With countless Metroidvania games being released, it's a good time to revisit the origins of the genre. Symphony of the Night boldly took the Castlevania series in a new direction by incorporating exploration as the main gameplay mechanic in a similar fashion to the already established Metroid series. The result was one of the greatest video games ever crafted. As the 100th review on Video Chums, I invite you to join me in celebrating this brilliant example of gaming perfection in a modern review of a timeless classic.
Symphony of the Night is one of the rare Castlevania games that does not star a Belmont. Instead, you play as Dracula's son Alucard who travels to his father's castle with hopes of destroying it once and for all. Along the way, he meets an assortment of otherworldly characters that may offer their assistance or provide nothing but misery. He also occasionally encounters Maria who is searching for her vampire slaying brother-in-law, Richter Belmont. During the journey, you'll uncover twists and subplots, but nothing will stand in your way of finally committing the inevitable yet understandable act of patricide.
Visually, Symphony of the Night still stands tall as one of the best looking 2D games. The attention to detail is astounding as every pixel helps construct the unique atmospheric environments contained within the castle perfectly. You'll come across thirteen diverse areas that can be eerie, luxurious, mechanical, magical, or downright barbaric. Alucard moves with seamless animation and often leaves a trail of after-images. This effect may seem odd at first, but it adds a certain mystique to the protagonist that you don't get to see too often. As you slay your enemies (that come in well over a hundred varieties), they perish with distinct animations. This is best illustrated with the Owl Knight. When you slay his owl first then he becomes upset and begins mourning the loss of his feathered pal. However, if you decide to dispatch the knight first then the owl becomes enraged and relentlessly attacks you. Other examples include skeletons that explode into a mess of bones, suits of armour that collapse piece by piece, and enemies that burst into large pillars of flame. Subtleties within backdrops will have you asking questions like, "How did that corpse end up hanging outside the castle wall?" or "Why is there so much blood in this room?" Even after so many years, this level of detail remains unmatched.
As you probably know, the soundtrack prevails to this day as one of the industry's best. Each track suits its setting beautifully with baroque pieces providing lavish atmosphere for dignified areas, choirs chanting solemnly in the reflective chapel, and quietly creeping soundscapes adding to the disturbing nature of the deeply haunting catacombs. There are a few tracks that you wouldn't expect like the Colosseum's Latin guitar-fused number, the jazzy melodies in the caverns, and the uplifting rock and orchestral mix as found in the clock tower. Video game music doesn't get much more memorable than this. Besides music, the audio also shines when it comes to effects. Alucard and his enemies vocalise during battle which creates a constant back-and-forth dynamic. Upon landing successful blows, the resulting resonance is always satisfying. In fact, almost every action offers some pleasure such as chimes when you collect important items and the swift slashing when you brandish a sword. One complaint that many gamers have is the perceived poor voice acting. I do not agree. Alucard sounds manly with his deeper than deep tone, Maria is enchanting and down-to-earth, and Dracula delivers his lines with sinister intentions. Richter may be a little cheesy, but overall the voice cast does an excellent job of bringing life to the characters.
Enough about the superficial components, let's dive in to the gameplay. Alucard is controlled ingeniously as two buttons correspond to the items that he has equipped in either hand. Another button executes a quick backwards dash that is highly underrated as it can dodge enemy attacks if you use it effectively. He can also perform an array of special moves as he acquires them such as double jumping, shooting up into the air, various magic spells and weapon-specific moves, and the ability to transform into a wolf, a cloud of mist, and a bat on the fly. The vast arsenal of Alucard's intuitive abilities makes exploring the enormous game world enjoyable because you never have to think about the controls. As you learn additional moves, you can access new areas which is consistently rewarding from start to finish since there's always more to discover. At the halfway point, you'll find out that you must explore the castle again but this time upside-down. This might seem like a chore at first, but the second half keeps things fresh with new music, enemies and bosses, colour schemes, and treasures. Upon completing the maps (which will take a long time), you'll still continue to discover even more secrets.
That brings me to one of the most exceptional aspects of this undefeated classic which is its abundance of secrets. There are countless hidden moments waiting to be discovered. Some may be as abstract as a bonus song playing when you put the game disc in a CD player or as unexpected as having your save file take the form of a randomized icon. Of course, there are also plenty that you'll discover along the journey. You may notice that the bird underneath the outer wall eventually starts its own family or you may try to rocket into the air underneath the librarian thus carrying him along for the ride as he drops a suit of armour that transforms you into an old-school Castlevania enemy. That sounds made up, but trust me, it isn't. In the end, the effort put in to every possible nook and cranny makes Symphony of the Night a constantly rewarding treasure trove of seemingly endless content.
The only negative points that I can think of are extremely minor, but they should at least be mentioned. When you get a game over, you have to sit through a somewhat lengthy and humiliating screen. After that's done, you're taken to the main menu where you have to load your save. This makes continuing take way longer than it should. Also, previous Castlevania games are intensely difficult. However, Symphony of the Night provides way too many exploits that make the game easy. You can transform into a bat and fly over dangerous enemies, combine shields with the Shield Rod to render you virtually invincible, equip armour that makes you almost impenetrable, or simply over-level yourself to the point where you can breeze through even the toughest of foes. Of course, you can unlock Richter (who can't equip items or level up) as a playable character, so retro fans looking for a challenge will happily play as him.
To this day, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night remains at the top of its class in every aspect that it possibly can. Many games will continue to emulate its formula, but as of yet, none have succeeded in overshadowing this truly defining moment in gaming history.
- + The epitome of well-crafted 2D visuals and one of the best soundtracks ever composed
- + Perfect controls make exploration a joy
- + Endless amount of rewarding content
- - Annoying game over screen forces you to reload your save file
- - Too many temptations exist that can make the game as easy as pie