"Throughout the glory days of the eight- and 16-bit systems, Konamiís Castlevania series earned a reputation as a tough, unforgiving collection of platform games. Moving your fragile (taking as few as four hits to kill) hero through level after level loaded with bottomless pits and awkwardly-placed enemies proved to be a frustrating task. An emotionally rewarding task, as beating Dracula, Death and the rest of the gang was an accomplishment to be proud of, but still a frustrating one. "
Throughout the glory days of the eight- and 16-bit systems, Konamiís Castlevania series earned a reputation as a tough, unforgiving collection of platform games. Moving your fragile (taking as few as four hits to kill) hero through level after level loaded with bottomless pits and awkwardly-placed enemies proved to be a frustrating task. An emotionally rewarding task, as beating Dracula, Death and the rest of the gang was an accomplishment to be proud of, but still a frustrating one.
But there was one old-school Castlevania game that just didnít fit in with the rest. Simonís Quest, the second of three NES games in the series, placed the focus on exploration instead of tough gameplay. With only a couple of easy bosses and tons of weapon upgrades and items to buy, Simonís Quest seemed similar to the Adventure of Link, only in the world of the Belmonts.
Now, fast forward to the Playstation. Two-dimensional side-scrollers like those classic Castlevanias are becoming a thing of the past, as 3-D games are the ďinĒ thing. Konami apparently decided to play a game of ďturn back the clockĒ, though, and the result was Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
Heavily inspired by both Simonís Quest and SNES classic, Super Metroid, C:SotN took the Castlevania series away from its roots. Gone were the bottomless pits of instant death. Dreaded foes like the flying medusa heads and the slow, but deadly, axe knights became early-game speed bumps. The thrill of overcoming challenging obstacles was replaced by the thrill of finding cleverly hidden weapons and items. In short, this game focused on exploration and an enormous variety of weapons and items rather than providing brutally tough stages to barely squeak through.
The game starts where the Turbo CDís Rondo of Blood (and SNESí Dracula X) ended. You control Richter Belmont in his climactic two-part battle with Dracula. Win to find out that Draculaís castle unexpectedly makes a quick return to the countryside, meaning the evil count must still have power. Richter, ready to earn a second win over lovable olí Fangy, heads back to the castle......and never returns.
Whoops! Anyone whoís familiar with the Castlevania games knows that Dracula wiping out the resident Belmont is NOT in the script, so something must be amiss. Fortunately, we have the wayward son of Dracula (Alucard from Castlevania III) waiting in the wings. So what are you waiting for? Take control of Alucard and embark on a quest for Richter and Dracula fueled by an epic storyline and....
Wait, letís rewind a bit. You arenít going to get an epic storyline here. Every once in a while, a supporting character will take advantage of some crummy voice acting to deliver advice or threats toward brave Alucard, but this gameís storyline can be summed up in four words: ďSave Richter, beat Dracula.Ē Of course, considering that Alucard and company are completely devoid of personality, itís probably for the best that Konami didnít try to force a deep plot onto this game.
But you will get great graphics and music. Watch Alucard make a frantic dash into the castle before the drawbridge closes. Watch a dark entryway become covered with light and listen as an amazing musical score begins. Watch beautifully-drawn monsters of all shapes and sizes accost our vampiric vampire-hunter ó from mundane skeletons and zombies to enormous and fearsome demons ó and listen to their dying growls, grunts and screams. Watch diabolical bosses ranging from a gigantic rotting corpse to a grotesque, spherical mass of human bodies try their hand at offering resistance.
You also will get plenty of exploration. C:SotN has TWO castles to explore. While the second castle is nothing more than an inverted version of the first, it gives the game a few extra hours of life, as you get to relive those Simonís Quest glory days by hunting down Draculaís body parts in this ďnewĒ castle. Scattered through both castles are a number of items designed to give your character new powers, allowing Alucard the ability to reach places he couldnít tred through before. If you played Super Metroid, youíll recognize a lot of the gameplay elements. Each new power you get will allow you to do things such as open previously locked doors or jump to ledges that were out of reach when you originally came across them. Youíll be backtracking a lot in this game ó and the rewards for doing so will be great. Powerful weapons and armor, cards to summon familiars, life-saving healing items, the ability to transform into a bat (or other beings) ó all of these goods can be found with a little bit of effort. Hitting weakened walls with Alucardís weapon of choice will create passageways leading to more hidden goodies. All in all, odds are that youíll be spending as much (if not more) time searching through each and every room for secrets and hidden areas than you will in actually advancing the quest.
But you wonít see everything this game has to offer unless you pull yourself away from striking every wall in every room looking for that one hidden piece of food and actually explore new regions of the castle. Each new region offers the promise of new abilities and weapons to find, as well as new enemies and bosses to fight. At times, it feels as though C:SotN is less of an objective-based quest and more of a mission to make the best Alucard possible.
Maybe thatís because the actual objectives are too simple to achieve. This game is E-A-S-Y. Most foes are nothing more than fodder standing between Alucard and his next destination ó and if they provide too much trouble, save rooms that automatically restore your life and magic are plentiful. Bosses range in difficulty, but even the toughest can easily be exploited, as many sorts of armor offer great resistance to various elements. And, if anything actually chips away enough of your life to put you on deathís door, odds are that youíve collected enough healing potions and food items that life restoration should be childís play. To be honest, itís far trickier to find all the secret rooms and items than it is to beat ANYTHING in this game if you know what youíre doing.
So, C:SotN isnít perfect, but how much does that truly matter? What this game lacks in difficulty and plot, it more than makes up for in pure entertainment. No matter how many times I play it, Iím always willing to come back for more. Instead of hastily jumping on the 3-D bandwagon like so many others had done, Konami showed us all just how beautiful a 2-D game can be. Maybe itís the graphics and sound, maybe itís the huge collection of beasts and bosses, maybe itís the way you can slowly turn Alucard into an unstoppable juggernaut by finding the right weapons and armor or maybe itís all of the above and more.... Regardless, I canít deny that Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is one of the more addictive and fun titles ever released on the Playstation ó even if I can beat it without ever breaking a sweat!
Community review by overdrive (August 20, 2004)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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