Friday, March 7, 2008

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night Review

Also known as:
Dracula X: Nocturne in the Moonlight
Akumajo Dracula X: Gekka no Yasoukyoku

Orignal release date:
1997 on PlayStation
1998 on Sega Saturn

Also released on:
Xbox Live Arcade (Xbox 360)
PlayStation Network (PlayStation 3 & PSP)
Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles (PSP)

Proulogue - Final Stage: Bloodlines

The game begins with you playing as Richter Belmont on the last stage of Dracula X: Rondo of Blood (PC Engine/Turbo Grapics 16) in 1792. You climb up the classic long staircase for the final battle with Dracula. There is a short dialogue between Richter and Dracula then the final battle commences. This battle can be easily won and once you’ve defeated Dracula the screen fades in a photograph, which burns up. After that you’re treated to the prologue of the main game with text which explains the story leading up to resurrection of Dracula’s castle… Castlevania.

Enter Castlevania

When the main game actually starts it's 1796 and you’ll play as Alucard, who first appeared as a playable character in Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. You start with a sword, shield, helmet, armour, cape and necklace. Within a few minutes of exploring the castle you’ll meet with Death who warns you not to venture further into the castle. Alucard refuses so Death takes all your equipment and leaves you with just your bare hands. This may seem harsh, but you’ll soon find weapons and armour in the castle.

If you didn’t already know, Alucard is the son of Dracula. This means that he has some of his father’s attacks like the classic teleport and ‘Hellfire’ with three small or two big fireballs. He also has a few others including ‘soul steal’ which is Alucard’s signature move in later games he appears in.

Probably the best thing about Alucard is that his ability to use pretty much any weapon you can think of. The game has over 100 different weapons, most having a hidden special attack. These attacks can range from elemental to charged attacks and one even summons creatures to help you. You also get a selection of sub-weapons which Castlevania fans should recognise. These are daggers, holy water, throwing cross, stop watch and throwing axe. There are four new sub-weapons which are aguen, bibuti, holy book and a rebound stone.

This game still uses a set amount of hearts so you can use your sub-weapons. A lot of people find this confusing because you’d expect hearts to give you more health. This was used in the very first Castlevania game and almost all games in the series after this.

New additions to this game are the magic meter, ability to level up and use different equipment. As with most RPGs you’ll need a certain amount of experience points to increase your stats. The magic meter increases with each level up so you’ll be able to use the more advanced spells.

If you go into your menu you can equip a number of different things which gives the game even more RPG elements. The first on the list is two slots for weapons, shields and ‘use items’. This is great because you can have a number of different combinations which include a weapon and shield, two weapons, a two handed weapon or weapon and healing item. The other things you can equip are a head accessory, armour, cape and two other accessories. The number of accessories, amours and capes is quite vast with each having different attributes or abilities. Examples of this are a circlet which absorbs damage from poison, armour which heals as you walk and a cape which gives you hearts when you get hit. The ‘use items’ include status resisting potions, one time use weapons like javelins or flame boomerangs and other powerful spells like ‘bat pentagram’. This wasn’t the first time you could equip items because there were limited customisation options in Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest.

Exploring the Castle

Unlike previous Castlevania games, Alucard moves around in a fluid and realistic way which gives you great manoeuvrability. This makes playing the game that much better and means you can get out of tricky situations more easily. This is also the first Castlevania to give your character the ‘back dash’ ability.

This is the first Castlevania to include a map and teleporters because of the size of the castle. The map is very easy to use because of its simple layout and has been used in almost every Castlevania game after this. The teleporters are a nice addition and quickly help you get around.

While exploring the library you’ll find the Master Librarian who’ll sell you items. This isn’t really a first for Castlevania because there were people who sold items in Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. This is however the first proper shop that there’s been.

Each castle area has a completely different theme, music and enemies. This means that no area of the castle is the same and you get a wide choice of locations to explore. The castle is extremely large compared to previous Castlevania games and will take you at roughly 12-20 hours to go though on your first play through.

The enemies you’ll see are the usual things you’d expect from a Castlevania game. These are the classics like skeletons, zombies, bats and Medusa heads. There are also a lot of new additions like boomerang skeletons, invisible warriors with giant swords and lance wielding guards on top of wolfs. Each area usually has its own themed enemies which really makes things interesting. A lot of the enemies are from Dracula X: Rondo of Blood and look even better and some even have new moves.

While exploring the castle you’ll encounter a lot of bosses. A few of these are from Dracula X: Rondo of Blood and have been teamed up with other bosses for a more intense fight. The most notable examples are Slogra & Gaibon and Minotaur & Werewolf. There are a lot of new bosses which include a Doppelganger (a copy of Alucard), Succubus and Death.

You’ll find relics to help you in various different ways in certain areas of the castle. The most notable are the ability to transform into a wolf, mist and bat. These three main abilities all have two upgrades which greatly enhance them. You can also find Leap Stone (double jump), Spirit Orb (see enemy damage) and even familiars to assist you. There are five familiars which are a bat, fairy/faerie, flaming skull, demon and giant flying sword. Each familiar can be levelled up to give it more powers and make it attack more. The Japanese version has an additional two familiars which are 'tengu goblin' and 'sprite'. These are just copies of the demon and fairy/faerie and look slightly different.

Meeting Other Characters

Once you get to certain points in the game you’ll meet up with Maria Renard who was a playable character from Dracula X: Rondo of Blood. You quickly find out she’s in the castle to solve the mystery of Richter Belmont's disappearance. You meet up with her a few times and she eventually helps you progress though the game. If you die when fighting Dracula as Richter in the proglue stage you'll be able to see her briefly as a child. She was also a playable character in Dracula X: Rondo of Blood.

When you see Richter you find out he’s made a slave by Shaft, the evil wizard who resurrected Dracula. When you get far enough into the game you’ll find the long staircase from the prologue stage, which has now have collapsed. Once you get to the room where you fought Dracula, Richter will be waiting for you.

Without spoiling too much of the game for you, there is a lot more than map overage you might think. There's also a nice twist if you find a way to save Richter in Dracula’s castle keep.

Sound, Music and Voice Acting

The sound effects are also great and everything seems to fit nicely together. Occasionally enemies will shout out various things at you when they attack you or die which is always a good thing.

The music is an absolute joy to listen to and really suits the area you’re exploring. About half of the tracks are orchestral which really sets the mood for the location you’re in. Others are orchestral with a modern twist which may sound weird, but it really works. Every track is extremely well put together and is one of my favourite video game soundtracks of all time. I love it that much I bought the soundtrack CD and still listen to it every once and a while.

If you’re lucky enough to get the limited edition version of the PlayStation version you’ll get a Castlevania Music Collection CD. This has a selection tracks that span from the NES to the X68000.

In each scene with a main character you’ll be treated to a short voiced over conversation. This is quite nice and I feel this makes the game more involving. The English voice actors do a good job of delivering their lines, but with most games from the ‘90s the dialogue is something to be desired. Some of the classic lines are “What is a man?! A miserable little pile of secrets! But enough talk... have at you!" and “How is that I have been so defeated?" said by Dracula. The Japanese actors’ voices seem to be more suited to the characters, but since I don’t understand the language, I can’t really comment on it.

Game Over?… Not Quite

Once you’ve completed the game with enough map overage you’ll be able to play though the entire game as Richter Belmont. Richter has completely different moves compared to Alucard so this gives you an entirely new way to play though the game. He has no storyline and you don’t see any of the main characters.

Richter plays like your standard Castlevania character using the ‘vampire killer’ to whip his enemies to death. He also moves in the classic ‘tank like’ fashion. You’ll be able to use a verity of moves which gives you complete access to the castle as soon as you start the game.

It’s a real challenge to complete the game with Richter because he takes a lot of damage so you’ll find yourself dieing a lot. He does have ‘item crash’ powers which are super moves for each sub-weapon. This is something that Alucard can’t do.

You can also play the game on ‘luck mode’ when you’ve completed the game. This extremely reduces Alucard’s stats and gives you 99 luck and special luck ring. It’s quite a challenge because you’re so weak. The good thing is that your chance of getting a critical hit and rare item drops is greatly increased.

Finally if you play a ‘cleared’ save file you’ll get new items and the sound test in the shop. You also get time attack information for all the bosses you’ve defeated.

Sega Saturn Extras

The Saturn version of the game was only released in Japan and has a number of extras which are exclusive to the system. The first major difference is the option to play as Alucard, Richter and Maria at the start of the game. There is also a code you can put in to give Richter a different costume.

Maria is very much like Richter and has no storyline. She has her own unique sub-weapons and attacks which are all animal related. She also has ‘item crash’ powers, a selection of hidden moves and complete access to the castle as soon as you start the game. The only difference between her and Richter is that she has a magic meter.

The next major difference is the addition of two new areas of the castle which are the Underground Garden and Cursed Prison. These new areas don’t really add anything to the game and can be completely skipped out. The music for the new areas are remixes from classic Castlevania games. The Cursed Prison has its own music and the new remixes are ‘vampire killer’, ‘bloody tears’ and ‘wicked child’.

The Saturn version has two exclusive bosses. The first is a skeleton knight who is in the Underground Garden. The second is when you get to certain point and you meet with Maria. In the PlayStation version she gives you an item and in the Saturn version you have to fight her for it. The Maria battle has its own unique music.

While playing you can pickup additional weapons and items that are exclusive to the Saturn version. There’s also an additional relic which gives Alucard a speed boost if you double tap forward. Another exclusive is that you can access the sound test from the main menu which is always a nice feature.

Probably the best feature of the Saturn version is that Alucard has three ‘equip’ slots compared to two on the PlayStation. This means that you can equip three weapons, two weapons and a shield or two weapons and a healing item. This can be extremely useful is used correctly. I’ve found this feature weird because technically Alucard has three hands.

The reason Konami didn’t add these features to the PlayStation version is because the Saturn version was released a lot later. This means they had more time to add the new features.

Revenge of the Sega Saturn

You might think it’d be better just to get the Saturn version, but you’ll need to consider a few drawbacks first. First is that the Saturn version is quite rare so you’ll have to pay a lot of money for it. I paid £28 on eBay from a guy in Japan, but I’ve seen it go for over £50.

The Saturn’s slower CD drive speed and low hardware specs compared to the PlayStation cause most of the problems with this game. This is an issue that’s present in a lot of games that are on both systems.

The slowdown on the game can be quite unbearable at times. The game almost always slows down even if there are only one or two enemies on the screen. This means you have to really want to play the game to continue playing it.

The Saturn doesn’t have a controller with enough buttons so make playing a bit of a pain at times. On the PlayStation version you press ‘select’ to access the map, but on the Saturn you go into the menu then press ‘L’. This is really annoying and takes up a lot more time than you might think.

When moving between areas there is a wait of about two seconds on the PlayStation version, but on the Saturn a ‘now loading’ message is shown and takes over 5 seconds to load. This can be annoying if you’re going though multiple areas in a short period of time.

Xbox 360 version

The Xbox 360 version is a little disappointing. There are a number of things which annoy me quite a lot. Most are because at the time Microsoft set the size limit of Xbox Live Arcade games to under 100mb.

The controls have been changed and the ‘start’ button brings up a new menu. The ‘left trigger’ button shows the map and ‘back’ is for the status menu. There is no way to change this at all. The other controls can still be customised in the settings menu.

The sound quality has been reduced so the sound effects and voice acting sounds tinny at times. This is something that only someone who’s played the PSone version a few times will pick up on. The game sound is still set to mono in the settings menu which should have been changed.

When there’s an in-game dialogue between characters there is a blue strip with white text. When I completed the game with the best ending this was missing. This made reading the text extremely difficult because of the picture in the background. The game’s ending music was also changed from ‘I am the Wind’ by Michiru Yamane to ‘Admiration of a Clan' from Castlevania: Lament of Innocence. This was probably because Konami didn't want to pay for the royalties/copyright for the song.

The money glitch has been fixed when using ‘Sword Brothers’ on the Librarian. This means getting the achievement for $100,000 will be a little harder. The glitch to keep your equipment at the start of the game is still there. This doesn’t affect much because it only works on your second play through.

All three FMVs (Full Motion Videos) have been completely removed. Unless you’ve played the game before you’ll be missing key plot points in the story. There’s nothing to replace them so it’ll be up to you to figure out what’s going on. This is a real shame and something should have been there to explain the story.

The game is displayed in HD (High Definition), but this doesn’t really update the picture quality. The picture is centralised and can be stretched in the options menu to whatever size you like. It has a border with Alucard on the left and Dracula on the right. The border has a graveyard at the bottom with crosses and fog floating across the top. There is also an ‘enhanced’ graphics option. This makes the game look really weird. I don’t recommend using it at all.

Now it’s time to point out the good features. One of the best things is that the loading times have been reduced to less than a second. This is because the game can load faster from a hard drive compared to a CD. The time you had to wait wasn’t too long but it’s still a bonus. You can also listen to your own music while playing which is also a nice feature to have. There are also thirty saves game slots, though you shouldn’t need more than three or four. You can now quit to the main menu with having to kill yourself.

As with every Xbox Live Arcade game you can get a maximum of 200 Gamer Points. This may not seem like much, but it’s better than nothing at all. Some of the achievements are stupidly easy to get. The best example is kill ten enemies without getting hit. I’m sure that whoever ported this game got lazy and couldn’t think of ways to challenge people. I believe achievements should be earned not just given away for stupid things. This game is still worth the 800 Microsoft Points (£6.80) I paid for it, despite everything mentioned above. It’s a pity that the Sega Saturn version wasn’t ported instead.

PlayStation, Sega Saturn, PSP or Game Download?

This is matter of choice more than anything. More people have a PlayStation than a Saturn so I’d recommend the PlayStation version. If you want to play the Saturn you’ll either need a Japanese Saturn or an Action Replay to play imports. If you can’t find the game or don’t have either a PlayStation or Saturn you can legally download it. You can download it on either Xbox Live Arcade (Xbox 360) or the PlayStation Network (PlayStation 3 & PSP). Konami has included the full game as an unlockable on Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles (PSP).

Final Thoughts

This is one of my favourite games of all time and I highly recommend that you play it. It’s also regarded by most Castlevania fans this is greatest Castlevania in the series. Konami really makes good use of quality 3D elements to a 2D game. The game also includes a few CG cut scenes which brings the game nicely together. The game has a short but sweet storyline and will gives you hours of play time. Overall a great game with a lot of replay value because of the large castle to explore and five different endings. I guarantee you’ll love every minute you play.

I defiantly give this game a huge THUMBS UP regardless of the system you play it on .

Score: 10/10


No comments: