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The GoodRondo of Blood was for a long time the most coveted Castlevania installment, fetching high prices on auctions and making owners of PCE CD swell with pride. Indeed, the game continuously appears very high on the lists of best games for this criminally underrated console, often taking the first place. PCE CD had the best 2D action RPGs of the time, and some of the best turn-based ones too; but it was never considered a great system for platformers. Rondo of Blood changed that perception by delivering some of the coolest platform action ever seen.
Rondo of Blood is a theatrical game. It's all about ultra-tight gameplay coupled with exceptional dramatic effects. The choice of a console was probably right because PCE CD could handle what this game wanted to have: cinematic presentation. And yet, unlike many other games for that system, Rondo of Blood doesn't rely on cutscenes to achieve that. Yes, the CD-quality music contributes a lot, and the opening anime intro, while short and honestly not that impressive compared to some other PCE CD games, sets the tone right. But what makes this game captivating is the way it manages to convey drama through the gameplay itself.
The gameplay mechanics of Rondo of Blood are firmly based on earlier installments, with the familiar undead-whipping, hearts obtained from broken candles, attack items, and all that. There are new powerful attacks called "item crashes", but they are not the ones that steal the show. The honor would probably go to scripted events.
I have rarely seen such flawlessly executed scripted events as here, and most certainly never in a 2D platform game. I don't think anyone who played this game will ever forget that moment when a giant monster erupts from below and begins chasing the protagonist. There is no other solution but frantically run to the door, jumping over wraiths (no time to kill them!) and trying not to fall into the water; finally, you reach the door, open it, enter a new area with relief and... the monster follows you! Unlike many of its exceedingly dumb counterparts, it could actually go through an opening and continue scaring the hero (and the player) beyond the door.
This is, of course, just an example; Rondo of Blood is full of moments like that. Still graves that suddenly begin to menacingly hop around you. Fire-spitting heads concealed in niches that unexpectedly rise to guard the passage. And who can forget those bosses? Like experienced dramatic performers, they stage their entrances and never fail to impress. My personal favorite was probably the werewolf. Imagine narrowly escaping a castle corridor full of deadly enemies. You step outside, trying to catch your breath. It's a quiet scene, full of serene, darkly melancholic beauty. The enormous full moon behind you lits a statue in the background. Suddenly, the statue comes to life... a horrifying beast slowly emerges, and before you begin to fathom what has just happened, it attacks!
That's the kind of a game Rondo of Blood is: it doesn't have a great story (there really isn't much of a plot here), but it tells countless stories that are simply experienced by the players through the medium of gameplay. Even without the awesome scripted events, the atmospheric tension in this game is incredible. The levels are gorgeous and quite varied for what could have just been a monotonous vampire castle: think of the ghost ship level, for example. Most of the enemies are beautifully drawn, superbly animated, and appropriately intimidating; I was genuinely scared of the fearsome skeleton warriors (remember those who poke at you with their long spears from upper platforms?), and don't even get me started on those creepy little leaping fellows. There is a good balance between platforming and taking out those enemies, providing plenty of challenge.
Though a traditional Castlevania in most respects, Rondo of Blood adds two cool features to the pot: branching levels and the ability to play as another character. Like in earlier installments of the series, there are secrets in the stages (never fail to break a wall for a delicious chicken!), but this game takes it one step further by placing alternate routes and semi-hidden exits in most of them. Taking the other route will then bring you to another stage with another boss in the end, which you may not ever access if you haven't explored thoroughly before. I love this feature in platform games. Also, if you rescue Maria (you can actually beat the game without finding her) she will become a playable character, weaker than Richter but more agile and hence generally more useful, with her own item attacks. All that adds replay value to this fairly short game.
The BadAs much as Rondo of Blood does everything outstandingly well, it doesn't really do anything new. It is, essentially, an expertly crafted nostalgic reminiscence of all those cool things we did in earlier Castlevanias. Though they now come with new flashy effects and a few gameplay tweaks, they are still old. Familiar basic mechanics, reunion meetings with bosses, and general lack of anything substantially different makes Rondo of Blood an ultimately derivative game. Don't get me wrong, the game is excellent, but if it's innovation you are looking for, you should look elsewhere. By "innovation" I don't necessarily mean the complete overhaul they eventually performed in the next game, but perhaps a bit of variety to break the mold. We've seen the omnipresent whip and the special heart-fueled weapons so many times before, and the stages are a bit simple and straightforward even considering the alternate routes.
The difficulty level might be just my own problem. I'm not good with reflex-based gameplay, and there were plenty of moments in this game that made me want to pull my hair out - such as the abundance of suddenly leaping enemies that love pushing me from platform edges into instant death, and one particularly infuriating stage with a crumbling bridge towards the end of the game. So I liberally used save states on an emulator, and I don't feel like apologizing for that, because I enjoyed the game much more that way. For those who can breeze through such challenges the game may seem somewhat short. I don't like it when games drag indefinitely, but here I felt that the game could have continued for a couple of more (and perhaps larger) levels. This flaw, however, is countered by the alternate paths that lead to other stages, and the possibility to play as a different character.