"--------- Note to readers: All chapter headings used in this review are quotes from Bram Stoker's 1897 novel 'Dracula' --------- "
--------- Note to readers: All chapter headings used in this review are quotes from Bram Stoker's 1897 novel 'Dracula' ---------
Jonathan Harker's Journal
There is a fair bit of irony in the whole enterprise that became the cross-platform videogame assault known as 'Bram Stoker's Dracula'.
The 1992 film from ultra-famous director Francis Ford Coppola was not only big in its own right. It was BIG because it proclaimed that it was going to chase the Dracula story back to its roots in Bram Stoker's classic novel, after years of clones and spin-offs which never did justice to the source material. The film was a box-office smash and is incidentally loved by myself. The smash film demanded a smash videogame license, so what did Sony Imagesoft do? They produced a platform game which has pretty tenuous connections to both film and novel, and they produced it for every console or gaming system that moved.
With that said, this is one of my absolute favourite games for the Sega Master System. It's atmospheric and challenging platforming with terrific exotic Eastern music. When I say 'challenging', I think most people would probably find it quite hard overall, and by the end, it is -ABSOLUTELY- stupid-hard. I slug a couple of points from my final score for this reason, and talk about this problem near the end of the review. But I will always thoroughly enjoy playing through most of the game.
When you fire it up initially, you just feel you're in for an exciting time. The scary and frenetic main theme starts to play, credits flash by and bring us to the title screen with its blood-splashed lettering. The game now cuts to the cover of a book inscribed with the lone word 'Vampyre', and you feel a tingle...
I've only ever experienced this game via emulation, but I was so taken by it that I ran around chasing up versions on other consoles where I could. None of them held up to the Master System one.
''What sort of grim adventure was it on which I had embarked?''
In Bram Stoker's Dracula, which I will now abbreviate to BSD, you play the part of Jonathan Harker, the famed hero of the novel and film. In the cut-scene graphics you even look like Keanu Reeves did in the film. You can decide for yourself whether this is a good thing or a shocker.
Gameplay follows your journey location-wise from the film. You'll run and jump your way through a series of day and night stages, racing against the clock, fighting off supernatural baddies, collecting treasures (Why? Well, they add to your score) and putting down a series of big nasty boss creatures in a quest to ultimately stake out Dracula himself (HAHA!). There are Easy, Normal and Hard difficulty settings. They're of the style that you are only able to play the full game on the 'Hard' setting.
Your itinerary is taken from the film and novel, but only in terms of the order of levels, not in level content. So you will start in Transylvania and proceed to Dracula's castle. You'll then return to England, and visit in turn the Hillingham Estate Mansion and Carfax Abbey. Then it's back through Transylvania for a final showdown in Drac's castle. Now sure, in the film Harker had plenty of adventures in Transylvania. But at the Hillingham Mansion? All he did there was pay a social call or something. For the sake of this game, every location from the story has been amusingly turned into a trap and monster filled platforming hellhole.
Harker himself has nothing about him that's really remarkable for a platform hero. He dashes about (and looks dashing in white), and can duck and jump and slash with a dagger. Jumping is nicely controlled. You don't have to worry about inertia. You can adjust height slightly by the duration of your button press and you can steer horizontally at will while airborne. The dagger is a decent basic melee weapon which you'll always have. You will pick up additional Ghosts'n'Goblins inspired missile weapons during the game, such as stones, axes, and 'flaming brands' (which I'll call torches.) There's a shield you can pick up which is very rare, but which will make you invulnerable for quite a long time.
I have a lone qualm with the controls. You have just the one attack button, and the game will 'decide' for you when you press it if you wanted to fire your missile weapon, or if it thought you were sufficiently close to some target that you wanted to just swipe out with your dagger. In quieter moments this is okay. But in really hectic places where you're leaping, fighting and dodging traps all at once, not unleashing the attack you intended will leave you gnashing your teeth.
''Do you not know that to-night, when the clock strikes midnight, all the evil things in the world will have full sway?''
The game structure is beautiful and really atmospheric. Each stage or 'scene' has a daytime level - which is really dusk - followed by a nighttime level. Even in the daytime level, you only have 20 seconds of daylight before the sun sets and things get 'evil'. During the honeymoon period of daylight, graphics are more brightly lit, there are no monsters out hunting you and most traps in the stage are disarmed. So the idea is to exploit the daylight by making some good progress through the level, or by carrying out activities that will be more dangerous after night falls.
When night does kick in, the playfield darkens, monsters emerge in force and all traps are 'GO!'. And of course, the nighttime levels commence in this state.
One of the keys to the power of this game is the ever-present sense of urgency. You will always want to rush to take advantage of daylight as much as you can, and you will definitely need to stay moving in general if you are to complete the levels in time. The initial time limits for each two-part scene range from 2.5 to 5 minutes. You will have to grab most of the 'clock' bonuses as you play to top up your time and stay in business. The time limits are fairly stringent, especially when you also have to get through a boss fight in a level. So you'll always feel the tense threat of death or time snapping at your heels as you hasten onwards to your goals.
''The impression I had was that we were leaving the West and entering the East...''
The terrain and scenery are pleasingly varied, with an overall movement from the outdoors to the indoors taking place through the game. You start in hilly countryside, move into tunnels, then into flagstoned castle halls. Later you will journey through a squarish stately mansion and a crimsony crypt. The combination of elements such as moving platforms, traps on timers and patterned enemies such as roaming bats, skeletons, zombies, ghosts, dogs and gypsies, is always very precise. Sure, none of these elements are original in their own right in this genre. Yet when combined with the dense level designs, the day and night sequences and the vampire atmospherics, the result is a striking platform game which definitely has a distinctive feel about it.
Graphics are particularly rich. I would describe them as 'dark and luminous'. There is almost always a black section onscreen, whether it's the dismal sky above the horizon, or a shadowed part of a corridor. The game is not a solid wall of tehcnicolour like some platformers. Atmospheric details are scattered throughout such as torches, staked corpses, braziers in the shape of hands, windows and archways. There are also arches and cavern features that you can pass behind, so you have a slight feel of enclosure when you are indoors. There is a delicious clarity evident in all of the architecture and scenery, and nice shading effects.
Animation is nothing amazing, but it gets the job done. The design of the hero and monsters is more important than their movements here. Most importantly, you'll never have trouble discerning what Harker or any particular monster is doing.
- PERILOUS ADVENTURE OF OUR INTERVIEWER -
Core environmental hazards include spikes which slide in and out of surfaces, fireball-spitting gargoyle heads and trapped platforms over spikes or liquids. Combine nasty configurations of the above with a handful of well-placed foes and it's surprising how quickly you can create a game as hard as this one. Nevertheless, there are no sudden, cheap, or instant deaths (Until the last few crazy levels!...) If you fall into a spiked pit or some kind of liquid, you'll take damage but be propelled back out.
There are secret rooms and passages scattered throughout the levels that you 'reveal' simply by walking into them. They're usually crammed with extra treasures, or sometimes your imprisoned pal Professor Van Helsing (Remember, Anthony Hopkins in the film? The man who is a vampire expert). I don't know how he keeps getting kidnapped between levels whilst following Harker around Europe and back and forth across the English Channel, but he does, which just gives us one more fun thing to do. Secret areas are exceedingly well used in this game because you can always spot them if you're observant. You just watch for inaccessible rooms or odd features, feel around the walls there and voila! None of those dumb, 'If you don't shoot the wall 3 times for no apparent reason, you miss the secret area' deals.
There are rarely any basic problems here of the kind that commonly ruin platformers, such as the player missing jumps by a pixel, or feeling that they need to jump 'right from the edge' with the result that they actually step off. So the level and game engine design are top notch, and allow you to fully concentrate on using your skills. Harker has a health meter which is replenishable by collecting hearts, as well as several lives, and hazards do damage to you rather than killing you outright. So you will get good satisfaction as your skill with the game increases, and you can go without losing a life for much longer periods.
There is one remarkable but frequently annoying feature: When you knife or shoot open one of the 'question mark' stones which release treasures or weapons, the contents rise from the stone and float upwards. You need to grab the object before it floats away. In hectic moments, it's easy to get distracted and miss the item. In places this is designed as a deliberate challenge. E.G. The stone will contain a huge-scoring treasure, but be someplace weird, like mid-air. Not easy.
''And so we have this day to hunt out all his lairs and sterilise them.''
Now to the cool monsters. They are pretty dangerous on the whole. They're never just 'fodder' for you to enjoy killing, and are always well incorporated into the level design. The gamemakers have got a lot of mileage out of what at heart aren't very sophisticated attack patterns.
The only monsters that don't really pose a threat are the dumb walk-back-and-forth skeletons. Zombies also walk back and forth, but then bury themselves in the ground to ambush you later. You must be observant and spot the clods of earth revealing where zombies are hiding, which is a clever touch. Large spiders (ick!!) roam on both floors and ceiling. Bats and birds are small targets which fly back and forth in places liable to stress you out, like over a difficult jumping stretch. Gypsies don't move but fire at you with rifles. If you duck, they duck. Without cover, it's hard to deal with them without taking a hit. Dogs sit at high vantage points and spew fireballs at your position before howling, which is their vulnerable time. The catch is they must be killed in hand-to-hand combat with your dagger.
''Knifing a dog?! How sick!!!''
I love a good dog-knifing scene. I've loved knifing dogs ever since Green Beret, and I want the world to know it.
Ghosts or fists (yeah, hands) always appear in the same places in the levels so you can (and must) learn their positions. They only materialise a moment before you're about to run into them, making for a lot of nasty surprises. There's a great part where you're standing on the edge of a spike filled pit when a ghost fades in behind you. The first time this happens, you always flinch and tumble straight into the pit.
Late in the game you get nasty homing globs of green gas (like the stuff Dracula is able to turn into) which do more damage.
''In the moonlight opposite me were three young women, ladies by their dress and manner.''
There are in-level 'minor' boss encounters, generally with vampiric women: The 'brides of Dracula'. I would love to be eaten by those ladies from the film or the novel, but that's beside the point. These bride encounters really give you a rush!
You will be sealed in a medium sized square chamber and the music changes to the brides' attack theme. The bride (or sometimes 2 brides) will materialise quickly then zip through the chamber. You have to find the jump patterns to dodge them in each instance, and then be able to key these in to their initial appearances which always dictate how they will attack. You can never hurt the brides. If you ever flinch, blink or psyche yourself out during these tense and reflex-devouring scenes, you'll take hits or get killed.
''I was conscious of the presence of the Count, and of his being as if lapped in a storm of fury.''
Okay, I admit I was just waxing lyrical with this quote. The major boss fights I'm about to describe are neither particularly spectacular nor 'storms of fury', but they're still good play-wise. When you see the square enclosed play area for each boss encounter (and the bride encounters too) you get the strong suspicion that the programmers designed these with their smallest console platforms in mind (Gameboy/Gamegear) where these encounters would fill the screen. On the Master System's larger screen, you're looking at a fair bit of wall on either side.
The first boss you meet more than once I'll call the 'shadow monster'. It's black as night, only flickering against backdrop details occasionally. (Though if I was creating this game, I'd probably have chosen to make my first boss one that players could see?!)
The second boss you meet more than once is 'Vlad'. Y'know, Vlad the Impaler? He who in legend inspired 'Dracula'. In the film he actually became Dracula himself by renouncing God after the unpleasant suicide of his beloved. Anyway, 'Vlad' Dracula glowers in his armour, alternately shooting fireballs and 'sucking' at you with blue energy. If (and when) you run out of stones or whatever to cream him with, power-ups will float up from the floor. This aspect (common to all boss fights) can be annoying in its randomness in this case, as the power-ups might float up on the other side of the room, and it's not possible to jump over Vlad without being burned.
Next boss is the half-wolf mutated form of Dracula. This tears across the screen from one side to the other at such velocity that you can't react when you see it. You have to react before you see it.
2nd-last boss is the mutated green hanging 'bat' Dracula. He descends from the ceiling and spits hordes of regular bats at you. He is the best-rendered of the bosses and looks just like his film counterpart. And the last boss is the 'old' Dracula, the wizened figure seen at the end of the film. By this time the whole game has become insanely rigorous, and so too is this fight. Constant jumping, dashing and ducking is required in the too-small chamber to dodge him whilst getting in shots and sweating over the clock.
When I think about it, the whole idea of having this progression of Dracula's forms through different boss fights is really excellent.
''Listen to them - The children of the night. What music they make!''
The musical soundtrack for this game is a real favourite of mine. It was composed by Jeroen Tel, formerly a quite famous composer for game soundtracks on the Commodore 64. The main flavour is 'eastern' European, and exotic. There's not a major chord to be found anywhere here, kids! It's always scary, ominous, bitter, urgent or dismal. Note-for-note, it really hooks into me. The main theme has a churning background and a hectic spiralling melody. The in-game themes start out at a normal pace then move to an 'urgent' one when night falls; a cool pulse-raising trick.
They've also mashed some quite visceral effects out of the Master System's sound chip in general. You'll probably grow to hate the little 'bomb whistle' sound that accompanies Harker being injured, but the explosions and shots for the most part are typically pleasing churny fare, with some nice arcade-style squalls and bleeps for when you grab items. The scream of the 'low time' warning is particularly rattling, as it should be. The sound-effects give you some cues, but most of the audio power from this game comes from the musical themes.
Okay, here's the bad news that made me a bitter man, because I think the game is generally so wonderful. The game design takes a gobsmacking dive into the atrocious in the last 3 levels or so.
First, the game cranks up the 'gratuitous deaths' factor, which was previously non-existent, to 'high'. There are now fatal traps like corridors that lead to bottomless pits.
Second, the game places overly severe time limits on the last levels, usually 2 minutes. Suddenly it's decreeing that you will have to sacrifice a life or two to time, when in theory you could play through the whole game prior to this point without losing a life (admittedly that would be ultra-hard, but not impossible).
Third, it suddenly amps up the emphasis on your score by %500. Certainly, to this point you have tried to grab what treasures and secrets you could, and to finish with good times to get better scores. But the last 2 levels are absolutely devoted to trying to make you explore crazy secret areas filled with treasures for your score's sake. Being seduced by these areas will invariably kill you more than once because of the time limits. Terrible.
Take my advice: If you DO survive to the last level, forget about the treasures and just find and kill Dracula at first opportunity!
''In the population of Transylvania there are four distinct nationalities:''
I'm about to describe how some other versions of BSD that I've been able to play compare to the Master System one.
This game, being a 'cross-platform blockbuster', is a striking example of consistency across versions. You generally get the same titles sequence, the same music note-for-note, the same menu interfaces, the same levels with a tweak here and there for screen size... and of course the exact same boss encounters in a small square room. Eerie!
Sega Gamegear - The handheld has its own version identical to the Master System's except for the cropped playing area.
Gameboy - Surprisingly tight version but with less precise control and reduced levels.
NES - The Nintendo's blocky pastel colours fail dismally in trying to capture the dark feel of this game. Avoid.
Sega Megadrive - Same title screen, same style gameplay, but a different game. Not the same levels or content.
''She makes a very beautiful corpse, sir. It's quite a privilege to attend on her.''
Finally, my roundup of Bram Stoker's Dracula:
- Cohesive Transylvanian atmosphere
- High challenge
- Exacting level design with good use of secrets
- Nice graphics and attractively dark scenery
- The exotic music!
- Cool day + night features
- Nervy bride attacks
- Strong 'journey' feeling as you travel from location to location
- I admit, they included a decent number of features from the film and book
- Bosses aren't too hot
- The melee/missile attack button confusion
- Pick-ups float skywards when revealed
- !! GRATUITOUS AND INSANE !! leap in difficulty near the end of the game
In conclusion: I really love this game. It's a shame that the distinctive supernatural experience it provides is jeopardised by the cheap beating you'll endure if you reach the last few very nasty levels. Nevertheless, this game remains a favourite platformer of mine, and definitely my favourite for the Sega Master System, whose version of this game is superior to the others.
Now grab a stake and AIM FOR THE HEART!!!
-- Bram Stoker's Dracula 8/10 --
Community review by bloomer (February 06, 2004)
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