"Just watching someone play through a level, PC-Engine Dracula X looks damned good, as any Castlevania would, but might not appear to be the holy grail of gaming as some have hyped it. Spend one night with Dracula X — one night exploring and re-visiting old friends, and the whole Castlevania world changes."
Meet Richter Belmont, former vampire hunter. Exterminating flea men and ectoplasms for local villagers was fun and all, but it didn't pay the bills. To earn a healthy income and build a prosperous life for himself and his charming fiancee Annette, this dashing young German moved to the city, striving to build a name for himself in the industrial age. Although he pined for his girlfriend, who was busy planning a festive wedding in their rustic hometown of Veros, these were sunny days for Richter. With a stable income and a beautiful woman in his heart, the future shined very brightly indeed.
However, being a town rich in devilry and mysticism (simply witness Simon's Quest!), Veros played host to a cult of necromancers and sorcerers. With his dark magick arts, the strongest of these conjurers -- a shady fellow by the name of Shaft -- assembled the scattered organs of Dracula and once again summoned the undead overfiend to the world.
Brought to life for the purpose of destruction, Dracula unleashed a plague upon the entire village. Consumed by infernal flames, the citizens of Veros withered away to mere skeletons -- bony corpses that would soon rise from the smoldering rubble, newborn servants to the evil king of vampires. The women of the town were stolen away by golems, harpies, and armor lords. The young girl Maria Renard, a spiritually powerful vampire-hunter-in-training, was captured by wizards for twisted, human experimentation. As for Richter's lovely fiancee, Dracula himself imprisoned her within the nearby castle.
Taking the family's sacred whip, Richter grudgingly set aside his peaceful intentions, bent on fulfilling his own personal sense of justice. He's the Braveheart of the Belmont clan: trying to forget his war-torn past, forging a new life... yet dragged into the fire by unfortunate circumstance and his own, inescapable heritage.
Belmont versus Dracula. From time immemorial, gamers have followed the tragic duo. Simon Belmont defeated the evil Dracula. Later, the Countess Elizabeth resurrected Dracula. Shaft resurrected Dracula. At one point, Simon Belmont himself resurrected Dracula... so as to kill him again. The undead count is the symptom of evil, not the source. The true battle is against lust for power, and against fear: the fear that in times of peace, warriors have no purpose. Their futile, selfish war against Dracula is the very reason why the Belmonts were a family of failures. Afraid to recognize the source of evil, they instead opted for the most obvious target.
Richter though... he's something special. Certainly his "rescue the girl and live in peace" motives are quite different from his ancestors, but so are his skills. He's not as adept with the whip as Simon (no eight-directional lashing here), but he's quick of foot and very agile. Richter covers ground with ease, can change direction mid-jump, and can even fire off volleys of daggers straight ahead while vaulting backwards. And what a vault he has! "Air" Richter's backwards somersault carries a surprising amount of lift, easily capable of clearing diving ravens and boomerang axes.
As the last in the Belmont line (although Bloodlines' Johnny Morris claims some ties), Richter is also the most powerful. First off, his whip never needs an upgrade: it's lengthy and flashy from the very start. Second, in addition to special weapons, he is capable of the mighty "Item Crash". No longer must the holy water merely create a small puddle on the floor! Now the skies themselves rain with purity at Richter's beckons.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, for fans of great games), the now-crimson skies of his hometown literally rain with ash and swirling flames. In the past, Castlevania simply placed a Belmont at the foot of Castle Dracula with the single goal: "find and kill the count". This time around, Richter doesn't start off at Castle Dracula. He actually travels through the burning town -- in a rare moment of Castlevania history, you can witness Dracula's evildoings instead of merely assuming "he's a vampire, he must be wicked". As Richter fights off hunchbacked Skeleton Apes (heaving barrels across his path), enormous burlesque golems, and even man-eating flytraps, dots of sparkling soot waft across the screen, carried by the winds of Veros. As any young man's face would be streaked with sadness, forced to endure such visions of death and destruction, it takes a powerful song to match the spirit... and in this case a stirring CD melody by the name of "Opposing Bloodlines" succeeds mightily, capturing the violent nature of Richter's hometown return.
Castlevania has always been known for its music. Not only are there original melodies, but some more familiar tracks, such as the main theme from the original NES episode, have also made the leap to CD audio. As you begin the game, a sombre vocal theme (reminiscent of that in Symphony of the Night) accompanies the "File Select/Stage Select" screen. Yes, once you've visited a level, you can return to it at any time in the game. Choose to visit the cathedral stage, and you'll hear a timeless tune -- "Bloody Tears" is the name -- except on this disc, Konami included that song (and many others) in their entirety... something you won't find in any other CD edition of Castlevania, not even Chronicles.
When Richter finally steps foot in Dracula's courtyard, rain pouring from the sky and lightning crashing in the distance, it's easy to be swept away by the visual and aural style. But don't let the fancy visual effects or fantastic Roland Surround melody of "Vampire Killer" distract you from the raging, cloven-hoofed deathbull stampeding across the screen. Yes, with its detailed hair, curled ram-like horns, and bloody torso, Behemoth is quite a sight. But let Richter be gored, and you'll never reach the depths of the castle. Speaking of depths... as you run like hell from the bull, leaping over holes in the floor, you will eventually -- no matter what your level of skill -- screw up and plummet into one of the pits. But you won't die...
...you'll be in a new area, The Sewers!
Once he enters the castle, Richter's goal isn't so linear as that of his ancestors. Yes, it's a Belmont's duty to rid the world of Dracula. But Richter also gets to stop the evil priest and, assuming you're good enough to find them and the keys to their cells, save pretty women along the way. To do this, you'll need to actually explore each level. Break some walls, and you can enter a hidden grotto. Take a leap of faith from the Aqueduct, and Charon's ferry will catch you below, escorting you through Merman-infested waters. Barrel headfirst through the Skeleton Monkey infested forest and meet the headless knight Dullahan... or locate and flip all the switches to open a secret path into the Underground River, where the siren Carmilla awaits. Secrets and optional paths -- and even alternate bosses! -- abound in zone after zone. Now the reason for the Stage Select's existence becomes apparent, many a night spent excavating every last nook and cranny in each of the dozen levels.
And, once you rescue Miss Maria Renard, you can use her to slide through narrow crawlspaces, double-jump to heretofore unreached heights, and generally have a very fun time with an entirely new set of weapons!
But, optional paths and all, there's still an over-riding purpose. The build-up to the battle with Shaft is paramount, leaving the final encounter against Dracula as little more than an afterthought -- something that the count himself is well aware of, as revealed in the anime-styled cinematic. Realizing that he isn't the greatest evil (and never was), Dracula tries to up the ante, in an attempt to validate his own existence as something other than a tool for wicked humans... that is, if you can actually defeat Shaft, who is by no means a slouch in combat. He'll summon beasts from empty air, and unless you can pass through his gauntlet of terror, there's little you can do but watch, as familiar foes from past adventures return to life.
Just watching someone play through a level, PC-Engine Dracula X looks damned good, as any Castlevania would, but might not appear to be the holy grail of gaming as some have hyped it. Spend one night with Dracula X -- one night exploring and re-visiting old friends, and the whole Castlevania world changes. "Crimson-plated flail guards? Ball-swinging plate lords? Bone Muskets! So this is where those cool SOTN enemies came from!" This game wants for nothing: travel through a moonlit harbor, ride on a raft across raging rapids, uncover hidden glowing money bags (a gimmick that mysteriously vanished after the original... until now!). You'll even see the Grim Reaper wag his finger in "you won't win with that puny effort!" Dikembe Mutombo style. Dracula X: Rondo of Blood drips of Konami's passion and love, as they delivered us the world (and more!) crammed on one CD. Give the game a single night of your life, and you'll be playing for many more to follow.
Staff review by Zigfried (January 24, 2004)
Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.
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