maanantai 3. tammikuuta 2011

REVIEW - Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997)

Genre(s): Action / Platform / RPG
Released: 1997
Available on: PS1, PSN, SAT, XBLA
Developer(s): Konami, Digital Eclipse
Publisher(s): Konami
Players: 1

By 1997, the Castlevania franchise's popularity in the United States and Europe had waned. There hadn't been a decently selling game in the series since Super Castlevania IV. In Japan, however, the series flourished - it could almost be described as Castlevania's golden era back in the East. In 1997, Konami brought their "wicked child" to the Sony PlayStation and introduced a whole new type of Castlevania experience, making it more RPG and adventure oriented, something that hadn't been even tried since the much debated Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was a direct sequel to the Japanese cult classic Akumajo Dracula X: Chi no Rondo, which was infamously remade (and rewritten) for the SNES as the sloppy Castlevania: Dracula X in 1995. As was expected, American and European promotional efforts for the game were minimal. Critics all over the world praised the game, but it just wouldn't sell anywhere else than Japan. The Sega Saturn version, which was released in 1998, didn't help the game's sales at all since the Saturn itself flopped. Today, an original, physical copy of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is considered a collector's item, since all versions were drawn from the market rather quickly. The game itself, on the other hand, is considered the best and most innovative Castlevania game of all time, as well as one of the finest video games ever released. I'm in a tight spot here, since I've said a lot of bad things about it in the past... and now that I've finally seen the game through for the first time, I've got to admit that perhaps I've been wrong about some things. It still isn't my favourite game in the series, but it is great, and most definitely the most original and influential Castlevania game there ever was.

Even vampires have daddy issues

Robert Belgrade : Adrian Tepes, "Alucard"
Scott McCulloch : Richter Belmont
Kimberly Forsythe : Maria Renard
Michael Gough : Count Vlad Tepes, "Dracula"
Dennis Falt : Death
Alison Lester : Succubus
Barbara Whitlow : Lisa Farenheights
Jeffrey Manning : Shaft

Four years after defeating Dracula, Richter Belmont goes missing and Castlevania once again manifests out of the darkness, foreboding the resurrection of the evil one. While Maria sets out to search for Richter in Dracula's cursed keep, Alucard awakens from his deep sleep and also travels to Castlevania to investigate the threat of his father's resurrection, and make sure it will never take place.

The first theoretic steps into Castlevania: Symphony of the Night are a hoot and/or a shock for those who care. For the first time, we're not playing as a Belmont or a distant relative of theirs, we're playing as a friggin' vampire! This fact alone raises the bar of expectations when it comes to control and character movement, and those expectations are cashed in for sure. Of course Alucard made his debut years before in Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, in which he wasn't exactly a pixelated athlete, but in this game the whole character was rebooted, and damned if that cool looking, brooding long-haired dude wouldn't had been able to impress us with his vampiric movement!

"Yikes." No, in reality, the Skull Lord's the lamest
"Lord" in the game.
The game is in 2D, like any good Castlevania game. Before you start blasting me about how decent Lords of Shadow is, keep in mind that the game was still 12 years away and the first time Konami tried to render Castlevania in 3D, they failed miserably - I'm talking about Castlevania 64 and Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness, of course. I remember when the game came out and one dude on my class had his piratey brother-in-law copy it for him; he said it's total crap. A friend of mine who liked the game very much took the opportunity to ask a very crucial question. "Well, how long did you play it?" "About five minutes..." "You might be able to type in your name and make it through the first room in that time." "What-EVER! The graphics were so yesterday!" Sigh. The mistake I have made with Symphony of the Night in the past is that I've passed judgement too quick. I had played it more than five minutes when I made those remarks writing the review of Aria of Sorrow, I assure you, but I'll now admit that it was not enough to form a concrete opinion. Symphony of the Night is one slow hook, and it might take as much as three game hours to make you realize that hey, you might be playing a decent game here.

Besides, yesterday is exactly what the graphics should be. It's purely intentional by Konami, and they made a good call by sticking to releasing a 2D game when 3D flourished. There are some minor 3D effects to bring in a little extra depth, and they look awesome. Stylistically the game is in its own league. The use of colour, shading and special effects is simply genius. Perhaps it's not the most polished game around, but there's a surprisingly huge attention to detail and all forms of movement are absolutely seamless. Think of how good a classic 16-bit Castlevania game could possibly look - double it, and you've got something pretty close to the look of Symphony of the Night.

The soundtrack is widely praised as one of the most incredible video game soundtracks there is. I have to disagree on this one. You can pretty much guess the reason if you've read any earlier reviews. "Bloodlines" is the only classic Castlevania tune in this whole game. It means a lot of things, like... "Vampire Killer" is missing - of course, the song would be rather awkwardly placed in a game that stars a vampire. "Beginning", "Wicked Child", "Heart of Fire"... no, none of them are here. WHAT'S STILL MISSING, I WONDER? "Bloody Tears" is not even found on the official soundtrack CD or the game, since it's exclusive to the Sega Saturn version. Saturn got exclusives?! I'll be damned. To praise Michiru Yamane for something for a change, I have to say that version of "Bloody Tears" is the best recorded version of the song, ever. But it's not found here. As much as the game might be the most classic Castlevania game there is, it sure as hell misses out on a truckload of classic music. OK, OK, the soundtrack is technically very good, the original music is quite sufficient and fits the 'Vania bill, no problem. There's sharp orchestration across the board, a bit of rock, a bit of jazz, and a bit of cold ambience I so admire. Yamane always throws in one or two mediocre songs which stick out like a sore thumb, but there's no total crap here. I dig it. "Lost Painting", "Wood Carving Partita" and "Dracula's Castle" stand out as some of my new favourites across the franchise. Cynthia Harrell, who went on to perform the classic theme song of Konami's Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, contributes with a sung ballad named "I Am the Wind", which is pretty good and the song she seems to be better known globally for.

Then, to the good parts. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was the first Castlevania game to feature voice acting and also one of the few major console titles to have voiceover work before Metal Gear Solid made it a standard. Actually that game's a pretty good example of how much Konami alone developed on this front just within a year, 'cause the voiceover work in Castlevania sucks on Horse Cock Harry's fabled family jewels. It's funny, for sure, but I'm also sure that wasn't the intention. The dialogue is absolutely horrid and the actors are just saying their lines instead of injecting any sort of emotion into them. It's funny to hear them read lines with Yoda's grammar, awkwardly pausing every time there's some sort of weird order to the words, or if a single word can't quite slip off a modern tongue. It sounds like Capcom lent their in-house talent to Konami; Richter sounds just as dumb as the guy who played Chris Redfield in Resident Evil... wait, it IS the guy who played Chris Redfield in Resident Evil! This Scott McCulloch's falsely credited everywhere for voicing Dracula himself, which isn't such a wonder since the credits only state the names of the actors, not their roles. For their sake, Konami could've just left them uncredited. Two actors, Robert Belgrade (Alucard) and Dennis Falt (Death), actually remained Konami's in-house "talent" for many years to come, as they both appeared in Silent Hill 4: The Room... in which the overall voiceover work is not too bad. A bit of useless trivia, there. I know, I'm such an off-topic kind of guy.

These teleports would be quite useful, if they
didn't always take you to a random location!
I don't rightly remember if I've gone through all of this before, but let's review: the first game I played in the Castlevania series was Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, which I hated. Believe it or not, the next game I played - if not taking into account quick tests of both Super Castlevania IV and Dracula X - was Castlevania: Lament of Innocence on the PS2, which I also hated. The Castlevania series didn't really become one of my favourite game franchises in history before I played Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow for the first time on the Game Boy Advance. I loved the game, and if I wrote the review now, I would probably praise it even more. At first, Symphony of the Night struck me as a standard, overrated game. Remembering Aria of Sorrow, since it was the first "Metroidvania" I played - it felt like such an upgraded version of Symphony, even though it's a quite simple handheld with less buttons to use. While the RPG elements made their presence known right off the bat, there was nothing as exciting as devouring enemies' souls, and the game seemed like an aimless beat 'em up drivel in which you just ran forward and took a raping from bosses that just happened to cross your path. I thought to myself: the liberty to explore, and non-linearity, those are good things. Having no restrictions isn't.

What it needed was just a little time. There ARE definitely restrictions. Just after little over an hour, the game goes all Super Metroid on you - in better, and worse. You will find yourself scanning just about every wall of the castle again and again after getting one single upgrade to your schtick, such as the ability to make a double jump, fly around the premises in the guise of a bat, or being able to morph into a cloud of mist and flow through cage doors. This brings on a lot of backtracking, which always was Super Metroid's greatest weakness, but strangely, a notable strength as well. Why backtracking is a bad thing is easy to explain, but you never could quite point out what was so great about it in Super Metroid's case. Konami managed to capture that same, hmmm - magic - in Symphony of the Night and the many Metroidvanias to come, but what brings this particular game down some is the fact that as big as Dracula's home sweet home is, it's no Planet Zebes. There's very little left to explore in spots you've already been to. Sure, all of the stuff found in those small areas is most definitely useful, but usually not mandatory. On the first round, I beat the game easily by collecting 70+ something per cent of the items. Hell, I didn't even face all the bosses! I kind of beat the game by accident, though - I didn't quite plan to face the final boss, instead I was actually looking for hidden items to max out my HP stats to dare to face another boss. Well, I'm glad I did face him, though; after all, I found out that you could actually go and face off with the big cheese the moment you have the ability needed to reach him. So, the bottom line is, that ironically, I disliked the first few hours of the game because it lacked some healthy restrictions, and it turned out that during those few hours, you ARE restricted to enter most areas in the castle. The less restricted the game became, the more I started to like it, but then, one certain ability brought on a total lack of limits, which made me complete the game way too early, and I kind of began to dislike a case of total non-linearity again since I missed out on a lot of the storyline. Like I said, it's all kinda ironic.

The good news is, that Death rarely changes
his basic methods. The bad news is, that those
methods are quite damn effective.
Alucard's ability to morph into animals introduced in Castlevania III - although here he needs special relics to do it - is only one definition of his coolness. Despite having a monotonic, baritone voice that's more of the voice of a 500-pound black dude than a totally ripped, immortal spawn of Satan, Alucard looks cool and everything he does looks cool. For weapons, he can use different types of swords, maces, hammers,  enforced knuckles and many varieties of expendable weapons. You can assign him a shield to use with one of the weapon buttons, or another sword if you're more of an offensive kind of guy. The controls are very simple at first, but as your abilities grow by the number, so does the full utilization of the PlayStation control scheme. The menu is a bitch to use, there's no way around it, and there's a very dumb feature that I never understood about the game. You need to equip (as in equip) even all sorts of health items before you can use them. If the weapon of your choice is a two-handed sword and you want to use a Potion, for example, you need to equip the Potion instead of the sword, exit the menu screen, use the Potion and then go back to the clumsy menu screen and re-equip your weapon before you notice that you're attempting to punch the shit out of Death unarmed. They made a menu screen straight out of any classic J-RPG, and they couldn't add the simple feature of using an item straight from the menu? Beyond me. Way beyond.

The Master Librarian works as the one shop clerk to rule them all. By using a Library Card, you can return to the Long Library at any time to stock up on items, weapons and perhaps a magic spell or two. However, you won't get out of there by any other means than manually backtracking your way out and back where you came from. In addition to items, the Librarian keeps a list of enemies which uncovers their actual weaknesses, as well as a tactics journal of how to speedrun bosses you've already beaten. You can't sell any excessive equipment or useless items, which is a total drag - you can only sell gemstones found around the castle, and gather the rest of your funds by other means, like by vandalizing every breakable background item and wall you see in the vintage 'Vania style.

What would a Castlevania game be without secondary weapons? Given the games I've played recently, a wiseass would answer "Castlevania: The Adventure". Anyway, Symphony of the Night has them. Holy water, throwing knives, throwing axes and the clock, they're all here, but there's more, like a devastating white cross which allows you to do just a few attacks even if your heart meter's at its maximum, and the Holy Bible, among others. Yep, the Holy f'n Bible. I know you're already thinking of running around and slapping zombies silly with the big book, but that's not quite how it works. I'll just say it's my favourite weapon in the game and I rarely part ways with it - if I do, I usually do it to make a switch to holy water, which is an absolutely phenomenal weapon when it's used right.

The spells are quite useless for the most part. What most makes them useless in the long run is the way they're executed - by memorizing and pressing button combos straight out of any beat 'em up game. Not really useful in a constant, dynamic action game. If your aim in using these spells is to make yourself resistant to an element or heal yourself, though, it's the better choice than any accessory or special piece of armour. A "fire-resistant" mail sounds fancy, but makes very little stinking difference when you actually get burnt. Experience level's really the only thing that will truly help you in the worst parts of this game, as well as the hidden containers that increase your maximum HP by a great deal.

One of Symphony of the Night's exclusive special features is the group of Familiars. These little guys are often described as sort of party members, but they're more of perks with forms. Their powers are acquired by finding special cards hidden around the castle. They are party members in the sense that they either attack enemies or use their powers to heal you, but for example a Faerie is generally just good to have along for the ride, since she senses breakable walls and floors. The Familiars gain better stats and special abilities as they level up in conjunction with Alucard. Sadly, you can only utilize one's powers at a time.

Got any of those love potions that would make
me a less intimidating, less foul-smelling, less
antisocial creature of the night?
Just about every special auto- and command ability in the game is gained via a Relic of some sort. These range from morphing abilities, to being able to unlock magically sealed doors, to simply being able to see the name of the enemy which you're beating to yet another case of death. Humping monkeys are finally officially called Flea Men, after all the Igors and other shit - well, to me, they're still humping monkeys. Are the flying bastards still here? You betcha. Worse than ever. Well, this time there aren't any chasms for you to fall into and die, and you won't fall through staircases either. Still, they're as hard to hit as always, and since enemies' health fully regenerates whenever you leave the screen, you can imagine how it feels to slap a Lord enemy (very, very tough sons of bitches) almost silly and then get knocked to the previous screen by a devious Medusa Head - that can now turn you to stone upon impact, by the way! - again, and again... and again. I don't remember when I've last cursed at a game as explicitly as I did at Symphony of the Night, ONLY because of all the flying bastards. Oh well, perhaps a few untimely Game Overs as well.

Death - and I don't mean the legendary boss - can creep up on you surprisingly fast and totally out of time in this game. There are many save points, but at times, their placements are extremely illogical. A relatively comfortable (what a word to use in this context) spot, in other words a location which doesn't have too many rooms and not a very tough boss fight for you to stress about, might have even two save points, while some long stretches with a horde of pumped up enemies and a boss waiting to congratulate you for defeating the horde and then, without further due, fuck you up the ass, might be 20 minutes away from the nearest save coffin.

Just to clarify that even if Castlevania's not
Zebes, it is big. And you have to beat all of
this twice to completely conquer the game.
A casual playthrough of the game is not hard, though, not at all, and considering that it has an immensely solid RPG vibe, it's not very lengthy either. It took me about six hours to beat the first round with a 70% completion rate... I'm quite disappointed in that number. Of course, I didn't rightly know where I was going, so I can't really blame myself, and besides, if I want to take on rest of the "stages" and the bosses, and find the rest of the hidden items, it's certainly not too late to reload the last save and stay the hell away from that damn tower. The more difficult parts of the Castlevania complex are quite challenging, but like I said, twice actually, you don't need to do them in order to beat the game. I think it would've been for the game's benefit if Konami had made it so that you couldn't beat the game if you don't reach at least an 85% mark, 'cause you can easily miss crucial parts of the story (if you're interested in it) by entering the final battle too soon. Keep in mind, though, that in order to TRULY beat the game, you need to beat precisely 200.6% of it - yes, there's a traditional unlockable Round 2 as a reward for the 100.1% mark. What that's all about, you can see for yourself.

I downloaded this game from the PlayStation Network for its reputation only, and because I was doing the first Castlevania marathon at the time. I never planned to actually play it, except in some really desperate situation, basing my opinion wholly on my first impressions of it. First of all, there's this second Castlevania marathon going on - and probably the last - and what would it be without dealing with the most hyped game in the franchise? I'm glad I did. I still think the game is overrated, but I can definitely see why it blew a lot of people away in its time, and perhaps even why it continues to do that to some who have only recently awoken to see what all the fuss is about. It's relatively easy, although at times extremely frustrating due to even some vintage Castlevania nuisances, and there's a hulking amount of aimless backtracking, but the game is a very solid experience once you truly catch on to it.

Graphics : 9.1
Sound : 9.0
Playability : 8.6
Challenge : 8.0
Overall : 8.5


a.k.a. Akumajo Dracula X: Nocturne in the Moonlight

GameRankings: 93.41% (PS1), 89.58% (XBLA)

Castlevania: Dracula X, the rewritten SNES version of the game's direct predecessor Akumajo Dracula X: Chi no Rondo (or Rondo of Blood), was completely scratched from the series' timeline around the time Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was released.

The game was re-released as an unlockable part of PSP's Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles, which is primarily a remake of Rondo of Blood.

The game's events take place in the year 1796, which means that Alucard has slept for 320 years after aiding Trevor C. Belmont in his battle against Dracula in Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse.

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