Castlevania: Symphony of the Night review
See? Vampires CAN be cool!
It’s safe to say that most gamers these days have old games lying around the house that have never seen the light of day. However, most of these games probably get to escape the confines of their cheap plastic casing within a couple of years. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (SOTN) hasn't been so fortunate. All it wanted was some love, yet I kept it in the darkness of my cupboard for over twelve years. After moving house, my eyes once again met the cover of the game and I thought enough was enough, why not give it a shot? I’m glad I did, because what SOTN offers is something that’s incredibly hard to come by these days, and that is a quality, 2D action-RPG experience. While the game isn't without its flaws, it is easily one of the leaders of the genre. If you’re into this sort of game, then SOTN is a must play.
The game is set four years after a short intense-interactive-introduction (say that ten times) which involves the slaying of Dracula (you tried it, didn't you?). A mysterious castle has appeared and Alucard (the main character, also Draculas son) tasks himself with destroying the castle, and in turn his father. Now, unless you’re a pre-teen girl, I’m sure you’ll agree that the film and television industry has recently turned vampires in soft, shiny, twinkly pretty-boys. Fortunately, Alucard kicks some serious ass. His journey, however, is unfortunately quite short and simple and there are only a few other character in the game that you’ll interact with. And let me tell you something; these interactions are as cheesy as….. cheese. On one hand, I don’t know what the developers were thinking when they both wrote the script, and chose the voice actors, but on the other hand, it kind of gives the game a bit of charm. With that said, it would be unfortunate if you missed out on experiencing this charm by completing the game pre-maturely…..
A pre-mature conclusion was certainly the case for me, initially. SOTN is a short game. You spend your time exploring a castle, killing bosses and making your way towards the final boss. Kill him, and your journey ends in several hours. Or does it? To get the good ending, and unlock the second half of the game (a second castle) you have to fulfill a set of very specific requirements before killing the ‘final’ boss. I didn't even know this was possible until I found out online, shortly after. I was a happy gamer after making this discovery but soon started to question where exactly I was in the game due to the fact the second castle is an exact structural replica of the first, except for the fact it’s flipped both horizontally and vertically. Now I thought this was kind of cheap. Why not just create a new castle from scratch? On the plus side, at least there were different enemies and backgrounds to refresh things a little. There are also a few other endings to unlock, but like I said before, this game isn't about the story, it’s about kicking ass and taking names.
SOTN has a hack n' slash style battle system. Alucard will be jumping around the place swinging his weapon at the right time to damage enemies. There is quite an array of weapon types that keep things interesting, each with their own range, attack power, and sometimes unique abilities. Alucard has HP, Heart (for special weapon use) and MP (for casting spells). The special weapons are quite interesting. Through your journey, you will encounter many special weapon drops, but you can only hold one of these at a time (there are about ten different kinds). These weapons suit certain situations better than others. For examples, some bosses may be weak against long range attacks, so choosing the dart would be ideal here. The Axe on the other hand is useful for enemies that constantly position themselves above Alucard. Spells also add a dice dynamic. Pressing the directional buttons in the correct order will unleash a magical spell at the expense of MP. You can either reveal these button combinations by purchasing spell books from the Librarian, or just try to guess the combination by mashing buttons randomly. In the end, there is plenty of variation in battle and this makes constantly fighting enemies a blast!
Despite the game being relatively short, the two castles are huge and there are tonnes of secrets to discover, including secret areas. Relics play a large part in the game and greatly change the way Alucard is controlled. Once discovered (some are required, some are optional), relics activate a variety of abilities such as allowing Alucard to jump higher or unlock certain doors. In addition, there are familiars that fight alongside you, each with their own strengths and weaknesses and these companions level up after gaining battle experience. Finally and most importantly, relics also grant him the ability to turn into creatures, as any good vampire should do. These transformations include a bat, a wolf and a cloud of smoke. The new abilities released from Relics not only allow you to reach new areas of the castle (you could probably imagine the amount of backtracking involved), but also add an extra dynamic in battle. For example, the cloud of smoke grants temporary immunity to damage which can be effective when trying to dodge a powerful enemy attack. But in the end, nothing beats flying around as a bat. He’s certainly no Batman, but he’s better than Affleck.
Just to make it clear, the single best thing about this game is discovering and unlocking new areas within the large mysterious castles. This is incredibly rewarding at times and the feeling of finding a relic and thinking “OH! I can unlock THAT area now!” is something that not many games can achieve. Most new areas have a fresh set on enemies as well as a boss, and this always keeps you on your toes. I do however have a bit of an issue with the difficulty. At times, it’s Dark Souls hard, particularly in areas at the start of the game when you’re adjusting to the mechanics or if you’re under prepared for a new area. But in the end, I found the majority of the game to be too easy. Towards the end of the game I was taking most of the bosses down with ease. Fortunately there was a super-boss that put up a bit of a fight (I still killed him on my first attempt) but not much else to cater for those up for a big challenge.
For a 15 year old 2D action game, SOTN does an outstanding job in creating atmosphere. Even though the two castles are almost structurally identical, the locations (background graphics) do vary quite a lot to help achieve this, but it’s the music that deserves the praise. Some of the tracks are just amazing, whether it pumps you up for an intense battle, or creates a feeling of mystery and loneliness, you can be sure that the wherever you go will have an outstanding background track. Turn the speakers up to the max, you’re in for a treat.
SOTN has been sitting in my cupboard gathering dust for over half of my life, but I must admit that it was a very pleasant surprise. It’s not often that you find a gem like this lying around your house, so if you have a game gathering twelve years’ worth the dust, maybe you should give it a go too. Now, the Castlevania series is still going strong and has plethora of titles. Because of SOTN, I will now be paying close attention to this long spanning series. Move over Twilight, Vampire Diaries and any other wimpy blood sucking vampire text plaguing our screens, Alucard is the real deal, and is here to kick some ass.
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