Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries

Review by Mike Finkelstein

How far does a Castlevania hack have to go for it to feel like a fresh adventure? Certainly any hack can just be designed to play as a "remixed" version of the original, whether to add in new stage designs, or to increase the difficulty of the title, or both. But if the designer wants to take the bones of the original Castlevania and craft it into a wholly new adventure, there has to be a fair bit changing to the title to make it feel like it's actually "new".

I thought on this while I played through Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries, a rom-hack from Dr. Mario and Optomon. We've seen another of Optomon's hacks, Castlevania: The Holy Relics, and that one greatly impressed me. It took the bones of the original game and added in a ton of new features to make it feel like a drastically improved game. Chorus of Mysteries is much less ambitious, essentially just remixing the base title while slapping on a new coat of paint. And, at times, that new coat of paint looks really bad.

The game stars Armund, descendant of Grant DaNasty. Taking place three years after Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Armund, who was orphaned at an early age and raises upon a merchant ship, learns about his lineage and finds out about the evils that reside in Romania. Picking up an enchanted barbed whip, Armund heads towards the mountains to fight the evil Count Olrox to help save the world from demonic evil.

Let's be clear: despite the inclusion of a character whose name is "DaNasty", there is nothing about the character Armund that would link him to his supposed ancestor. He doesn't cling to walls or have any kind of improved jumping abilities. He plays like a Belmont which, considering this is based on the original Castlevania, is to be expected. But for the game's story to make a connection between this hero and the DaNasty clan, you'd expect the game to give the character something that actually makes him feel like he's connected to the clan.

At the same time, the setting is frankly a little confusing. The game is supposedly set in the mountains of Romania, at Olrox's castle, but the opening stage is pretty clearly set at the Pyramids of Egypt. Either those are supposed to represent the mountains of Romania somehow, or there's some magical transportation I just didn't get. It didn't help that after a seemingly Egyptian-themed opening stage, the second was designed like a garish chess board that made me thing we were traveling through Wonderland. I was utterly baffled by the basic design decisions for the early part of the title.

Once we get past these opening sections, the game does settle down some, revealing a decent art style that actually starts to work halfway well. I like the designs for some of the later stages (mostly because they feel properly of-a-piece with Castlevania), and overall these last acts of the games start to feel more competent and assured than the weird opening areas of the title. They still aren't perfect, though, and a lot of that comes down to the fact that this hack simply doesn't go far enough.

The game sticks to the strict six-stage layout of the original title (which is very likely just due to the programming constraints of the game), but that's not a flaw in and of itself. The bigger concern is that a number of the stages stick to similar layouts to the original title, down to whole sections of hallway that, were it not for the different background tiles, would look like they were ripped right out of the original game. At times this feels more like just an art hack for the original game, with the programmers looking to put their own weird spin on the aesthetics of the game but not change the inherent game play or stage design.

But then you get to the bosses which (all except for the intro Giant Bat) are entirely new. Wonderland (as I think of it) has a demon head that spawns smaller floating demons (clearly based on the first game's Medusa encounter), and this is followed by Slogra, Gaibon, Olrox (in his two forms), and finally Death. These bosses behave differently, have new attacks, and add a fresh feel to the title. I honestly wish the game had done more with this, adding in a whole new bestiary to the title, or changing up more of the elements around these boss encounters, to make it feel fresh and interesting.

But even with these bosses there are some things I don't quite get. For starters, Olrox is the boss of the fifth floor when this is ostensibly supposed to be his castle. He has a two-form encounter, mirroring Dracula in the original game, and it makes for a decently epic encounter. But then the game keeps going on into the sixth stage, and you're wondering who there is left to fight in Olrox's castle, as you just took out the big man. When you get to Death it makes a certain amount of sense (as Death was also the last encounter in Castlevania: Lament of Innocence, but this Death encounter is far from epic. One form, which is fairly easy to defeat, and then that's it. Game over.

Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries mostly just left me confused. What was the intent of the game? Why does it have some interesting ideas, and a few good designs, only for them to get mired under strange artistic decisions and an overall layout that doesn't go far enough. The title is playable enough and, for the most part, feels on part difficulty-wise, with the original Castlevania. It just doesn't so enough of any one thing to really stand out. These issues, coupled with a design aesthetic early on that made me want to shut off the title before I really got into the meat of the adventure, keep this from being a hack I would recommend. It just a touch to confused about its own intent to make it a game I could get absorbed into.