Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Richter Belmont is missing. Four years after slaying Dracula at the climax of Rondo of Blood, he vanished from the face of the Earth. No one knows where he went, or if he’s even alive. Maria Renard hasn’t given up; she’s spent the last year desperately scouring the land for something, anything that might lead to her brother. Nothing…until now. Castlevania has reappeared, despite the legend that it’s supposed to show up only once a century. Chances are, Richter is there somewhere. But why would he go back in? Why has the castle returned? Was Dracula resurrected again, and if so, how? Maria ponders these questions as she infiltrates Castlevania for the second time. Despite her bravery and determination, she can’t ignore a chilling truth: everything about this is wrong. Unnatural. Things aren’t how they’re supposed to be; evil is awake again, and there isn’t a Belmont around to stop it.
But there is Alucard. After joining forces with the other heroes and defeating his father in Dracula’s Curse, he put himself into what was supposed to be an eternal slumber. This situation has gotten drastic enough for him to intervene. His motives aren’t quite as simple as those of his allies. His reasons are more personal; his mother was executed by humans (for practicing medicine, ironically), which was the catalyst for Dracula’s misanthropy. Unlike his father, he doesn’t want to conquer the world; he wants to rid humanity of his family’s curse. Daddy issues aside, Alucard is the centerpiece for one of the biggest themes in Symphony of the Night: inversion. The game practically reeks of it. A vampire is searching for a Belmont, nearly switching roles in the process. The fate of mankind won’t be determined by a hero upholding a family tradition, but by someone seeking to destroy his. Religious concepts are depicted in the most corrupt ways possible. The entire second half of the game does this to the castle itself. It takes a couple of playthroughs to see just how many subtle ways the game reverses everything you’d expect from a Castlevania.
One of the most blatant inversions, however, is the basic structure of the game. Castlevania games up until this point have been platformers. Slow, awkward characters making incredibly difficult jumps over increasingly complex obstacles. Throw in some annoying bats, bone-throwing skeletons, a few bosses, and call it a day after a dozen or so levels. Maybe an alternate path or secret area, just to spice things up. Symphony of the Night throws all of this out by remaking the entire concept. Rather than plodding along through linear stages, Alucard is allowed free reign over the entire castle. Running down haunted hallways, searching the putrid, rotting catacombs, ascending the wind-blown towers…it’s all there, begging to be experienced. Alucard can’t access everything at once, though. Not because of difficult platforming puzzles – there are no bottomless pits here – but the layout of the castle. The majority of the areas are blocked off with unreachable ledges, sealed doors, spiked floors, and other hindrances. Alucard has to find different items and relics to give him better abilities; double jumping, morphing into different forms, drowning immunity…it’s like a gothic Metroid. Once you acquire enough powers, getting around won’t be an issue; you’ll be more worried about finding everything else. Unlike its predecessors, Symphony of the Night is a game about exploration and discovery.
Considering how little emphasis is placed on platforming, it’s not surprising to see how much of game revolves around combat. It’s yet another inversion; the fighting used to come secondary, and now it provides the most challenge. Early on, enemies are your only obstacles; hallways are crammed with enemies that take multiple hits before going down. There’s nothing more satisfying than finally killing those overpowered armored knights. Alucard is by far the most versatile protagonist in the series. His movements are slick, responsive, and utterly fluid. His jumping and dodging mechanics are refined more anything the Belmonts have ever shown. He isn’t limited to just one weapon, but dozens. He can equip swords, shields, explosives, rods, spears, knuckles, throwing stars, food, and any of the rest of the myriad of items strewn throughout the castle. That’s not even counting the throwing knives, holy water, crosses, and the rest of the classic sub-weapons. He doesn’t even need them; if you want him to, he can beat even Death into submission with his bare hands. That’s assuming that you take the time to level Alucard up to make him strong enough, though. He gains experience points with everything he kills, which eventually add up and give him a boost in attack strength, defense, and other stats. Combined with a huge amount of health and magic upgrades and the secondary features that come with each item, it won’t take long for Alucard to become a juggernaut.
What’s interesting is how such mechanics tie into the game’s theme of exploration. You might spend more time delving into Alucard’s moveset than the castle. Aside from the basic stat adjustments that come with the equipment, there is a plethora of extra abilities that you’ll likely miss on the first playthough. Alucard can teleport, perform flying kicks, steal the souls of his enemies, and even launch fireballs like his father…but you’ll never know unless you accidentally perform the right button sequence or buy the information in-game. Not to mention the familiars you can use as sidekicks; you can level them up and let them perform their own tasks. Or even the weapons, for that matter. The Shield Rod, that bland little stick you acquire early on, is the key to an extensive arsenal of devastating monster summons and supporting spells. The sheer amount of extra moves and secrets is staggering; they give you a reason to experiment with all sorts of different item combinations in hopes that you might discover something new. Chances are, you will.
But it comes with a price. All of Alucard’s awesome little tricks and hidden abilities make him ridiculously overpowered. Even without the Crissaegrim (a game-breaker if there ever was one) and the other high-end weapons, he’s still too strong. Unless you’re trying to unlock certain spell, there’s no need to do any power-leveling; even if you just breeze through the areas, Alucard will be fine. Few enemies have the move sets or hit points to survive against him for long. You can make the things more challenging by using weaker equipment, but he’s still deadly even at his default settings. It won’t take long before you stop seeing the baddies as dangerous obstacles and more like experience point fodder. That goes double for the bosses. Aside from Galamoth, none of those battles are particularly difficulty or engaging. That’s a far cry from the bosses in the previous games, which forced you to rely on memorizing attack patterns and making careful, timed movements. The majority of these baddies require little more strategy than running up and slashing their health points away. You’d think that, with all the cool stuff Alucard can do, the enemies would have better designs. With no challenge or thought required, a lot of potential fun, tension, and satisfaction is killed.
It doesn’t detract from the experience, though. Even if Beezlebub can be killed in less than thirty seconds, there’s no denying the fact that he’s a rotting, bloated corpse of a devil and his maggot-infested body is hanging on rusty meat hooks. Or that Granfaloon is a building-sized ball of writhing zombies that fall off, moaning and screaming as you hack away. Not to mention all of twisted ways the game references the previous titles. The five monsters from the original Castlevania, revamped with new moves and grotesque features. Then there’s the sickening cameo from a certain trio from Dracula’s Curse. Even the regular sprites have an absurd amount of detail. You’ll be stunned at how smoothly Alucard moves; his cloak and hair flap in the breeze, and he leans forward on his first step. He can even sit in the background chairs. His familiars aren’t content with just flying behind him; some will talk, and even the fairy summon will rest on his shoulders if you put down the controller long enough. Some enemies don’t just wither when they die; they collapse, shrieking as they’re consumed by otherworldly fire. The spells are just as visually overwhelming as they are physically; flashing lights, animated summons, and slew of other effects round out an incredibly detailed presentation.
But some of the most fascinating things don’t even interact with you. Each room of the castle is like an isolated, demented work of art. Many of the backgrounds are clearly inspired by real-life castle interiors; you’ll find paintings, ornate tapestries, gilded furniture, busts, and all kinds of decorations. It’s not just about filling the rooms with stuff, but the impact they leave on you. When you run through the Marble Gallery the first time, the hallway seems endless. Not from just the sheer length, but from depth; you can see the massive columns and angelic statues stretching back into oblivion, subtly shifting in perspective as you rush past them. When you enter the chapel, you’ll be struck by the gorgeous stained glass windows…only to realize that the cavernous hall is devoid of life. Not to mention the blood-filled fountain in Olrox’s Quarters, or the vulture-torn corpse hanging from the exterior ledge of the Outer Wall. Needless to say, it might take a few playthroughs for you to realize how beautiful and unsettling these visuals are.
The experience is compounded by the music. Castlevania has always provided some of the best soundtracks in gaming, and Symphony of the Night has some of the best tracks of them all. It’s an amazing blend of genres. When you reach the Outer Wall, the Tower of Mist track kicks in, giving you a sense of some epic undertaking. The towers above the chapel seem even more desolate with the Requiem of the Gods; its amazing choir and organ solo blend in so well as you leap around the cracked church bells. The Colosseum track starts with a chilling low key before delivering something far more upbeat. Not to mention the Tragic Prince theme, with its badass guitar riffs. The Underground Caverns area has something almost completely opposite with its Crystal Tears; the combination of stings, piano, and drums offers a slow, easy-going pace that lets you appreciate the gorgeous colors and the steady flow of the water. The music in the Catacombs give off a disturbing, other-worldly vibe that almost assures you that yes, all of the dusty skeletons on those endless, dimly lit shelves are about to wake up and tear you apart. Heavenly Doorway trumps them all, though; that dramatic violin ensures that as you reach the tattered, ruined carpet and up the rotted stairs, you will dread every second of it.
It’s moments like these that define Symphony of the Night. It is a game of exploration and the experience that comes along with it. It strives to invert everything that made Castlevania what is was, and make it even better. For the most part, it succeeded. There’s an actual story, and its themes reach far deeper and further than they appear. Rather than focusing on linear levels and platforming, the game rewards experimentation and confrontation. The castle is huge, and it’s crammed with all kinds of enemies, bosses, and secrets. The superb graphical detail and soundtrack put many games – past and present – to utter shame. The sheer amount of extra moves and abilities is mind-boggling; even with all of the different weapons, equipment, spells, and summons, there’s a good chance that you won’t find everything on your first run through. Or your tenth, for that matter. Unfortunately, the lack of difficulty kind of brings things down; there isn’t nearly as much strategy or thought required as there was before. It’s just a matter of tweaking Alucard in different ways and seeing what you can discover. More often than not, it’ll be something great.