Our third and final week sees two of our regulars down to illness — or perhaps a dark curse by Count Dracula!? In any case, that leaves the task of putting an end to the latest evil scheme to resurrect the lord of chaos down to Jeremy, Mike, and Kat. And you, of course! Thanks for joining us as we wrap up our journey through Castlevania.
The back half of Symphony of the Night is what we in video game review clichés would term "a mixed bag" (though fans of the genre will love it!). On one hand, the whole "by the way, there's a whole other half of the game to play" surprise after beating the final boss was an amazing curveball out of nowhere, a totally unexpected surprise. On the other hand, it's literally a mirror image of the first half of the game, and it really makes you appreciate the fact that video game architecture is meant to be played in its proper orientation.
Let's talk about the bad stuff first.
I would say the biggest problem with the Inverted Castle is that you're tramping through familiar territory upside-down. OK, sure, it's a weird and unexpected way to approach an environment you've already explored to make it fresh, but the game clearly wasn't designed with this mirrored orientation in mind. At every turn, you'll find platforms that are too high for Alucard to reach under his normal locomotion — ledges that rise just a few pixels above the limits of his double-jump. You're constantly forced to switch to Bat or Mist form or use the super-jump ability to progress, and after a while this creates a choppy, staccato feel to the action that spoils the smooth flow for which Symphony is best known.
The other big problem comes from the difficulty balancing — namely, it's awful. The Inverted Castle is full of dangerous situations and enemies, but most of these scenarios achieve that difficulty level by being incredibly annoying. Take the room in the Inverted Catacombs where the floor is filled with dozens of weird octopi spewing ink. Yeah, it's cool that the PlayStation could display so many more sprites than previous systems Castlevania had appeared on, but the room itself is really tedious to fight through. There are likewise a ton of enemies that love to juggle Alucard or have hard-to-avoid attacks that hit ridiculously hard.
You get the feeling in the Inverted Castle that the designers were struggling to keep things interesting and challenging, and the solutions they came up with don't always work.
I agree the the flow of the Inverted Castle is completely off. It's fun seeing the same areas upside-down with new enemies, but it's exceedingly clear that movement through each area wasn't balanced around both orientations. Despite the story hook to sell it, the entire Invested Castle just feels like backtracking in any other game. It's probably the worst part of an otherwise excellent game and the team at Konami obviously didn't have a huge amount of time go back through the game and smooth out all the kinks. Sure, there are some new foes, but that makes me think they wanted the original castle to be larger.
Symphony of the Night is in stark contrast to a recent Metroidvania title, Guacamelee, which has a ton of backtracking, but without losing its flow. Because the Living and Dead dimensions are both designing to be traversed easily by the player, it works even when you're covering an area for the third time. Whereas the Inverted Castle just feels like clunky padding.
Also, how did anyone figure out how to get to the Inverted Castle section without a guide? Young Mike certainly did not.
Well, I complained about the Inverted Castle's flaws; now let me praise its strengths.
For starters, I love the referential nature of this portion of the game. Your mission here includes nods to all the NES Castlevania games — not only is there the obvious battle against doppelgangers of Alucard's companions from Dracula's Curse, but your main objective is to gather the same Dracula relics you collected in Simon's Quest by defeating the bosses from the original Castlevania. That's wonderful! Heck, there's even a tip of the hat to Kid Dracula with the outlandishly huge boss Garamoth at the summit of the Inverted Castle.
The game doesn't just riff on its own history, either. For example, all the enemies in the Forbidden Library are based on Dorothy's companions from The Wizard of Oz, including the incredibly powerful Lions who — yes — timidly back away from your advances and only attack when you corner them.
Wait! That's not true! The Schmoo, who holds my favorite weapon in the game - the rapid-fire Crissaegrim - is apparently based on a character from the manga Obake no Q-taro and named after the Shmoo from the Lil' Abner comics. You learn something new every day!
Otherwise, it is a ton of fun to see all of the themed enemies in each specific area of the Castlevania, though again, the themes seem stronger in the main Castle compared to the inverted one.
And despite the copy-and-paste nature of this second half of the game, it includes a ton of new enemies. I love that when you arrive at the Inverted Castle, you're greeted by a completely unique foe, Yorick, who despite existing on in that one location has his own unique behavior and responses to your actions. Like Orlox, the detail invested in one-time situations like this really bring Symphony's world to life, and can easily be overlooked if you're not paying attention. Some of the monsters in the second castle can really catch you off-guard, like the seemingly puny Nova Skeletons that fire a beam of deadly laser light that can blast away half of Alucard's health in a single hit.
Even though it lacks the tight, focused design and flow of the first half of the game, the Inverted Castle goes quickly enough that it's not a total drag — and there's always some weird surprise or never-before-seen enemy around the corner.
My first reaction was to hate the Inverted Castle because holy hell is it disorienting. You spend all this time getting into a groove, learning the map, and collecting items, and now you're ready to take on Richter for the climactic battle and… there's the whole other castle! And in that moment, you're essentially set back to square one as you find yourself relearning the layout of the upside down castle and fighting suddenly really powerful enemies.
Okay, actually, they're not that powerful, there are just a lot of them. The early portions of the Inverted Castle positively loads rooms with bad guys. So while I was mostly able to kill them one-on-one, I would occasionally get overwhelmed by sheer numbers. I've also spent a lot more time in my bat and cloud forms in the Inverted Castle for the reasons that Jeremy noted earlier, namely that most of the ledges are too high.
All that said, there's a meta aspect to the gameplay that I really like. If Dracula's Castle is all about being weird and chaotic, then it's perfectly appropriate to suddenly be thrown into a crazy upside down castle at the moment that you least expect it. It's a great twist, if a slightly irritating one at the outset. Things got better once I found my bearings and uncovered a couple save spots and teleport spots. And hey, it's great fighting Grant, Trevor, and Sypha. What a neat callback to Castlevania III. You didn't see a lot of games with that sort of awareness of its history back then. Certainly not on console.
Putting aside the the castle itself, I sort of like how much more open the exploration feels. Alucard has most of his abilities at this point, so working through the castle isn't nearly as arduous. It's an interesting way to approach a Metroidvania game. What did everyone else think?
Like I said before, it's just lacking a solid sense of flow. You have the abilities to make traversal possible, but it doesn't feel smooth. It's like having to reach in your backpack to grab the next tool to move on. I prefer the straightforward Dracula's Castle in Dawn of Sorrow to the Inverted Castle in Symphony.
But I admit I was happy to see Grant, Trevor, and Sypha back in action.
Next week: We take a breather by tackling something quick and light: A one-week journey through, well, Journey. Available on PlayStation 3 via both PSN download and a disc-based release, you should be able to pick up and play Journey any way you like. It's a short game, so please play through it and join us next Tuesday as we discuss our different experiences!