Following on from our previous Retro Review of Super Castlevania: IV, we have the flipside of the franchise which began with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
Usually revered as two separate phases, Castlevania underwent an interesting split during the end of the SNES / N64 lifecycle, ultimately turning into two completely separate beasts…Regarded as the “Rondo Split”, this divide between traditional sidescrolling gameplay and free-roaming Metroid-style exploration began with Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, which released for the TurboGrafx-16 and SNES, where in which the title became one of the last progenitors of the “Traditional Castlevania” gameplay.
Acting as a direct sequel to Rondo of Blood, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night released on the PlayStation 1 back in 1997, to critical acclaim, praising the game for its’ bold shift in gameplay style whilst also keeping true to the precursors that came before it – Opting for an open-world Metroid-influenced form of gameplay, fit with platforming challenges, sprawling world maps, hidden bosses, stats and levelling, and even swappable equipment and armour essentially gave Castlevania the breathing room that it justly deserved, adjusting that metaphorical, gothic corset wrapped around the franchise to give players more room to explore, challenge and romp through; this was a necessary change for Castlevania as a franchise, given that the series’ signature gameplay was already becoming dated at this point.
The game follows former protagonist (In Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse) and plot-central character Alucard, the son of Dracula himself through his return to his home of Castlevania in order to prevent the dark lord Shaft from resurrecting his dormant father, bringing a new era of darkness upon the land, and to avenge his fallen mother. Now, one thing I must point out straight away is that yes, this game has aged, and yes, the voice acting is absolutely hilariously bad and over-exaggerated; with even a simple tap on Alucard’s shoulder often sending him flying with a dramatic “UWAHHHHH”, from Dracula’s infamous verse, asking “What is a man? A miserable little pile of secrets!” being something pulled straight from a late 1990’s Pantomime…And you know what?
I’m ok with that.
Surprisingly the voice acting suits the equally campy and drama-inspired world of Castlevania, with many enemies based off of old folklore to modern horror films and books, including enemies such as Medusa, The Thing and even demonic entities such as the demon of Legion; it all melds together into an interesting mix of history, legend, and, of course, dramatics.
The gameplay itself is simple to learn, hard to master – Alucard initially has only basic abilities, being able to jump, run, backdash (Which ironically is faster than running), and use a weapon; his repertoire of gymnastic, magical and downright vampric abilities expand over time, with new abilities such as various animal transformations and skills like Double Jump and Familiar Summoning usually being unlocked after the various bosses throughout the Castle.
The music as well plays a massive part in setting the tone and feel of Castlevania SOTN, as it has for the last 10 years and more, with an all-new composition of tracks never before heard in Castlevania, such as The Lost Painting, Tragic Prince, and my personal favourite, Dracula’s Castle all becoming near-staples within the franchise, exceeding the quality of previous musical numbers such as the legendary Vampire Killer and Bloody Tears; take a listen!
“So where are the shifts in gameplay?” I hear you ask? Well, Castlevania SOTN is, obviously, known as the first title in this already decade-old franchise to have implemented ways for players to not only alter their difficulty, but their method of play; players could equip various forms of weaponry and toggle abilities in order to scale their difficulty appropriately – Wanted a challenging playthrough using the weakest weapon and no armour? Go ahead. Or perhaps you want to blitz through everything in your way like an overpowered deity? Equip the Alucard Shield and off you go – This makes the game fun for speedrunners, especially in difficult runs. Another factor that could be customised was the constraints put on players upon first starting a game – Wanted to play the whole game as Rondo of Blood’s protagonist Richter Belmont, without the ability to use armour or weapons? Just put in a cheat code when creating a profile and off you go. Want to be limited to only Level 1? Punch in another and on your way. These small codes enhance the replayability of the title, allowing players to run through the kingdom of monsters multiple times for different experiences.
Now, before I close off, let me iterate one point – This game is rather long, moreso than it may appear initially, and this is due to some of the twists and turns within the story that, for experience’s sake, I’ll refuse to spoil. Let’s just say that it’s something that certainly flips the game on its’ head, effectively doubling the playtime you’ll have with the game. The secret bosses and extra little things you can do entertained me for upwards of 50 hours, which, given that this is a 2D platformer game on a home console, is worthy of commendation by itself.
Overall, Castlevania SOTN is an enjoyable romp full of folklore, movie and novel references that never fails to entertain; with an entire castle to explore, and hidden secret areas and bosses, you’re sure to get your demonic fix with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.