Capcom's conversion of their classic Darkstalkers series for the PSP is a technically brilliant translation, with the series' beautiful, robust hand-drawn graphics coming to vivid life on the console's brilliant screen. However, the controls aren't perfect, making it a struggle to perform some of the special moves. Players can compensate for this to some degree by changing the controls to an easier automatic configuration, but it's still not perfect. The game's many modes extend the replay value somewhat, and the addition of Wi-Fi play is welcome. Darkstalkers' excessive load times and awkward controls are big drawbacks but this is still a decent translation that will please fans of the gothic fighting series.
While Street Fighter and its many spin-offs has always been Capcom's mainstay fighting series, the company also created one of the most under-rated fighters. With its horror theme, fast gameplay and wild combos, DarkStalkers & NightWarriors were some of the best 2D sprite based fighters on the market. Sadly, after the third installment met with mixed critical reaction, the dark series seemed to wane, with the characters reduced to making cameos in other games. The bottom seemed to have fallen out with last year's Capcom Fighting Evolution, which gave players weak, watered-down and poorly animated versions of these classic characters to choose from. Fortunately, the series seems to have risen from the grave with the release of Darkstalkers Chronicle: The Chaos Tower for Sony's new PSP handheld. This installment immediately reminds players how great the series was and why it still remains at the top of many fighting fans' list of 2D sprite-based fighters. Darkstalkers Chronicle isn't an entirely a new game, and is more of a greatest hits version with elements from all the previous games includes in a single title. It includes all the characters from the first three games and allows players to mix the fighting styles of each together. At the start of each match, players can choose which style of play they want to use: Darkstalkers, NightWarriors or Darkstalkers 3. In DS1 an Nighthwarriors, the matches unfold in a traditional fashion with each round a best of 3, while in DS3 mode, the matches take place with each character having a single power-bar. There are different EX powerbars in each mode as well, with each offering a unique set of levels, different refill rates and unique moves. This gives players and incredible amount of versatility in the way they play while extending the game's replay value significantly.
Darkstalkers Chronicle offers several distinct modes of play including Arcade, Tower, Practice and Network modes. Players can refine their skills in the practice mode, which allows you to perform moves against an opponent adjusting a variety of parameters. The arcade mode offers exactly what you'd expect with one on one battles against foes until you reach the end boss. This is fun and quite easy to get into, but offers a slightly limited replay value. Darkstalkers' most interesting gameplay comes in the extended play of its Tower mode, where you can unlock extras as you battle against foes. In this mode, you select a team of three different characters to battle it out against a series of foes. Each battle is a one round bout against an opponent. When you defeat the opponent, you can move up the tower to the next level. Most of the battles are standard versus matches, but some have conditions such as no punches or kicks that make for more challenging fights. You continue moving up the battle until each of the characters' life bars is depleted. The early rounds don't pose much of a problem, but tougher opponents and more stringent rules come into play as you get higher on the tower. As you move up the tower, you'll unlock bonus items such as artwork, character opening sequences, arcade animations and more. These can be viewed in the Chronicle mode, which also features an array of sound effects and music tracks to listen to. Finally, players can challenge other nearby players using the PSP's Wi-Fi mode. Setting up matches and leagues is fairly simple thanks to the simple menu system, which also allows you to set up parameters for each match, change rules and fighting styles and battle in some quick matches. Darkstalkers Chronicle performs well during online matches, offering the same frenetic action and wild moves when connected as it does in solo modes.
Veteran players will be happy to learn that the Darkstalkers' signature moves are back, making it quite easy to get into right away. At the start of each match, players can select with version of the character they want to play as. The characters have a basic set of moves, plus special and EX attacks which they can use. Darkstalkers Chronicles' default button layout assigns the basic punches and kicks to the face buttons, with the stronger attacks mapped to the shift buttons. Players can also adjust this configuration to the easy mode, where EX attacks are mapped to the shift buttons and characters automatically guard attacks. However, players lose the ability to control the medium attacks in this mode. The controls are fairly decent but there are some flaws. While controlling the characters with the standard D-pad offers an adequate level of control, the overall design makes it difficult to perform the circular motions many of the moves require. This makes the game more frustrating than it could have been - even more when you look down and notice the PSP's analog nub, which isn't supported but would have been an excellent way of controlling the characters. Fortunately, you can change the configuration to an Easy mode which automates some of the characters' EX attacks, which offers a big improvement, though it's still not perfect. Once you compensate for the controls and get used to its limitations, Darkstalkers Chronicles is surprisingly enjoyable. It has the classic Capcom feel very much intact with excellent character balance, cool super-moves and more. Its surprisingly robust for a handheld game, and feels just like the classic arcade machines with an overall quality that rivals the best home translations.
While the controls are somewhat problematic, Capcom did an excellent job translating the classic look and feel of the series. The lush, detailed sprite animation looks amazingly sharp on the PSP's screen with each character vividly animated in silky smooth frame rates throughout. It looks great in either the widescreen or more traditional square aspect ratio - though the widescreen mode fills the screen beautifully and doesn't seem stretched out. Darkstalkers' gothic feel comes shining through in each stage, which look beautiful from the main animation to the meticulously detailed backdrops. The classic gothic feel is quite evident throughout, from the elaborate opening animations to the end credits. The game's musical score is a mixture of classic Darkstalkers tunes with a few remixes thrown in, and fit the mood and action of the game perfectly. From a technical standpoint, the game performs flawlessly with little in the way of slowdown or missed frames of animation. Unfortunately, the game's load times are too long, with long waits between rounds that slow down your momentum and wreck the game's pace. This is a fairly significant drawback, and quite annoying, but nothing that should dissuade Darkstalkers fans from purchasing the title.
It's great to see this under-rated series revived, despite some problems with its controls. While choosing a 2D fighter for the PSP's launch seems like an odd choice, the format is actually well-suited to this style of gameplay. The crisp character animations and wild combos seem to leap off the screen, with fluid animation and great backdrops. Mastering the various modes will take some time, and the rewards are decent enough motivation to keep playing. Fans of the classic series will be happy to know that the essence of its appeal shines through in this translation with flying colors. It's fast paced, frenetic battles and wild combos remain quite appealing, and the challenging action is also addictive and entertaining after all these years. Once you get beyond the long load times and control issues, Darkstalkers Chronicle: The Chaos Tower sucks you right in with its classic, polished gameplay and appealingly gothic atmosphere.