Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Cool Game Showcase: Darkstalkers Chronicles: The Chaos Tower (on Vita)

It’s a somewhat harsh truth that despite some very impressive hardware, the PlayStation Vita is somewhat barren when it comes to must-own releases, least of all exclusives. However fear not as there are some interesting titles that aren’t necessarily part of the Vita’s main lineup. One of these is Darkstalkers Chronicles: The Chaos Tower, a launch title for the PSP which can be purchased for the Vita through PSN.

In case you’re not familiar with it, Darkstalkers is essentially the horror-themed sibling of the Street Fighter series, a take on the Universal Horror monsters (Dracula, the Mummy, Frankenstein’s Monster). Darkstalkers Chronicle is based on the final original game in the series, Darkstalkers 3, and uses its select screen, stages and art. Darkstalkers 3 was arguably the game that got its sense of ‘style’ down – so it’s a shame its also the point when the franchise died. Rather than just being a port of that game, the unique selling point of Chronicles (originally a Japanese-only Dreamcast game) is that it lets you play as every version of every character in the series in a crazy mash-up. This includes original Darkstalkers 1 and Vampire Hunter versions of characters that didn’t appear in those games. At the start of arcade mode you get to choose what game to follow which determines how the super meter works and the round structure. Specific character versions also bring across their original theme music although on one disappointing note, only stages from Darkstalkers 3 are ever used.

I don’t remember this part of the fairy tale.
While the game thematically aims for horror, the game’s mechanics are characterised by universal chain combos, high maneuverability and extensive ways to use the super meter. All of these combine to create an experience that is unique and differentiates it from its more well-known sibling.

The combo system is both very easy to understand and very fulfilling to execute. Every character can string attacks from weak to heavy. The player is free to mix up high/low punches and kicks as long as they go from weak to strong. Once this mechanic has been learnt, practically any player can tap out a basic combo for any character. This bypasses the need to spend ages learning for even the most basic level of competency. The super meter can be used for many things rather than just one or two ‘super’ attacks (which is the Street Fighter way of doing things). Almost every special attack (think fireballs or dragon punches) can be turned into a super charged version by pressing two punch/kick buttons on the input. Rather than mere ‘enhanced’ EX attacks as seen in Street Fighter III and IV, these are full-blown supers.

Alternatively you can spend the meter on ‘dark force’ by pressing both medium attack buttons which is a timed buff. This differs wildly by character. For example, Jedah gains the ability to fly whereas cat-girl Felicia gets a friend to bound around on and cause havoc. On top of these you have your traditional fancy super combos with unique inputs. The player is given a lot of options and it is extremely enjoyable trying to decide on the whim of a frantic match what super attack is best given your current situation. Because most of them are just two-button modifications of normal special moves, it isn’t tremendously difficult to remember all the commands. The game also stands out in other, more subtle ways such as having unique dashes for each character (Demitri vanishes and re-appears, Morrigan turns her bat wings into a jet that can move her up or down) and giving every character at least one command throw (which are usually just the reserve of grapplers like Zangief).

A lot of the super combos are different to say the least.
When you’re done with arcade mode, there’s the titular ‘Chaos Tower’. This is a very, very difficult take on survival mode in which you take a team of 3 up the tower featuring unique challenges (such as no jumping or no kicks). If a character is KOed, they’re gone for good. Lose all three and it’s back to the beginning. If you take this mode very seriously there’s almost a Dark Souls type of appeal to it.

One area of disappointment is the lack of online multiplayer although you could always purchase the recent Darkstalkers Resurrection on PSN/XBLA to fulfil that need (though take in mind that Resurrection is a straight port of Vampire Hunter and DS3 lacking the extras of Chronicles). The game still has ad-hoc multiplayer if you can convince a Vita-owning friend to also purchase the game.

As mentioned, the characters were originally taken from the Universal Movie Monsters lineup whereas the later games got a bit more original (a jiangshi, a dhampire, a bounty-hunting Red Riding Hood). The cast is a vibrant and likeable a lot. Despite some of them being takes on rather over-used source material, Capcom managed to make them all exciting and different. The Mummy Anakaris for example can freely split in two and do countless other things way too bizarre for me to adequately put into words. This is not a cast of generic karate-guys.

Jedah vs Victor
Darkstalkers 1 was partially a tech demo for Capcom’s CPS2 arcade hardware before introducing the Street Fighter Alpha series. As such, the characters are incredibly well animated and very, very expressive perhaps inspiring the exaggerated facial reactions used in Street Fighter IV. These graphics transition very well onto the Vita. While most PSP games look horribly low-res compared to those developed for the Vita, Darkstalkers’ gorgeous sprites scale up very well and remain attractive despite some of them being 20 years old (yes, really). Just remember to do the sensible thing and keep the game in 4:3.

Speaking of playing this on the Vita, the system also deals with the two biggest complaints held against Chronicles when it made its original PSP debut. The PSPs controversial UMD format had some pretty heinous load times associated with it. Thankfully loading the game from a Vita memory card all but eliminates them. The other issue back in the day was with the PSP’s d-pad. I personally didn’t have too much trouble with the PSP pad but either way, the one on the Vita is a definite improvement (which may explain why it has attracted ports of Ultimate Marvel Vs Capcom 3, Mortal Kombat 9 and Injustice).

Tower of Arrogance remains one of my all time favourite fighting game stages.
If you’re already a fan, this is the definitive handheld version of Darkstalkers. If you’ve never played it before and have an urge for a fighting game a bit more ‘out there’ than Street Fighter then I’d argue this is an excellent game to try, especially given its price-point on PSN. You may only be familiar with Darkstalkers from the occasional character appearance in Marvel Vs Capcom or Capcom Vs SNK but I urge you to visit the source and try this unique fighter.

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