One of the things I love about Xbox Game Pass is that it allows me to play videogames I’ve either always wanted to play, haven’t played in a long time and can just farm for Achievements, or games I’ve always wanted to play, like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo, 1997). Now, I’m not an especially well-versed player of the Castlevania series (Konami, 1986 to present); I’ve only ever owned one game in the franchise, the abysmal Castlevania (Konami Computer Entertainment Kobe, 1999) for the Nintendo 64, and I’ve only ever completed one title in the franchise, Super Castlevania IV (Konami, 1991), courtesy of the Super SNES Classic Edition. This, as I may have mentioned a few times before, is mainly due to growing up without the income necessary to allow me to own both a Nintendo and a SEGA console; however, I have been a fan of the franchise regardless and have always wanted to play more games from the series. After having a great time with Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon (Inti Creates, 2018), a fantastically well-crafted homage to the Castlevania franchise, I jumped at the chance to give Symphony of the Night a spin.
As I understand it, Symphony of the Night is a direct sequel to Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (Konami, 1993) and the game opens with the final events of its predecessor, with acclaimed vampire hunter Richter Belmont taking on and defeating Count Dracula. Despite this supposedly forcing Dracula into a one-hundred-year slumber, the Count’s castle, Castlevania, reappears four years later and, with Richter missing, Dracula’s dhampir son, Alucard (who had previously battled his father in Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (ibid, 1989), alongside Richter’s ancestor, Trevor Belmont), heads into the monster-infested castle to destroy his father.
I remember Super Castlevania IV being a fun little romp; you explore a vibrant gothic landscape, upgrade your whip with easily-found power-ups, and battle enemies and bosses that naturally increase in difficulty. Symphony of the Night, however, is a steep learning curve to the uninitiated; it doesn’t take long to get a handle on the basics but you really need to be paying attention to your surroundings and what every weapon and skill does so you can proceed further and further into Castlevania. The voice acting is classic cheese but the music is atmospheric and fitting to the environment; more importantly, the gameplay and controls are tight and responsive. There are very few cheap deaths in this game; no bottomless pits or instant kill traps here. If you get killed, it’s probably your own damn fault as you waded in unprepared or took on a boss or swarm of enemies with low health or the wrong items equipped, making the game a test of your actual gaming skills rather than an exercise in frustration.
Alucard begins the game fully powered up and ready to take on the forces of evil but quickly encounters Dracula’s chief underling, the Grim Reaper, who strips Alucard of all his items and reduces the player down to simple punches. Alucard breaks from the franchise’s tradition of featuring a whip-wielding protagonist and, instead, favours a sword and shield, which can be equipped to different hands (and buttons), though other weapons (including rods, which are similar to the whip) and items can be acquired and equipped as Alucard makes his way through Castlevania.
Alucard can also pick up sub-weapons by breaking pots, vases, lamps, and other items; these range from throwing knives, to Holy Water, to protective Bibles, and even fancy lightning. Alucard can only hold one sub-weapon at a time, though, but, whenever he picks up a new sub-weapon, his existing sub-weapon drops to the floor for a short time so you can pick it back up if you don’t fancy trading out. Also similar to other Castlevania titles, Alucard can pick up money, hearts (which, in a move I’ve never understood, allow him to use his sub-weapon rather than replenish his health) and restore his health by picking up pot roasts and potions. Power-ups to increase Alucard’s health and heart count can also be found scattered throughout Castlevania, as can better weapons and equipment, though these are often protected by bosses or hidden away in areas that will require Alucard to obtain other abilities or transformations. Being a dhampir, Alucard has some nifty abilities that other series characters were probably lacking; he can dash away from enemies with a press of a button (but not forwards, which is a bit annoying), cast magic, double jump, breath underwater, and transform into a wolf, bat, or mist to reach new areas. However, most of these abilities will need to be found by use of copious amounts of back-tracking; for example, you may spot a new area up on the ceiling that you cannot reach with Alucard’s standard jump, so you’ll have to acquire the bat or mist transformation to get up there and explore new areas.
Symphony of the Night features a lot of RPG elements to its action-orientated gameplay; defeating enemies and bosses gains Alucard experience points and, with enough points, he will level up and his stats (attack, defence, and so forth) will improve. In addition to equipping weapons and shields to do more damage or reduce enemy attacks, Alucard can also equip armour, jewellery, and other items to boost his stats or for other perks. Item management is key here as some weapons require two hands to wield, some deal or defend against specific element attacks and will thus be better suited to certain bosses, and some weapon and shield combinations confer Alucard with very helpful buffs (such as the shield delivering massive damage while simultaneously restoring Alucard’s health). Alongside saving (which can only be done in designated save rooms scattered through Castlevania), exploring Castlevania is a chore in itself; the castle is massive, stretching vertically and horizontally, and the game never holds your hand once in trying to navigate through its maze-like rooms. You can visit a librarian to purchase items and a map but you’ll still need to visit every room and squeeze through every nook and cranny if you want to find the best items, skills, and weapons. As Alucard explores Castlevania, he encounters many nightmarish foes, from zombies and skeletons to monstrous gargoyles, possessed books, and broom-riding witches, all of which can pose a significant threat as the player must equip a healing item in place of a weapon in order to use it and such items are scarce.
Luckily, Alucard can also acquire familiars who will follow him around and provide assistance; the faerie will heal Alucard without the need to assign an item (though it can be easy to burn through your inventory this way) and the demon will attack enemies and press switches you cannot reach. These are extremely useful but also quite limited; it might be because I wasn’t quite sure how to use the familiars but it seemed like they wouldn’t attack every enemy or heal me as often as I would like, making them a little unreliable. Alucard also has to face some massive bosses, including a minotaur, a mummy, and a succubus, the gigantic, lightning-wielding Galamoth, and even evil doppelgängers of himself and characters from Castlevania III. Some of the bosses, like the Gaibon, Slogra, and Werewolf, even appear later in the game as regular enemies (though Alucard should be strong enough to wipe the floor with them by that point) and the majority of the boss battles require some level of strategy in order to get around their attack patterns.
While exploring Castlevania, Alucard comes across Maria Renard, who is searching the castle for Richter; however, when Alucard finds Richter, he is revealed to be plotting Dracula’s return in order to give his life meaning. The battle against Richter can quickly go sideways unless Alucard obtains the Holy Glasses from Maria (which can only be found by getting the Gold and Silver Rings from opposite ends of the castle and using a sub-weapon to activate a clock…because of course); the glasses allow the player to see a mysterious orb controlling Richter and destroying this will free him from the evil influence of the wizard Shaft. Shaft then taunts Alucard and goads him into following him further and it was at this point that I prepared myself for the final confrontation…only to be transported to an exact replica of Castlevania…only upside-down and filled with tougher enemies! The Reverse Castle caught me completely off-guard and added maybe another weekend to my playthrough; it seemed as though every time I seemed to be making progress and getting closer to the end, Symphony of the Night threw another curve ball at me that expanded the map and the narrative further and the Reverse Castle was no exception. It was simultaneously exhilarating and frustrating, especially as the Reverse Castle’s enemies often appear in large groups and strange combinations that force the player to flee more often than not.
Alucard must battle five sub-bosses in the Reverse Castle to acquire Dracula’s body parts, which is the only way to unlock the final confrontation against both Shaft and the Count himself. However, the Reverse Castle is also home to some false sub-bosses, who instead drop power-ups for Alucard that you will need in order to succeed. If, like me, you missed a bunch of ability power-ups and transformations before entering the Reverse Castle, you’ll also have to backtrack to the standard castle in order to be able to swim in the upside-down water or damage enemies with your mist attack, two skills that are essential to safely navigating the Reverse Castle. In terms of replay value, Symphony of the Night features a huge map to explore and the chances are high that, even when you reach the final battle with Dracula, you won’t have explored all 200.6% of the game. If you’re playing the Xbox 360 version, there are obviously a few Achievements to get along the way (the 200.6% thing is one of them) and you can even play as Richter if you enter “RICHTER” as your player name, which makes the game both harder and more like Super Castlevania IV as you now control a whip-wielding vampire hunter. There’s also a bestiary to complete by encountering every enemy and boss in the game but the game favours extending its playtime considerably through the Reverse Castle, rather than any significant post-game features.
In the end, I really enjoyed Symphony of the Night; it was tough but in a way that challenged me to be a better player. It’s annoying that Alucard’s shield doesn’t seem to block every enemy attack and that he can’t dash forwards but these are minor complaints (honestly, I hardly ever even used the shield so it’s a mute point, really). The music is great, the graphics, sprites, and backgrounds are all really well-drawn and heavily detailed, and the gameplay mechanics are solid. The RPG elements are just right for me; you don’t have to do a lot of arduous bullshit to upgrade specific stats or whatever. Alucard simply gets stronger and stronger as he levels-up and equipping the right items and equipment will buff him up further. As only the second Castlevania title I’ve ever played from start to finish, Symphony of the Night was a great experience and actually has me hungering for more from Konami’s franchise. Luckily, they have me covered as the Castlevania Anniversary Collection (ibid, 2019) is now available on Xbox One so I guess I know what I’ll be aiming to take on next…