“What hath night to do with sleep?”
― John Milton,
Happy Halloween, NPC’s.
I thought it’d be appropriate to review a horror game today and since I haven’t played too many of those (I’m well-red not well-played), it was easy to choose which one. I’ve been wanting to talk about this game for a while.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is a highly acclaimed 2D action-RPG from a pre-castrated Konami. Oh it’s also considered the best in the series and one of the greatest games OAT (“of all time”). I’d consider that to be because of its ingenuity, its innovation that forced new blood into its franchise, its genteel, non-linear gameplay, and its subtle use of minimal 3D PlayStation visuals to accentuate its flawless pixel art aesthetic.
Symphony takes place in the 1700’s, in the Transylvanian countryside of Romania. That of course means Dracula. If you didn’t already know or haven’t already guessed, the Castlevania series is based on such folklore and legend. The opening cinematic, in all of its PS One glory, reveals the imposing edifice of Dracula’s ancient castle, its black spires stabbing at the thunderous heavens like the angry, cyclopean fists of Babel’s rebellious lot. Sorry. Waxed Lovecraftian a bit there.
Richter of the family of Belmont, a descendant of Simon Belmont from the earlier Castlevania games, ascends the winding stairs of the castle. He confronts its vampiric lord, Count Dracula himself. They share a bit of corny (and cornily delivered) dialogue and then the vampire hunter finally lays the Count to rest. This matches up with the end of Symphony’s prequel, Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (Dracula X). Spoilers, I guess?
Only a few years after the death of his nemesis, Richter mysteriously disappears.
Richter’s friend Maria Renard begins to look for him as Dracula’s castle reappears. Alucard, the half-human half-vampire son of Dracula, awakens and senses that evil is once again at work in his homeland. He is drawn to the castle of his father: Castlevania. Without any Belmonts to storm the keep, it is up to the son of Dracula to discover what happened to Richter.
Alucard begins his assault upon the castle fully armed but is stripped of many of his vampiric powers and gear by Death, the Count’s servant. He’s then forced to locate his own equipment in the castle, but it’s more than just picking up the typical sub-weapons from Castlevania games past: the knives and holy water, for example. Picking up enchanted weapons, magical abilities and skills, and familiars form up a vast amount of the secrets hidden throughout the dark palace.
He’ll need all the edge he can get. The place is teeming with hordes of the undead, undying, and grotesque. The bosses especially are absolutely hideous. I remember more than once being disgusted by some of the baddies they came up with. Like this giant ball of human bodies… Gross, but man is that pixel art impressive.Symphony adds RPG elements to the side-scroller platforming, and the two mesh together so perfectly it’s still a better love story than Twilight. Alucard can equip several pieces of gear in his complex menu screen. He’ll learn new skills and abilities by picking up relics. Spells and shapeshifting also round out his list of unique qualities, but these are all augmented by his capacity to level up by gaining experience points (like in Simon’s Quest). Gaining experience increases Alucard’s strength, defense, and luck.
That’s unusual for a side-scrolling platformer and it serves to make the game more robust and a little more forgiving than Castlevanias past. The player can simply get better at using Alucard’s deft dodging and attacking skills to avoid taking damage, or by leveling up allow Alucard to sustain and deal more damage. It’s like a double-edged sword of action-RPG goodness.
When playing through Symphony of the Night, you’ll undoubtedly have the sneaking suspicion that it’s handling very, very well. The gameplay is smooth. I for one couldn’t put it down and that rarely happens for me. Usually I’ll jump from game to game if I get bored. I didn’t get bored here.There always seemed to be something new to find and somewhere new to explore, even if that meant the occasional terrifying secret boss or some lame accessory I didn’t need. Progressing through the castle is a non-linear adventure and there are several passageways you’ll need to keep in your memory (or remember on your map). You won’t be able to access certain areas until gaining back Alucard’s vampiric powers, such as his Wolf, Bat and Mist forms.
Symphony of the Night was one of the foundations of the sub-genre known as Metroidvania. Clearly, that portmanteau describes a game which takes influences from both the Metroid and Castlevania franchises, specifically post-Symphony Castlevania.
“Metroidvania” means we’re talking about a sizable map that can be explored in any order, providing you have the abilities or gear to access certain “locked” areas. This consistently opens up new wings of the castle, in this case, as you progress through the story, but it also means you can easily find yourself lost. Running into a boss generally means you’re on the right track though.
Now if we’re going to talk about the ongoing controversy between which is better Nintendo’s Super Metroid or Konami’s Symphony of the Night, I’ll only weigh in by saying this: they’re both practically perfect games with their own flaws and their own virtues. Super Metroid is three years older, less beautiful, less fluid, and less extensive in terms of all there is to explore and collect, but its mazes are better orchestrated, its atmosphere more palpable and serious, and its level-design is less geared toward back-tracking.
Personally, I prefer Super Metroid simply because I’ve played it more and enjoy science fiction more than fantasy. But again, both of these games come in at the top of their class. All of the argumentation about which is better eventually boils down into white noise. It’s like asking which is better: a cake or a pie. They’re both good and it essentially comes down to preference and mood. Cake or pie.
The real surprise with Symphony comes by way of its multiple endings. This isn’t anything new to the Castlevania series. But here, if you’re a good little dhampir, you can unlock the Inverted Castle.
Yeah. That means when you reach the end of the “game” you can unlock a whole other new game essentially in an upside-down version of Castlevania that descends from the heavens. Flipping the castle in this way dramatically extends the life of the game and will really put your sense of direction to the test.
Only if Alucard can defeat all of his father’s servants, face the tragic death of his mother, find Richter, and traverse the Inverted Castle will he be able to reach the resurrected Count Dracula for a final fight. “Son against father”, but it is the only way to stop the evil at the heart of Castlevania.
“…The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
The 8-bit Review
This is easily one of the best looking 2D games there is. The developers were right to use all of the power of the PlayStation to uphold the vastness of the castle and its many, many enemies but dial back as much 3D graphics as possible. You’ll only catch glimpses of 3D used to supplement visuals such as doors opening and closing into the foreground, reality warping around spells or summoned familiars, or the shapes of large sprites flexing. The result is a game that looks like it could’ve comfortably belonged on the Super Nintendo, though it would’ve probably been the crown jewel, visually, of that system.Can there be such a thing as too much detail? I don’t know. I’ve heard Symphony’s graphics called lavish and even gaudy but I don’t think that’s necessarily a fault. What’s not to love? The sprites are extremely fluid in their animations, especially Alucard with what seems like thousands of frames of animation, shadowy after-images included. The backgrounds also include bits of shading to generate the illusion of depth. Tons of parallax effects. Tons. Symphony’s is a pixelated aesthetic that knows no bounds because they didn’t set any.
I’d consider this to be the pinnacle of this kind of gaming visual. And of course we can’t forget about the character design. They’re far more opulent and detailed in design than anything we’ve seen in the series up to the point of Symphony. The Belmonts were rugged action-heroes with square jaws and rippling biceps, but Alucard was a seamless charismatic, a youthful charmer. Ayami Kojima’s conceptualization, retained in the character speech bubbles, became one of the iconic characteristics of the game which gave it weight and substance.
The game has aged a whole lot better than other titles from 1997 that were entirely 3D. That was of course the direction that the mainstream industry decided to take but take few moments to look up your favorite ’97 games, or Google video games from the time and you’ll likely find some very ungraceful, very ugly polygonal nightmares. Ugh, the textures. 3D games almost had to start from visual infancy, whereas Symphony was riding the high of decades worth of pixel art development. It aged like a fine wine.
Being a game set in 18th century Transylvania, we can expect a certain sound resounding from the Gothic architecture. Being an action game, we can expect a certain degree of rock influence to keep up the pace. Symphony of the Night delivers on both without compromising either. With a subtitle beginning with the word “Symphony”, it’d be a crime if we got anything otherwise.
Being a horror game (let’s not forget), there’s a fusion of the old-world baroque instruments like the harpsichord and church organ with the modern infusion of rock. None of it ends up being particularly scary so much as it comes off as slick and trendy, highlighting Alucard’s nature as a new edgy, powerful protagonist.
But what the crap is “I am the Wind”? I mean… what the crap is it doing in this game?! This isn’t Sleepless in Seattle, folks!
And of course, the real drag to Symphony’s audio score comes in the form of its horrendous voice acting. Voice acting is a neat little addition to a game and all. I mean, who likes to read? In today’s day and age? Better to have the game read it for you. Is it? In this case, the small amount of dialogue in a game that’s more action than RPG didn’t need actors. At least not actors of this caliber, which were likely not actors at all but just guys the developers knew from college and invited over, got drunk, and then had an impromptu recording session.
It’s really cringe-inducing because they’re trying too hard to sound “cool” or “dramatic”. It ends up sounding like a high school play. Shame that some of the worst voice acting on the PlayStation had to end up here.
Leave the overacting to the pros…
Castlevania games are known for their stiff controls. The whip-wielding Belmonts of the earlier titles handled like Max Fleischer robots “Castlevania”. Rigid. Forget all that for the elegance of Alucard. Back-dashing, double-jumping, and a huge range of other inputs for skills and abilities made him the most fluid of all the Castlevania protagonists at the time. Alucard’s greater range of movements also makes for more interesting enemies and certainly more dynamic boss fights. Some boss monsters are even too large for the screen.It’s debatable how much this game actually needed its RPG elements, or whether they simply feel tacked on. But the exploration and secret-hunting drives the player through the game, at least. As a Metroidvania title it’s one of the best.
My largest complaint with Symphony’s gameplay, which bars it from a coveted 10, is the level design. With so much backtracking, you’ll quickly notice that there are too many monotonous rooms. Actually they’re more like hallways. Other Metroidvania games boast wide areas with complex exits and entrances, hidden passages, and multiple tiers of platforms for horizontal or even vertical movement. While Symphony does indeed have these, they’re interspersed across its various hallways. So many hallways. Hallways, the bane of Kingdom Hearts II. Hallways, the diabolical tool of the DMV. Hallways, the boring plod from point-A to point-B that becomes ever more plodding considering all the backtracking.
It’s Symphony’s single biggest blemish.
You know what? I always thought the Belmonts were boring. Them and their boring whips, knitting doilies and watching reruns of The Andy Griffith Show until a vampire shows up for them to hunt. But Alucard (Dracula backward, if you haven’t noticed) is a different story. You don’t even have to like bishounen to think he’s cool. He’s the definition of cool. Calm under stress, collected, private, that bassy voice, that silver hair and those shadowy after-images. The memories of his mother and the confrontation with his father serve as the dramatic core of the game, and while they’re certainly far from tear-jerking drama, they’re more than enough to make Alucard a three-dimensional character with real desires, more than enough to provide a narrative foundation for an action-platformer.
If you’re a fan of vampires and supernatural folklore, that’s just a plus.
With so much to attain and acquire in Symphony, it’s a wonder that it is as accessible as it is. That’s because the adventure with Alucard begins with him being stripped of everything that makes him awesome, forcing you to find all of that gear and magic again, piece by piece, relic by relic. The game gives you ample breathing room to test your newfound skills at every moment and because there’s an emphasis on exploration, indeed on re-exploration, you’re constantly trying to out-think the level design and discover where exactly you can put your new abilities to the test. That inevitably makes you intimately familiar with them.
With multiple different endings and the Inverted Castle, not to mention loads of secrets and entire sections of the Count’s lair that can be skipped over, you’re looking at a game with exceptional replay value. For this genre, at least. You can also play through the game as Richter Belmont by inputting his name at the start of a new quest.
This may be, what? The sixth or seventh game in the franchise? Yet it still stands out as the monument in the entire series. It routinely tops lists ranking Castlevania games from worst to best. Running away with its RPG elements, switching up the protagonist, being developed on the PlayStation, so many different qualities make this one that I would agree with the players and pundits on. It is the best Castlevania I’ve played.
My Personal Grade: 10/10
Beyond a few other titles, I haven’t played many of the Castlevania games. Devil’s Castle Dracula X: Nocturne in the Moonlight as it’s known in Japan, or Symphony of the Night, is one of the best and most memorable games I’ve played. It’s the one that hooked me into the Castlevania franchise. It was tough to put down. It was visually elegant and a real treat for a mage with retro sensibilities such as myself.
I won’t pretend it’s an absolutely perfect game, but it’s pretty close.
I don’t know if you are a fan of the series or of the supernatural, or if you don’t care either way but just want to find something worthwhile. Well, here you go. If you haven’t gotten your dirty mitts on this one yet, Symphony of the Night is available both for the PlayStation and the Xbox 360 in Konami Classics Vol.1.
Aggregated Score: 9.5