Developer: Konami | Year: 1997 | List Price: ~$29.99 | Buy from Amazon
So yesterday in my review of Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection for the PSP, I said I was nearing the end of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and would be done in a couple of days. Well, it’s been one day (almost exactly), and I’ve now beaten Symphony of the Night. It’s so great that I just have to give my opinions on it straightaway! Note: As with all of Kantaloupe’s reviews, this review will be free of plot spoilers. However, I can’t really talk about this game without mentioning some of the gameplay mechanics that only open up towards the end of the game, so beware. With that out of the way, on to the review!
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was originally released for the Sony PlayStation in 1997. It was originally conceived as a side project while most of the Castlevania team’s effort would be focused on Castlevania 64. Koji Igarashi, one of the game’s directors, wanted to spin the Castlevania formula to give the game better replay value. He points to games in the vein of Super Metroid as his inspirations, and the influence is obvious. Instead of the game being split into stages, Symphony of the Night has you exploring a single, uniform castle, a lot of which is blocked off at first but which will open up as you gain power-ups and abilities.
The story follows five years after that of Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, which wasn’t originally released in North America. In fact, the first scene of the game is the last scene of that game. Dracula’s Castle has reappeared, and you play as Alucard, the son of Dracula, who’s on a quest to prevent the revival of his father. Along the way, you team up with a mysterious young woman, Maria, and together you work to take down dark forces that seek to bring back the dark lord.
Gameplay is indisputably king in Symphony of the Night. Though it was the Metroid series, in particular Super Metroid, that started the Metroidvania sub-genre of action platformers, Symphony of the Night took its principal tenets and refined them to great effect. This was the first Castlevania to have a leveling system, and it works extremely well. Unlike previous games, which were notoriously hard, Symphony takes a more lenient approach, as you can level up Alucard should you feel overwhelmed by a certain boss.
Of course, leveling isn’t the only RPG element that Symphony of the Night adopts. You also get the opportunity to customise Alucard’s equipment. There are a myriad of accessories and armour with different perks you can experiment with, and though many of them are in well-placed, set locations, many of the quirkier ones are rare drops from enemies. This sounds annoying, but actually adds a layer of excitement when you fight your way through populated corridors, especially nearer the end of the end of the game, when your luck stat is high enough to generate meaningful drops. As someone who doesn’t immediately jump on the idea of platformers, I found that the RPG elements helped keep me interested. Leveling happens quickly, and there’s a great sense of progression. You always feel stronger than you were even a half hour before, and Alucard at the beginning of the game and at the end are almost indistinguishable.
This is thanks to the huge amount of power-ups to collect in Symphony of the Night. Alucard can turn into a bat, a wolf, and even into invincible mist, which will help you explore every last inch of the castle. And (here’s the gameplay spoiler I mentioned at the top) to get the true ending, you’ll have to do it all again with the castle turned upside-down, and enemy difficulty ramped way up. This is where the game really hits its stride, and where you’ll get a taste of classic Castlevania frustration, but if you’ve been diligent with Alucard’s equipment and stats, you’ll always feel a step ahead of the enemy.
The visuals, like many 2D sprite-based games, have aged rather well, and even the 3D-esque environments and FMVs still hold up. It certainly looks great on Vita, and the original haunting atmosphere is present here as always. The soundtrack is absolutely impeccable. Judging by its gothic style, I expected hard rock riffs and organ pieces, and you’ll definitely find those. But there are a surprising amount of other influences as well. I particularly like the harpsichordy Long Library music and the Colosseum’s bluesy tunes threw me for a loop. Of course, the game’s most famous track is Dracula’s Castle, and its absolutely impeccable. The ending sequence is criticised by some for being out of place, but I actually love it to bits. The voice acting is also rather divisive, but I found it really fit. It made the story feel a bit like that of a B-movie, and considering the game’s genre, that’s not a bad thing at all.
Igarashi strove to give Symphony of the Night better replay value than its predecessors. I’ve only played the game once, but this is one of the few games that made me immediately want to replay them after finishing (dangerous considering the current state of my backlog!). There are just so many alternative ways to play the game! I promised not to spoil the plot, and I won’t, but I will say there are 5 different endings based on how you play the game, and I really want to get them all. You can also replay the game as Richter Belmont, the protagonist of Rondo of Blood. Because Richter can’t level up or collect power-ups like Alucard can, this is almost a different game entirely. A lesser known mode, also available after your first game clear, is known as “Luck Mode”, in which you start the game with no equipment except for a ring increasing your luck and a base luck stat of 99. While this makes the game extremely difficult at the start, you’ll hopefully acquire rare drops that’ll make for a unique experience. Between seeing all the endings and playing as different characters, you’ll have a great time replaying Symphony of the Night in different ways.
I’d heard that Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was one of the best games of all time. Now that I’ve played it, I can certainly see why. You can make a case that everything in Symphony of the Night is perfect. The platforming, precise yet still wonderfully floaty, is exquisite; the RPG system is engaging and easy to understand; the world is spooky and haunting. Even the length — 8-12 hours, depending on the ending you get and how thoroughly you explore the castle — is perfect: long enough to feel meaty, but short enough that replaying it feels like a veritable option. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was an attempt to give the Castlevania series universal appeal, and I think Konami pulled it off with aplomb.
Design: 10/10 Alucard is one of the coolest characters I’ve seen in a long time, and the story, though it takes a backseat to gameplay, is still genuinely interesting. The gothic feel of the castle and its level design are impeccable, and though the game can be beaten easily in a weekend, you’ll likely spend dozens of hours more to find all the secrets the game has to offer.
Visuals: 9/10 For a PlayStation game over 15 years old, Symphony of the Night still looks relevant today, thanks in part to its sprites, which weren’t overambitious. Apart from some flashy effects here and there, it’s all pretty standard as far as 2D graphics go, but you can certainly feel the power of the PlayStation, as everything feels extremely clean and smooth.
Sound: 10/10 The Michiru Yamane-composed soundtrack is awesome, and though its darker overtones are undeniable, there are a variety of genres represented across the castle as well, something that I appreciate. The voice acting is interesting, to say the least, but I actually found it to really fit the overall feel of the game.
Gameplay: 10/10 Symphony of the Night is a wonderful mix of old and new, modernising the classic Castlevania formula. The RPG elements made the traditionally hardcore Castlevania series accessible to the average gamer without sacrificing too much difficulty. Symphony of the Night is simply a joy to play, and even the most frustrating moments are addictive and engaging.
Value: 10/10 Symphony of the Night can by bought on the PSN for only $10, making it an absolute steal of a deal. In addition, because the original PSone version sold so well, you can get a used copy for a reasonable price even today, should you wish to experience the original game on a PlayStation or PlayStation 2. And though the game shouldn’t take you much more than a dozen hours to complete (I got the second-best ending in 11 hours), its replayability will make you want to keep Symphony of the Night on your shelf for decades to come.
Total – 49/50 (A)
List Price: ~$29.99 | Buy from Amazon
I’m not too sure what to play next. I’m a couple hours into both Final Fantasy VIII and Majora’s Mask 3D, but I can’t deny I really want to play Symphony of the Night just one more time! You’ll just have to tune in to find out what gets reviewed next!
Until then, check out the rest of our video game-related content here, and see an always-up-to-date ranking of my favourite console and handheld games of all time!