Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night
Publisher: Konami
Genre: Adventure Game (Side Scrolling 2D Platform Game)
Cost: Castlevania: SOTN debuted at around $60
Platform: Sony Playstation, Sega Saturn (this review regards the Playstation edition)

The game Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is one of the best side-scrolling action games written for the Playstation platform. It features great music, incredible artwork, and some of the worst voice-acting ever performed.

The game stars Alucard, the half-human son of Count Dracula. In the game, the castle of Dracula - "Castlevania" appears mysteriously in some unspecified locale. Then, the star of a previous Castlevania-series game, Richter Belmont (Dracula X) disappears. Maria Renard goes to the castle to search him out. Alucard mysteriously has knowledge of the castle’s reappearance and heads toward it to put it to rest, as he is one of the good guys. To do this, he must battle through the horror-filled castle where he grew up, and defeat his father in battle, because when he does so, the castle will stream up into the sky in a festive spectacle of dancing lights. Are you confused yet? If so, I am pleased to inform you that this is nothing unusual, as the storyline for this game is extremely thin and makes very little sense.

The player’s role in the game is to control Alucard, and navigate him through the myriad puzzles and hazards of Castlevania, and take him to Dracula, whereupon the player must slay the heck out of him. Over the course of the game, Alucard must face various weaker enemies, and must vanquish them in order to get Alucard the experience he needs to improve his ability in battle.

The user interface for this game is very straightforward and easy to understand. The player controls Alucard and the interface using the D-pad (directional pad) and the ten buttons of the Playstation controller. Most moves (e.g. jumping, attacking) are invoked by button presses, but there are “moves” that are composed of a sequence of presses on the D-pad and the buttons.

Game Play:

The gameplay is, for the most part, side scrolling platform hack-and-slash. Alucard can use a variety of weapons, armors, relics and one-use items in battle. The player can save Alucard’s progress along the way using save points, which take the form of coffins which he can use to rest. The gameplay is spiced up greatly by the various special moves that can be done with some of the weapons and relics in the game.

Scoring

Scoring is measured in several ways. One thing that one can measure score by is the money total that Alucard picks up over the course of the game. Another is by measuring the percentage of the Castle that Alucard has explored. It is possible to explore, all told, over 200% of the castle, by the game’s metric. Another way is to try to obtain all the various weapons and powerups of the game, a task that results in an inventory of several pages in length. Yet another way to measure scoring is by Alucard’s level, which increases as a result of killing enemies. All of these are used together to give the player a good sense of reward for their playing time.

Artwork

The artwork of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is by far the most impressive aspect of the game. There are around a hundred enemies and about twelve different areas to the game, all with their own unique artwork. Many of the screens have multiple layers of parallax scrolling, sometimes in both the x and y directions, resulting in backgrounds that look very three-dimensional. The sprites are varied in size, and most of them are unlike anything this reviewer has ever seen in another 2D game, novel, or fantasy illustration. The creativity and scale of the artwork in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is sufficient to consider it a considerable advancement over the state of the field of 2D games of its time.

Sound and Music

While the sound effects are just fine, and the music is very, very good, the voice acting for Castlevania is among the worst ever. This has something to do with the voice actors being pretty darn horrible, but the translation has something to do with it. Here is an example (emphasis added as per the voice acting.) (transcript corrected as per Millenium's writeup ^_^)


Richter: Die, monster! You don't belong in this world!

Dracula: It is not by my hand that I am once again given flesh. I was brought back by HUUUMANS, who wish to pay ME tribute.

Richter: <whine>Tribute? You steal men's souls and make them your slaves!</whine>

Dracula: Perhaps the same could be said of ALL religions!

Richter: <smug>Your words are as empty as your soul!</smug> Mankind ill needs a savior such as you!

Dracula: (bad animation of dracula throwing a wine glass to the floor, where it shatters): What is a man? A miserable pile of secrets! But enough of this, have at you!


Special Features

When beginning the game, the player may enter a name for their save file. Choosing specific names for this save file can have various effects on the game.

These are names that have special effects on the game:

RICHTER - This lets you play as Richter. Things are much harder this way.

X-X!V''Q - You'll start with 99 luck, and a Lapus Lazuli item. All of the rest of Alucard's stats are terrible, though.

AXEARMOR - You'll start off with the Axe Lord Armor in your inventory.

In addition to these codes, beating the game with around 196% of the castle discovered will allow the player access to a secret item, as well as a sound test for the game.

Manual

The manual for Castlevania is relatively spare. It tells the reader about the basic cast of characters, and describes the controls of the game, and how to improve your character’s status and powers.

What is good/fun about the game and why?

The good things about the game are that there are a variety of weapons and armors that Alucard can win from enemies and find stashed throughout the castle. One of the fun things about the game is trying to find all the different secrets throughout the castle. Another fun part of the game is the variety of the enemies and areas of the game, and the artwork for both is incredible. In addition, very few sprites are reused during the game (e.g. with color changes), and each of the monsters have several frames of animation, and are very unique in appearance and behavior. In general, the level of creativity that went into the game is apparent in many of the scenes.

What is bad/not fun about the game?

One thing that is bad is the difficulty of the game, and the sophistication of the ending animation and endings themselves. After one gains a few levels with Alucard, the game will no longer provide a real challenge for better gamers. The endings are ok, but when contrasted against the incredible detail and complexity of the game, seem very weak. Also, there is no difference between the animation used for the worst ending possible and the animation used during the best ending possible; the only variation between endings comes during a scripted dialog carried out using sprites from the game, and these are not particularly compelling.

That said, it compares well to similar games in the genre, the only truly comparable game being Super Metroid for the Super Nintendo.

Audience

The appropriate audience for Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is core gamers age 13 and older. This is due to the violent nature of the game, and the graphic representation of violence.

Here are the ratings as far as the “Top 10 Design Sins” go:

  1. Boring Levels - The levels for Castlevania: Symphony of the Night are all different, but several of the types of puzzles are repeated throughout the game.
  2. The Sin of Repetition - Graphics and obstacles are not recycled. However, once one gets relatively far along in the game, it becomes more and more easy to blow through the obstacles, and eventually it gets to the point where merely one method of attack is needed to destroy even the most difficult enemies of the game, and in order for there to be variety in battle at all, it is necessary to choose not to use the most powerful tactics and weapons.
  3. Not Entertaining Enough - The only problem under this category is that of “When you win, you still don’t win.” – The “worst” ending for Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (if you do everything all wrong) and the “best” ending for the game are almost exactly the same, forcing one to wonder why one went to the effort of discovering the best ending for the game in the first place.
  4. Production Value - Voice acting hired for the American version of the project was HORRIBLE, and sounds as though it could well have been performed by the programmers on the Konami USA project. The lines could have been done better if they had been read into the mic using a deadpan, monotone voice (apparently the japanese voice acting is good to the point of being ethereal). All other aspects of the game are excellent.
  5. Conflicting Aspects of Production - There are no problems as far as I can tell.
  6. Licenses left unfulfilled - This game lived up to the Castlevania license very reasonably.
  7. Counterintuitive weapons and special moves - The moves were great and intuitive and excellent! They just make the game too easy.
  8. Difficulty - Optimal strategies exist and are obvious. Bosses are too easy. Only one or two tactics are needed against them, if that. Basically just either the Crissaegrim, the Holy Cross, or the Shield Rod & Alucard’s Shield combo are all that are required to defeat any enemy in the game.
  9. Execution – this is all good.
  10. Replay value – This is good, except that there is no way to change the difficulty.

Summary

Overall, I found Castlevania: Symphony of the Night to be an excellent game. The game is a little less challenging as one progresses through it, but this is only a real problem for replay, the first time through the challenge of navigating the castle and solving the puzzles is difficulty enough. All that being said, none of the flaws in this game were sufficient to keep me from fully completing it (200% area explored) three times over (once as Richter).

Highlights: The art and music, and the spooky gothic castle mood
Low Points: Unimpressive game balance, mediocre storyline and ending animation

As an owner of both the PlayStation (US) and Saturn (JP) versions, I would like to make a more complete list of difference between the two.

Graphics: The graphics in the Saturn version are, sadly, noticeably inferior to those of the PlayStation version. It is said that this arose from difficulty at getting hardware-based transparency to work on the Saturn.

Sound: The sounds which exist in both versions of the game are more or less identical. However, the Saturn has several more excellent music tracks, well worth looking into. This arises at least in part from the new levels introduced in the Saturn version. The Saturn version also offers a sound test from the beginning of the game.

It should also be noted that the Japanese voice-acting is much better than the American voice-acting. This should come as no surprise to most anime fans; as voice-acting is not as much of a respected profession in the US as it is in Japan. As a result, good voice-actors are more difficult to find, and much more expensive when they are found.

The script, however, is actually quite decent in the American version. Although Richter seems to have an odd propensity to speak entirely in exclamations, there is actually some decent dialogue in the game. If only it were acted decently... but then, it is, in the Japanese versions at least.

Gameplay: Gameplay for Alucard is very close to that of the PlayStation version. Likewise for Richter (who requires no special codes in order to be playable in this version). However, a third playable character is added: Maria Renard, who was a child in the previous game and has developed into a powerful magic-user. She has as different a playing style from the other two characters as Richter has from Alucard, and thus brings even more replay value to the game.

Two important differences in gameplay exists for Alucard. Firstly, in the PlayStation version of the game, if Alucard wishes to use an item, he must free up one of his hands (forgoing the use of a weapon or shield with that hand) in order to do it. In the Saturn version, he is given a third hand of sorts, allowing him to use items without disarming himself.

The second difference has to do with one of Alucard's abilities: the power to transform into a wolf. In the PlayStation, the wolf had the ability to swim, that is, it could move more or less freely in water, which Alucard's human form could not do. For some reason, this ability was removed in the Saturn version. Its loss will be felt by people trying to uncover the entire map, because watery areas become much more painful to cover.

Challenge: Largely –and regrettably– unchanged from the PlayStation version. Playing with Maria (as with Richter) does require new strategies to be learned, but once these are figured out the game becomes no more difficult with her than with the others.

There is one way to significantly increase the challenge of the game in both versions: play with a name of X-X!V''Q. This code, as mentioned in the above writeups, starts Alucard with a Luck score of 99 (and an item to boost it by yet another twenty points), but all of his other scores will be extremely weak. Couple this with the Alucart gear (fake versions of some of the most powerful items in the game) and his Luck will be boosted still higher, but his other statistics will remain very low relative to where they should be for the game. This makes the game, particularly at the beginning, much more challenging, as the ultra-high Luck score serves only to determine what items fallen enemies leave behind.

Other changes: Several other changes were made in the game:

  • New Areas: Four new areas were added to the game: the Underground Garden, the Hell Harden, the Cursed Prison, and the Reverse Cursed Prison.
  • New Enemies: Sixteen new enemy types were added to the game. To be fair, however, four of these were just variations on the same thing, and only two were bosses. Interestingly, if playing as Alucard, one of these bosses is Maria herself, who you must defeat to claim an item that is simply given to you in the PlayStation version. Richter does not fight her, nor does he ever meet her over the course of his game. Maria, obviously, does not fight herself.
  • New Items: Several new items were added to the game. Overall they do not seem to affect gameplay a great deal, though at least two powerful weapons for Alucard are added. Among the more interesting items is a cloak for Alucard which randomly changes its color as the character progresses through the game. This color change is reflected in the actual sprite for Alucard, and allows for some very interesting (and very silly) new looks for the dark, angsty half-vampire. He does not, for example, look very good in a hot pink cloak with a teal lining.
  • Options: I have already mentioned the options which were added to the game: the Sound Test, and the ability to play as Maria. However, one option was taken away. In the PlayStation version, the Master Librarian could offer tips on fighting bosses, for a fee. This was taken out of the Saturn version. Interestingly, in the PlayStation version, the Librarian would only offer tips on bosses which had already been defeated, and occasionally these tips were far from complete. For example, when fighting Galamoth (an optional, extremely powerful boss) the Librarian will mention that Alucard can actually heal himself using Galamoth's attacks. He does not mention that this requires a particularly well-hidden item.
  • Graphics: I have already mentioned that the graphics of the Saturn version are rather inferior to those of the PlayStation version. Certain animations were also changed, for various reasons. The Wereskeleton has a much cooler death animation, some kind of flaming backflip thing. But most of the animations changed had to deal with weaponry. This changed the range and speed of a few weapons, which in turn changes their gameplay style.

Overall:An ideal version of this game would have the graphics of the PlayStation version, but the gameplay, levels, and enemies of the Saturn version (the wolf problem notwithstanding). Sadly, we were never able to see that. But this is still a great game, and I would have to give a slight recommendation to the Saturn version over the PlayStation version, especially for those who can understand Japanese.


Frost has corrected his rendering of the opening dialogue, so I removed mine.

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