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Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles
Despite being one of the longest-running game series, Castlevania hasn't been able to maintain the presence of other 8-bit contemporaries like Mario, Ninja Gaiden, Metroid, Sonic or Zelda. The legendary 2D platform/vampire-slaying series peaked in popularity during the SNES era, then managed a wonderful comeback with Symphony of Night on the original PlayStation, yet it never made the successful 3D transition that could have put it back in the public eye. Attempts on the Nintendo 64 were barely playable, while a decent stab on the PS2 - Lament of Innocence - failed to capture the imagination in a world where Devil May Cry now reigned supreme. In recent years, Castlevania has retreated to the handheld formats, where 2D games are still respected and where the likes of Aria of Sorrow on the GBA and Dawn of Sorrow on the DS have been able to keep the name alive.
The series' first outing on PSP, however, is something different. Between the SNES Castlevanias and Symphony of Night, Konami released a PC Engine exclusive Castlevania known as Dracula X: Rondo of Blood. While elements of the game were bastardised for an eventual SNES release, the game was never released in the West, and as a result it has developed a legendary status. The centrepiece of The Dracula X Chronicles is essentially a remake of this game, with the action still played in old-fashioned 2D, but - like last year's Ultimate Ghosts ‘n' Goblins - portrayed in new-fangled 3D. Most sensible people call this approach 2.5D.
In this case, the results aren't quite as immediately spectacular. Despite the 3D treatment, the visuals have much of the character of the old-school, sprite-based Castlevanias, and it's only in the silky smooth animation, some lovely background details in the environments and - most of all - the cut-scenes and boss battles that you see a huge improvement. The last two aspects are important. The Dracula X Chronicles has some of the prettiest, most atmospheric cut-scenes I have seen in a PSP game, complemented by some gorgeous hand-drawn artwork during character conversations. The boss battles, too, are storming. Not only does each boss now get a cool, Zelda-style cinematic introduction, but the 3D treatment allows them to take on a breathtaking scale without the sluggish, unrealistic movement you used to see when sprite-based 2D games tried to do the same thing. As the bosses themselves are genuinely well-designed, with highlights like a giant skeletal monstrosity capable of whipping itself into all sorts of lethal combinations, these encounters stand as the visual highpoints of the game.
Sadly, while Konami has updated the visuals, the actual gameplay is vintage 1993. Fans might be grateful for such a faithful translation, but the rest of us probably won't. There's nothing wrong with an old-school 2D platform game where you get to beat a variety of monsters up with a vampire-killer whip and a range of spectacular special attacks, but there is something wrong with one that plays like this. You can see that, at the time, the series was doing its best to stride forwards. The linear level progression that was the norm is replaced by a system of branching levels, where secret doors and passages open up new levels and new boss battles, and you could complete the game by taking several different paths. However, the problems come back to things as fundamental as character movement and control.
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