Saturday, 18 June 2011

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

Hey look it's Akumajō Dracula X: Gekka no Yasōkyoku. Rolls right off your tongue. And hey, it's also the third Castlevania game I've reviewed this month... I guess I've become a fan of the series or something!

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. The "big" one. The Castlevania game which despite its name, has nothing to do with music. Originally a 1997 PlayStation 1 game, before becoming a butchered Japanese Sega Saturn one, it's since worked its way into the world of Xbox Live Arcade and subsequently into the hands of Squirrel.

Without a doubt it's possibly the greatest Castlevania game ever made, and also a well kept secret, because not one person from around here bothered to mention it at the time. Too busy with that third dimension I suppose!

There are two types of Castlevania. Firstly, we have those which follow the "original pattern", i.e. any Castlevania before Symphony of the Night. We'd have some bloke with a whip go on a linear journey to defeat Dracula and chums. It's a formula that only seems to work half the time - some games, namely those from the MSX/FDS/NES era, feel a bit broken in 2011 what with their stupid level design and fascination with cheap deaths. Others, such as Super Castlevania IV, work a lot better, but they can still be crushingly difficult.

The other sort follow the pattern set up by Symphony of the Night, perhaps the first game to formerly recognise that Konami's level design doesn't always work. It's the first game that seems to understand that being uncontrolably knocked off a cliff is a bad thing, not a vital part of the experience. It's also the first to try something different in the series' history, and that can only be a good thing.

First and foremost, SotN is a sequel to Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, a PC Engine CD game which I hear is quite the masterpiece. It takes place five years after these events where top dawg Richter Belmont has gone missing in the brand new pimped up Dracula's Castle. The premise of SotN is an odd one - it has Alucard, son of Dracula (last seen in Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse) leading the rescue party as the primary character. I still don't understand why.

Little in Symphony of the Night is explained and it's perhaps one of the game's downfalls. Alucard wakes up from eternal slumber to fight Dracula... for some reason. From what I gather, it's just a coincidence that he did, just like it's a coincidence that he keeps meeting up with Richter's love interest, Maria who places herself around the castle for unknown reasons and doesn't seem to be phased by the constant threats which Alucard has to battle to stay alive.

It's not the strongest story in the world and I think this mostly comes from the fact it's a direct sequel to Rondo of Blood. Generally a Castlevania game has xxx Belmont travel to Dracula's Castle to defeat the vampire every century. This one doesn't, because it already happened in the prequel, and it seems to struggle to find a replacement script that's just as good.

I also suspect it would have been confusing for gamers at the time - the "proper" Rondo of Blood was a Japanese-only release, with gimped copies also available for the Super Nintendo (the EU one deciding to go with the name "Castlevania: Vampire's Kiss for reasons nobody really knows). Western copies of SotN tried to hide Rondo of Blood's existence to reduce confusion in a crazy 90s ironic sort of way. There must have been quite a few people wondering why Alucard's our main man and not Richter, or in fact who any of these characters actually are, because the backstories lie on the NES.

That being said, you do get to play as Richter at the end, and if you're a fan of the Japanese-only Saturn port, he's always an optional character, as is Maria. But of course being an unpolished Japanese exclusive disowned by Castlevania's creator, it just serves to confuse things further.

But localisation and story issues aside, Symphony of the Night is an amazing game. In fact, it starts off with the last stage of Rondo of Blood - playable Richter Belmont taking on Count Dracula in a stage the west know as "Bloodlines" (even though it has no relation to "Caslevania: Bloodlines"). It's accurate, yet updated at the same time, and I can't help but admire an intro stage that keeps the original HUD and title cards. Attention to detail is probably SotN's strongest features.

But it's not all perfect - SotN introduces English voice acting. I personally enjoy its quirky style, though I do wonder why none of the voice actors recognised the grammatical errors they chose to blurt out. Supposedly this was all fixed in the PSP port, but that just ruins the fun. The dialogue is about the only area stopping Castlevania from being a deadly serious bore-fest in terms of the atmosphere. I like characters that can smile even when the world could collapse at any second.

Killing Dracula brings you to the beginning of the "real" Symphony of the Night, where you're re-introduced to Alucard. He's a character I thought I would hate, because these typical "anti-heroes" tend to be unable to show emotion (or are just plain stupid, see Shadow the Hedgehog). But when a guy comes in out of nowhere making things explode, you can't help but enjoy the experience. And then Death comes along and strips you of your powers.

And so begins SotN's party piece - the brand new RPG bits. Alucard, because he's not equipped with vampire killer whips, tends to carry a sword, and said sword can be upgraded as the game goes on. And ho, so can other things - from the face masks to the feet and everything in between, and the on-screen character looks slightly different while you do this too. Every kill earns experience points which goes towards levelling up. Every level up makes Alucard more bearable as a character, and soon you get to a stage where you stop caring about whips altogether.

And you're also introduced at this point to the sheer scale of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. It's no longer a linear experience - it's a METROIDVANIA experience. Large, complicated maps made up of rooms where many secret areas lie and life is all about upgrades. And then it starts surpassing Metroid by giving you the ability to turn into a bat. Just like Castlevania III except better.

However, unlike post-Super Metroid Metroid games, Castlevania has an unfortunate curse of puzzling the user for the first couple of hours. You have to physically buy a map to get through the game - an opportunity that's not given to you until at least two or three boss battles have passed you by. As with the introduction, explanation is kept to a minimum - normally you can deduce where you have to go next based on empty bits of the map, but on occasion you can be completely stumped because the game never tells you where to go. A huge kick in the face for those accustomed to Nintendo's current way of thinking.

For example, I expected the primary goal was to get to Dracula's throne room. So I thrice found myself wandering through the clock tower area too early. Oh, turns out you need to be a bat first! Oh, turns out you need to be bloody strong because otherwise you'll be killed! Oh, turns out you need special goggles!

The fact you can trigger one of the bad endings but aren't specifically told "this is the bad ending" is also a worrying feature. I don't mind struggling to find new areas of the map, but this is surely bound to catch people out. Back in 1997 you could have completely missed half of the game, had you not sought yourself a guide, because it fails to inform you you've played it incorrectly. Killing one of the main characters doesn't come as much of a surprise for a game that's intended to be dark.

There's a lot of exploration to be done, and after a few hours you soon realise Symphony of the Night is excellent value for money. Much like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, you get to a stage where you think you've done everything and had a blast, only for the game to say "oh by the way, you're only half way through" and you end up having even more of a blast.

But some bits I still don't quite understand. Like why so many items exist, or there's an option to sit down on chairs. Some bosses are stupidly easy while others are stupidly hard, and several of the new secondary weapons don't seem to have much use at all. It's also a game where it's only considered "finished" if you've beaten 200.6% of the game. Not 100%, not 200% - 200.6%. Amazing.

Other minor nitpicks include the fact the game forgets it's taking place in Romania, with various Japanese weapons and items showing up around the castle... for some reason. Also because the team were too lazy to come up with a new loading/saving screen, you're granted thirty possible save slots. Granted, you'd have a similar situation if you had two blank PS1 memory cards, but it's physically impossible to fill the Xbox 360 slots with anything else than SotN saves. Thirty's a bit excessive.

The common complaint about these Castlevanias is that the majority of the time is spent messing around in the castle, rather than in the process of getting to the castle. Aside from the fact Rondo of Blood already provided you with the journey, Symphony of the Night does offer a surprising amount of variation... you just have to work for a bit before you're granted access to the underground areas. Whereas yes, I agree, variation is nice, the clue is in the name - Castlevania.

SotN holds up well in the graphics department, even by today's standards. Yes, the upscaling filter doesn't really work - they'd be better of redrawing the graphics and giving the 3D parts bit of anti-aliasing, but it's still not bad for 2011, and very good for 1997. You can tell a lot of effort was put into making this one, and like other Konami games, the music is top notch too. It gives you faith that perhaps Konami could get a Castlevania movie done without making it suck, though obviously they'd need to hire better actors.

SotN was the debut for the "Castlevania art style" which has been used in every game since, and this is probably the only long-term annoyance with this game. A step up from Rondo of Blood perhaps, but a step back from the original games. Compare the box arts of the old and new - old Castlevanias focused on the environments and enemies - newer ones just have people's faces trying to look serious through clouds of black mist. How dull. Literally. And Simon Belmont looks like a woman in Castlevania Chronicles.

For many, this is Castlevania's peak. I care not for the 3D adventures, and the Game Boy Advance games, despite their high review scores, are teetering on being flat-out stupid (seriously, battling Dracula in the 2030s?). Once the games start dipping into the nineteenth century and beyond, things get awkward in terms of the plot, and I suppose it's mostly Castlevania: Bloodlines' fault for trying to link it to the Bram Stoker novel. Trevor -> Christopher -> Simon -> Richter - anything before or after doesn't really feel right to me.

But anyway I'm drifting away from the focus here. If you haven't already guessed by now, I think Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is a great game and possibly the best I've played this year. I don't know if I'd want to recommend the PSP versions - like horror films, it's the sort of genre you want to see in front of a TV late at night, but I'd certainly recommend the Xbox 360 port if not just to escape the loading times, which I hear really hurt the fifth generation versions.

That being said, do note that the Xbox 360 port won't give you the full widescreen HD experience - you'll get vertical borders where Dracula and Alucard can stare each other down as you play. The screenshots on this page are from someone else's attempts at the PlayStation version, hence the maxed out health points.

Mind you even then you'll not escape the padded out game over sequences, but it's definitely a better option than hunting for a PlayStation copy. Admittedly, I'd have liked to have seen some of the extras of the Saturn version make an appearance, but I guess you can't have everything, otherwise we'd be keeping with the tradition of remaking older Castlevanias for the modern age (Belmont's Revenge hint hint). I think we'd all love to see the whole damned series re-released in the order of events, in HD, for one platform, at a respectable price. That would be fantastic.

But anyway yeah, get this game. And no, the demo doesn't really give you the full picture. And no, despite the artwork not riddled with JRRG tat.


  1. Judging by the way you've been reviewing a lot of Castlevania stuff recently, you might be interested in this interesting, albeit slightly annoying, video comparing the first and the second Castlevanias:

  2. Great ... ask me for the brazilian sega console´s .. i have a lot