Castlevania: The Impossible X Chronicles.
Games as challenging as Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles are a rarity these days. In the current state of gaming we are generally treated to a lot of things we take for granted such as recharging health, plenty of checkpoints, and often the ability to save our progress whenever we need. The Dracula X Chronicles does not share any of these ideologies and instead takes us back to the days when games were absolutely punishing and masochistic.
If you're already a seasoned Castlevania veteran then you will probably already know what to expect from The Dracula X Chronicles since it's a remake of one of the earlier games - Rondo of Blood, that was developed before the series shifted toward the more fast-paced RPG-like style of Symphony of the Night. The remake of Rondo of Blood featured here has no running, limited health, and fairly archaic game mechanics. If you've never played one of the old school Castlevania games before this game will have no trouble kicking you in the ass as early as the first level. There's no introduction phase here, it's either put up or shut up with this game and you'll learn that from the outset. Unfortunately in this day and age of gaming Rondo of Blood's absurd difficulty and absolutely punishing and unforgiving design simply don't hold up well to today's standards.
The Dracula X Chronicles comes packaged with three games: a 3D remake of Rondo of Blood, Symphony of the Night, and the original Rondo of Blood. The back of the case advertises as such that you're receiving three games in one, but unsurprisingly fails to mention that the other two games are actually locked from the outset and hidden deep within the depths of the 3D remake of Rondo of Blood. So if you think you're just gonna hit up some Symphony of the Night right away then think again. Rondo of Blood will kick your ass repeatedly before you are ever going to have a chance of playing either of the other two games. Fortunately they are both obtainable with a bit of dedication and hard work, but they serve more as bonus unlockables rather than a significant portion of what you're actually buying.
The main reason why The Dracula X Chronicles' difficulty is an issue is because it follows the very old punishing standards of games by only giving you a couple of lives, one health bar to get through an entire level with, no reliable way to regain lost health, and worst of all if you lose all of your lives you have to redo the entire level over again from the beginning; yes, even if you've made it all the way to the boss and died, you have to do it all over again. You could argue that this isn't a flaw because this used to be industry standard, but that was because of the way game systems were designed. Back in the good old days many systems had no method of saving progress, or only very rudimentary ways of doing so, so they relied on the system of giving you lives, and making the games harder so they would last longer.
There is no excuse for the 3D remake of Rondo of Blood to be so masochistically unforgiving, punishing, and just plain mean. Especially since they've included the original game in unlockable form it seems like it would have made a lot more sense to preserve the original game's punishing difficulty for the purists and include a better checkpoint system that doesn't consistently force you to replay entire levels over and over again in the remake. The reason for this is because the levels themselves are often extremely difficult. You will frequently find yourself playing through a level numerous times memorizing all of the enemy locations and attack patterns, just to finally make it to the boss, lose horribly, then be forced to repeat the entire level in its entirety from the very beginning.
Aside from the difficulty though, The Dracula X Chronicles is actually an incredibly fun and addictive game. You take on the role of Richter Belmont, as well as his playable sidekick Maria (but you'll need to unlock her first) on their journey to slay the recently resurrected Dracula. The game mechanics are relatively simple. You use the d-pad to walk around, one button to whip stuff, another to use a special weapon, and another to jump. The game's design is a bit strange though and it will probably take some inexperienced Castlevania players some time to get used to things such as how unless you are holding the up button when landing you will actually fall through staircases. This can lead to some errors so you will have to quickly adapt to the finicky nature of the game relatively quickly if you want to survive.
Your two playable characters in Richter Belmont and Maria Renard feature two completely separate styles of play. Maria functions as a weaker, yet faster version of Richter who can also perform a double jump, rather than Richter's evasive back flip maneuver. She uses various animals to attack with instead of Richter's more traditional anti-vampire weaponry. Unfortunately she is extremely weak and will die from even less punishment than Richter, making her probably more suitable to exceptionally skilled players. Whichever character you use will most likely rely on your play style though. Those who want to play it safe will probably want to stick with Richter; he's considerably stronger and capable of taking a lot more punishment. He's also designed to take a much slower and more methodical approach to the levels, rather than the highly agile Maria who would be best used to get through each area as quickly as possible.
Rondo of Blood looks great in 3D, and when you finally unlock the original game you will realize just how significant of an upgrade the original game has been given. The levels have great designs, and all generally follow the same pattern of moving left to right, with the occasional one going the other way. You will jump, whip, and back flip your way through numerous locations, all the while dodging traps, collecting hearts, and finding special items. Hearts are collected in order to use your secondary ability which is determined by which item you are currently carrying as a secondary weapon. You will come across things such as holy water, crosses, and so on and you will be able to consume hearts to use these weapons, as they function differently from your whip and can get you out of some tough situations. You can also consume a mass quantity of hearts instantly to perform an ultra attack, which can be incredibly useful against some of the tougher bosses you will encounter. Unfortunately there is no inventory system so you will only be able to use these as you find them, and you can only carry one at a time. Worst of all is when you die you lose whatever item you were carrying and if you found it earlier in the level and have already found your way to a later point in the stage you will come back to life in an area where you cannot go back and retrieve said item. This can make certain areas even more challenging to play through if you've lost a specific item you were using to help you get through a difficult area.
Rondo of Blood does have a lot of things to offer fans of old school games though. While the game is incredibly unforgiving as well as challenging it is also oddly addictive and very rewarding when you finally get through a tough stage. It's just that some parts are so utterly ridiculously hard that you will be tempted to throw your PSP across the room on more than one occasion. This is not an easy game, and the difficulty cannot be understated. It is by no means impossible, and old school Castlevania veterans will probably laugh in this game's face, but the average player, especially those unfamiliar in the ways of the whip will have an extremely challenging and punishing game ahead of them, one they will likely lose patience with and never actually finish as the difficulty gets progressively more difficult as the game goes on.
All three games in this package have been re-dubbed with full English voice overs and new scripts, and while the voice acting does its job it's still pretty ham-fisted in nature which makes you wonder why they even bothered. Fortunately the original Japanese voice acting is included for every game so if you don't like the English voice acting, or are simply a purist, you can enjoy the games in their original states. The music is appropriately haunting, with plenty of compositions featuring the organ and harpsichord.
Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles is a solid package. It features one of the most popular and critically acclaimed PlayStation 1 games in portable format, a remake of a relatively obscure entry in the series, and to top it off it features a port of the original PC Engine version of the game that never made it across the pond. There's a lot of value here if you're willing to fish around for it, and it's even a good entry point for people to try their hand at the older style of Castlevania if they've never experienced it before. It's just unfortunate that the main game featured in this package is so punishing and unforgiving because had it been given significant enough improvements to be brought up to standards of the current era of gaming it could have been more widely appreciated, and not to mention, way more fun to actually play. As it stands The Dracula X Chronicles is hard to recommend to anyone but the most devout Castlevania fans. Most people will simply be better off to not subject themselves to the masochistic nature of this game and simply get Symphony of the Night instead. If you are willing to take on the challenge of The Dracula X Chronicles you will find a great game that refuses to adhere to the current standards of fairness in gaming, and one that will laugh in your face and kick you while you are down over and over again without mercy. Only the most persistent and determined vampire hunters will find their way through this journey, but those who do will probably have a great time in doing so.