Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PS3)

Another free PlayStation Plus gem!  I’m a little ashamed I’ve played this before at least a couple of times, but I think that’s probably a plus in terms of evaluating this game critically.  Symphony of the Night is a meticulously crafted game that successfully leverages the Castlevania universe as an environmental aesthetic.  Gameplay is generally solid and also addictive, although not in the sense of the main Castlevania games that preceded it.  An odd mix of action and RPG, I’m surprised Konami let Sony give it away for free.

Environment/Art Design

In a very neat introductory sequence, you are thrust into the role of the protagonist of the prequel, who, coming to the end of his journey, is at the final door before confronting his family’s arch nemesis, Dracula.  The main reason for this sequence probably is that the actual prequel, Rondo of Blood, doesn’t seem to have been very commercially successful.  Then again, the end of any of the prior Castlevania games is probably sufficient to get the job done.  They are all the same game basically, which is what Konami was trying for SOTN to address. Alternatively, the game may be trying to setup the similarities between Dracula and the game’s true protagonist, his son Alucard.   Whatever the actual meaning of this strange end of one game as a beginning to another, the effect that it has is to bookend the traditional arcade style adventure, and separate it from Alucard’s tale.  Konami seems to be saying; hey we can still do it this way, but we’re giving you this now; that old format is history.  And, literally, the picture memorializing the old Castlevania disintegrates into flames.

A small scroll of text and some bad FMV (I’m sure it’s the best they could do for the time), set the stage for the actual game, which starts with Alucard running through a dense forest and entering the same castle a few years later.  Likely the first thing you’ll notice is the music, which has that Castlevania characteristic of somehow sounding both appropriately gothic, but having a rhythm that matches the onscreen action.  It’s a strong point in this game and has the effect of making everything seem more epic, but without being overly intense.

From an art concept perspective, SOTN successfully matches the Halloween-esque funness of the original Castlevania, where monsters aren’t really terrifying but are more vaguely spooky in a 1950’s monster-movie sense.  Many are comical, although the game doesn’t feel like it’s being too cute here.  The attempt at making Castlevania into a true terror series ended with Castlevania II apparently.  The character of Alucard himself is fashioned as something akin to Interview with a Vampire, having the air of nobility but also being a plausible action star.  The sprite detail for Alucard is good, although the attempts at over-animating it ultimately show some flaws in the PlayStation 1’s graphics.  In particular, the flowing hair and cape can look pixelated on bigger TVs, something that really stands out compared to the very good shading and pixel design in the backgrounds.  This is partly mitigated by having a tracing effect after movement like the Six Million Dollar Man special effect, although it doesn’t have the effect of being too distracting.  Other attempts at scaling enemy pixels for certain animations, or injecting limited 3D effects into the background are neat effects, but not for a PlayStation 1 game.  These are the same tricks developers were using in SNES games (case in point, Castlevania IV), and they do a disservice here by creating excess pixelation.  The design of sprites overall is good though, considering the game’s other strength.

The Big Death Fight

Pixelation is pretty noticeable in the flowing robes and hair, also Death is too easy.

That strength is scale.  The sheer number of items, enemies, effects, and environments makes playing through even the same parts a different experience each time.   There is something new in each room, and even the same confrontations can reveal unexpected rare loot.  The character’s morphing into mist, bat, and wolf form also are a clever way to restrict and control exploration using the vampire motif.  The map itself isn’t overwhelming large (the game probably could be completed by most players in under 15 hours); it’s large enough.  Even things like activating a lever to open a wall or remove a blockage from a passageway are all novel and different from each other, one shoots a cannon which destroys a wall, another lifts off a counter-weight and opens a gate.  It’s almost like someone on the developer team was showing off in solving the same problem in different ways.  It’s not that the game has a lot of different weapons, it’s just that each one isn’t distinct limited to being as far as having some abstract damage attribute, but also has its own custom design, speed, and unique bonus attack.

Story wise, there is not much here, but not none either.  This is mostly an action game, but Alucard’s relationship with his father is explored, and also the relationship with his mother.  The inclusion of Dracula. who is now depicted as more of an 18th century rogue than a green-faced monster, and the explanation of how Alucard came into being by Dracula’s relationship with his mother, Lisa, transform the series antagonist into a more sympathetic figure.  It also establishes exactly what the fundamental difference between Alucard and Dracula is, their views on mankind, which also explains what their conflict really is about.  This is better than using the old trick of letting the player assume he is taking the reins of a good or virtuous avatar because he is fighting something that is obviously supposed to be bad or evil.

Gameplay

Gameplay in SOTN is pretty good, although it’s not perfect.  Movement is overall very crisp and fluid, especially when coupled with the morphing dynamic and the augmentations to Alucard’s ability to jump that are introduced mid-game.  The description of these later Castlevania’s as being like Metroid is on point not just in the 2D exploration layout and the presentation of a world that feels open, but ultimately controls your first steps to build a story.  It’s also on point because the gameplay feels very smooth and has a rudimentary physics engine that is frequently used well.

The RPG elements are reasonably well integrated into the game, although arguably, they make the game too easy towards the end.  This is a game where you have a pretty basic set of commands, generally jump and attack, but the inclusion of hundreds of weapons, items, and power-ups makes each hour of playing different enough to avoid being overly repetitive.  This aspect is also helped by the fact that every area generally has very different enemies, who all of course may drop rare or helpful items randomly, making a grinding exercise slightly more bearable (although grinding isn’t really required).  Finally, by reducing the accumulation of experience later in the game through a diminishing returns system, there is obviously a cue to players to get to the point and not waste too much time rinsing and repeating.  There is a thorough stat system and menu, as well as another layer of an elemental system that shows SOTN was clearly influenced by games like Final Fantasy VI, even though the core is that of real-time action.  It’s not necessary to think about how each and every enemy responds to one of at least 6 types of elements, but the developers felt that it was worthwhile to program.  A chore that shows a commitment to attention to detail.

This choice aspect makes the game fun, but also, like a lot of RPGs, detracts from the possibility that it could be difficult.  For example, the ability to have sustained invincibility in mist form, or through use of spells that wreak havoc on all available enemies, or the overuse of helper “familiars” have the potential of being game breaking.  These examples don’t include the Duplicator item, which makes disposable items like rare health potions of devastating pentagrams unlimited, and the Gas Cloud upgrade, which makes the mist comically deadly.

The Inverted Castle

The one real area of criticism lies in the second-half of the game, which is very inconsistent break from the standard set in the first part.  The introduction of the Inverted Castle, an upside map that is a double of the first part of the game. obviously significantly extends playtime.  Unfortunately the quality also drops way off here.

The Inverted Castle feels like a chore to complete, not because it feels redundant, but because it just doesn’t seem as well-fleshed out.  You’ll notice that, now that ceiling is the floor, certain little details appear.  A sharp eye notices the Inverted Catacombs reveals a hidden “RIP” that probably was not noticed when going through the ordinary Catacombs when it was oriented right-side up.  The problem is that these little aspects aren’t enough to overcome the fact that some of the map layouts now feel claustrophobic and remove the signature mobility you’re granted in the first half.  Some parts I found myself continually resorting to the cheap mist form to avoid damage.  Maybe the point is for these areas is to be more difficult, certainly I agree that the difficulty should increase during gameplay.  Still, it feels sort of clumsy.  Although some attention was put into making designing the map for both orientations, the second part just feels like a different game in many parts.  It’s either way too easy or too hard, which historically I’ve noticed is something that longer RPGs struggle with.

The Inverted Castle portions are full of all new enemies and items, however, frequently music tracks repeat and color pallets look like they were designed using gaudy Photoshop color swaps.  Not only does a lot of the music repeats, but it’s also just bad.  Ultimately, the balancing and fine tuning in the first game seems to succumb to developer fatigue in the second half.   Bosses, in particular, are often ill-suited to be a challenge where the character by this point has the ability to turn invisible and move about the screen unmolested.  To boot, nothing significant to the story occurs in the Inverted Castle, aside from the game’s brief and obvious conclusion.

Conclusion

Although this game isn’t the precision arcade Castlevania adventures of old, it generally has enough balance to keep the player engaged, at least through the first parts of the game.  The exploration elements are well thought out (again, mostly in the first part only), and the introduction of a large assortment of weapons, armors, and upgrades augments the core jump/shoot dynamic enough to keep from getting stale.  Where it stands out is that it has a consistent art style with not-overly menacing undead bad guys, that is consistently applied to virtually all aspects of the environment.  Although the end portions betray the complete and well-thought out first half of the game, it still preserves enough of the fun to be enjoyable.  After revisiting this classic from the late 90’s, I think it might be time for me to see how many of the newer 2D Castlevanias are available on PS3/PSP.

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