Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PlayStation) review
"What is instantly noticeable about SOTN, is the fluidity that the main character, Alucard, moves about with. He is like poetry in motion, his cape billowing behind him as he stalks, his movement decidedly confident and surging. His joints are like water. The enemies arenít half bad either. You wonít believe how large some of them are, and on one rather eye-popping occasion, Beelzebub, a generally unclean and unhealthy fellow, fills a few screens. "
The tale of the tragic prince
When I first saw the screenshots for this game, my heart smiled. Here was a 2-D, side-scrolling, hand-drawn beauty. Itís a glorious thing for the newest addition to a classic series to remain in keeping with its roots, in this age of 3-D polygonal role-players and platformers. It might appear simpler for Konami to have not tampered with formula, but in this case, it was truly courageous, and idealistic for the hit-maker to leave well enough alone. This is Castlevania, you see.
If you are unfamiliar with the series, you havenít owned a game console in the eighties (some would argue that you don't deserve to own one, even now). The legendary name has graced arcade, PC, 8 and 16-bit, and even handheld screens in over a dozen incarnations. If you really havenít heard of it, you should probably feel pretty silly by now.
The premise is simple. Play as a stout vampire killer, armed only with your trusty sword, (yes, not a whip this time) and venture through the shadowy realms of Castlevania, extirpating the centennially-arriving, iniquity incarnate, Dracula, along with his army of the undead. Leap, whip, throw boomerangs, axes and holy water; take hearts to power them and eat meat for sustenanceóthese are Castlevania staples.
As with every leap to a technologically superior system, SOTN thrills us with what it has done in the transition. Being on CD, naturally it is larger. Youíve got a Super Metroid-like map to traverse; you travel back and forth unlocking previously inaccessible areas. This may not be the Castlevania youíre used toóonly Simonís Quest on the NES featured this free-roaming, nonlinear, roleplaying-esque experience.
What is instantly noticeable about SOTN, is the fluidity that the main character, Alucard, moves about with. He is like poetry in motion, his cape billowing behind him as he stalks, his movement decidedly confident and surging. His joints are like water. The enemies arenít half bad either. You wonít believe how large some of them are, and on one rather eye-popping occasion, Beelzebub, a generally unclean and unhealthy fellow, fills a few screens.
Speaking of Alucard, playing as the son of Dracula really hits the mark in the cool factor department. This is a smallish thing to pick up on, but itís a touch that gives the game a more special, fresh feel than would have been possible without it. After all, how ironic is it that you play as a vampire, vampire-killer? While you did get to play as Alucard way back in episode III, he was nothing like this! It would seems as if heís aged gracefully.
SOTNís music is among the best youíll hear in a video game. The score is well worth purchasing. The tracks range from charged, inspiring, even raging, rock music; to baroque, somber chords of church choirs, hanging angelic notes on the air in your game room. In fact, the beautiful tunes make the entire package seem that much more classy and polished.
This game is pretty long for a platformer as well, and can be made even longer if, wellÖI wonít spoil it. Just suffice it to say, when you think youíre all finished, and have searched high and low, and turned the castle upside down, youíll realize you might be missing something.
And whatís this? Youíve played Dracula X for the SNES havenít you? Of course you have. And you know that the introduction for SOTN is taken from the actual ending of that game. Yes, a little continuity in a video game series. Now if only Squaresoft could figure that one out, with no offense intended to Sid at all (or is it Cid?). The fellow in the blue with the brown boots is Richter Belmont, the hardest Belmont of them all. Itís excellent watching him in the intro, and Konami teases the player a bit, providing Alucard as the main character and leaving us wondering at Richterís disappearance, and his role in the whole thing. Is he relegated to the background, to carry on in the poorly acted cinema displays with a whining Maria (the blonde ally that you may or may not recognize from Dracula X)? I think not! Another little bonus is offered to us by the designers, as we can play as Richter, provided we finish the adventure with Alucard first.
Finishing the adventure is actually quite easy by Castlevania standards, and there are many reasons for this unfortunate truth. The save points, are the first reason. They are liberally strewn about, so that after any sort of skirmish you can flee--sword between your legs--to the safety of a nearby save room to bail yourself out. Furthermore, when you reload your game, you have full energy again. Rest does wonders for Alucardís complexion, and his hit points as well, it seems. This makes for a game where itís very hard to die. Yes, I said hard to die, and dismiss those distasteful thoughts of Steven Seagal huffing about, breaking peopleís legs.
Speaking of breaking things, I think of how difficult the original Castlevania game was, (the third one was a killer as well) often flirting with the moderate frustration/destroy-the-game threshold, and I realize what it was that made it that way. The platform elements. All that jumping, over pits and spikes, with enemies placed sadistically near, would make your fingers slip on your control pad. The bad guys were always eager it seems, to knock you from your precarious spot right into a padded room. Remember the medusa heads that would knock you into oblivion? Theyíre in SOTN, and they look great, but they knock you, well, a few screens down, where youíll land without damage, shake your head, and continue upwards again. This is a pretty good indication of how things have taken a turn to the easy side in the next generation.
The good news is that 2-D SOTN made it in one piece to the 32-bit afterlife at all. Playstation fans could have gotten something akin to the 3-D abominations that N64 fans have had to put up with.
So what's to it then? If you there isn't much jumping around to do, what makes this a game? It's the exploration factor that is key to the game's success. It won't be hard to find such and such an item, or to put down the next boss standing in the way of you advancing, but you've got to find them first. Not in a boring, maze navigation sort of way, but in a ''Ooh, I wonder what's next to see and do!'' sort of way. And with the mesmerizing movement of Alucard, and music that is so sublimely pleasing to the ear, the easter egg hunt that is SOTN is just fine thank you, without all those nasty old school hazards like the sharp spikes and sharp drops.
Bless Konami for bringing this religious experience to the Playstation, despite it being sinfully unchallenging and atypical of standard platformer goodness. It gave me a good reason to buy the system, because I declared long ago never to miss out on 2-D Castlevania excellence in any form: heaven forbid. Brilliant.
Staff review by Marc Golding (January 14, 2004)
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