Early Castlevania games took players on journeys through linear levels where every step forward brought tear-inducingly difficult obstacles. Symphony of the Night, while still maintaining the staples of gothic art-design and a memorable soundtrack, took the series in a different direction, with RPG elements and a large castle to traverse and backtrack through.
Playing as Alucard, a vampire, means players are eventually able to turn into a wolf, a bat and even mist. The level design is reminiscent of the classic games in more areas than might be expected, but the challenging segments are far less densely packed. Only on a couple of occasions does the game throw long, lazily repetitious corridors at the player.
RPG elements mean that every player’s experience will be slightly different. Some bosses that are impossible for some can be squashed if the player has done a lot of grinding. A lot of thought must have gone into it, because rarely did I find the bosses too challenging or too easy: the balance seemed perfect, but the system is no doubt fragile.
The game’s presentation arguably magnifies its strong points and diminishes its weak ones. The game is a largely sprite-based side-scroller, but the level of detail is immense. If early Castlevania games felt like an interesting and oppressive world to explore, Symphony of the Night looks like one. There is a good game underneath the dressing, albeit a weaker one. It doesn’t just take a good looking game to compete with superb level design, it takes a beautiful one.
There are optional areas to uncover which are crucial to make the castle feel worth exploring. Rare items can be found, though the majority of treasures are not as interesting as their scarcity and location would imply.
Creatures are rarely repeated from area to area and have insane variety. Some sprites are recycled from Rondo of Blood but, since it facilitates the quantity of different foes, it is no problem.The music, while never as catchy as it was in the previous games, is fantastic as ever. Hammy dialogue and voice acting doesn’t suit the overall polish of the game but is charming nonetheless.
The game famously includes an entire second portion in which the castle is upside-down, which can be looked at as a way to elongate the game, but it continues to throw new enemies at the player and the less deliberate level design, while technically lazy, is also an interesting and organic feeling challenge. The flipped castle is fully explorable right away, without the obstacles of before, making it possible to go the wrong way and fight a boss that the player is not ready for. It isn’t really a problem because it highlights how orchestrated the main-game is in the first place and allows for different kinds of experiences in an optional portion.
Unlike another classic game that has received more scrutiny in recent years, Ocarina of Time, Symphony of the Night is not wrestling with a transition forced by changing technology. This game is transitioning, but it is building on ideas started with Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest and reuses sprites and an overall visual design lifted from a last generation title.
The game succeeds because it refuses to truly innovate, instead using the building blocks established by other Castlevania games, Metroid and RPGs to create an expansive and polished experience.
Though it stands upon its visual and sonic flair rather than refined gameplay alone, Symphony of the Night offers an engrossing atmosphere and world to get lost in.