Review by Genjuro Kibagami
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night seemed strange to me those many years ago. I grew up playing as a Belmont thrashing devilish foes with my long, mighty whip as I progressed through the demanding levels and perils. The prospect of a Castlevania resembling that of a Metroid game seemed foreign and just plain wrong. I didn't want to explore maze-like environments. I wanted to traverse through the gothic atmosphere with my hot vampire killer cracking his leather whip in anticipation. But I when I played it, I forgot about what I had once wanted. The game's combined forces of beauty and playability is just so awesome. Symphony of the Night is one stellar adventure worth taking.
The game opens with the final confrontation from Rondo of Blood between vampire hunter Richter Belmont and the nefarious lord of the undead Dracula. Yes, I do realize the game says, Final Stage Bloodlines, but anyone that's played the Genesis classic can tell you it's incorrect. Getting back to the matter at hand, Richter quite easily defeats Dracula sending him back to the icy darkness of nothingness. All is right with the world once again. But not for long. Some time later Dracula's castle reappears, but Richter has mysteriously vanished. Knowing deep within his heart what must be done, Dracula's son Alucard from Castlevania III must venture into his father's den and put an end to this madness.
After getting over the fact that Alucard looks like a very ugly woman, I found myself in Dracula's haunting abode. Immediately you'll notice that Alucard's weapon of choice differs from the Belmont's historic on the job tool. Rather than brandishing a whip, Alucard wields an array of shorter melee weapons ranging from swords and rods to knuckles and nunchuku. In fact, the son of Dracula sports a whole private armory of items to equip such as armor, capes, and accessories to boost his stats or give him special powers. While slashing away and ducking from projectile attacks, you'll also be heavily aided by the game's smooth controls unlike some of the early installments to the series. So rather than falling to your death about a hundred times, Alucard will be kicking ass in style as he stabs his foes with his shimmering blade. And if you're getting a little bored tormenting your opponents with the numerous cutlery found within the castle walls, you can always start casting spells. These incantations and hexes range from the classic fireballs that your pop has used to kill those pesky Belmonts for all those years to Dark Metamorphosis, an eerie red glowing light that consumes splashed blood and heals Alucard in return. Some weapons have magical attacks as well such as the Holy Sword. With a simple button combination and small loss of MP, the Holy Sword can create a critical hit of salvation upon Dracula's minions.
Having a variety of different equipment is something you'll want to do because Alucard can zap over to the submenu at any time in order to pick out new weapons and equipment. The reason for this is you don't always want to equip items just based on how much they increase your stats. Many weapons and armor in fact have different elemental attributes that can make some enemies into mincemeat in no time. For example take the Holy Sword I mentioned earlier. It deals a ton of damage to undead creatures (and this is a castle of the dark lord, you know), while something like the Ice Brand will execute additional damage to fiery beasts. So when I went up against a certain robed and bone-pale individual, I dealt three times as much damage and thrashed his bony ass good with my trusty Holy Sword. This easily adds an excellent level of strategy to the game that I more than welcome.
Even if I did kick some major ass against that boss, the game did throw many more boss fights my way that both impressed me and just plain rocked. Imagine entering a room in cool cavern underneath the castle only to find yourself face to faces with a large naked woman atop a wolf's head connected to multiple snake heads. While Alucard attempts to cut away the slimy snakeoids, he must watch out for the nudist's acidic bubbles that she continually hurls toward him. Or take the gentlemanly vampire that sits patiently at his dinner table waiting for Alucard. When you arrive and slice up a bit, he kindly transforms into a hulking green lizard complete with buckets of drool gingerly dripping from his jagged fangs as he spews yellow lasers from his wide-open mouth.
But don't take all this combat the wrong way. While Symphony of the Night features far more action than any tale of an alien bounty hunter, there's still quite a lot of exploration to be done. Dracula's castle is gigantic sporting many different nooks and crannies to hide objects and such. While the same can be said about the likes of Zebes or SR388, the castle is just better designed. In Metroid games, it's easy to become lost among the similar looking tunnels and corridors and you'll need to heavily rely on a map. This game, however, makes exploration a breeze even without the in-game map. The rooms just look so distinctly different that you'll never encounter this problem. I mean, just look at Super Metroid. The sections Norfair and Brinstar and merely differentiated by barren rock and green plant life. This title makes things way more interesting with the giant stain-glass windows of the Chapel, the glowing moon of the Keep, the long windows that continually open and close in the Entrance, or the huge eyeball that peers through the windows in the Marble Gallery. Also, the shapes of the rooms in this game are more varied than Metroid games. Just take a look at all those halls that go straight across or straight up in Super Metroid then compare them to the immensely diverse areas of Symphony of the Night. They don't even compare!
After chopping the head off a sneering skeleton, Alucard will sometimes find himself at an obstacle that he can't pass. This is where Relics come into play. Hidden throughout the castle are many magical items that give you several awesome powers such as immunity to the ill of effects of water, a nifty double jump, or the ability to transform into mist. So now the next time an iron gate stands in your way, simply melt into the vaporous form and seep your way through the cracks. There are also Relics used to upgrade the mist and the other two transformations: the bat and the wolf. These include but are not limited to poison mist, echo sensation to reveal the contents a dark room, and a helpful dash attack making the wolf a necessity for some long hallways full of demons that you'd rather not fight through. There are additional Relics to activate the several Familiars in the game. These pint-sized creatures follow Alucard around and help him out of trouble in different ways. For example the Fairy will use healing and status curing potions to mend your wounds while the Sword will perform a 360 degree swing cutting anything it may touch.
With all these Relics slightly resembling Samus Aran's suit upgrades, one would think that Symphony of the Night's exploration would follow the same linearity of Metroid or the GBA installments of Castlevania like Circle of the Moon. Surprisingly, the castle actually gives you quite a bit of choice as to which area you'd like to tackle next. For example early on you'll need to acquire a Relic that opens magically sealed doors in order to progress. From here you have two options: use the Relic to enter the Chapel or the Underground Cavern. Both lead to much needed Relics, items, and danger, but it doesn't really matter which you do first. That's the great thing about it. Now you don't feel like Konami has crammed on a leash and tugged you to a specific area.
Not only does Alucard have freedom to explore the castle without a rigid order, but he also has the freedom to grow. Symphony of the Night uses an experience system to increases Alucard's stats and power. Add in the awesome equipment hidden among the inner bowels of the castle and you'll be a real god of combat wreaking havoc on all that oppose you. Unfortunately this is where a slight problem makes its way in. Simply put, this is by far the easiest Castlevania. Even if Castlevania IV suffered from a severe lack of enemies, this game just makes Alucard too damn powerful. He'll have tons of hit points and such high defense that being attacked by the hordes of enemies won't even matter to you. Plus if you do run into a snag like a tough boss, you'll find simple ways of dealing with them. For example in the original Castlevania, Death was a total pain. If you had trouble beating him, you just had to keep trying until you finally finished him off. In this game, you can always just kill a bunch of monsters, level up, and become stronger making that pesky boss now a breeze. Furthermore, there are just way too many save points, which love to completely heal you, littered throughout the castle.
Since the game is a little on the easy side, that means you'll have time to just take in the charming 2D visuals. The character and enemy sprites are fairly small, but their fluid animation more than makes up for it. The flowing robes, the long silver hair flapping about, and the robust facial features of Alucard! With visuals such as these, you'll be in awe. The gruesome foes Alucard must face sport tons of animations such as the skeletons that throw parts of their ribcages to hulking knights in full battle armor that wield heavy blades to giant flowers that reveal naked ladies after blooming. You'll think you've seen it all until a boss appears and takes up half the screen with little to no slowdown.
These exquisite graphics are not alone as the game plays beautiful music for each area of the castle. As a fan of the series, I was disappointed that the game features absolutely no classic tunes with the exception of one that was sneaked in briefly. Still I can't help but appreciate what beauty Konami has created for my own ears. Each and every song has its own charm and personality. Upon entering the castle, the game plays the upbeat adventurous theme Dracula's Castle that pumps you up for a long adventure. Later you'll hear the glass-like track Marble Corridor that adds a sense of mystery to the haunting halls Alucard is exploring. Or who could forget the wet sounding tune Crystal Drops? Playing in an area overflowing with water, this theme truly captures the essence of its locale. The only problem is that eventually Symphony of the Night's soundtrack hits a snag in the second half of the game. Rather than introducing new vibrant themes, each area begins to rehash the same two songs over and over again: the somber Lost Painting and the climatic The Final Tocatta. On their own, these two tracks are great, but after being forced to hear them so many times, I can't stand them. The soundtrack is also marred by the cheesy love ballad I Am The Wind sung during the credits.
But you can forget some of the troubling musical choices by listening to the tight sound effects during combat. There are quite a few sounds of bones smacking and shattering, monsters howling in pain, and even a few demons that create thunderous explosions as they burst into flames. The game also has a few voice-overs such as when Alucard casts a spell or his short hwah with each melee attack. But then you encounter a story scene with full sentences of speech and you'll want to plug your ears immediately. Alucard sounds like he has a cold throughout the entire game, while Richter's sister Maria appears completely unemotional with a monotone and lines such as, What do you here? In addition, there's also her odd pronunciation of the name Richter in which she sounds like she's coughing up one big ball of phlegm. Richter, on the other hand, speaks way too loudly while overacting. In the beginning, we're treated to Richter yelling at the top of his lungs, DIE monster! YOU don't BELONG in this WORLD! But you haven't heard the best line until the Demon familiar all of a sudden exclaims, HMMMMMMMM! A switch! Maybe I should push it AND SEE! Surprisingly, the characters with few lines have better voice actors. That's too bad.
If you can stomach the terrible voice acting, Symphony of the Night is just plain awesome. The playability of Alucard and the excellent castle design make this one gothic adventure rivaling that of the Metroid franchise. In fact, I've played through this game so many damn times, yet I still come back for more entertainment. There's just so much to explore, so much to find, so many vile demons to kill. The only real flaw with the game is its lack of challenge. Alucard just becomes too powerful too quickly and then you never encounter any problems again. Despite the easy difficulty, I'd say this is one of my favorites in my personal library of PlayStation software. I can't recommend it enough.
Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 08/16/04, Updated 08/16/04
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