Title  : Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Platforms  : Sony PlayStation
Publisher  : Konami
Game Rating  : 9.5
Review by  : Ken Gagne

Evil may arise but once every hundred years, but PlayStation fans don't have to wait that long. Konami's Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is the latest installment in a long-running popular gothic horror series. 

The Castlevania story is one of an eternal battle between Dracula and the Belmont family, a clan of vampire slayers. Symphony picks up in 1796, four years after the Dracula X title, with the disappearance of that game's hero, Richter Belmont. The sudden return of Dracula's domain, Castlevania, prompts the awakening of his son Alucard, last seen teaming up with Trevor Belmont in Castlevania III in Transylvania's 1492. Although half-vampire, Alucard seeks to rid the world of the evil his father's race has spawned. And so he ventures into the castle in search of both the source of its reappearance and Richter. 

The game is similar to Castlevania II with its role-playing elements, and to Metroid in the freedom of movement. Alucard may search the castle in any order he chooses, although some areas may not be available until later visits. Symphony does not railroad players along a specific path, leaving plenty to be explored at will. Items, weapons, and armor must be found and equipped, as well as experienced earned to raise strength levels. 

From the opening choir number to the closing song, "I Am The Wind", complete with vocals, Symphony earns its name. Its gothic theme plays throughout the royal chapel, underground catacombs, and castle walls. The sound effects of shrieking bats and dying knights echoes through the halls. Cinematic sequences between Alucard and secondary characters involve voice acting that lends a new level of personality to this side-scroller genre. 

The graphics are equally superb. The wide variety of bosses, both large and small, inspire awe — especially the foe composed of hundreds of corpses. Small details in the background can lead to hidden paths. Even Alucard's appearance changes depending on what items he's wearing. All sprites are animated to their fullest, allowing them the freedom to move in myriad ways. 

Alucard moves like a dream through this nightmarish world. His two hands can each be equipped with any combination of sword, shield, or item, used by separate buttons. As in standard vampiric tradition, Alucard can transform into a bat, wolf, or mist. Controlling these alternate forms is simple and uncomplicated. Some special moves and spell-casting are executed with Street Fighter-ish button combinations, which is a bit frustrating in the heat of battle. 

There are plenty of obstacles and some take several tries to overcome, but clear thinking and brute force will eventually earn a victory. Not all areas must be traveled for the ending to be obtained. A good player might be able to beeline to the finale in under four hours. Fortunately, going back to fully explore the castle adds replay value, and what may seem to be the game's untimely end could prove to be only the beginning of something much more devilish. Not all is as it appears! Add in a few puzzles and some secret rooms, and this game is more challenging than one would think. 

It's strange for the main character of a Castlevania title to not be a whip-wielding Belmont, and for the castle to be so open to probing. Although Castlevania never really needed to be revamped, these changes are fresh and exciting, making an already successful series even better. Certainly no game is perfect, but I'm hard-pressed to find any major flaw in this title. Symphony of the Night will keep many a gamer playing until sunrise.


This article is copyright (c) 1997, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Sentinel & Enterprise, 13-Oct-97