After spending a little time with the 1997 PlayStation version and much more with the (backward compatible) 2007 Xbox 360 port it’s easy to see why Konami’s classic Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is so highly regarded and considered one of the titles that defined what we see now as the “Metroidvania” genre. And now I’ve spent a more time playing it I can clearly see I should have played it sooner.
The game opens by putting you in the shoes of an overly powerful Richter Belmont as he faces off against Dracula – your first exposure to the game is literally a boss fight! For fans it’s also a callback to the previous game in the series Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (thanks Wikipedia!) but for a non-fan it’s a cool way of getting players up to speed quickly and teasing them with what might be possible later in the game. The story then shifts to the future where you’re introduced to a lean mean killing machine in the form of Alucard on his approach to the same castle with intent to destroy it. He plows through his enemies initially but reaches his own roadblock that strips him of his powers and that’s where the real challenge begins.
The castle itself is a vast network of rooms that are broken up into distinct areas separated by doors. Some of these require the player to meet certain conditions so the whole world will not be immediately accessible and a bit of backtracking is going to be necessary. Scattered throughout the castle are a number of items that grant you additional abilities – some permanent and others temporary. However getting to these is going to require Alucard fight his way through a myriad of monsters.
At it’s most basic Symphony of the Night is a platform action game where your main goals are to traverse the nest of rooms and deal with any enemies you encounter via your available attacks. You start off with a couple of basic weapons but can get access to better ones as you progress through the castle. Initially you can spam the the primary attack button to deal with many of the weaker enemies but others you face will teach you to learn the value of timing these attacks. The way your secondary weapon is picked up (simply run over it) I’m assuming is an old school Castlevania mechanic – it’s serviceable but easy to pick up the wrong item and with a limited time before your old item disappears you can easily make a mistake and be left with something that’ll make your job harder.
The game has a number of RPG elements from the items you collect to what seems like a traditional XP and leveling system. So the further you get into the game the more versatile and powerful Alucard becomes. There are save points scattered throughout the castle and it’s highly advised that you use them as much as possible. Especially after gaining levels because it is VERY easy to die and you’ll lose anything past your last save. With one life to manage you’ll be seeing the Game Over screen a lot.
You need all of it too as the enemies you’ll face won’t make it easy. Of the game’s I’ve played so far in the genre this can be one of the more punishing but it’s fair… the failure is usually from my own lack of ability rather than issues with the game. The save points go a long way to helping overcome difficult areas but there is a fair distance between them all and I can see I’ll need to work a bit harder and discover the right tools to get further and access certain areas.
Even after 20 years it’s still easy to be impressed with the production values behind Symphony of the Night. Visually the game is fantastic with some well designed enemies and environments and a pile of special effects thrown in too with great use of both pixels and polygons. Alucard himself has a neat ghosting effect as he moves that’s quite distinctive. The conversations are fully voiced and have their fair share of hammy acting but it seems fitting fitting. The soundtrack is deserving of being a “Symphony” and mixes makes for a game that deserves to have the volume turned up.
The 360 version by Digital Eclipse is an emulated port of the PlayStation version with all the quirks that entails, including the saving to a “memory unit”. There’s also an “enhanced” visual setting that I’d advise you to ignore – it does smooth out the chunky pixels but I think it doesn’t always do the art justice. As you can see in the screenshots the game is framed in a border but you can choose to stretch the screen out to fill the full width if you want. I’ve much preferred leaving the visuals in their classic form and 4:3 aspect ratio.
I really feel like this is a game that’s going to keep a player honest – there’s no excuses for when you die and you have to work for every gain you make and every save too. The controls work well enough and the feedback you get from the game is pretty clear on your successes and failures – you take a hit you’ll know it. If there’s any issues I have with the game is that Alucard does feel like he moves a little too slowly and that there will be A LOT of backtracking through the map but I’m comparing this to games that are less than half or a quarter of the age so it’s not completely fair. And it’s got one massive trick up its sleeve that I’ve heard many an old player mention that still turns heads. Considering I don’t have any history or ties with the franchise it must be doing something right if I’m still happy to jump in and continue playing. 🙂
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is available now on Xbox and PlayStation platforms.