Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
For most gamers, Symphony of the Night was probably the first taste of a Castlevania game with a focus on exploration and level building as opposed to linear sidescrolling action. But in my case, it was Aria of Sorrow that introduced me to this play style. It's only after playing both Aria and Dawn that I've set aside the time to finally play through the game that started it all. For the most part, I had a pleasant time, but playing the games out of order made this a less thrilling experience than it probably should have been. It's for that reason that I don't feel qualified to truly judge this game, but I did want to elaborate on my feelings a little.
I don't yearn for constant challenge from a game, and that's probably an understatement. Yet I found most of SotN to be on the noticeably easy side. I never stopped exploring in order to level up, but I felt I had enough experience points and powerful equipment just from normal progression to obliterate virtually every enemy and boss without a hassle. Strategy was irrelevant, just slash away and make a minimal effort to dodge. I would occasionally reach sections of the castle where the enemies seemed far more powerful than me, but after fighting through them for a short while, I'd level up again and again and they'd become mere nuisances. The Game Overs I did got came mainly from missing a save/heal point and reaching a boss I wasn't healed up for or gradually running out of HP because I was too stubborn to use one of my many healing items.
So for all the magic spells, familiars, attack items, and different weapon and armor combinations (and considerations of using one element against another), all you really need to do is equip something, anything, with a decent attack power and slash away. As with any game, you could use your own challenges. You might say, "I'm going to beat Dracula with a lower level than anybody else ever has". Sure, that's fine, have fun. But I feel it's not my job to find a way to make the gameplay more substantial.
With combat being relatively unspectacular, exploring the castle becomes the best part of the gameplay. It's pretty darn huge with a ton of rewarding secrets to find. Whenever you gain the ability to transform into a new form or open a new kind of door, it's entertaining to go back to areas you've visited and look not just for a way to continue the game, but for all the little treasures that may be lurking about. Once I focused less on advancing the game by beating the bosses and opening up new areas, and more on just taking my time and looking around, things fell into place and those game advancement concerns worked themselves out as well.
There's a great map system that you can quickly bring up and then close without having to go into the menus. You won't find every secret by relying on the map, but it's easy to tell where there are parts of the castle you haven't fully explored yet. I do think that the castle could have used more warp points considering all the backtracking you need to do, but it's never a huge annoyance and it was improved on in later games. So I suppose that the only drawback for me in terms of castle exploration is that because future games borrowed so heavily from this one, I had a very strong sense that I had already played through some sections multiple times. If anything, it makes me more critical of those other games for being such lazy sequels.
The Xbox 360 game plays exactly the same as on the PS1, but does have a few achievement points you can earn. Most are simple and will be obtained by normal progression, but there are a handful of challenges you may enjoy unlocking. The 360's controller is known for having a terrible d-pad, but the analog stick works splendidly here.
Without much knowledge of the overall Castlevania story line, I still found playing Alucard, son of Dracula, and trying to discover the secret of Richter Belmont and the castle to be somewhat interesting. There are story scenes that would have been more effective with a better translation and the elimination of the ridiculous voice acting. On the other hand, some of it is so unintentionally hilarious that I wouldn't trade it for anything.
Visually, the game is near perfect. The castle looks absolutely incredible and different areas feel distinct enough to avoid being tedious. With the wonderful backgrounds and huge, detailed sprites, it's a great example of how beautiful a 2D game can look and why they need to continue being made. The Xbox 360 version smooths things out enough to be slightly noticeable (in a good way) and eliminates the loading times for a more seamless experience.
I don't know if this ranks up with my all-time favorite soundtracks yet, but there's no complaints at all. There's a ton of great songs to enjoy and I'll be listening to them in the future regardless of whether I ever play the actual game again.
In the end, I felt that Symphony of the Night was a good game, but not one of the greatest. I recommend playing it at some point, but if you've already been heavily into the GBA and DS titles, there's no need to rush out and do so right away. At $10.00, this makes a wonerful Xbox Live download and hopefully the original version isn't too out of reach on ebay. If this is to be your first taste of one of these games, you're in for a treat. If not, it's still a game very much worth trying.