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Castlevania: Symphony of the Night Review

Symphony of the Night came out for the Playstation in 1997, and if you haven’t heard of it by now, you might not be that much of a gamer, which is fine. The game is probably the most ubiquitous and well-known game in the whole series, or at least was before Lords of Shadow came out. If someone had heard of a Castlevania game, it was Symphony of the Night. Further, a lot has already been said on the game. You can’t throw an e-stone without hitting a dozen blog posts or forum talks about it. It’s a good game, and almost everyone accepts it as such.

This time around you play Alucard, who you may remember as the most worthless member of Trevor Belmont’s team from back in Castlevania III, though he’s a lot more powerful now. The game is a direct sequel to Rondo of Blood, which is evident not only in the plot, but in the graphics and enemy design: many of them are lifted straight from its prequel. The anime style takes a turn toward Vampire Hunter D, which is always an excellent choice. In a bit of a twist, you actually start the game as Richter and take out Dracula immediately, in what is probably one of the most well-known instances of bad voice acting in gaming. This scene’s pretty important in establishing the plot and overall way things are going to go down, especially for the US audience which has, unfortunately, never seen Rondo of Blood. You then get control of Alucard, who is investigating the return of Dracula’s Castlevania, and later, is out to destroy his father, Dracula himself. It’s interesting enough to justify the amount of time as they spend on it, but more importantly it isn’t really overbearing, and the story is segued well into the actual game mechanics. Finding all the story scenes, where Alucard meets Maria (also from Rondo of Blood, but all grown up) and relives the death of his beloved mother, grant the items required to access the second half of the game.

And what a second half it is! Basically it follows in the footsteps of Legend of Zelda’s second quest, offering a fresh and extremely difficult twist on the first game, but in a brilliant turn, you’re actually exploring a literally upside-down version of the castle you just went through. You can figure out the terrain easily, which helps since the enemies are very difficult, but by being upside-down everything remains interesting and different enough for it not to feel boring. The inverted castle is really brilliant because of that. But, ultimately, this is all stuff that almost everyone knows about the game. There’s no levels, and like Castlevania II, exploration is key. However, unlike Castlevania II, a lot of the exploration is optional, and that’s the real important difference. In Symphony of the Night, the castle is huge, and there’s stuff to do everywhere. There’s a ton of items to collect and bosses to fight, and only a fraction of them are really related to the gating required to get the perfect ending. Even looking at the relics (which grant Alucard new abilities) the majority of them actually aren’t required at all. All you really need to get to the end of the game is the bat and mist forms, sonar, and the five pieces of Dracula. Almost everything else is just a bonus that you get for exploring. Key word there: bonus.

The biggest problem with Castlevania II, like I mentioned at the time, is that you have to do everything in the game to beat it. The leveling to upgrade your whip is basically required, because of the terrible way it scales. Attacking enemies with an under-upgraded whip takes far too long and leaves you too open for hits. In contrast, very little in Symphony is required, and the game can be beat at a fairly low level with not the best equipment. The entire existence of the levels in Symphony is effectively optional. You’ll gain enough just by exploring the castle for your first time to take down Dracula, without ever having to grind. Grinding is just there in case you want to get an edge over your opponent, but it’s actually an inefficient way to do that. There’s tons of great equipment just lying around the castle for you to pick up. Symphony is entirely a game about exploring, and for that, it’s done beautifully.

Every room in the game has something interesting in it. This’ll be a problem later, in Harmony of Dissonance, when the castle is largely empty and barren. But in Symphony, every room has some interesting enemy or setpiece which dramatically changes the game, especially in the inverted castle. There are items all over, and while a lot of them are suboptimal, it means you’re always rewarded for exploring, and always with non-trivial items. Basically, the effects of this are two-fold: exploring the castle always feels fun, even when you’re lost, and, perhaps more importantly, every run is going to be different. You’ll get a slightly different variety of equipment, both from the random drops and from the path you take, each time, which adds an immense amount of replay value. Assuming, of course, you’re not trying to perfect it—but that’s usually something people do at the endgame, when they have all the abilities, anyway.

Exploration is also where most of the difficulty in the game lies. Symphony gets a very unfair rap for being an incredibly easy game, when it really isn’t: it’s just that the boss fights, which is what most people remember, are generally not as difficult as the classic games. What IS difficult, on the other hand, is often just getting from one save room to the next. When you’re looking through the castle for the first time, you don’t know where anything is. You don’t know how far away you are from a heal, and you don’t even know if you’re right next to one and not realizing it. You constantly see new enemies that you have no idea how to fight, and questions start going through your head like whether it would be better to just avoid them, or if you should use a potion or keep it for a boss fight. It’s a perfect feeling of dread when you walk into the room and see a giant animated sword floating around, just knowing you don’t really have enough remaining health to tango with a strange new enemy. It really drives home how threatening just being in a place like Dracula’s castle is. Don’t you know that feeling, in the real world, when you’re in an unfamiliar part of town and the sun’s setting? It doesn’t even necessarily matter if it’s a bad neighborhood: you feel lost and helpless, and the overwhelming amount of options as to where to go just adds to that dread. Everything you do just makes you more lost, since you never run into familiar territory. A wrong turn can lead to disastrous consequences. That’s the emotion that’s perfectly captured in Symphony of the Night’s castle. When you finally do find the save room, you’re washed over in feelings of relief, but the whole thing just starts up again in a few minutes when you’re lost in a goddamn library. The inverted castle, despite being trodden ground, just adds to that since everything is so different from what you remember, and since it’s rotated it’s often hard to keep track of where the save rooms are. It takes what was made familiar by your exploration and twists it just enough to be terrifying again. This thematic difference is drawn even more clearly by the lack of NPCs in the inverted castle. In the first part of the game, you bump into Maria or Richter every once in awhile, but in the second half you are completely and utterly alone against the forces of darkness.

This whole sense of exploration is also part of why it isn’t always a game-killer to die. In classic Castlevanias, dying just meant you got far enough through the level that you were able to learn about it. In Symphony and on, dying usually means that you found a whole bunch of areas where there are not save rooms, as well as probably some items you can rush through and pick up real fast. Dying on bosses is similarly a learning experience, since most of them are dodge-focused like Rondo, though a lot easier. Plus, it’s not like all the boss fights are cakewalks, either. If you’re unprepared, most of them can be challenging, and the fact that potions aren’t instant-cast (which they will be in later games) adds to that. Richter and Death both come to mind as challenging bosses, and there’s also the incredibly cheap Galamoth, even though he’s actually best fought through similarly incredibly cheap means. In the second half, you have to fight the bosses from the original game again, and they reward you with the same pieces of Dracula from Castlevania II, which allows access to the final encounter. They really like that nostalgic boss thing, but it’s a nice nod to the fans who have been there.

The game feels really good, with nice controls that always give you plenty of options. Alucard attacks incredibly fast and has superb control over his jump arcs. He can also cast a retinue of spells, can equip two separate weapons (though most attack in the same way,) use a subweapon, and call a familiar to aid him. There’s always a lot of options for how to deal with things, which really help when you encounter strange and frightening new foes. The game doesn’t achieve its difficulty and fright by making you feel helpless, it does it by preying on your basic fear of being lost. Granted, a lot of this is lost on subsequent playthroughs, since you’ll have such a good understanding of where things are, but that isn’t really a fault of the game. I suppose it could be randomly generated, but the castle is really well crafted, so that would be a step in the wrong direction for this game. Everything is in a fairly logical area, and though there isn’t nearly as much gating as later games in the series will employ, the gating that does exist helps guide you to the next area—something I’m going to talk more about in the Harmony of Dissonance review. The entire sequence of bat to sonar to spike armor to room with Maria is well thought out and intuitive. Things are hidden in places that make it so you actually have to look for them, at least a little. Everything in the castle is placed with such thought. Really, in a subsequent playthrough, you’re trading that fear of helplessness for battle economy. I’d like to be able to play Symphony of the Night fresh again, but I figure I can just wait a bunch of years until my memory gets fuzzy enough.

Since I gushed so much over how great of a game this is, I will mention that it does have a few flaws. The inverted castle is a very marked spike in difficulty, though the game seems to be aware of this and gives you a lot of upgrades early on. Plus, the inverted castle is really open, since nothing is gated, so if things are too hard you can go somewhere else. Some of the secrets are way too hidden to actually be found by a casual player, but then again, those same secrets weren’t really intended for casual players, anyway. Also, the game doesn’t tell you how to do all the spells and weapon specials, so it’s common to not even know those exist. Not all of the bosses giving rewards isn’t a huge problem, but they all at least give life increases so you never feel like you wasted your time.

But whatever, I’m still giving this a 10 out of 10. It’s not quite perfect like Rondo, but it is a nearly perfect implementation of everything they were trying to do back in Castlevania II, and then some. The perfect mix of optional exploration and mandatory monster-slaying is a feat that the Castlevania series (or hell, almost any game) will never truly reach again, and the game feel and presentation are out of this world. The music alone is a go-to soundtrack for game music, but the graphics always convey the action perfectly and make every fight an intense experience, beyond what is already offered by the gameplay. You can pick it up on the PSN or XBLA. I recommend this game to anyone who likes exploration, but also anyone who likes any other game in the series. Hell, I recommend this game to anyone who has or hasn’t played it. As if any of you haven’t already. But enough talk. Have at you!

2 Comments

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  1. Mark says
    October 24, 2012, 1:07 PM

    A MISERABLE PILE OF SECRETS!!!

    Reply
    • Anonymous says
      October 24, 2012, 1:34 PM

      That’s what a man is! Lol!

      Reply

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