A symphony brings to mind sweeping, grand orchestral moments in perfect harmony with one another. There’s something almost poetic in that imagery. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is just as poetic: a beautifully designed crescendo of gameplay mechanics that combine to create a gaming masterpiece that stands the test of time. Even with a less-than-ideal port, the title manages to impress.
I’m unfamiliar with the “Metroidvania” subgenre of action RPGs. I can easily count the number of titles I’ve played in the genre on one hand. Unfortunately, that lack of knowledge spills over into the iconic Castlevania series. My first foray into the series was Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance not too long ago. Still, there’s no shame in having to start somewhere, and I liked the title well enough to hear the recommendations of others and dip my toes further into the series. What intrepid site-goers might not know about RPGFan as we celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary is that Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is the first game we ever reviewed. We liked the idea of revisiting the title for a retro review to celebrate the website, and since I recently purchased a digital copy of the title, here I am!
As you can no doubt tell from the game page, Symphony of the Night is a title we hold in high regard here at RPGFan, and it’s already been revisited for reviews a few times. However, we’ve not yet covered this particular port, which comes bundled in a Castlevania Requiem package alongside Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (which leans outside our coverage with its gameplay). The Requiem port I played on the PS4 is more than adequate in conveying the many strengths of Symphony of the Night. Still, unfortunately, it’s relatively bare bones with few bells or whistles like art galleries to speak of, along with some questionable control mechanics. Still, It’s a testament to this game’s good design that it remains an excellent and enjoyable gaming experience despite the Requiem port’s weaknesses.
The year is 1797. With help from a young Maria Renard, Richter Belmont defeated the sinister Count Dracula five years prior during the events of Rondo of Blood. However, the famed vampire hunter mysteriously disappears as the supernatural Castlevania materializes again. Maria is determined to find the missing Richter and travels to the castle at the same time as Dracula’s son, Alucard, goes to face his father and save innocent lives. Alucard doesn’t get too far into the castle grounds before being confronted by Death, who strips him of his powerful gear and forces him to proceed through Castlevania in a weakened state. Maria and Alucard’s paths ultimately entwine as they search for answers: what happened to Richter? Can Dracula’s machinations be stopped once and for all? All Alucard can do is traverse through the castle’s deadly halls, fighting its denizens of darkness as he goes.
Anyone versed in the action RPG genre knows many basic mechanics in Symphony of the Night. Alucard finds and equips pieces of armor and weaponry as he progresses, granting him stat bonuses or giving him access to special abilities depending on the weapon. You can equip either two weapons or a weapon and a shield, switching between one or the other with a button press. Inputting combos can activate a weapon’s innate unique ability, such as launching projectiles in the case of the Moon Rod. You also acquire unique magic spells that get unlocked via combos. Alucard can choose between sub-weapons, such as a stopwatch that freezes time temporarily or a throwing axe, so long as he has enough hearts. Alucard gains the ability to temporarily change into a wolf, a bat, or even mist, and there’s a magic point gauge also to consider when changing forms.
Combat is fast and fluid throughout Symphony of the Night, keeping you on your toes strategically, especially in the beginning when you’re running around in a weakened state. Fortunately, leveling up and acquiring new gear helps decrease potential frustration. As you investigate the castle, you stumble upon Relics, items of great importance that grant Alucard new, helpful abilities. These include letting you see how much damage you unleash on a foe, increasing your likelihood for item drops, and gaining the ability to super jump or transform into Alucard’s different forms. Later on, you come across cards that let you summon an AI-controlled familiar to aid you in (and sometimes outside of) combat.
Gaining these Relics grants you access to parts of the castle that were inaccessible before. Transforming into a bat allows you to fly to higher reaches, or use your mist form to pass through blocking grates. Even regular items you acquire can become game-changers, such as the Spike Breaker armor that allows you to pass harmlessly by dangerous spikes or the Holy Glasses you can acquire from Maria that allow you to see hidden things and potentially even alter the outcome of the game depending on how and when they get used. You can tailor the game’s challenge level to your liking, and I love the feeling of progression as Alucard gradually becomes an extreme powerhouse the more of Castlevania you uncover.
Symphony of the Night’s castle map comprises several levels and a secondary inverse castle, depending on actions made throughout the game. Each area has a unique look and feel, replete with varied enemies you must find strategies to overcome. Reaching the final segment of an area sees you squaring off against its boss after defeating the previous hordes of enemies. The level designs are phenomenal, with impressive attention to detail. A candlestick might contain a heart or item, and a crack in the wall could lead to a secret room containing a permanent health-increasing item. Traversing a rapidly enemy-filling area while trying to avoid damaging water until you can safely swim requires quick reflexes, and using the stopwatch in a room with a massive clock offers a surprising secret. The inverse castle design is a bizarre, upside-down mirror reflection of areas previously travailed, but figuring out how each element gets redesigned is fascinating. Ultimately, Symphony of the Night is a masterfully designed game from both a control/gameplay perspective and a level design one.
Graphically, the nicely utilized sprite work and backgrounds are sharp and detailed, with little touches such as windows blowing open. Castlevania Requiem‘s port is essentially the PSP version of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and that does equate to a smaller screen size accentuated by a sometimes distracting frame around the game screen. Even selecting the “Full” Window option doesn’t eliminate it, though you can opt for a black frame if you choose. The character art and graphics have a noticeable grainy quality, particularly on larger screens. The monster designs—particularly many of the bosses— stand out in their nightmarish appearances.
The story is interesting enough to keep you motivated but sparse in presentation. I find Alucard to be a compelling protagonist, especially the more we delve into his story, and I love the amount of agency Maria has. Their interactions are plot highlights, alongside a surprising ending scene involving a discussion between father and son. Plus, Richter has fabulous hair! I like that there’s replayability with multiple endings to uncover. You can play as either Richter or Maria in this Requiem port after beating the game once. The script work is decent, though sometimes the lack of punctuation or the text going slower than the spoken dialogue in crucial scenes can be distracting.
Sound-wise, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is pure ear candy. The music is phenomenal! There were so many impressive tracks that I wanted to stop and listen to them all. It’s a shame that this port didn’t put the music gallery behind a wall of having to replay the game after beating it with a significant chunk of map progression and heading back to the library! Some tracks are more emotional, while others have an action-oriented tinge that kept me pumped as I explored and fought. The English voice-acting is also quite decent, though I know it’s the PSP version’s voice-acting, so I can’t compare it to the original. Still, it is vibrant and comes across as well-rehearsed.
Castlevania Requiem’s port has some questionable control mechanics, such as having to hold down two buttons and simultaneously be very exacting with the directional button you’re pressing to unlock the mist form. It took me a good twenty minutes to finally get through a grate when I had the earlier short-lived mist form, though fortunately, it’s easier with the later time-extending Relics you acquire for mist. Quicksave also doesn’t save the game at the point you use it. Instead, it sends you back to the last checkpoint you found, so you still have to backtrack depending on where it is. The item menu and equipment screen are somewhat archaic and cumbersome to navigate, especially when you gain more items in your inventory. Still, it’s a testament to how incredible Symphony of the Night is from a gameplay and overall design stance that even with minor Requiem port-related mechanic annoyances, the game’s still a genuine blast to play!
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is outstanding in so many respects, and I can genuinely understand how genre-defining it is now that I’ve had the pleasure of playing it. I managed to somehow squeak by with the best ending on my first playthrough with exactly 1847 rooms uncovered, but even still, a part of me wants to go back and figure out all of the hidden areas I didn’t uncover the first time. That’s a sign of an excellent game if there was one! The Castlevania Requiem port is disappointedly bare bones and probably the weakest version of the title. However, I recommend trying it if you’re curious because it’s your only way to play the game. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is a video game classic, worth playing even if the port isn’t ideal.