Being a 22 year old game at this point you have probably already heard about all of its secrets even if you haven’t played it, but if somehow you’ve remained completely in the dark about Symphony of the Night, then stop reading here and go play it any way you can – and try to avoid any other information on the game if possible.
How Metroidvania is it? Perfect Fit. It’s literally part of the word “Metroidvania”.
Primary Challenge: Exploration Focus
Time to beat: ~12 hours
Review Info: This game was played on the Sony Playstation Portable using the PSone release from PSN
Buy Castlevania Symphony of the Night if you like…
- Passion Projects
- An Unparalleled Explorative Castle
- The Castlevania Universe and its Lore
- Meticulously Hand Crafted Pixel Art
- Memorable Music with a wide variety
▼ Review continues below ▼
I’ll admit, when I started this playthrough of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (SOTN) for the purposes of reviewing it, I expected to come out with a controversial opinion. I hadn’t played SOTN for the first time until well into my college years, and while I was an instant fan, I also was able to compare it to the newer Castlevania games that were being released on the Nintendo DS – and I liked the newer games a bit more. With more limited experience, I had always regarded (SOTN) as being a flawed masterpiece; full of less than ideal design choices that I felt were resolved in its sequels. After constantly playing only Metroidvania games for almost 2 years and discovering even more “improvements” to compete with the original co-progenitor of the genre, it would only make sense that I would only feel stronger that SOTN is an important but outmoded relic of the past. However, to my surprise, playing all those Metroidvania games has only made me appreciate (SOTN) more than ever.
I’d like to put a warning here before I continue with this review that I am going to be spoiling some important parts of Symphony of the Night. Being a 22 year old game at this point you have probably already heard about all of its secrets even if you haven’t played it, but if somehow you’ve completely remained in the dark about SOTN, then stop reading here and go play it any way you can – and try to avoid any other information on the game if possible.
I think the thing that stuck out to me the most on this playthrough is the insane amount of detail that went into the game’s world. Every screen has a background that is chock full of “Stuff” giving a sense that Castlevania is this grand place with centuries of development. But it’s not just the visual fidelity that impresses; it’s all the little interactive details. Some skeletons cower away from you if you get too close suggesting there is some recognition that Alucard is the son of their master. There are superfluous castle elements simply to add flavor, like the confessional with the ghost priest in the cathedral tower, or the telescope that lets you see the ferryman off in the distance. The outer tower changes weather at random when you enter the area. All of these things balk the utilitarian rules that many games adhere to and really bring to light what happens when you pull together a team of artists who care more about the passion of the project rather than the accounting of budgets and deadlines required to sell the game.
That isn’t to say that the game doesn’t follow some good design rules; after all, SOTN wrote many of the rules that are being followed by Metroidvania games today. The first portion of the game is pretty linear, almost as if they were trying to capture just a little bit of the Classic Castlevania experience before blowing the player’s mind. You get something of a tour of the castle straight down the middle with the kind of enemy gauntlets you’d find in those older level based games. Then, once you reach the outer tower, the game just sort of cuts you loose. You’re given a ton of dead ends along with the necessary critical path allowing the player to choose and explore freely; the Metroidvania design that fans have come to adore. Unlike Super Metroid, Symphony of the Night never really locks you into areas until you discover new powers. There’s a benefit and a sacrifice to this just like any design decision. You sacrifice that ingenious and very “Nintendo” style of tutorialization, but in trade, SOTN provides a more “RPG” experience about pure discovery. While some players will dislike that feeling of being lost so early after the castle tour, it’s that freedom of discovery is something that has become the hallmark of the then budding genre.
Perhaps as a consequence of this openness though, the game drops off in difficulty pretty quickly. Up to the point before SOTN sets the player free, the game has a decent bite to it. Dying loses all of your map exploration, and until you get to the shop keeper, healing items are pretty rare. Unless you know about the Dark Metamorphosis spell early on, it’s pretty reasonable that you’ll be dying a lot, particularly to the game’s two earliest bosses. Once you start exploring though, the leveling system will overpower you as you retread hallways and collect heaps of experience. With that said, I don’t think the game becomes ever becomes too easy – with one important exception being the final boss. There are always enemies that can catch you off guard if you let them do their thing for too long. Just as a couple of examples, in the clock tower there are these harpies that will spam hard-to-dodge feather spread attacks after they fly around for a certain amount of time, and in the underground area there are these sirens that will call down a devastating blizzard if you let them cast their spell – both of which have the ability to stun lock you into a frustrating demise. Later in the game, Beam Shooting Nova Skeletons can knock off more than a quarter of your life-bar if you let them fire, and there are these freaking annoying imps will make Alucard go berserk – helplessly swinging his weapon into the air – while flying snipers shoot you in the back.
The combat in general is pretty simplistic, with definitely a lot of room for improvement. Alucard is sluggish in general. Because of this sluggishness bosses can’t really be too complex. You are given this dodge that has a ton of lag at the end of it, making it dubious to use as opposed to just jumping, so most attacks can simply be meandered around casually except when the telegraphing is slightly unfair. The game’s hardest boss is more of a chore to fight since getting hit always sends you flying – so the more difficult to dodge attacks have you spending your time poking around in your menu for potions more than actually fighting. That isn’t to say there aren’t some great bosses in SOTN, but defeating them is more an equation of what gear and strategy you bring in to the fight rather than being a skill-based challenge – much like an RPG, which is what I assume the team was going for.
I think the castle itself more than makes up for this combat weakness however. The first castle is nothing short of perfection. You can make your way to the boss room at the top of the tower pretty easily, but if you want to see all the game has to offer you need to explore just a little bit more. Symphony of the Night invented the secret ending that has become pretty common in modern Metroidvania games, and its most memorable feature is the discovery that there is a second inverted castle for you to explore.
In theory this second castle is a great idea, but I’ve always had a bit of a problem with the execution. One of the criticisms I’ve seen against the inverted castle is that there is no more Metroidvania Ability Gating once you get there. You’ve already got all the double jumps, mist forms, and bat transformations you’re going to need to explore the whole thing. While this does make the second castle inherently less interesting, I actually like the idea of there being a final area for you to test your skills that you’ve been building up for the entire game. It’s really cool to get new powers but sometimes games don’t provide sufficient time to use them – the Inverted castle provides that nicely. The trouble with the Inverted Castle is that it just feels too easy for at least half of the content. Many of its hallways are basically only worth treading for completion’s sake – making them boring. There are a few good rewards, like some rooms grant interesting upgrades to your mist and bat forms, and of course finding the worldly parts of Dracula is rewarding as much as it is your goal, but the rest of the castle is just fluff. Some of the game’s best bosses are in this inverted castle, but others are just beefed up giant versions of things you’ve been fighting all along, and often go down with little fanfare.
To me, there are at least two ways to perfect this inverted castle concept. One way is to make all of it optional. Let the player go straight to Dracula from the outset. Then your task in this inverted castle is to level up before your ultimate goal of defeating your father – sort of like what Zelda Breath of the Wild does with its open world. The other direction is to add a few more power-ups like the Poison Gas form and the Bat Echo, and make the inverted castle much harder – a true test of your abilities – that you can tackle in any order you want, gathering skills that help you with the rest of the challenges. Regardless though, keeping everything exactly the same as-is, Dracula is just too easy by the time you get to him. Since you have to get a +10 bonus to all your stats as you progress, inevitably the final fight is going to feel somewhat lackluster, especially after all the build-up.
There’s more to that final fight than a simple combat challenge, however. Castlevania Symphony of the Night not only drove the series into becoming a standard of a new genre, but it also expands on the Lore and universe of Castlevania in brilliant ways. The goofy dubbing of the original Playstation One English release might have some “so bad it’s good” qualities to it, but looking past the now iconic memes there is actually a compelling story within the game’s universe. It’s because of that that I am one of those strange people that almost prefers the new translation and dubbing of the PSP and Requiem releases of the game – though I’ll definitely always have a soft spot for the miserable pile of filth and lies that was the original voice acting. Regardless of which version you play though, Symphony of the Night has this epic feeling to it; that it’s not just a game, but a culmination of the passions of fans of the Castlevania series.
Even though I can find several criticisms to levy against Symphony of the Night, and even though I may well still prefer some of the later Castlevania games, I can’t deny that it’s a masterpiece. I think things like the inverted castle could definitely be improved, but I have to ask myself, “Would the game be better if its weaker portions were cut entirely?” Musing on every little detail the answer is a resounding no. If it was just the original castle, there really would be very little for me to criticize. And regardless of its weaknesses, the inverted castle is what makes Symphony of the Night what it is. After all, What is a perfect Metroidvania? An epic journey full of mystery and secrets.
Symphony of the Night might not be the most challenging Metroidvania, but it’s precisely that accessible nature that makes it perhaps the best Metroidvania of all to start with. It completely nails the most important thing that defines the genre, the exploration, because of course it does. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night might not have invented the genre, but it made it popular for a reason.
Challenge in combat is mitigated by several ''Cheat'' options that may prevent some players from experiencing any depth it might have
Particularly in the Clock Tower area, there are some good platforming challenges, but enemy challenges are the main focus
To this day, there have been many great castles to explore, but none of them can adequately replace the original that started it all
While not a focus, there are some stand-outs. Theese puzzles are intuitive in spite of being unconventional.
With just a little more work, the story itself could be a major reason for playing, but as-is it's enjoyable if not a little stifled (or enhanced) by silly voice acting in the original English version
The pinnacle of 2D art of its era, and today every screen is a masterpiece of art.
While there is perhaps some tonal inconsistency throughout the castle, just about every track is memorable in some way
Some dominant strategies may be too tempting to ignore, but if you have the willpower there are literally hundreds of thousands of ways to play this game