Castlevania: Symphony of the Night – Staff Retroview

Widely considered the crown jewel of the Castlevania series and a classic of gaming, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night took what had been a very traditional side-scrolling platformer series, shifted the gameplay focus to exploration, and infused it with RPG mechanics. Symphony of the Night was a significant change to the series, moving it towards more RPG-influenced gameplay, a trend which has increased as the series has gone on. Time has not been particularly kind to this game, as later entries in the series eclipse it in terms of having deeper gameplay and plot, but with such fluid animation and a wonderful soundtrack, the game still has something to offer the modern gamer.

Polite wolves use the stairs.
Polite wolves use the stairs.

Rather than the typical vampire-slaying Belmont protagonist, the player takes charge of Alucard, the son of Dracula, in an attempt to destroy his father. Though his motives aren’t clear in the beginning, they are revealed in a somewhat clumsy fashion as the game progresses. Symphony of the Night plays Alucard a bit stereotypically, giving him the brooding loner personality so typical of heroes in gothic-themed video games like Diablo 2, of which you can know more at A large percentage of Alucard’s few lines are made up of ellipsis, but the supporting cast, such as it is, picks up a lot of the slack. Symphony of the Night deserves some credit for expanding the role of story in Castlevania games, though the plot it provides is still a bit thin. There isn’t too much to be found in the way of character development, or for that matter in plot twists, and the game lacks any sort of message or theme. But it should be engaging to fans of the series looking for a little more story from the Castlevania series.

The combat system draws heavily on traditional Castlevania games, presenting the world as a 2D series of corridors and rooms that the player will have to whip-sling (or in this case, sword-slash) their way through. Symphony of the Night is fairly straightforward, with new areas blocked off by obstacles that require certain items and abilities to get past rather than puzzles, but the game does offer a variety of options in combat. As the game progresses, Alucard will gain access to different vampiric forms that allow him to fight in unique ways, such as the Wolf’s dash attack and the Fog Cloud’s poison gas. On top of this, Alucard can cast magic, summon allies in the form of Familiars, and use a few different kinds of weapons. In the end, tactics in battle usually doesn’t need to go much further than “hit it until it falls down,” but the variety of options available does add some spice to the game.

The game’s control is fairly solid, giving the player precise control over Alucard as he platform-jumps his way through Daddy Dracula’s castle. The only real problem to be found is the awkward and somewhat bland design of the menu system, which lacks such common conveniences as a inventory sort feature. The overall layout of the castle isn’t quite as interesting or challenging as some of the later games in the series, but it gets the job done. The Inverted Castle, which was billed as the “big shock” of the game, comes off as a bit underwhelming. While it is fairly effective at disorienting a player, it doesn’t alter in any way the obstacles that prevent you from getting to blocked off sections of the castle. The practical upshot of all this is that by the time you can access the Inverted Castle, unlocking all of its secrets is a snap.

As unimpressive as Symphony of the Night is in terms of plot and combat system, the game’s aesthetic areas are much, much more interesting. For example, the game’s soundtrack is arguably the best in the series, with some truly grand organ tunes and a variety of classical themes that fit the game quite well. The voice acting is less impressive, with some horrifically melodramatic acting from most of the cast, but it isn’t a huge problem given the relatively small amount of lines spoken during the course of the game. Overall, the game’s sound is one of its stronger points, though there are still a couple unpleasant flaws here and there.

The motto at Castle Dracula is 'Overkill is Always an Option.'
The motto at Castle Dracula is ‘Overkill is Always an Option.’

Perhaps the game’s strongest point, Symphony of the Night features some wonderfully fluid animation backed up by very solid visual design. The game uses the graphic capability of the PSOne to create some interesting effects, such as a polygonal night sky in the background, complete with wind-driven clouds. Most of the visuals, though, are done in the traditional pixel-and-sprite style, which keeps the visual style fairly close to that of the rest of the series. On the whole, the visual style is exceptionally solid for its time, and the quality of animation helps make it appealing despite the intervening time.

Symphony of the Night is an exceptionally short game, taking only a couple hours to reach the first available ending, and a fairly minor further investment to reach the second, much more satisfactory, ending. Symphony of the Night also has the first instance of what would later become a series staple – the ability to replay the game as one of the secondary characters, in this case Richter Belmont. Though there are a few areas of the game in which the difficulty will noticeably spike, on the whole, it shouldn’t be a particular challenge to anyone with a bit of experience in platformers, or who pays close attention to maintaining the current level of equipment.

In the end, although Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is often hailed as a classic RPG of its era, its thin plot and unimpressive combat system may make it somewhat less impressive for newcomers to the series. Still, the game’s high quality visuals and outstanding soundtrack go a long way towards making Symphony of the Night a memorable experience, and although the game may not be quite worthwhile for gamers looking for a complex or compelling adventure, for fans of the series Symphony of the Night is more or less a required play.

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