On March 20th, a CD video game was released for Sony’s PlayStation that I’d never heard of before. It’s name? Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. I had swung by my local game shop after work that afternoon, and happened to see its case displayed prominently on a shelf. The artwork immediately betrayed the game’s Japanese origins with the look of the protagonist’s face; yet there was something quite sad about the way this character looked, too, in a way that I’m not used to seeing with manga-style art. Sad and delicate. On a deludedly cashed-up whim, I brought the game to the counter, and the store owner (with his thin, red ponytail and evergreen pessimism) went and found the disc from a drawer back there. He almost smiled this time. Now that I think about it, that may have been a good omen – the game really is surprisingly good!
The first thing I must say is that it is quite derivative. This isn’t meant as criticism, though. I actually think it implements the things it has borrowed so well that it comes off as a love letter to its inspirations. It derives as much as it can from the best sources appropriate and then adapts them to its own unreproachable style. What am I talking about? Okay. Remember 1997’s quirkiest, most stylish beat-them-up game, Bayonetta? Of course you do – it was quite the hit! And fairly feminist, too, as Japanese games go. Well, there’s a healthy dose of Bayonetta’s soundtrack to be found within some of the songs in Symphony of the Night. Not literally; but the very chic, loungey jazz, as well as the catchy, soft metal, is so strongly reminiscent that I had to check to make sure the two games didn’t share a composer. While we’re thinking of Bayonetta, there’s also a borrowed special ability, too. Our protagonist in this game (Alucard) can tap R2 to become a sprinty wolf, just as Bayonetta could become a very sprinty panther. If my memory serves me, that transformation was even mapped to the same button…
There’s also the same blue-and-white menu system seen in pretty much every Final Fantasy game, and quite a bit of DNA from 2001’s Shovel Knight – most notably the occasional breakable wall hiding a cooked turkey, and the optional special weapon of an axe that is thrown in a very familiar graceful arc.
𝄞 Compare 𝄢
✦ Castlevania’s Crystal Teardrops to Bayonetta’s Chapter Start.
✦ Bayonetta’s God Sings A to Castlevania’s Prayer. (But the Castlevania track is a vast improvement on its source of inspiration.)
✦ the opening moments of this Final Fantasy theme (from FF XII) to the opening moments of Tower of Mist.
✦ and the motifs within Castlevania’s The Tragic Prince and Shovel Knight’s La Danse Macabre.
But let’s rein it in for a second. I should let you know what sort of game this is. One word: vampires!
No? No, I suppose not. Well, alright, it’s a 2-D action platformer, that takes place entirely in one level. But that one level is incredibly vast, and you only unlock its true extent very gradually. A map (viewable with a press of Select) fills in as you visit each new space, and so becomes a dearer and dearer friend to you. And what are you doing as you traipse through this map’s world? Why, slaying monsters of course! So many monsters!
Which brings us to the probably the most important point of influence: 1998’s Dark Souls. I might as well cite ’96’s Demon’s Souls, too, whose pace of weapon swings and use of magic meters are more in line with Castlevania; but Demon’s lacks the cohesive layout of this game, where you can run through the many and varied areas of its world without a single loading screen. And this is what Dark Souls did so well, too. But as that old game was in 3-D, and the player was able to make out landmarks en route, there was absolutely no need for a map. This is a good point to dwell on for a moment… It’s quite surprising to me how many 2-D games are released without a map; and really suffer because of this. Whether it’s just a map for navigation or a world map that facilitates back-and-forth travel between levels, I can think of no reason not to include one. Yet even amongst exploratory, non-linear games such as Symphony, the absence of a map is quite common. And this is missing such a trick! Not just because maps are satisfying to fill out, but because they stop the player from making lots of frustrating forays down the wrong paths. They also give the world more of a sense of place. I won’t mention what games frustrate me for their lack of maps, but let’s just say that pretty much every 2-D game with discrete levels could do with the overworld map structure of Super Mario World.
And every non-linear exploration platformer (or whatever we’re calling this) should have a map like Symphony‘s.
Oh, and every Zelda-like should have a world map that shows your actual position! (
I’m looking at you, Oops! Nearly mentioned a game that frustrates me.)
My favourite perfume!
Capra Demon, I think, in a nod to Dark Souls. [This image is a lot clearer than the former – my PSX has temporarily kicked the Sness off the flatscreen]
Not to spend too much time focussing on the Souls series, here, but just as in those games, Symphony’s moment-to-moment gameplay mostly comprises of wandering through areas and clearing them of dependably placed enemies with whatever weapons you choose to wield. Unlike those games though, the weapons in this game never wear, and they can never be upgraded. Instead, what we have is the automatic levelling of the player character, as he breaches experience point thresh-holds and receives boosts to health points and strength. It basically amounts to you never having to plan out how you’re going to upgrade skills or maintain gear – which certainly makes it feel more arcadey. And for me this makes the game feel a little more dreamy, too. As I run through it, I’m never terribly concerned about anything. I just need to dodge, swing and make it to that next save room.
Speaking of which, the first couple of times I booted up this game, I had no idea how to save. I had found save rooms, but the huge, floating, pulsing polygons inside them meant nothing to me. I assumed they were some arcane mystery to be unlocked later. And so I died and was asked to start from the beginning. Twice. After having made about half an hour of progress each time. It was most disheartening!
This isn’t a typical gothic horror piece, though. There’s quite a rich stream of humour and quirkiness running through it. For instance, I spent quite a deal of time getting behind a waterfall to some treasure (Alucard takes damage in water), which turned out to be a pair of Secret Boots. Ooh! Being used to the equipment accessories in Final Fantasy, I was sure that these were going to make me be able to sneak up on enemies, or something like that. However, their description in the inventory merely read “Discreetly increases height!” And that’s literally all they do. Almost overwhelmingly discreetly. But you as the player are totally free to use up one of your valuable accessory slots for this miniscule benefit.
I found some
One time, when I killed a frog (in the Catacombs, where your gameplay is accompanied by possibly the most Bayonetta-esque music), it dropped a pizza – “New York style!” Which was a pleasantly ridiculous find in a vampire’s castle in the 1790s. So there’s a lot of absurd details like that to be found; but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the game’s most overtly funny thing: the voice acting. It seems as if the developers took the ball of ridiculous voice acting from Resident Evil and ran with it. The way these characters talk is every bit as flat; but leant an extra dose of silliness by the archaic flourishes spoken in modern American accents. It’s not all on the actors, though (and I must say that the way Maria pronounces Richter is quite excellent!) – the fact is that the script doesn’t need any help sounding satirical. And you can also, in a way, hear the recording booth around the actors. Sometimes I would notice that the vocals have a slight distance or reverb to them suggesting this, which makes it seem as if the recordings were rather hastily done. Thing is, though, I’m not actually sure if any of this – from the hammy dialogue to the bland performances – was intentional. Not that it matters. In fact, the game is much more enjoyable because of this stuff. I wouldn’t trade the shopkeeper’s audible pout for a more believable portrayal (yes, you can hear him pouting as he does his screechy old vagabond voice, for some reason).
As you get further into the game, you realise that the Familiar cards you’ve started to collect can be viewed in a menu and toggled on or off. (Or you knew that already by reading the manual thoroughly – something which I usually avoid, in case it ruins surprises.) If you switch on a card and return to the game, a creature will fly down towards you from off screen. There is a fairy, a bat, a demon, and others that I won’t mention. They stick around and help you out for as long as you like – one at a time. Each has their specialties and may even offer lines of dialogue at certain moments. Well, as far as I know, the bat won’t; but it will float a little love heart when you turn into a bat. Oh, that’s right: did I mention? You earn further transformations other than a wolf, as well. All of these features nudge this game into territory untouched by games of a similar type, like the excellent Shovel Knight – which in my mind hasn’t really been rivalled in the sixteen years since its release (has it really been that long?), until now.
My demonic familiar said, “Hmm! A switch! Why don’t I press it and see?” And then a secret opened up to us.
You know, I think if you get really quick at this game, it could become like a jukebox for you. Each section of the castle has its own musical background – all of them very good – and the tracks switch when you enter the corridors marked with “CD” engraved into the stonework. Is that for “Compact Disc” or “Castle Dracula?” Cheeky devs!
Brave devs, too. I thought I had finished the game – I’d beaten the final boss and seen the closing credits – but then when I looked at my latest save file, it said that completion was only at 73% or something. So I loaded it up again and went exploring. Only then did I find the Abandoned Mine: a whole new, vast section underneath the castle! And so I went through and did everything there was to do there and fought the final boss again. But still, my completion was maybe like 89%. Something was up. After much investigation, I noticed that two of the rings Alucard had collected were inscribed with half a secret message each. Putting them both on and going to the place they mentioned opened up yet another secret area. This wasn’t so extensive as the large section I’d missed before, but within there was a friendly character I’d bumped into several times earlier. Her name is Maria, and I’m thankful to report that she’s a female character whom your male character never has to rescue, and who seems in fact somehow even more capable than your own half-vampire hero. Anyway, she gives you reason to believe that the final boss is actually not in possession of their free will. And, using an accessory she gives you, you can see that this is true. Eliminating the hidden authority behind who you thought was the final boss reveals that the game still isn’t over! Maria takes the newly freed person into her care and you as Alucard are transported to a different castle. Or is it the same one? It’s upside-down and mirrored, you see. The layout is identical, and so maybe you won’t have any troubles in navigating. But the enemies have changed; and they’re a lot tougher! Some are variations on what came before, and some are completely new species – most of those bizarre. And there is a slew of fresh bosses, too. So it now becomes your task to uncover the whole of the new topsy-turvy map as you chase down whoever the elusive, actual final boss is. At time of writing, I have yet to do so. There’s an awful lot of map to cover, and progress is slow. But this is great, don’t you think? Perfect for people who want an extra challenge, or who – like me – just want to absorb themselves for longer in this crazy campaign.
My completion currently sits at 139.9 percent.
That the developers would hide so much of their game away behind secrets is tremendously admirable. And, as I said, brave too, because some of it is their best content. Certainly the music in the Anti-chapel (with the balloon pods and panthers) is a contender for my favourite tune of the game. [“Lost Painting”]
I’ve barely even written about the visuals of this game; so I’ll share some more pictures here. Despite being set inside a castle, there is quite a lot of variety to the environments. Some areas are just beautiful, whilst others are actually a little disturbing to me – more “horror” than anything you’d find in Dark Souls.
You can find glinting gems to pick up, perhaps reminiscent of those you found in Resident Evil. And, as in that game, there is a thick forest surrounding the interior setting to which you are mostly confined
There’s an air decay to this castle, as by this point its master has been dead for five years
I like this. So cryptic! And the cracks in the masonry are nice details
I am disconcerted by this mysterious wall installation
And I really ought to share a little of the work of the lead character designer for this game. Her name is Ayami Kojima. The art speaks for itself:
By the way, I hear the Souls developers are working on a new skeleton-centric idea? Crystal Dragon, I think it’s set to be called. I’ll write more on that as news comes to light.
So, let’s say something conclusive! Okay. This game takes cues from several other excellent games and fuses their ideas into a much simpler, stripped-back hybrid of all of them. It’s probably the best side-scrolling stabby-slashy-spelly game in existence. There’s scope for improvement, though, as I cannot say it’s perfect. However, I’m not interested in writing anything negative here; and whatever foibles the game might have, they seem to blur out of focus completely when I’m enjoying the atmosphere so much. There’s an addictive pull to learning the lay of the castle and eliminating its bosses one by one. Once I’m done with that, I’m not sure how I’m going to feel… Perhaps the older Castlevania games are worth diving into? Anyway, I’m certainly looking forward to whatever vampiric adventure these developers bring out next.
As the pouty shopkeep says, farewell for now! ■