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SummaryWhat is Symphony of the Night? A fantastic pile of RPG platforming!
The GoodCastlevania games have always been popular, and it's easy to see the appeal of these tightly designed platforming tales of undead-whipping attracted. This game's predecessor in particular was highly atmospheric. But even compared to that installment, Symphony of the Night is a leap forward; it triumphs over everything that was achieved in the series before it.
The biggest and most positive change in this installment is the free-form castle exploration. Expanding upon the secret passages of Rondo and taking a clear cue from the excellent Super Metroid, Symphony of the Night consists of one huge stage; the entire castle is composed out of interconnected rooms and corridors. Instead of advancing from side to side, you explore vast environments with branching passages at nearly every screen. Vertical shafts, staircases, rooms on top of each other - all those familiar Castlevania ingredients have now become part of a real game world.
This enhances the experience enormously. One thing that always bothered me in early platform games is the absolute linearity of their levels (that's why I always prefer games like Super Mario World that encourage you to revisit levels and find alternate exits). In case of Symphony of the Night, there are no levels at all; there are optional paths at every corner, and you can always go back to whatever area you've revisited - not through dots on a "world map", but by actually walking the path. There are secrets, shortcuts, alternate paths, and everything else you would expect from a game that focuses on exploration.
Just like with Super Metroid, the genius of Symphony of the Night is that it makes the exploration process truly worthwhile. You won't just run through meaningless rooms, waving off hordes of enemies. There is always something to find in all those places you don't have to visit: an interesting, challenging enemy; a powerful weapon; a new ability that you may not necessarily need to finish the game, but which unlocks new areas or makes your character stronger. Symphony of the Night evokes in the player a feeling of perpetual curiosity: how do I get past these magically sealed doors? When will I be able to jump high enough to access that ledge? Is there anything I might have forgotten and missed the first time I was there? You feel compelled to stay in the game world and get to know it by heart.
But Symphony of the Night raises the bar even higher by adding a RPG system. That's right, this game is as much (and maybe even more) an action RPG as it is a platformer. RPG is my favorite genre; one of the basic reasons for that is justification of combat. No matter how fun it is to kill virtual enemies, it is always more interesting when you are rewarded for that. And what is more of a reward than knowing that with each kill you become closer to that magic moments when the words "level up!" pop out on the screen and you proudly observe your increased parameters?
The core of the RPG system here is very simple; just like in most Japanese representatives of the genre, you gain better attributes automatically when you level up. But there is more to the RPG element of the game than just leveling. There is a large amount of weapons, sub-weapons, armor, and accessories, many of which modify Alucard's stats beyond just increasing damage or defense. Secondary weapons, in particular, are very varied and just plain fun to try out. You can carry only one of them at a time, so you'll have to choose whether you'll want to shoot daggers at your foes from distance, throw poison traps at their feet, or maybe stop time and destroy them before they can move. Add to this wolf and bat forms (the latter allowing you to fly around the castle!), summoning familiars (later in the game), and all sorts of magic, and you'll realize there is more to the RPG angle of the game than the initial premise of automatic leveling. There is plenty of choice in outfitting, customizing, and preparing your character as you turn him into an unstoppable demi-god of destruction.
Symphony of the Night is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful 2D games I've come across. The interiors of the castle emanate a cozy atmosphere that envelops you the moment you step into it. The backgrounds are gorgeously detailed, having an opulent, "decadent" appeal, complete with expensive materials, saturated colors, bloody sacrifices alongside classical works of art, etc. The heavy turn-of-the-century vibe penetrates the whole game, giving it a certain fictional authenticity: the castle of an old, immortal Transylvanian vampire looks and feels pretty much like you would have imagined it. Even the clearly needless platform structures don't destroy this impression.
Graphics and music complement each other perfectly in this game. Modern-sounding, rhythmical tracks are somewhat suppressed, and instead we are often treated to orchestral tunes reminiscent of early-to-middle 19th century romantic era. Nothing beats fighting ever-respawning floating ghosts and axe-throwing skeleton warriors while gazing at lush, red velvet curtains and listening to something that seems to have been lifted out of Berlioz with a tinge of Schubert.
Finally, the story is, in my opinion, not at all as bad as some people make it out to be. First of all, I find Alucard a cool protagonist (just try not to look at his portrait during dialogues for needless Japanese pseudo-gay service). He is a brooding, melancholic half-vampire who wants to atone for the sins of his father; much more interesting than all those goody-two-shoes Belmonts in my eyes. Second, there are some genuinely suspenseful and dramatic moments as the plot advances. Third, the English translation and voice acting are bad, but somehow they add to the game's charm. Come on, this game without its "miserable little pile of secrets" would be the same as Final Fantasy IV without its "spoony bard"! I even tried the Japanese version just to experience the game with allegedly excellent voice acting; believe me, the anime-esque aggressive barking hardly makes the plot any more serious than the goofiness of the English version.
The BadIf someone asked me which game is more pleasant to play, Symphony of the Night or Super Metroid, I'd probably go with this one. But in terms of pure perfection of design, I'd place the older classic slightly higher. The reason for that is a certain lack of urgency and atmospheric tension resulting from this game's low difficulty level. Symphony of the Night is barely a platformer; yes, it consists out of areas filled with platforms, but there just aren't enough hazards out there. I'm glad there is no falling damage (and hence no cheap deaths); but there is hardly any other damage at all besides the mild amount of it inflicted upon you by enemies.
The thing is that the addition of a RPG system, coupled with respawning enemies, made power-leveling a very simple affair, meaning that Alucard is going to make mincemeat out of pretty much everyone in the game without too much trouble. Add to this convenient save points that fully heal him, an infinite supply of hearts to use special abilities (you can just re-enter areas and hit candles until you have reached the maximum). It may sound like a weird complaint, but I felt there were perhaps too many ways to crush your foes. Why bother hunting for an extremely rare piece of armor or perform tricky magic spells if you can deal with your enemies the simple way - by easily hacking them to pieces?
You accumulate a huge amount of weapons and equipment you don't really need, so naturally you hope to sell them. However, I couldn't find a way to sell anything but gems, which usually fetched measly prices. Also, I wasn't particularly thrilled to find out that the second half of the game took place in a "reversed castle". I'd prefer a new castle or maybe some other types of areas instead of this variation on the same theme.