Castlevania Symphony of the Night is the 13th game in the Castlevania series. With a long tradition of excellent side scrolling action titles, SOTN had some very large shoes to fill when it was originally released back in 1997. It launched to universally great reviews, and is generally regarded as one of the best 2D side scrolling games of all time, but can it stand up to the test of time, and how well does it translate to the Xbox 360?
Symphony of the Night tells the tale of Alucard and his quest to banish Dracula’s bloodline from the world. The story begins as Castle Dracula appears out of the mist, as it does once every hundred years, and Alucard goes to investigate. Once he finds out that someone is attempting to awaken Dracula, he sets out to stop them. The story isn’t a terribly well written one, but it gets the job done. It also provides the material for the cheesy voice acting that the game is known for, but more on that later.
The gameplay in SOTN is near the pinnacle of the 2D side scrolling adventure game. It seamlessly combines platforming elements with a moderately complex combat system to achieve a delicate balance of awesomeness. The castle itself features an elegant design, with at least 10 distinct areas, each with their own unique design and architecture. The level design is amazing, with a Metroid-esque flavor leading you to search the castle to find new abilities that allow you to explore other areas of the castle. The genius of the level design becomes even more apparent when you unlock the inverted castle and you can truly appreciate the depth of design.
There are many options open to the player as far as combat is concerned, with several types of weapons ranging from swords to flails, knuckles, and projectiles. Shields can also be equipped, offering a choice of equipping a weapon and protection, or multiple weapons. Combine this with over a hundred weapons and shields, and you have an almost limitless opportunity for creative combinations. This also has a side effect of giving the game enormous replay value. Many of these items are rare drops from common enemies, so repeated play-throughs are often quite different. Playing this game on the 360 was probably my 7th or 8th time through the game and yet still managed to have an enemy drop a weapon never seen before!
There are a wide variety of enemies in the game, ranging from your lowly skeleton, to armored warriors and demons. Many enemies are pushovers once you figure out their attack pattern, but there are enough hardened baddies to keep you on your toes when traversing a new area, especially if you’re not properly equipped or leveled. While you level to a point in the course of playing the game that most enemies don’t pose a serious threat, there are still several that you’ll run into that can inflict massive damage and prematurely end your adventure. There are also several instances where enemies don’t have to threaten your life to impede your progress. The crows in the Royal Chapel are a very good example of this. While they don’t do enough damage to kill you, unless you’re careless, their ability to knock you out of the air and back to the bottom of the bell tower can make traveling up the tower rather difficult. Likewise, some enemies inflict status effects and simply let the other stronger enemies finish the job. Overall, the variety of enemies stays fresh throughout the majority of the game, and makes each new area that much more exciting because you never know just what you’ll find.
Aside from standard weaponry, you also have a series of sub-weapons. These are weapons that cost hearts to use, and generally do mediocre to poor damage. Most of these are out-and-out bad, but there are a few exceptions. They don’t make a very significant difference, unless you want them to, past the beginning of the game. You also have the option to use magic in the game at the cost of MP. This comes in several forms. The first is the different types of vampiric transformations Alucard can perform once unlocked, turning into a bat, mist, or a wolf. There are skills for each of these forms which can be acquired to enhance their usefulness. There are also spells which Alucard can perform by executing certain button combinations. The only thing necessary to unlock these is to successfully perform the button combination. The last form of magic available to Alucard is weapon magic. Some weapons have special abilities that can be used by executing button combinations similar to spells.
One of the nicest things about the game is how aurally pleasing it is. The soundtrack is masterfully constructed and each distinct area has its own background music. The music draws on many different styles ranging from metal and techno to classical, all the while remaining almost ambient. The music really helps immerse you into each environment you encounter. The voice acting in the game is laughable at best. From hammy dialog, to poor execution, the cut scenes are generally bad. This almost makes the game more endearing, as the cut scenes become comedy relief as well as a vehicle for conveying the storyline.
Visually the game holds up rather well considering it’s 10 years old. While it looks a little pixelated without the enhanced graphics option, with them activated it looks marvelous, even when stretched out to cover a widescreen HDTV. Either way, the game’s blend of still and animated backgrounds really heighten the 2D experience. There were a few CG cutscenes that were in the original that I noticed were missing from this release of the game. Most likely, Konami would not have been able to update the graphics like the rest of the game without redoing the cutscenes entirely. Since they weren’t very important before, you shouldn’t really miss them now that they’re gone.
SOTN is a great game, but it isn’t without its flaws. One of the main flaws is difficulty. The game isn’t terribly difficult for a newcomer to the series, but once you figure out what weapon combos to use the game becomes quite easy. It’s possible to beat the majority of the bosses in the second castle in under 5 seconds. Another flaw with this version of the game is the fact that the Playstation version of SOTN was ported rather than the SEGA Saturn version which included extra areas and extra boss fights. While not a major drawback, the extra content would’ve been nice especially for those of us that only had the Playstation version.
The flaws in SOTN don’t even come close to surpassing the positive aspects of this game. When compared to other 2D games on XBLA, while the graphics might not look quite as nice, the amount of depth and variety to this game easily put it past all other Arcade offerings. This quality level of this game is something new to XBLA, as the game offers hours of enjoyment your first time through and the high replay value will keep dragging you back for more. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is a welcome addition to the XBLA lineup and should be a welcome addition to your hard drive.
Final Score: 9 out of 10 - Very Good (How do we rate games?)