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Castlevania: Rondo of Blood Review

Rondo of Blood was released for the PC Engine waaaay back in 1993 in Japan only. It wasn’t until 2010 that we finally got it stateside (as well as in Europe,) which is a real shame, because this game is flippin fantastic. You play as Richter Belmont, who not only is making a journey to Castlevania to take down the dark lord Dracula once again, but also to rescue his girlfriend and a couple other kidnapped ladies, including the twelve-year-old fellow vampire hunter, Maria Renard, who kills skeletons with the help of doves and kittens. That isn’t even remotely a joke. Speaking of twelve year old girls, the art direction took a decidedly anime turn, which is something the rest of the series will follow up on, but as of yet it’s more like Berserk than the super cute style of Dawn of Sorrow or Portrait of Ruin.

Richter’s control scheme changes up again. His jump is a lot more fluid than Super Castlevania IV’s, and his whip comes out just as fast. But he seems to have not learned the secret technique of whipping straight up or at diagonals. Of course, he doesn’t really need to: almost every enemy he encounters comes at him straight on, which is fantastic because enemies that hover over your head are real annoying when you can’t hit up. Additionally, Richter’s whip is always at full power. He doesn’t need to collect powerups to make it longer, which is a great change, since it means that every time you attack you know exactly what you’re gonna get. He has quite a long reach, but there’s also a lot of enemies that do, as well as enemies that approach very quickly, so it doesn’t feel as overpowered as it did in Super Castlevania IV. In many ways, Richter’s abilities represented a toned down version of that game. Not only are they toned down, but the enemies themselves are jacked up to match. They still telegraph their attacks, but they come out quicker and usually cover more of the screen than in the original games. It would’ve been broken there, but here it works wonderfully, since you have such a high degree of control over Richter. It also greatly increases the use of subweapons from Super IV. Now they aren’t needed to hit up or down so much as they’re needed to get hits off while keeping at a safe distance, or just to trash enemies even faster than you can with the whip. In fact, disregarding the weak throwing knife, subweapons are going to be a stronger option than the whip for a lot of the series. Their primary use shifts focus from solely utility to being all about damage.

Maria, like the non-Belmont characters in Castlevania III, also offers a different attack and set of subweapons. She’s significantly weaker than Richter, but her skills hit incredibly hard, especially the cat. That cat is a total beast. Plus, what she loses in vitality she more than makes up for in mobility, with an incredibly quick slide and double jump (which are, unless I miss my guess, both series firsts.) Playing her practically feels like a different game, which adds a nice layer of replay value beyond what the branching levels add. Her playstyle being so distinct from Richter doesn’t necessarily make it easier, but it might be something you’re able to connect with better, especially if you’re familiar with Capcom’s Ghosts’n Goblins series.

There’s two sequences of levels, going from 1 to 7, with alternates for levels 2, 3, and 4, which are found by finding secret exits. It’s sort of like Super Mario World or Starfox 64. The secret exits are honestly kind of dumb, though, and rely on thoughts you wouldn’t normally have, like cutting the wire of a swinging ball so it drops below and breaks the floor, letting you go to a previously inaccessible area. Very strange, but not really a huge deal, since they are intended to be secrets, after all. A few of the levels also branch within the level itself, but it doesn’t really happen that often, and one of the branches is always way, way easier than the other for some reason, like they just never thought to balance them against each other. Also, the level design on the secret levels is a bit weaker than the normal levels, but it’s not really bad, and the design suits the environment that you’re in. The aqueduct level is the only one that really approaches bad, since it’s almost entirely a straight line, but it doesn’t really work against it. Even though a lot of other areas have more varied terrain, you usually encounter enemies on a flat, open plain anyway. The level really works as a distillation of that experience, rather than being cheapened. Also, I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be reminiscent of the bridge area in the third level of the first game, which is similarly flat, but managed to be okay by offering some of the toughest encounters in the game.

Of course, compared to that little bit of dragon towers and crows, Castlevania I-III have nothing on how crazy encounters can get going forward for the series. The bosses in Rondo move incredibly fast and have a wide variety of attacks. Approaching them is dangerous, and beating them actually feels rewarding, since they aren’t just clobbering you down with random elements or impossible to dodge patterns. The Minotaur’s overhead swing is tough to dodge, but it is by no means impossible, and finding just the right mix of evasion and offense is an intense experience. The fight isn’t cheapened by being after an incredibly difficult area, since you respawn immediately before the boss, nor is it cheapened by having an ill-fitting subweapon or not enough ammo, since not only does the game not force you to use them as a crutch, but they offer plenty of hearts. That was the real problem in the original Castlevanias: using the subweapons never really felt like you were doing something clever. They basically felt mandatory, and winning fights with them at best felt like clever strategy, rather than a test of your skill. But now, every boss can be taken out with the whip alone, if you’re good enough. Instead of being required, the subweapons just spice things up, and maybe change your strategy just enough to keep you alive longer. The bosses themselves also hit way softer than Death did in the original game, which was a huge problem. If a boss can take you out in four hits and hits you a lot, it really doesn’t offer a lot of time to learn the battle. But in Rondo of Blood, you get a decent amount of learning time in every fight, instead of arriving to a boss room beaten and bruised, and then dying immediately.

The thing that’s really weird in the harder fights of the original game is that they’re so counter to what the rest of the game is about. You basically never want to get hit in Castlevania, since the healing meat is so rare. It’s also pretty easy to avoid getting hit in almost every situation in the actual levels, as long as you plan accordingly. But against the bosses, it’s pretty much an entirely different ballgame. Death and Igor are almost definitely going to hit you, as is also true with a lot of Castlevania III’s bosses. You can only avoid so many of the attacks. Instead of being thoughtful, it’s all about killing the boss before you die. Rondo of Blood, on the other hand, is a game all about approaching enemies, and it trains you on that constantly. When you fight the bosses, the game is still all about approaching the enemies in the right way. You actually use your skills of avoidance and counter-attacks that you learned in the main game, and it feels great. Additionally, when you do take hits, they’re very rarely as much as a fourth of your entire health bar, and it’s never as aggravating because it feels like your fault. Your high degree of control over Richter makes it feel like you’re actually, you know, in control of the situation. A lot of the emphasis was taken off of careful planning and bringing the right subweapon, and just knowing how to react to all of the enemy’s attacks. I’ll give that it’s easier, but harder doesn’t automatically equal better, and the difficulty against the bosses in the original games was sort of ill-fitting since it was so mismatched from the rest of the game. Plus, the bosses themselves are basically unrelenting. There’s a level that’s actually nothing but bosses!

It’s hard to really talk about how great the boss encounters actually are without giving too much away, unfortunately. I hope it suffices to say that, when properly executed and playing well, the battles look like a graceful ballet of careful hops and attacks. They feel intense, and even though the bosses don’t deal as massive amounts of damage to you as in the first game, you always feel a hair’s breadth from an untimely demise. The game especially gets intense after you take a few too many hits from goofing around or not taking things seriously. While he starts off the battles smug and overconfident, Richter is a lot more focused with broken ribs and missing teeth. A series of close dodges while dwindling the boss’s health down is a truly memorable experience. Hell, even just crossing the deck of a boat with enemies swarming all over you feels great. It’s also pretty much the direction the rest of the entire series takes, as well, so if you enjoy a close match in those games, be sure to check this out.

I’m gonna be straight up with you here: Rondo of Blood is the Castlevania you should play, if you’re going to play any of them. It’s short and sweet; the music is fantastic; the game feels great the entire way through; every level is fresh and exciting not just for the new areas but also for the new enemies; the bosses are always an excellent (and perhaps more importantly, fair) challenge; there is a complete lack of cheap deaths which are always at least semi-present in the other level-based games; and as a new experience, there is plenty to excite, from the opening battle on a chariot with Death to the bridge-collapsing, tower storming, Dracula slaying conclusion. The game is utterly and completely perfect. The only possible flaw is that the SNES port isn’t very good, but that isn’t really a problem with this game. It’s a 10 out of 10, baby. I recommend this game to anyone who breathes, especially if they love action platformers, whips, or feeling like a complete badass. You can, and ought to, pick it up on the Virtual Console, or try the PSP port. Probably the only people I wouldn’t recommend this for are people who have not only never played another Castlevania game, but intend to play the NES games as well, since this game is just so good it might spoil the earlier games for you. If that’s the case, I recommend trying the first game first, and then jumping immediately to this if that isn’t an incredibly gripping experience. I can almost assure you that this will be.

1 Comment

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  1. Mark says
    October 18, 2012, 11:13 AM

    Spot on review. I want to see a SOTN review, Bloodlines, or Order of Ecclesia


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