows a similar pattern. You set off with a limited number of lives, a full health bar and a healthy dose of courage and work your way through endless waves of skeletons, gargoyles, beasties and jumping freaky things, using pin-point attacks and perfectly timed jumps to traverse the game's platforms, before reaching an end of level boss and (hopefully) defeating it. Mess up (you will mess up. A lot) and you lose a life. If you lose all your lives you have to start the whole stage over - a punishing gameplay design we're not used to seeing in this day and age.
Things don't really get more sophisticated than that. They just get much harder. This is hardcore gaming at its most unashamed. Damsel in distress Maria Renard is unlockable about half-way through the game (if you get that far!), who helps to add variety to the gameplay - she releases birds as a main attack! And there's further replay value in finding alternate paths through the game's stages. Add to this the Boss Rush multiplayer mode (mildly entertaining for a few minutes), and, of course, the two classic games, and you've got a comprehensive Castlevania collection. But let's not beat about the bush here - The Dracula X Chronicles is built from the ground up to be an old school, rock hard single-player action platformer with little variety in play. If punishing and basic gameplay floats your boat, you're gonna love this.
The remixed graphics are quite nice - the levels have a depth to them now that the backgrounds have been redone. The 3D cut-scenes too are on par with what we're used to seeing in the PSP's better games. The game's soundtrack is classic Konami - infectious, rousing and retro. In all, Konami has done a pretty good job of bringing the game to Western gamers, and has clearly done its utmost to please its fans.
Which is what The Dracula X Chronicles is all about. It won't, nor is it trying to, appeal to a new audience. This is for the fans, the ones who have been waiting 15 years to play Rondo of Blood. You can see it in the options the game provides - you can switch the voice language from English to Japanese (no subtitles though, boo!), you've got six different background wallpapers to choose from and you have a sound test if you just want to kick back and enjoy the game's music.
For non-hardcore Castlevania fans though, The Dracula X Chronicles will be too difficult to get into. Would it have been too much to ask for an easy difficulty setting? It's a shame - the game is certainly rewarding and fun if you can get into it. Unfortunately we can't see the average gamer having the patience to do just that.