Darkstalkers Chronicle: The Chaos Tower brings three arcade fighting games together into a single package–complete with a quest style survival mode and a local wireless mode that keeps track of one-on-one matches and tournament brackets. Aside from the load times and some quibbles regarding the PSP's directional pad, this is easily the most arcade faithful and feature-packed 2D fighting game ever brought to a portable videogame system.
In a nutshell, what Capcom has done here is take all of the characters and most of the backgrounds, music, and so on from three individual games (Darkstalkers, Darkstalkers 2: The Night Warriors, and Darkstalkers 3) and organize them in such a way that you can pick a character from one game and send them against characters from that or any of the other games. For instance, let's say you want to play as the Darkstalkers 2 variation of Felicia and go through the arcade mode using the rules from Darkstalkers 3. You can–and, if you make it through to the end, you'll unlock her Darkstalkers 3 ending sequence. In all, there are 20 different characters to choose from, roughly 30 different backgrounds, and 45 unique opening sequences and ending sequences to see.
Game modes include arcade, network vs., tower, training, and chronicle. Most are self-explanatory. The network vs. mode is limited to local connections, but it's flexible enough to allow one-on-one matchups or organize as many as 16 individual players into a round-robin tournament. The tower mode is the game's namesake. In it, you pick a team of 3 characters and try to scale all 100 rooms in a lofty tower. Each room holds a different opponent. Some rooms impose restrictions on the fight, such as "no kicks" or "no jumping." Every room (e.g. fight) you win unlocks a new illustration or poster that you can look at in the art gallery. The cool thing about the tower mode is that you can swap characters to regain health and enter different rooms by satisfying certain conditions. The illustrations you unlock, along with all of the opening sequences, ending sequences, and music files for the game can be viewed from the chronicle menu.
Those of you already familiar with the Darkstalkers franchise will be happy to know that everything about this game is "arcade perfect." All of the moves and combos are in there, and for once you don't have to worry about dropped animation frames, edited backgrounds, or ugly resolution doubling. Every single bit of animation from the Darkstalkers arcade games was put into the PSP game unmolested. The resolution on the handheld is so sharp that you may swear off arcade monitors (seriously). Also, aside from one or two re-mixed music tracks that are used in the new intro and ending sequences, the game's soundtrack consists entirely of the CPS2 music files from the original arcade games.
For those of you that aren't familiar with the Darkstalkers franchise, or even fighting games, this is definitely one of the better games to start out with. The character designs are kooky and welcoming (zombies, vampires, mummies, and demented fairy tale characters–oh my!). Meanwhile, the controls incorporate command inputs from a variety of different games. If you've played the Street Fighter series, you'll be right at home with the characters that use "fireball" and "dragon punch" style inputs. If you're more familiar with Mortal Kombat or Virtua Fighter, you'll want to play the characters that use "back-forward" motions and "charge" inputs. Obviously, if none of this means anything to you, you'll be starting from scratch. That's not a bad thing–you'll be able to learn the ins-and-outs of the entire fighting genre from one game! Basic punches, kicks, and combos are performed by pressing individual buttons. Special moves, such as projectile attacks and spirit attacks, are performed in a variety of ways–typically by inputting a quarter circle or back-to-front motion and then a button press. There are also EX, ES, and super attacks that involve multi-button and multi-input commands. What makes this game so great, along with all of Capcom's other fighting games, is that combinations, counters, and reversals are also incorporated into gameplay.
Veteran or not, it may take you a while to get comfortable with the controls. Specifically, the PSP's control pad is stiff and picky. Long play sessions turn murderous on the fingers due to the stiffness. Meanwhile, directional inputs in the PSP game require more precision and timing than was ever the case in the arcade version or on other consoles. The stiffness and timing take time to adjust to; there's no nice way of putting it. A well worn-in PSP helps.
Graphically, this game is a treat. The backgrounds are colorful and depict a wide range of "horrific" settings–ancient castles, gothic villages, bubbling swamps, those kinds of Tim Burton-esque things… The characters run the gamut from badass to off-the-wall. There are vampires, vampire hunters, sasquatches, Frankenstein monsters, and swamp things. The ridiculously tall Anakaris, an ancient mummy that can extend his limbs, is always a crowd pleaser. As is the machine-gun packing Red-Riding Hood look-alike named Baby Bonny Hood. The characters are large and the animation is smooth. In terms of artistic style, the game totally looks like a horror-themed cartoon that you might see late night on Cartoon Network. Once you take notice of how diverse and intricate the animations are, however, it becomes abundantly clear why Capcom chose this over Street Fighter as its first PSP beat 'em up. Explosions, limbs, and blood are constantly flying all over the place. Environmental details, such as waterfalls, shimmering puddles, and moving skylines really bring the backgrounds to life. Admittedly, there's nothing here that's pushing the PSP's graphical capabilities, but what is here is quite impressive–especially when you consider the last Darkstalkers arcade game came out almost five years ago.
Since the PSP's screen dimensions are wider than that of most arcade monitors, the original arcade graphics can't fill the screen unless they're stretched. By default, the game stretches the graphics to fill the screen, which does make the characters look a little fatter than normal. The amount of distortion is really so minimal that most people won't even care. However, if this "wide" setting bothers you, you can always change the aspect ratio to "normal" in the options menu. The graphics won't be stretched, but you'll have to tolerate black bars or artwork skins filling-in the left and right sides of the screen. Play the game in a dark room and you won't even notice the black bars.
The audio–in particular, the music–also really suits the game. Phrases such as "orchestral," "moody," and "dramatic" are all applicable, but you really can't get a good understanding of what they mean until you actually sit down and take a listen. The majority of tunes were taken directly from the arcade game, but they sound so full and rich coming out of the PSP's speakers / headphones. There are dozens upon dozens of different sound effects and voice effects too, and they certainly provide an ample soundtrack for the on-screen action, but there's just something wonderful about the depth and richness of the soundtrack that'll make many of you want to seek it out on CD or MP3.
One aspect that many people have complained about, especially with regard to the Japanese version of the game, are the load times. They're not that bad. The game itself initially takes more than a minute to load up. After that, you'll only have to sit through 8 seconds of "loading" in between each match. Eight seconds out of every 60 to 90 seconds isn't so terrible. Heck, the load times in the North American version of the game are actually a second or two shorter than those in the Japanese version.
The bottom line is this: if you're looking for an arcade style 2D fighting game that you can take anywhere, then you need to get Darkstalkers Chronicle: The Chaos Tower.