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Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PlayStation) artwork

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PlayStation) review

"Be wary. This review assumes you already know the basics of Symphony of the Night. Let this not be your first review. Instead, read another review and, if at all possible, play the game first. Come back afterwards and then read on. "

Be wary. This review assumes you already know the basics of Symphony of the Night. Let this not be your first review. Instead, read another review and, if at all possible, play the game first. Come back afterwards and then read on.

I've been a Castlevania fan for some time. My introduction to Castlevania was, naturally, the NES, with 2 and 3 being favorites for different reasons. Super Castlevania IV on the SNES was a pleasant change, particularly musically, and when I finally had a chance to go to Japan in high school I made sure to bring back a copy of the mysterious Dracula X for the PC Engine SuperCD, known only from a few pictures in an old EGM.

When Symphony of the Night (henceforth SoTN) was released I was immediately drawn to it. It was a direct sequel to the PC Engine Dracula X that I had bought so many years before. In fact, the opening scene in SoTN is the fight with the final boss in Dracula X. Not only that, but as one of the few fans of the more open-ended play style utilized in Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest I was eager to see how SoTN fared, particularly as it was in clear defiance of Sony's near ban on 2D titles in the early Playstation library.

I really don't remember much of my first encounter with this game beyond my initial excitement at the open sense of exploration and discovery. I have been playing SoTN on and off for years since then, however, so this review will be based on those repeated playings. Be wary, I am opinionated and not afraid to share. Beware raving fanboys. I am sure to offend thee.

The feeling of excitement when you start the game is incredible. Beginning the game with an epic boss fight is pure genius, even if the boss is much easier than in his original presentation. It's a tease, giving you a Belmont, whip and abilities and all, when you'll later be using the mysterious Alucard. Luckily, Alucard does not disappoint. When you enter the castle the sense of scale is immense. These hallways are where Belmonts ventured but you are not bound by their limits. You can go back and forth, revisiting, exploring, developing... You gain levels, you acquire weapons and armor and items galore. You fight and fight and fight and sometimes you get a rare weapon or other item dropped by an enemy as a reward for your patience, skill, and luck.

In the way you are allowed to explore the game feels very much like Metroid, especially so like Super Metroid and later 2D Metroid excursions. But all is not perfect in paradise. You can level up by killing for experience. You can also expand your magic, life, and hearts via items scattered about the castle. You gain more power. Whereas in Metroid the challenge is a gentle curve, enemies getting gradually tougher as you acquire a new suit or a new gun or more missiles, in SoTN the curve is quite different as you gain levels and power. Early in the game you are restricted as to where you can go by your abilities, but later in the game you are limited only by your chance of survival against the enemies inhabiting the area. Sometimes the jump in difficulty between one area and the nearest match challenge-wise is incredibly steep. If you hack away at enough of Dracula's locals, however, you find they quickly become too easy. You'll run into enemies that are challenging simply because of how much it hurts when they hit you and how many times you have to hit them. It does start to feel like you are on a treadmill

See, ultimately SoTN suffers from problems related to the Law of Diminishing Returns. Beyond a certain peak point in the game, the rest is just more of the same with less to pull you along. The first half of the game is beautiful and rewarding. There are enemies and unique environments everywhere. The castle feels alive and you fit right in. It's a bit on the easy side as you level, but overall the experience is engrossing. The music is wonderfully crafted here and contributes greatly to the atmosphere.

If you want the best ending and go to the inverted castle, however, it all changes. Because all the environments are upside down it's much harder to make the enemies fit in in an organic and intelligent fashion. As there's no new level design everything feels much more haphazard and suffers from “been there, done that”. The number of places you can't reach via double-jumping, thus requiring use of the awkward super jump ability, is far too great. Besides this, the characters you enjoy in the regular castle are no longer present. You are a loner, a stranger in a strange land. Enemy placement is also more sparse. The castle feels lifeless and, at times, empty.

Enemies are also more commonly recycled in the inverted castle, so you'll be seeing more of, and spending a lot more time killing, familiar creatures. The music, while still quite atmospheric, is a lot darker and more monotonous. In a way it fits the inverted castle well. There are, however, too many areas where moving about is so awkward and time consuming that you end up listening to the same monotonous tune over and over again. The inverted Colosseum is the best example of this. The music is creepy and grating and repetitive. It's also quite effective at getting on your nerves, particularly given that this is one of the most difficult and time consuming areas to navigate effectively because of the upside-down architecture.

On the whole, I think I would have actually enjoyed the game more without the inverted castle. Instead of giving us an entire castle, inverted and with different enemies, Konami should have given us a couple extra areas to explore to achieve the best ending. I really feel the inverted castle ended up being a case of shooting oneself in the foot. I also think SoTN could have learned more from Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest and the Metroid series. They should either have made power advancement commensurate with enemy abilities in set intervals with no leveling at all or have coupled this element with slower level advancement and smaller level-up rewards. That way leveling would take a back seat to exploring and discovering new items and abilities to boost power levels. As it is leveling becomes the best way to tackle a difficult area, and it's so easy to do you'll be ridiculously overpowered before you notice what's happened. And with all the tantalizing rare drop items they've included in the game, many people will be leveling to insane heights without necessarily trying, only to finally get the rare weapon or armor they seek and as a result have their power booted yet again.

This game leaves me frustrated. I love this game but there are so many caveats. I see so many 10/10 reviews for this game, and on a purely emotional level I want it to deserve them, but it doesn't. It's a great game and a work of 2D beauty and skill, but it could have been so much greater with a more reserved stroke of Konami's hand. Whenever I break out the game I have fun, but I have a lot less fun once I've started exploring the inverted castle and begun my quest for specific rare items or accomplishments.

It is uncommon that a game causes me to feel so torn on so many levels. I hope Konami is happy. If there's one thing they've accomplished it's tormenting me.

marurun's avatar
Community review by marurun (August 17, 2006)

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