Castlevania: Symphony of the Night came out in 1997 and it was a huge departure for the Castlevania series. It was less linear like its predecessors and more explorative, with a huge open map more like a Metroid game. This lead to the series lending the second half of the genre name: Metroidvania. I was excited to play the game for the first time when a rerelease was announced for the PS4. I’ve always been interested in Metroidvania games. I have gotten through half of Super Metroid and enjoyed it before i got distracted with other games. After I completed Hollow Knight though, I was itching to get back into the genre and I thought I’d take a look at one of the major games that helped shape the genre outside and past the Metroid games.
Right off the bat, the presentation of Symphony of the Night is great. The music ranges from hype-inducing in the opening hallway to creepy ambience in the flooded caves and the sprite art for the enemies are all detailed and gorgeous. Even the few examples of using 3D models, like for the save point coffins and the clocktower that rotates as you ascend the stairs to face Dracula, mesh well with the 2D art and add a whole lot of charm to the game. Alucard himself is the only aspect of the presentation I don’t care for. While his sprite is fluid and well animated, the sprite also seems blurry when he’s constantly in motion and having after effects trailing behind him. It is neat to see the wings of Alucard’s bat form change color depending on what cloak he’s wearing, but his sprite came across messy and less detailed than the world around him.
The two best things about the game to me are the enemies and the map. Enemy variety in a game is huge to me and Symphony of the Night does not disappoint. There are so many different types of enemies from wolves and skeletons to invisible fencers and floating books the spit out a mass of conjoined skulls. Enemies all have unique sprites, with only a few pallet swaps, and there are many different attacks the player must learn to avoid. Like the enemy list, Dracula’s castle is similarly huge and varied. There are many interesting locations just filled with secrets to find and relics to collect, some of which will open up means of unlocking even more secrets to explore. I got so absorbed into exploring the castle, wanting to find everything I could, that I ended up revealing 100% of the map before fighting Richter without much trouble. But after fighting Richter, another castle appears upside-down from a portal in the night and the last half of the game is accessible. Unfortunately, this is where the game lost me.
The combat in Symphony of the Night never really enthralled me. There’s not much to it besides attacking and jumping to dodge enemy attacks while using an occasional subweapon. The combat is very basic and when paired with the knockback Alucard suffers when hit it becomes more frustrating than fun. Alucard will go flying halfway across the screen every time he takes damage and it’s obnoxious. Multiple times I found myself entering a room, getting hit by an enemy standing just inside the entry, and having the knockback send me back out the door I just came through. This was just annoying.
Starting in the reverse castle, the enemy placement seems more haphazard and less considered. Some halls in the second half of the game are so full enemies that do so much damage and send you flying around with knockback that it is highly incentivized to travel through the rooms in Alucard’s mist form, which is horribly slow. Traversing the reverse castle altogether is tedious. Most the platforms to scale are just slightly beyond your jump height, even with the high jump and double jump, that you need to use the bat transformation to just proceed. The bat form, like the mist form, is just too slow so exploring the reverse castle isn’t exciting. It’s dull.
A lot of the issues with the reverse castle could be made easier with Symphony of the Night’s leveling system and RPG elements, a first for the Castlevania series, but they don’t add much to the game overall. In fact, they’re almost unnoticeable. Throughout the game, you will gain experience points and levels from killing enemies, giving you increased stats and health points. You can also find health upgrades and new weapons or armor hidden throughout the castle. Going through the game, leveling up at a steady pace and equipping the best weapons and armor I found, I didn’t notice a change in my character. All enemies in the first castle died in one or two hit and did less than ten damage to me. When I got to the reverse castle, however, enemies took longer to kill and would do upwards of thirty damage per hit. That, along with the room obstacles like sliding spikes on the floor doing nearly eighty damage, the options once you hit the difficulty spike in the reverse castle is to either die a lot or move through the entirety of the second half of the game in mist form.
After a while in the reverse castle, my interest in Symphony of the Night just stopped. The pacing suffers too much from having to move in the bat or mist forms and the combat isn’t nuanced enough to keep me engaged. I was having fun through the first castle but I wasn’t enthralled by the game at any point. So when I hit the difficulty spike in the reverse castle, I didn’t have the motivation to continue.