Review by ZFS

"The Son of Dracula is all ready to beat down some undead enemies with RPG style."

The Castlevania series, created by Konami, has been one that is highly hailed by many. It usually consists of playing through a platformer type game where you control the hero – a member of the “Belmont” clan. Most of the time, the point of these games is to kill Dracula or prevent his resurrection from all his wonderful minions. However, Symphony of the Night (SOTN) takes that to an entirely new level. Unlike previous Castlevania games, you don't play as a Belmont; instead, you play as Alucard – who is half-human, half-vampire and the son of Dracula. An even greater twist is that you no longer are limited to just a whip of sorts, rather, Alucard can wield a variety of weapons and perform special moves that will give him the advantages over the dead corpses while traversing Dracula's evil castle.

To set the stage for the story, and believe me, there is minimal story for this game, the year is 1792 in a place called Transylvania on the countryside of Romania. Dracula appeared to have been defeated yet again by the legendary line of Belmont's – the most powerful, and famous, of the vampire hunters. This time, the name was Richter Belmont. However, despite appearing to have defeated Count Dracula, he mysteriously disappeared for many years. This gave rise to Dracula's Castle. With no Belmont to take care of Dracula, it appeared as though his mission of reshaping the world was about to become a reality. Fortunately, Alucard arose from his slumber to take on his father in place of the lost Belmont. The son of Dracula, the most powerful being outside of Dracula himself, was taking up arms to take on his father like he did many centuries ago with a man named Trevor Belmont. So began Alucard's tale…

That's the basic summary of the initial stages of Symphony of the Night. There isn't really an overabundance or dialogue to catch – a good 80% of it can be found in the opening text explaining the events at the beginning of the game. But the Castlevania franchise, along with SOTN, was never meant to be heavy on the story. Despite this, SOTN does feature a well-thought storyline with some very good characters. You couldn't ask for much more in a game like this. Mind, it isn't any sort of RPG with the amount of depth and character development, but still maintains a very solid set of characters, both good and evil, that you will become attached to throughout playing the game.

Once you actually start playing the game, you should notice that it feels very much like a title from Nintendo, a certain franchise called Metroid. Well, that's no coincidence, the creator of SOTN had commented that he had looked at another great title on the Super Nintendo called Super Metroid as sort of an inspiration for this entry in the Castlevania franchise. The two share a lot of similarities as well. You start off with all of your weapons – completely trashing all the enemies you run into for a good while. Then, you'll come to a meeting with a strange figure and Alucard will lose all of his equipment, making him a meager half-human, half-vampire after his vampire father – Oh, the love! The game plays very much like that of Super Metroid. Alucard isn't a speedy fellow like Sonic, but he isn't a slow tank like Samus Aran either – Yes, I know, horrible comparisons, stop laughing. He does, however, have nice speed that is fitting for the game. One might find it annoying that Alucard moves at this pace throughout the entire game – no speed upgrade of any kind – but it only takes a few minutes to get used to. Anyway, you will go through jumping throughout your father's castle, killing all of the enemies that come near you, and exploring. One of the big things about this game is how open it is to the player. You are not having your hand held and pointing out where you need to go next. From the get go, you are free to explore and go anywhere in the Castle that you can give your ability. Obviously, there will be some places you cannot go because you don't have the proper ability to get there. An example of this may be a high ledge that you cannot reach, but once you acquire a Relic that will give Alucard increased jumping, you will be able to come back to this and see what is up there. Be forewarned, though, this game features a ton of backtracking. You will be going through many of the same rooms you have been through multiple times. This requires that you remember, or basically check your map often, certain places you couldn't go before obtaining ability but then can after obtaining that ability. While the idea of being able to freely explore any area of the Castle sounds nice, there is plenty of frustration that can work into this if you aren't the type of person who enjoys spending many, many minutes backtracking through the Castle only to have that area you couldn't go before be a room with some less than stellar items. Now, this doesn't happen all of the time, but it can certainly does happen, which can create an ample amount of frustration on some people.

It is fitting to bring up that Symphony of the Night takes on a new “twist” on the normal Castlevania formula. Unlike previous titles, Alucard can actually increase his strength and abilities through leveling up. You start out with less than 100 Health Points (HP), along with something called “Hearts,” and Magic Points (MP). These are very much like your basic RPG elements and not very much like one you would find in a typical action/adventure game. Symphony of the Night revolves entirely around this traditional RPG type system of gameplay. All of the battles take place in “real-time” and don't feature any changing screens or turn-based battles. You will, however, be dealing a certain amount of damage to enemies per hit with your weapon – very much like an RPG. Depending on the amount of “Strength” you have will depend on how much damage you're delivering to both basic enemies and boss enemies. Each time you go up in level, these stats will also increase. Stuff like HP, MP, Strength, Defense, Luck, etc. To go along with this, you can find and purchase equipment that will allow Alucard to become stronger. Shields, cloaks, swords, daggers, etc. can all be found throughout the Castle, or purchased. This really makes you want to search through the Castle to find all of these different items.

Another new item of business happens to deal with Familiars. As you progress through the game, Alucard will run across certain relics that can be equipped. These are Familiars. Much like Alucard, they will gain experience for every enemy killed. However, they only gain one point of EXP for every enemy killed, unlike Alucard. They also need to be “active” in order for them to gain experience. The best comparison that can be made to these are much like a “summon” or a fairy. They do not take part in the fight, but they do help Alucard. For example, the Faerie Familiar will administer the potions and any other healing type items while she is active. If Alucard is in battle and needs a potion, she'll automatically use one on him – such as being poisoned or cursed. She can also help out by pointing out walls that could be broken to access new areas. You can collect a variety of these throughout the game and each does something different that will help. It's one of the better additions into the game.

While Familiars help Alucard progress, he wouldn't be much of a half-human, half-vampire – Come on, you know that you wish you were one – without a decent set of spells, right? Well, luckily, Alucard has a good number of them at his disposal. But while he may have them there, that doesn't mean he can just easily cast them – that's where you come in. In order to pull these spells off, you will need to input a button combination, very similar to fighting games. An example of this is the spell called “Hellfire,” it requires the button combination Up, Down, Down Forward, Forward, and then the attack button. Believe me, they get far more complicated than this. Some of them can be quite the pain in the ass to pull off, even for someone who is good at fighting games – having played them for years, myself, it still was hard to pull some of these off mid-battle. Luckily, for those of us who aren't able to pull them off as easy as we would like, none of them are required. They do help, but you won't be having trouble without them or anything.

Now, these are all great things, and it really makes the game to be one of the greatest experiences to ever grace gaming, period. But, even with greatness, there are almost always flaws. In this case, Symphony of the Night suffers from a complete lack of difficulty and “Godlike character mode.” I'll explain the second in a second. First off, Konami completely blew my mind with how they went about making the difficulty for this game. The very beginning is the most difficult portion of the game. Yes, it may be true that you start off with nothing, are weaker, and all that good stuff. But the hardest part is truly at the beginning and only at the beginning. As you progress through the game, you'll become more and more powerful, while the enemies around you stay seemingly the same strength. By the end of the game, bosses are doing around 5 HP, on average, damage to you. That may not seem bad, except for the fact that you will usually have anywhere from 500 – 600 HP once you complete it, with the max being 999. This is where the real problem arises. Alucard is basically turned into a “Godlike” character. He performs absolutely insane damage to the enemies while they do next to nothing against him. The best way you want to have difficulty implemented in any video game is a natural progression – it gets harder as you go along. The balance between the human player and the CPU enemies is also horribly tilted toward the human player. You have next to no challenge about halfway through the game. While the idea of being Godlike may seem enticing to some, it honestly gives you the feeling that you're “cheating.” There are certain rare weapons you can pickup that make you far stronger than you really should be. It's a very strange feeling to have items that are obtained in the game and were not apart of some bug or glitch that make you feel like you obtained something too powerful for its own good. If you're one of those who doesn't like a game being too hard, you don't have to worry with Symphony of the Night. This is the only flaw of the game really. A complete lack of difficulty and unbalance, which just manages to irk me with such a masterpiece like this.

On a brighter note, Symphony of the Night does pull off something that any game before it within the same genre could not. As you go through this huge Castle with all sorts of different areas, you'll notice that you have a map to help guide you. It'll track all the places you have been and give you insight on what rooms mean what. There will be a kind of slit in the map to signify a door you can pass through, a red square indicates it is a room to save, and a yellow square indicates it is a Portal room that will transfer you around the Castle at different key points. In order to complete the game with a full percentage, you will be required to find every room in the Castle – basically, you will need to cover the entire map. This can be a very arduous task, but there is a map you can buy that will show all the areas you haven't been to, minus the hidden rooms. Each room, or square, will account for around .1% of the map. You're goal to acquire 100% of the map. This will open up more options to you at the end of the game. However, even if you cover 100% of the map, your mission is still not complete. Depending on what you do throughout the game, you will have to go through an “Inverted Castle” directly after completing the first part of the game. This basically boils down to the Castle you just went through being turned upside down. You're now starting from the bottom, and working your way through an upside version of what you just went through. It's much harder to traverse, the enemies are different and harder, the bosses are different, and there are new items to find. In this part, there is another 100% you can collect – for a total of around 200%. Everything about the Inverted Castle is harder and you won't be able to have any map guide or anything that will show you all the different places you haven't been. You're completely on your own in the spooky, twisted, upside world of Dracula's Castle! Boo!

Now while we know exactly how the game operates, I'm sure the question circulating through your head is, “How does it hold up from the audio/video standpoint?!” I can answer that question with a big, fat, juicy, “Incredibly!! – Lame, I know, but bear with me if you've managed to hold through in this overly long review. Since Symphony of the Night came out during the time when we were just jumping into the third dimension, it holds up to the old “test of time” far better than many of the games around this era. The graphics are top notch as far as 2D sprites go. It gives off a rather surprising amount of atmosphere. Despite being this absolutely huge Castle, none of the rooms look similar to one another. You won't feel as though you have gone through that room before unless it is the same room. The backgrounds are given a beautiful amount of detail. There is usually plenty of activity, whether it be a variety of clocks rocking back and forth in unison or the never ending amount of bookcases – with live books, I might add – you will never feel as though things are dull in SOTN. Now, the only real drawback is that many of the colors are of a dark tone. This is completely fine considering you're in Dracula's Castle, presumably around nighttime. It wouldn't make sense for it to be filled with rainbows and leprechauns that scream, “They're magically delicious!” roaming around – God that would make me soil myself, though. Konami does try to vary things with different areas, such as the Library, being filled with a type of gold flooring that gives off that brighter, more vibrant tone. Nonetheless, SOTN manages to pull off being one of the most atmospheric video games I have had the pleasure of playing. Despite being 2D, you are completely drawn into this game by how fabulous it looks.

Another subject of interest, the detail put into the character sprites themselves was equally as impressive. Alucard's cape will flow in the behind him flawlessly. When he makes any sudden movement, the cloak will do so. He also appears to have after images of himself when he jumps, giving off the idea that he's moving quickly despite how he isn't doing anything of the sort. The enemy models are equally as impressive. There is an enemy called Scarecrow who is nothing more than a body stabbed through a Javelin, which is rather grotesque I must say, and will hop around attacking you. The PlayStation really allows for some impressive graphics, even in 2D. There are a nice variety of both enemies and bosses, each with new, wacky designs that never copy something you have seen before. It's quite rare these days to find a game that isn't using the same models over and over just altered slightly and given a new name.

So, we have established that this game is amazing for something based around 2D sprites. But one of the biggest highlights of Symphony of the Night is the soundtrack, which is one of the best soundtracks you'll ever hear within the realm of video games. There are a variety of tracks ranging from the initial “Dracula's Castle” all the way to the incredible boss theme in “Black Banquet.” These two and everything in between rank among some of the highest quality music I have run across. The type of music this falls under is something a little more classical. You aren't going to find a bunch of rock clips to slay Flea Men to. But, this isn't the type of game that needs that type of music. All of it fits every area of the game. Each new area you go to will have a different track playing as well. Ignoring having to backtrack, you really won't hear the same song more than once or twice. Each boss has its own dedicated theme and every area of the Castle will have something different that plays. Another huge plus is the fact that many of these titles are memorable. You won't be forgetting these tunes after you have completed the game. It's one of the few game soundtracks that one might be willing to actually put money toward. Music is an integral part of any game SOTN is no exception. The mood is completely set with a soundtrack like this one.

Now, this is another one of those blasted issues that arises with something so close to perfection. While it is true that SOTN has a superb musical score, it completely fails in the voice acting department. I am wondering how in the world the same people who made such amazing music could do so horribly with the voices for these characters. This just reinforces that voice acting is not always needed. None of the voices really fit the characters and listening to these horrible actors give out the dialogue can really kill any sort of mood the game was attempting – Yes, not accomplishing, merely attempting – to set. It's really best to just find some way of muting the TV during the parts with active dialogue and just reading it yourself. It saves a lot of pain and suffering on your part.

So in conclusion – I just know you're happy to get these words, those few souls who have decided to venture this far into reading - Castlevania: Symphony of the Night ranks among one of the single best games that has managed to grace video games. You owe it to yourself to go out and find some way of acquiring this old PlayStation 1 title. It is the best game you'll find from Konami and really makes a lot of games wish they were this good. However, it does have some slight faults. The difficulty is lacking in the most crucial point and the unbalance between human and AI is tilted far too much. Aside from that, the only other issue is the voice acting, which is enough to make me want to remove my brain with a spoon. These are no doubt very minor things in the grand scheme of things, but still manage to make themselves ever present. Regardless, this game is just too close to perfection to avoid. Without a doubt, get this one, regardless of what kind of games you are into. You won't be disappointed.

Remember: All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” – Edmond Burke

Final Score: 10.0

Reviewer's Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Originally Posted: 07/14/05

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