Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is the first Playstation installment of Konami's storied vampire-killing series. When I first heard about Symphony of the Night, I was somewhat doubtful that it would be able to surpass Dracula X: Rondo of Blood for the PC-Engine. After all, Rondo of Blood was head and shoulders above all of its Castlevania predecessors, and subsequent Castlevania releases did not come close to it either. However, once Symphony of the Night arrived, it became readily apparent that Konami has really outdone themselves this time; not only does Symphony of the Night surpass the mighty Rondo of Blood, it sets a new standard for 2D side-scrolling action RPGs.
4 years after Dracula's last defeat, Richter Belmont, Dracula's most recent slayer, has suddenly disappeared. In addition, Castlevania, Dracula's domicile, has mysteriously reappeared, even though it was only supposed to reappear every couple hundred years. Maria Renard, Richter's sister-in-law and former vampire killer sidekick, travels to Castlevania in an attempt to find clues to Richter's disappearance.
At the same time, Alucard, Dracula's half-human son, is abruptly awakened from what was supposedly an eternal slumber. After last fighting his father (helping Trevor Belmont defeat the mighty Count), Alucard had attempted to end his cursed bloodline by taking that permanent nap. Not too sure of why he was awakened, Alucard heads to Castlevania to find some answers as well.
Symphony of the Night makes a departure from past Castlevania games in that the main character is not a member of the Belmont family. You play as Alucard, and he proves to be an even more compelling and charismatic protagonist than any members of the Belmont clan. Konami not only provided a creative twist to the series by introducing Alucard as the main character; they improved it immeasurably.
The basic 2D side-scrolling action from past Castlevania games is maintained in Symphony of the Night, and Symphony of the Night does it better than just about anything else I've ever seen. Alucard runs through areas, jumps over imposing crevasses, and collects items by striking candles and other light sources. Auxiliary weapons (such as daggers and axes) can be used at the cost of hearts.
The similarities end there, however. Symphony of the Night introduces a slew of gameplay features new to the series. Unlike the whip-wielding Belmonts, Alucard primarily uses swords (though several other weapon types can be obtained and used), and can also use a shield to defend himself from projectile weapons.
Alucard is also able to pull off a host of moves that the Belmonts never dreamed of. Magic spells can be executed with fighting game-styled directional pad combos. Upon finding the correct items, Alucard can change into a wolf, a bat, or mist, allowing him to access areas previously unreachable to him in his human form. The son of Dracula can also enlist the aid of several familiars, which help him find secret passages or attack enemies. Examples of familiars include a flying sword, a fairy, and a bat.
Despite taking place in its entirety in Dracula's abode, Symphony of the Night carries a significantly different layout than most of its predecessors; the layout here most closely resembles that of Castlevania II: Simon's Quest for the NES. Instead of moving through linear stages, Alucard can freely travel between the different areas of the castle. In addition, Alucard gains experience points for killing enemies. Leveling up raises stats such as attack power and defense and increases HP, though most of his HP will be raised by finding life containers scattered throughout the game. The familiars can gain EXP and level up, too.
Despite its near-perfection, the Symphony of the Night gameplay has one minor problem. It's too easy, especially when you fight bosses in the game. Just exploring the castle fully (which most RPG fans are likely to do) will almost surely net you enough EXP so that you don't have to use any strategy at all against the bosses; you can just run up to them and hack away, and you'll still generally beat them quite handily. The second castle is more challenging than the first, however.
Symphony of the Night's near-impeccable control contributes heavily to its incredible gameplay. Alucard is extremely responsive to the control pad, moving at a good pace but still carrying enough resistance so that he feels substantial. The jump control is especially noteworthy; it's perhaps the most precise that I've ever seen in a 2D side-scroller. There's even a backwards dash button that allows you to quickly move away from danger (or towards it, if you're a more daring gamer). The only weakness here is that all of Alucard's animal forms control pretty sluggishly.
The menus are also organized really well; equippable items are sorted by what part of the body they are equipped on, and spells, relics, and familiars all have their own menu screens. However, it would have been nice if you could sell off obsolete weapons and items or at least throw them away; Alucard accumulates a ton of different items and equipment over his quest, and the menus end up getting really cluttered.
Symphony of the Night is extremely impressive visually, and is the best looking game in the series. The backgrounds are beautifully drawn and sport an assortment of colors that are pleasing to the eye, and, at the same time, still convey the dark atmosphere of the game. There is also a lot more variety in the backgrounds than you would expect in a castle, so that was a pleasant surprise too.
The characters are similarly pleasing to the eye. Alucard is small, but extremely detailed in appearance. He is also arguably the most fluidly animated character in a 2D sprite-based game to date. I especially liked the way he leaves ghost images behind him when moving quickly. The enemies look great, too, and while they don't have the same attention to detail in their animation, they still move smoothly. The bosses are often huge, and look very impressive too. The only weakness in the graphics is that there is more noticeable pixellation than in the graphics of some of the other top end 2D sprite-based games, especially in the characters.
Symphony of the Night also excels in the sound department. The sound effects are quite robust, and among the strongest that I've heard on the Playstation. Explosions are substantial, and enemies' cries and howls are often bone-chilling.
Still, the best part about Symphony of the Night's sound is its soundtrack. The Michiru Yamane-composed score is one of the greatest of all time, and the sound system used is amazing (the streamed music sounds almost as great as redbook). Like past Castlevania games, many of the songs are Baroque-influenced melodies performed in a rock style, but there is much more stylistic variety here than in past Castlevania games. "Prologue" is one of the finest hard rock tunes to ever grace a video game. "Dracula Castle" is a pounding rock theme with a soaring melody that ranks as perhaps the best song the series has ever seen. And "Awakened Soul" fuses a Santana-esque melody to a danceable beat to create a surprisingly effective laid-back number. The only low point in the soundtrack is the cheesy Top 40-ish ending theme "I Am The Wind," but the remainder of the score more than makes up for this stinker.
The one negative aspect of the sound is the atrocious voice acting. The spoken dialogue in the game sounds flat, devoid of emotion, and forced. The voice acting was especially annoying to me after hearing Ryoutarou Okiayu and Chisa Yokoyama (as Alucard and Maria, respectively) do fantastic jobs in the Japanese version of the game.
Symphony of the Night's storyline is its weakest aspect, but it does manage to be a lot more interesting than the stories in past Castlevania games despite an abundance of poorly written dialogue. Character development is minimal, and the supporting cast is almost non-existent, but there are some interesting plot twists to discover. Playing as Alucard was also nice departure from the norm in the series, and I ended up liking him a lot better than any of the Belmonts. Hopefully, he'll get to star in future games in the series.
Symphony of the Night is one of the best games to ever hit the Playstation, and ranks behind only Ys IV: The Dawn of Ys as far as my favorite action RPGs go. Don't hesitate to pick this one up; you'll probably be blown away just like I was.
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