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Castlevania: Symphony of the Night - Retroview

Dracula X II: Nocturne in the Moonlight

By: Noj Airk


Review Breakdown
   Battle System 10
   Interface 10
   Music/Sound 10
   Originality 9
   Plot 6
   Localization 9
   Replay Value 10
   Visuals 8
   Difficulty Easy
   Time to Complete

5-20 hours

 
Overall
10
Criteria

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
 

   When we get mad at those we care about around us, we usually go to find some temporary space, and things eventually, usually, calm down. This then leads one to ask: "With a castle the size of a small city, how could these two not find peace?" The answer, while illusive, is actually quite simple: You're in Alucard's world now! Forget all reality and face ethics, because ethics for a good man would be obvious to see if lord Dracula was your father!

   From here, welcome to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, the RPG that came between the end of the old school, and the new school genres of role-playing. Go back to an interactive, huge world in which everything is energetic, fun, and hard-core; like the non-existent days of killing others with no hard feelings from either you or them. I'm telling you, the simple game of life and death (and undead) has never been so fun.

   Being about death and reincarnation and stuff, this game plays out similar to a hack-and-slasher of the old days, just like the name of Castlevania would imply. Like in older days, you're a sprite hero, fighting hordes of enemies on multi-sprite backdrops. However, this time you're not a whip-toting Belmont (except the beginning). This time, you are Alucard, the son of Dracula, but unlike in Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, where he was but a weak side character, here he is a sword master that potentially would make any evil beings shake in their boots more than the entire Belmont clan. The main difference between the sword and the whip is that Alucard's sword slashing is much faster, and can be executed much more often. Like the whip, Alucard can swing his sword (or sometimes other weapons) in multiple directions for maximum damage to groups of enemies or fast bosses, and anything that comes in contact with it is hit, which can result in several enemies being defeated by a single slash.


The art is still gorgeous, even when upside-down!
The art is still gorgeous, even when upside-down!  

   What makes C:SotN classified as an RPG is that while Simon Belmont had five whips once, Alucard will receive upwards of hundreds and hundreds of swords, which he can actually switch off, because while some have power, others have speed. In this menu, you are in control of equipping two hands with items, be they swords, shields or items of restoration. When in battle, or walking around, you have two buttons for these two hands to activate these equipped items. This RPG addition makes the action more smooth, and to add to the smoothness of the battle system are a few additions, such as magic to transform into creatures, or a simple button that slides Alucard back a few feet to avoid an oncoming blow. And, like all Castlevania games before it, where would one be without knives, axes or holy water? What makes the battle system so perfect is the augmented old-school design, where here it's just enhanced with more options, and runs easily at twice the speed.

   The interface works with the battle system perfectly because the only times you're not in battle are really when you've defeated all the local enemies, you're in one of those special "advancing" areas, or you're in the saving rooms. The menu works a lot like old-school Final Fantasy fare, but you're only in charge of one person, making equipping and re-equipping much less of a hassle. These items you equip, or familiars you activate, aren't just for optimization for battle or particular bosses, but they also serve other purposes sometimes. One example would be armor that breaks spikes, which is good for secret areas where the pathways are nothing but giant halls of spikes.

   These secret areas are what make the gameplay so amazing. While faster than any past Castlevania, it's also about four times larger than the largest ones before, and more interactive. The movement is more like in Metroid, where you should follow a path of place to place, but you don't have to, and once done with one, you both can and will have to go back to earlier locations. In the menu it tells you how much of the mapped castle you have explored, but while one would guess it would be 100%, the max is almost 220%, complete with a reverse, identical Castlevania in the second half, and several hundred secret rooms and items. You'll easily spend more time finding secrets than it would take to just plow through, but sometimes you won't even be able to help yourself, as simply taking a wrong turn can lead you to secrets galore. You can also do interesting things such as sit in a confession booth, where a ghost minister will enter only to close the curtain and either stab you with spikes, or give you some grape juice. Each chair is sit-able, and every vase and lantern smashable; this is in many ways the most complete-feeling game in the world.

   Driving the game, while also revolutionizing the series, is a nice little plot for those who don't like the simple "go in and fight evil" concept. You start the game off as Richter Belmont, the Belmont to fight Dracula in the year 1792, 300 years after Trevor; the first vampire slaying Belmont made his quest. You run simply up to Dracula, where the two talk for a bit about darkness, mankind and religion, when they finally duke it out. Richter wins, but five years later he disappears and the great Castlevania has reappeared 95 years too early. Enter Alucard, the half-human son of Dracula, who after waking from his 300-year slumber senses much evil afoot.


If this game was 3-D, it'd be bigger than all the Quakes and Dooms combined!
If this game was 3-D, it'd be bigger than all the Quakes and Dooms combined!  

   The plot is told in sequences, and each sequence is quite superb...there's just only about half a dozen of them. What's interesting about this game though is that it has countless references to the Castlevania's before it, mainly the NES ones. You see, Symphony of the Night, or in Japan, Nocturne in the Moonlight, is a direct sequel to one of the oldest Castlevania's called Rondo of Blood, or commonly referred to the unreleased Dracula X. In RoB, you play Richter going through the castle, but here you start off right at the end where he fights Dracula. This game is about why Richter has disappeared, and what happened to him is rather clever, and something I didn't see coming.

These references I mentioned include one part where a woman named Maria asks if you know of a Belmont. Alucard then has a little thought bubble appear over his head, and the old 8-bit image of Trevor is shown. Also, one of the boss battles you will fight in the reverse castle is three dark shadows, which are in the shape of his three companions from Dracula's Curse. Also come many little items and such, putting a smile on the ones who have stayed with the series all the years.

The thing that stands out most for me, however, isn't the gameplay, but the music! The music is truly as good as, if not better, than games such as Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy Tactics, or Chrono Cross. The Japanese title of this game was Dracula X: Nocturne in the Moonlight, but for the American audiences, they actually decided to change it because the soundtrack is truly easily as good as anything Square has produced. What's weird is that the musical score was composed by former sound-programmer Rika Muranaka, who had never really composed before. The series had always been known for great music, but this time, the usual composer was unable to write, so they just let Muranaka do it. The rest is history.

The soundtrack is great in three ways. First, its compositions are longer and are easier to listen to than most other soundtracks. Second, the style ranges from classical to jazz, to techno, to ambience, to rock. Some of them even combine, with the track "The Tragic Prince" (the clock tower theme) combines both classical and rock, and is quite literally the greatest gameplay track ever. Finally, the soundtrack is performed by a real rock group, with Rika Muranaka himself at the keyboard. This is most impressive when one realizes that this game was made before Final Fantasy VII. The sound effects are as solid as most any PSX game would, with some nice grunt working and smashing sounds. The voice acting is also quite decent…all except for Richter. I don't know the actor's name, but I remember his voice as Chris Redfeild from the first Resident Evil; he was bad then, and is bad now. However, voices such as Alucard and the Librarian are perfectly cast, and while short on words, aren't short on talent.


Billions of books!  Beauty & The Beast, eat your heart out!
Billions of books! Beauty & The Beast, eat your heart out!  

The words spoken by these characters are quite nice too, with some really gothic sounding, cinematic style lines. They start at the beginning where Richter says to Dracula: "Your words are as empty as your soul. Mankind ill needs a savior such as you!" Several scenes carry out, and Alucard finally speaks cool to his father at the end, where he tells him: "Your soul was doomed the day you lost the ability to love." And what Dracula says after that is in itself a great plot twist, leaving Alucard, as well as me, speechless. The story is sort of a sad one, full of depressing memories, but it's not a tearjerker. It's simply adequate to build character to the adventure.

Another element adding to character is the games visual side. In older days of gaming, seen clearly in the SNES Final Fantasy's, depth of field was created by having a distant backdrop that moved at a different, slower pace than the close one. Symphony of the Night continues this trend, but makes the depth of field very, very detailed with use of upwards to seven or eight different layers that move continuously and consistently at different paces. These layers are all rather detailed, and combined, are as artistic as any other game you'll play. In these locations, there are mountains seen through the windows, rows of statues where some have crumbled with age, and even mile-long looking hallways in the Marble Gallery and the Library. Also, the character models move smoothly, and effects also have a great gothic feeling. One such is Alucard's double-jump effect, where flaming wings appear on him for two or three frames, or the evil books in the Library, where once defeated, their text starts falling out before they themselves die.

Replay value is as high as any game in existence. It's short and sweet, yet epic, and easily fun enough to warrant several times through. With several aspects maxed out, I often ask how some people cannot play many great games a second and third time through. If you've ever played a game through again, this will be a more permanent treasure to your library.

All around this game is a treasure. While expensive, it's still worth the high cost for a used copy. Maybe we should instead write Konami and ask them to release another batch of this game through the already achieved Greatest Hits status. The forces of darkness aren't gonna defeat themselves, so pick up a copy of Symphony of the Night, and enjoy!





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