Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
Sidescrollers never really did it for me. Well, Super Metroid was quite good, Mario platformers were fun, and Megaman had his moments, but I didn't think truly highly of any of them. I didn't enjoy the linearity and over-simplicity of them (which is probably why I got a kick out of Super Metroid and why it was my favorite for awhile) when compared to games that took place in 3 dimensions. I thought for sure that, after playing Super Metroid for the first time in summer 2004, I had played the best sidescroller I was ever going to. However, now it's late summer 2005, and I can say with certainly that I was wrong.
Symphony of the Night continues the Castlevania series, which dates back to the NES. In the original CV, you played as Simon Belmont in a 8-bit adventure through all of 18 rooms where you suffered through stiff controls, a hit detection system that needed work, and 6 fairly mediocre bosses. Oh how far the series has come. Now you play as Alucard, and the lackluster graphics, dinky size, and technical flaws have disappeared. Oh yes, did I mention how great the bossfights have become?
The game doesn't bother with making a particularly good story. The game begins with you taking control of Ricther Belmont, the latest in a line of Belmonts, just before his epic fight with Dracula. And so fighting him is the first thing you do in the game. After slaying him, we fast forward 4 years. Castle Dracula has suddenly reappeared and Ritcher is nowhere to be found. So Alucard awakens from what was supposed to be an eternal slumber to end his cursed bloodline (if you haven't figured it out already, spell his name backwards) to take care of this himself. That's about it as far as story goes. Yes, there are a few twists along the way, but i'll let you get the game and discover them yourself. Not that you've really lost anything if it gets spoiled for you, but meh. =p
Now, since we've already established that story is not a selling point of SOTN, we can only hope that gameplay will save it. And the gameplay indeed does. Yes, it's doomed to being Hack n Slash because of it's genre, but it's fast paced and fun enough to make it worth your time anyway. At the beginning of the alucard section of the game, you have the equipment of a god so the first rooms are easy. However, quickly your equipment is stripped and your left with the mediocre equipment that the enemies you kill drop. From this point, SOTN is a quest to get the highest level, best equipment, and best tactics you can get. Sound familiar?
Leveling is done the same way any game with leveling involved does it. Each enemy you kill brings you closer to a new level, and with each new level comes higher stats. These higher stats will give you the ability to kill stronger enemies (or at least make it considerably easier) and move further in the game. And i'm sure the method of which you get new equipment is familiar enough. You find swords, axes, shields, accessories, armor pieces, etc as you progress through the game, each more powerful than the last. You start out with some fairly pathetic pieces of metal that try to excuse themselves for equipment, and you can end up with *VERY MINOR SPOILERS* a weapon that can kill the final boss, who should be a decent challenge, in all of 20-30 seconds. Yeah, you read that right. *END VERY MINOR SPOILERS*
On the subject of bosses... They are no doubt the highlight of Symphony of the Night. From the first to the last, they are fastpaced fun fests that, unless you've really overleveled, will take a fair amount of skill to win. Be it a grade A imitation of...yourself, a giant mass of garbage, the grim reaper, or Dracula himself, you'll be sure to have a blast.
However, when your not fighting bosses, you'll be going through the castle fighting much easier enemies. Though these fights are not quite as spectacular, you will notice one more outstanding feature of SOTN. Non-linearity. You can go left, right, up, down, or any combination of the four directions you wish to get through the castle. Of course, you will find barriers in some directions, meaning you'll have to pick another direction to find something that will allow you to go in the first direction you tried, but the game is pretty damn non-linear. There are a fair amount of areas you can completely skip on your way to beating it, and you can explore a fair few areas in whatever order you so please.
For you SNES fans, is this game starting to sound a little familiar? If it does, it's no doubt because SOTN and Super Metroid have very similar gameplay. I dislike making comparisions in reviews, but in this case it's just too easy. SOTN takes Super Metroid and, in my opinion at least, makes some sizeable jumps. Super Metroid had a few gameplay problems that SOTN does not. First of all, both are non-linear, but SOTN actually throws you a bone or two. The map is very helpful for one, you simply have to explore the areas the map has shown you haven't explored yet. And you can assume you're going the right way if you find a cutscene, boss, or savepoint. Super Metroid doesn't quite extend this helping hand. Furthermore, Super Metroid has many areas where you have to blast a piece of the wall or floor out to proceed. How on earth are you expected to know that? SOTN keeps things a little more straightforward. Finally, Super Metroid is very...ermm...broken. I've never done it myself, but I know it's possible to skip an insane amount of Super Metroid areas while still being able to beat the game. While cool, it's really a design flaw that SOTN doesn't have. So, if you liked Super Metroid, I don't see how you couldn't like SOTN. Except that, while many Super Metroid fans disliked the game the first time they played it, SOTN is more likeable the first time through.
Oh yes, did I mention symphony of the night can make you laugh as well? The Voice acting is laughably bad. Which is sad, because some of the lines and dialogues are cool. But you might not notice because you're laughing. It's a good thing SOTN doesn't rely on storyline, otherwise we might have to put up with alot more of the half-assed voices. Instead, we get a heavy dose of kickass music as you rock your way through Dracula's castle. In fact, the soundtrack is on par with...you guessed it...Super Metroid!
Well, that's Symphony of the Night for you. The storyline is pretty blah, made worse by the voice acting, and the combat is nothing special. But on the other hand, you have non-linearity without frustration, sweet bossfights, a rocking soundtrack, RPG elements, and Customization. All this combines to make what is, in my experience and opinion, the greatest sidescroller out there. Expensive and Rare, Symphony of the Night will take a bite out of your wallet, but some things are just worth it. So head down to the game store now and try and pick up a copy of this gem, because as a great man once said, "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."