Symphony of the Night might be the most appreciated game in this series, despite being incredibly different from the games prior. Taking a page from Simon’s Quest and Vampire Killer, as well as the wish of Koji Igarashi to create a long lasting game with exploration, and end the dread of bottomless pits, he created a new genre. Known today as Metroidvania, a platforming-game focusing on gaining abilities for exploring a huge area often with RPG-elements included, Symphony of the Night is not just an important turning-point for the series, but also a huge inspiration for games to come, such as Apotheon, Dust and Shantae. It is definitely a classic, but how well has it aged? Being the first, does not necessarily mean being the best.
As a minor change of pace, I am not going to review the original PS1-release or the re-release on the Xbox 360. Instead, I am going to look at the best available port of the game for the PSP, which was packaged in with Dracula X Chronicles, as it has some very endearing changes I am fond of, besides being able to play it while on the go. While you will have to unlock it, even the box advertises this game as being included. If nothing else, it is not at all hard to unlock, and playing through Rondo of Blood is a fantastic idea in itself, since it is a precursor to Symphony of the Night and a wonderful game in its own right. Pictures are from the original PS1 game, as acceptable footage for the PSP-version was hard to acquire.
“The only thing necessary for evil to triumph, is for good men to do nothing”
After an exaggerated retelling of how Richter defeated Dracula, our vampire-hunter from the last game disappeared without a trace. 5 years later, Dracula’s castle resurrects once again and with no Belmont to take Richter’s place as the count-slayer, Dracula’s son, Alucard, takes upon himself to investigate the castle and end his father’s reign of terror. While it does not feature much more story than the previous titles, it does have more dialogue-scenes and a form of progression for our character’s quest in defeating the count. By focusing on a few characters and minor, yet intriguing scenes telling about Alucard’s relationships with his parents, and even some interesting scenes about Dracula’s philosophy, there is a great attempt at telling a story about complex characters. The conversations about humanity, faith, and what really is good or bad, are short, but compelling.
There is an issue with the interactions with one character though. Maria is also looking for her companion Richter and while she is a strong and likeable female character, she is at times off put in the storyline. She shows up, meets Alucard, talks a bit, and then continues her search. It is not bad, but since both clearly have goals that are similar, it would be nice to see them working closer together, with perhaps more fleshed out conversations. Fortunately, this minor hiccup is neglected in the later parts of the story and the plot is straightforward, which I am all okay with. It focuses on few characters, and gives us a short, but interesting story that has some good filler.
Story score: 7.5/10
Slick as a vampire, despite draining a bit
Besides an intro that tricks you into thinking you are playing a lineage-vania game, you are actually set in the first metroidvania game. Set in a sidescrolling perspective, you venture through the entirety of Dracula’s castle, collecting upgrades to both reach new areas and to defeat the foes you will meet. Let’s start with our hero’s capabilities, as it will be easier to talk about the enemies and levels later on. Alucard sports maneuverable jumps, a backdash, and the ability to attack with his left and right hand in a horizontal manner, with each having their own dedicated buttons.
Besides this you can collect subweapons, such as holy water, daggers, a stopwatch and axes to name a few, and use them depending on the amount of hearts you find from fallen enemies or candles, like the Belmonts before. Making him even stronger are his magical-attacks, which are limited by a regenerating MP-bar. He can use them at all times, but you will have to figure out the button-combinations for the various spells by trying out different inputs, or purchase the knowledge from the game’s vendor. This is a good move to make our hero versatile and have all the abilities become worthwhile, with the equipment having unlimited use, and the projectile-type weapons are finite due to either ammunition or a bar.
However, Symphony of the Night takes in RPG elements as well, such as gaining XP from killing monsters and status effects. Alucard can equip different potions for support and weapons for monster-slaying, such as swords, canes, morning stars, shields and more in each hand, except if it is a two-handed weapon. It doesn’t stop there though, as he can also find defensive tools for head, cloak, body, and two accessories. He has 4 stats that can be upgraded through leveling up, with strength affecting his physical attacks, constitution being his health, intelligence affecting his magic, and luck that affects both critical hits and finding better items. Besides this, there are also relics to find. Some only give a stat-boost or helps you see the damage dealt by you, while others can give Alucard the ability to transform into different shapes, give him new moves to help navigate areas, or summon familiars, which are supportive AI-controlled creatures. Some can have multiple uses, making the relics you find quite intriguing and experimental.
As you can see, Alucard is a impressive jack of all trades, which is great as this castle doesn’t just hold secrets or make certain paths unreachable without the proper ability, but also enemies that can be dangerous too and easily inflict hard hits on you. The bosses as well are a threat and all creatures approach you cautiously and differently, making each personal. However, your magic is quite strong, making some encounters easy and in the late game the stronger enemies can be a joke because of insane weapons. While you won’t get the stronger items until the late-game, some can be terribly overpowered and easy to acquire, making some boss fights over in under 3 seconds. This is unfortunately a huge flaw, as it is easy to break the game, and even before you acquire the spells, the ride will be an easy one.
What makes it not so bad, is the exploration. This is such an intriguing castle to venture through, with interesting enemies, minor secrets to discover, areas subtly leading you to new places, and giving you a good feeling of progression, both in discovery and upgrading your character. You need to think thoroughly by looking at the map for where you haven’t gone to yet, or if an area seems off-putting. Adding to this is that after the first 4-5 hours, you will be presented with the same castle from a new perspective.
This is actually a great way to extend the game-time as while you will venture through the same areas again, it is slightly changed with more new and dangerous enemies and bosses, as well as items to acquire. Since Alucard is able to go all over the place by this point, it is still fun and engaging to explore, as you now got some knowledge of the previous version of the castle and have all the abilities you need to venture to wherever you please. Not to mention, it becomes half the length of the first castle, so it doesn’t linger on for too long. Having the ability to save and warp between certain rooms, are also good additions to limit backtracking. Despite that you can get some incredibly powerful weapons that will easily kill the monsters, the enemies can thankfully take out a big chunk of your health if you aren’t careful.
What also makes this entry fun to play, is the ability to choose how to play. Do you want to focus mostly using weapons, or is magic more in your interest? Do you want to explore more for better items or is grinding your cup of tea? There are some incredibly strong elements to acquire, but that goes for both normal weapons and magic, so none feels better than the other. Speaking of which, everything does more than just give stat-boost as well. For example, one armor might heal you upon taking fire-damage, and some weapons feature secret attacks by a inputting a button-combination. This makes it even more intriguing to find these weapons, as they are more than just your standard equipment. It is also a comfort that the more devastating weapons are found towards the end, but I do wish the game was without them.
Gameplay score: 8/10
By God, is this glorious
This is a fantastic and creative take on the count’s castle. While the game will only take place here, it features so many places, from the uplit laboratory, the orange field of the colosseum, the library with cursed reading-materials, it is a gothic and intriguing place where you will feel both at home as Alucard, but also at unease. The monsters range from traditional to a bit silly, such as a skeleton that has lost his head, to enormous disgusting creatures that make me wonder how this got a teen-rating, especially when their flesh is rotting or they spew fountains of blood.
The animations of the enemies as well are impressive, and Alucard’s movements are slick and beautiful, making all motions eye catching. The capabilities of the PS1 has also been taken into account, with multi-layered screens, and 3D environments in some backgrounds, making the castle look even bigger than it already is. I also love the small attention to details, such as how Alucard’s cape changes depending on the one you wear, or how my bat-familiar got a crush on me when I turned into one myself, and then got confused when I became a humanoid creature again.
Symphony is in the title, and it deserves that. The music is amazing and with high quality and plenty of instruments, from symphonic tunes to more metallic tones, it features a vast soundtrack. What makes it keep at a steady theme, is the tones being clear and memorable, while still different according to the location you are in, making them also atmospheric such as the laboratory being more inviting, and the hallway getting you pumped to take on the evils ahead. Even the ending-song is changed in the PSP-version with a more appropriate tune than “I am the wind”. The other version of the castle features new songs, but not exclusive for each rooms.
This is actually a good choice, as the other version of the castle is much faster to venture through due to how familiar you should be with the castle and how versatile Alucard is at this point, making the fewer melodies shine even more. Sound effects are also incredible crisp and clear, and have some huge attention to details, such as changing depending on what you hit and with what weapon, making it more immersive. The original cast has been replaced with new ones and it is definitely an improvement. Yes, the original is iconic, but not for being good. The new voices and dialogue, makes this a cast of characters personalities I can take more seriously and while it is still cheesy, it feels more sincere and enjoyable due to the quality.
Presentation score: 10/10
Did you expect to be so easily done?
First of, there are plenty of areas to discover, optional bosses, and through this: different endings to acquire. The more of the castle you explore, the better the ending you will get, which is a nice treat! It is just a shame that you must be pinpoint accurate at times, as the map can be stingy about what you have seen and what not. After playing through as Alucard, there is a time-attack mode for the speedrunners, or the ability to play as two other characters. I won’t spoil who they are, but both are a treat to play as, with one being unique to this installment, despite having a different version of this character on the Saturn version. Most importantly, it is easy to replay this game, as exploring and discovering is fun, and the two new characters make the adventure not as easy to break as with Alucard.
Extra score: 9/10
Symphony of the Night has in some small aspects aged and it is hard to call it the best of its kind. But it is definitely a great game as it features such a fun location to uncover, breathtaking and atmospheric presentation, and a bunch of replay-value. The overpowered magic and the game breaking items are what holds it back from reaching the heights it once originally had, but the PSP-remake changes other aspects for the better, which makes it still hold up against the test of time. Although, the original still holds up well if you can’t acquire this version.