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In Memory
Sean Pettibone

Classic Review

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Konami for Playstation)
Konami's classic Castlevania franchise reached one of its high water marks in this outstanding Playstation installment, Symphony of the Night. While the basic approach and presentation is very traditional, the game succeeded in pushing the series' boundaries forward. It took the traditional 2D platform and added a whole new layer of RPG elements to make for a game that is surprising in its length and depth. Aesthetically, SOTN’s lush soundtrack and graphics are nearly unmatched creating a mood and drama that is nearly flawless. Taking a new non-linear almost RPG like approach and marrying it with time-tested play-mechanics produces what it by far, one of Playstation’s best games. While copies of the game are difficult and expensive to come by these days, Symphony remains one of the most important titles ever released, offering the balance, depth and challenge that would set the stage for the franchise's next decade.

The famous Castlevania series needs no introduction among most gamers. From its NES debut more than twenty years ago, through its many sequels, Castlevania  has consistently been one of the most rewarding and entertaining electronic games on the market. The Playstation edition more than lives up to the tradition and innovates new features in several important gameplay areas - many of which have returned in the more recent DS version. This legendary installment continues the saga of the Belmont clan and their eternal battle against the evil Dracula. The game begins with the player taking the role of Alucard, the son of Dracula who is half-man and monster. Once players get past the gorgeous opening cinema, the action begins. The game itself is very familiar to veterans of the saga. Most of the conventions and play mechanics that made the older games in the series so appealing remain intact. Some players may find the pre-amble of replaying the climactic battle from Castlevania:Bloodlines a bit off-putting. It seems a bit pointless but it does set the stage for the adventure and closely links the plot.

You can say that Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is a traditional two-dimensional platform game with RPG elements, but it's actually more than that. This is an excellent combination expertly implemented, since it infuses what could be a standard action-title with deep strategic longevity making this one of the best PS games ever made from a pure gameplay standpoint. Players battle a wide variety ghouls and goblins throughout Dracula's castle while also accumulating an arsenal of powerful weapons such as swords, special power ups and magic spells that increase's Alucard's powers and abilities. You gain strength as they progress through the game and have ability to leave some special weapons in their arsenal for the tough end-bosses, which is another key element that makes the game so entertaining. The castle is a huge area that players must navigate which is much larger than the levels in previous games, you'll have to spend a lot of time backtracking and retracing your steps, which can be annoying but also adds to the challenge. Another big change from previous installments, is that the levels are designed in such a manner that is an entirely non-linear game. Players will visit many areas on multiple occasions, with each revealing new secrets and special items as the player acquires more strength and experience. Thanks to the many secrets and power-ups, it constantly renews itself for the player. There are many special rooms in which gamers can save progress and replentish their health. These rooms seem to fit into playing organically, helping that game's flow seem natural.  This system is superior to remembering awkward passwords and absolutely a change for the better. As the game progresses, the player may acquire an on-screen map, which helps make the adventure less daunting. Controlling and managing the inventory of weapons spells and magic is intuitive thanks to the smartly designed interface.

There is much area for players to cover in this huge adventure. Its safe to say that there's more than the average player can handle in a single sitting. The levels themselves are straightforward enough that progress is frequent so that most sessions with the game give the player a satisfying sense of achievement. Master players may find the game too easy while average players will find the balance perfect. It is important to point out that despite the RPG elements, it doesn't really slow down play and   action is still the main thrust of the game. Castlevania fans needn’t worry, the classic arcade style gameplay is still very much the main thrust of the game. What was great about the series has only been improved by Konami's myriad enhancements.  The control is tight, instantly familiar and gorgeous. Castlevania:SOTN’s main draws include it’s rich gothic-flavored graphics. Appropriately dark and foreboding, the rooms contain many horrifying visual chills and thrills. This is evident in the beautiful character animation. Players can see Alucard’s cape flowing as he moves. The huge bosses look incredible, the visual treats are plentiful. The artwork and design are exceptional throughout, showcasing the game’s distinctively ghoulish personality with plenty of detail and style. The multi-planed backgrounds are elaborate and make stunning use of light-sourcing. Players will notice Pentagrams on walls, dark storm clouds and even the occasional corpse in the backgrounds. Foregrounds are also rich in visual splendor with flickering gas lamps used to enhance the game’s horror-steeped atmosphere. It’s obvious that much effort went into the special effects. The richly colored attacks are quite stunning at points.  Each level has its own distinct feel, visually - making for a game that is quite beautiful.

The ‘symphony’ in the game’s title is apt as the game’s soundtrack only enhances and enriches the atmosphere. The ‘night symphonies’ range from semi-classical to re-worked versions of classic themes from earlier games. Some are instantly recognizable, giving the game a surprisingly high hit of nostalgia.  Each room in the castle has its own ominous theme. The music is memorable and makes the game stand out in the crowd. The sound effects of grunts and groans are clear and of exceptionally high quality. The voice-overs of the characters are the lone drawback. The acting is overwrought and somewhat disappointing given the otherwise outstanding presentation. This is a very small blotch on what is an otherwise sterling soundtrack. Players will find much that is familiar and many surprises throughout the game. This is the game’s main strength and recommendation.  Some may argue that the game breaks little new ground, that despite the graphics, special effects this is still just more of the same old Castlevania. That point is moot.  The major reason to purchase  the game doesn’t lie in revolutionary technology. Far from it - this is about as conservative in approach as you can get. This title showcases the perfect technique to enhance and reinvigorate a series to make it fresh and entertaining. This is a thin line to walk without throwing away what works. Konami has walked that line like an expert, and this is a reason why the game has achieved such legendary status over the past decade. Symphony of the Night definitely remains one of the high water marks for the series and its reputation has only increased over the past decade. It definitely set the template for the games to come on the Game Boy Advance and DS. Add addicting, entrancing music and lush graphics, not to mention a thoroughly enjoyable experience and you’ll understand why this is such a highly sought after title on the collector's market. It's rumored inclusion on Xbox Live plus the port apparently appearing on the upcoming Dracula X remake on the PSP should make it more accessible for a broader audience, which should give this classic installment of the series an even higher degree of esteem. - Michael Palisano

Grade: A+