Before I threw all my money at Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, I thought I had better at least play Symphony of the Night. Despite having always loved ‘metroidvania’ sensibilities, I had never completed any Castlevania or Metroid game. If you’re in the same boat, it’s about time you swam to shore. Or swapped boats, I guess?
The first cool thing I liked about Symphony of the Night is that it opens with misdirection in an MGS2 style prologue. As well as introducing the action-platforming mechanics, the narrative in this section is just enough to give the characters and setting going forward proper context. The actual plot throughout the game, to my surprise, was really good. You get some twists, and a bit of character development and back-story. Though the actual dialogue is mostly silly, some unexpectedly profound things are said at certain points.
SoTN isn’t revered for it’s narrative though, but for it’s design. As Alucard, you make your way through a castle, collecting items, upgrades and abilities allowing you to progress further. The reason this works so brilliantly, is the map. You always know where to go, despite the game being entirely non-linear. The map shows each room you’ve been in, as well as any passages to adjacent rooms. There’s always somewhere on your map to head to, at no cost of the game’s open structure.
The save system makes a pretty significant impact on this structure as well. Though likely just a product of the times, the save-room system creates a risk-reward system encouraging and rewarding exploration while making each life valuable. Death sends you back to the title screen, where you can load the game form your last save-room visit. So say you just beat a boss – do you head onwards, hoping to find a save-room close by, or do you head back to one you’ve already discovered, having to make your way through the same rooms of enemies you just conquered?
There are a bunch of bosses throughout the castle, each with certain strengths and weaknesses, and all super fun to fight. The boss rooms were some of the most fun in the game to me, and were always rewarding to beat. The designs of these bosses, as well as other enemies, are really wicked as well. One of my favourites was a huge spinning ball of guys, dropping mindless enemies to attack me while I carved away at it’s shell made of men.
It’d be hard to argue that 100% of SoTN’s design is less than flawless. However, this game doesn’t end at 100%, but at 200.6%. Achieving 100% completion rewards the player with a significant new chunk of game, in which you make your way through the same castle, only upside down. While I’ve heard people cite this is their favourite portion of the game, I can’t agree. While some sections made me appreciate the level design – making a room play well on the floor as well as on the ceiling – most didn’t. I felt that the more vertical segments relied a bit much on a flying ability, and that this second adventure got progressively easier, rather than harder – starting off quite frustrating. Of course, this all depends on what route you choose to take. On top of that, you already have every ability by the time you’re here, so it becomes less about collecting and exploring, and more about combat. Sure, you still have to gather items, but they feel far less significant.
I can’t imagine how awesome this game looked at the time of release. Still, in 2015, Symphony of the Night looks amazing. Of course, the pixel art is far from detailed, but beautifully designed none-the-less. Even cooler, is the game’s 3D effects. While most of the game is two-dimensional, certain objects exist in 3D. Having a book fly out of a shelf to attack you, or seeing different angles of a tower in the background is you walk passed it is still impressive and immersive. The soundtrack is equally commendable, filled with memorable songs suitable for their respective surroundings, and a bunch of them. The voice acting, as I touched on, is laughable, but is one of the few marks of the time that has any negative impact. Even then, it’s not totally bad, just a bit off.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is a game anyone who loves video games should play. Not only is it a great game by its own times’ standards, but by today’s. Had SoTN been released last month, I’d consider it just as highly as I do now. There are very few ‘classics’ I can say the same for. A great structure built around fun gameplay and cool systems, with tons of interesting secrets. If you haven’t, play Symphony of the Night.