If you were expecting PSP to have nothing but a library of 3D mind blowing games, Darkstalkers Chronicle: The Chaos Tower will stretch you straight... kinda. The game is a great-looking 2D fighter (yes, good games still can come in two dimensions) that's still in need of some crucial tuning.
If the title sounds familiar, that's because it's a crisp port of the Dreamcast version back in 2000 of a similar name (Vampire Chronicle For Matching Service), just scaled to near PSP perfection. I say "near" because you can only enjoy looking at it so much once the control issues get in the way. For that, it's just a tease of what could have been and all around great PSP game.
If you were a fan of the Dreamcast version you might miss details like the icon change for characters when you choose different fighting styles, but don't fret because there's a new mode called the "Tower" that'll make the experience worthwhile. It's a tournament-like mode that lets you battle up a never-ending ladder of characters with three of your best fighters. The catch is you don't get a refilled health bar after each fight. Sometimes they even handicap you by taking away your ability to jump, kick, or punch. You'll progress through fights, rationing your health amongst the three, choosing the best match-ups depending on who you fight next. You'll just keep fighting for however long you can survive. So what's the payoff? You'll unlock neat items as you go along the way, like stunning character art, which is actually worth having when you have cool characters like these in a game.
The one thing you can count on with a Capcom title is stylish character designs. Honestly, the Japanese developers (Capcom included) have always been leagues ahead of their western counterparts in this respect. The one thing that has always impressed me about the Darkstalkers title specifically is their interpretation of classic monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy and the Wolfman. The Japanese flourish -- making Dracula a muscular bruiser with superman's physique, for example -- makes regular monsters awesome to play with!
In the basic arcade mode you get three versions of the Darkstalkers game to choose from, 18 characters, and seven fierce battles to encounter. The first game, "Darkstalkers," is the run of the mill two-out-of-three to win kind of deal, but you can only fill up one layer of "special" juice, that unleashes a special attack when the right button scheme is executed. Basically pummel you're opponent until all health is depleted and on to the next. "Night Warriors" is the same thing except you can fill up more than one layer of "special" juice. And the final mode is "Darkstalkers 3," which works like Night Warriors, only the round system works by "downs," which means you stick with the life you have left after winning a round, and the loser starts with a full fresh bar.
Now here's the problem: if you consider yourself a Capcom veteran, meaning you grew-up on fighters that relied heavily on your ability to do fireball swivel moves on a directional D-pad, then you're S.O.L. with DC: Chaos Tower. The PSP directional pad is going to be an obstacle for all fighting games. This is even tougher for someone like me who has never been that adept with the fireball maneuver in the first place. I debated with the gravity of this flaw for a while, but after letting a few fireball veterans around the office take a crack at it, it's obvious to see that it's problematic enough to spoil the game. It's unfortunate since almost half of the cool characters Darkstalkers has to offer use fireball moves, so you can imagine the frustration that ensues.
Why is this an issue? Most Capcom fans love to throw a bevy of projectile attacks at their opponents to either bait them into jumping or blocking prematurely. Both instances will leave the opponent vulnerable and open to devastating and crucial combos -- combos that can determine the final decision of a fight. There are some characters that aren't so reliant on fireballing, like Felica for instance (who might be considered the Blanca of Darkstalkers), but using someone like Donovan or Demitri will leave you with a raw thumb and nothing but a losing screen to show for it. Also, the slow load times don't help to improve the experience much, especially when you're eager to continue playing after a humbling loss, and that load screen just crawls to completion.
If things look a bit stretched for your taste, you can reset set the 16 x 9 screen to the traditional 4 x 3 in the options menu. At this point the screen will switch to "normal," and an animated wallpaper will border the sides of the playing screen. You'll have 11 wallpapers to choose from, each with their own theme -- a small but neat way to deal with the black gaps left during 4 x 3 gameplay.
One thing we've learned with our time with the PSP is that size doesn't matter when it comes to sound. The sound on the PSP is nearly comparable to what you'll get out of most full-fledged consoles, and Darkstalkers in particular does a great job of evoking that classic arcade experience. The PSP emulates classic Capcom tones with satisfying precision. DC explosions and battle cries alike are at their digital best.
Wi-fi connectivity is another added PSP plus, as head to head combat is an essential element of any fighter, which you can do from across the room with two PSPs and two copies of the game with no problem.
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