Sunday, August 2, 2015

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for PSP

So, guess what?
I started playing Castlevania a while back. And I like it.
This isn't the first Castlevania game I've ever played, Dawn of Sorrow was what introduced me to the series. But I have to say, Symphony of the Night deserves the legendary status it has attained.
Symphony of the Night was a game that dared to stay 2D in the transition to 3D, and it looks the better for it. Lots of games from that time period haven't aged very well, up to and including SotN's 3D counterparts on the N64, which have aged horribly in both the visuals and gameplay as far as I can tell, having only ever seen footage of people playing them, and not having played them myself.
The version of SotN that I'll be reviewing today is the PSP version that was included as an unlockable with the Dracula X Chronicles on the PSP. As I couldn't find any art just depicting the Symphony of the Night logo with PSP markings, I had to make it myself.
Special thanks to The Cover Project for having a ton of high-quality scans to choose from, otherwise this cover wouldn't have been easy to make
Before I get to the main event, I might as well briefly talk about The Dracula X Chronicles, which I only considered playing because it had Symphony of the Night on it.
The only game you've got immediate access to is the 2.5D remake of Rondo of Blood. And you remember what I said earlier about certain 3D graphics aging slightly worse that 2D?
Well for a 3D rendered game presented in sidelong 2D (Akin to New Super Mario World or Donkey Kong Country Returns) the graphics look pretty bad. And I've seen some good-looking 3D PSP titles. We're not judging this at the same standards as Final Fantasy Type-0, or anything, but looking at least as good as MGS:Peace Walker or Portable Ops, or even Silent Hill Origins isn't too much to ask, is it? I don't think so, especially considering this is Konami we're talking about.
Personally, I find the designs for the characters to be slightly lacking, especially compared to that of the original Rondo of Blood. The colors on Richter's model look bland, washed-out, and generic. I like the brighter, more colorful design he had in the original.
Second, it's not a very good game. The whip-control is lackluster, and the movement is so stiff I feel like I'm playing...
Well I feel like I'm playing one of the NES games. And all the enemies move faster and swifter than you do, which leads to inexperienced players taking a lot of damage.
And finally, the lives system. Oh god, the lives system.
I know this is a level-by level game, but do you really need a lives system in any kind of game?
Don't answer that, you don't. And making you go back to the beginning of the level after losing all your lives is a pretty bizarre move, even back in 2007.
The main problem with the lives system is that you only get three lives to start with, and if I remember correctly, you can only get like one extra life per level if you're freaking lucky. And while this remake is apparently much easier than the original game, the terrible controls and sluggish movement mean that your three lives get eaten up real fast. At least in Super Mario World you could easily get a ton of lives fairly quickly, so you wouldn't have to go all the way back to the beginning of the level after dying three (or four) times.
I don't know how accurate this system is to the original version of the game, and frankly I don't care.
Because the Castlevania I know is the Metroidvania style from Dawn of Sorrow and Symphony of the Night, and the super-fast acrobatics of Castlevania IV. I've had people tell me that the more limited control scheme is just something you should get used to, because the free-form controls of Castlevania IV made it way too easy.
To which I say, if you can't make a game hard without making the controls suck, then you should go back to the drawing board. Symphony of the Night shows that you can have good controls and make a game hard as well.
When a game has to rely on arcane mechanics, like a limited number of lives, limited control of your weapons and character, a health-meter that (To my knowledge) can't be refilled, and controls that feel more dated than those in games that were fifteen, twenty years old by then to try and be hard, you're doing it wrong. I think that Dracula X Chronicles had some great potential to it, but the game is so slow and so boring that I just can't play it. The whole reason I played it was because you had to get to a certain point in the game before you could play the game I really wanted to play, the sequel to Rondo of Blood, Symphony of the Night.
And then there's the fact that Symphony of the Night has to be unlocked by collecting an item that's pretty out of the way, about three stages into the game.
After you finish Stage 1 (Stage 0 doesn't count because it's so short), you gotta take an alternate path through Stage 2 (Which has one of the hardest bosses I've ever faced at the end) that takes you to Stage 3', which is different from the standard Stage 3.
It takes a ton of trial and error to be able to get through any of the stages with enough health to take on the boss at the end, and considering how difficult the boss at the end of Stage 2 is, you might wind up having to play the whole level over several times. I actually had to look up how to beat the Stage 2 boss, because there are a total of zero clues as to how you're supposed to kill the big bony dragon-thing. And even then, after I knew what to do, it didn't help much since Richter moves like he's wearing Link's Iron boots.
So after that, you gotta make your way through Stage 3', which seems like its even more out to get you than Stage 2 was.
Seriously, though. I know Richter is only human, but the enemies that Alucard just laughs at in Symphony of the Night are freaking deadly in Dracula X Chronicles. And some of them will chase you to the furthest corners of the level if you don't kill them.
And then, when you get almost to the point where you can collect the item that unlocks Symphony of the Night, you wind up being forced to do precision platforming.
These controls were not made for precision platforming.
There's a bit before you actually get to the room where Symphony of the Night is located with a bit of platforming, but you're not asked to do anything really precise until the next room.
But in order to get to Symphony of the Night, you have to kill a giant wall-mounted skeleton-snake. And to do that, you need to make sure you don't get hit too often, because that snake takes a lot of hits and dishes out as hard as it can take it. So you also need to have as many lives as possible banked from the beginning of the level to get the best chance at beating it you can.
After you kill it, that's when the precision platforming really starts. You gotta have a decent ranged weapon to cut down the platform that lets you reach the upper part of the level, and then you have to jump onto small ledges above, being forced to walk back to the beginning and start over if you fall into a gap. Not to mention that some of the platforms fall down and make it even harder to get to the destination without falling down and being forced to start all over again.
While The Dracula X Chronicles comes with three Castlevania games, and while I do think it's work it to have as a physical copy of Symphony of the Night for the PSP, I'm left to question whether the method of unlocking was implemented well. Because on the one hand, I didn't enjoy my experience with The Dracula X Chronicles, and I wouldn't want to repeat it if my save-file got corrupted, but on the other hand if they'd just handed Symphony of the Night to me I probably wouldn't have put any time into The Dracula X Chronicles, at least not at first. And feeling like I was forced to play an annoying game just to get to a good one leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
And the worst part is that they tout the inclusion of Symphony of the Night on the back of the box, without even saying that you have to unlock it! They include screenshots from Symphony of the Night on the back, along with the logo for Symphony of the Night! For something that was essentially marketed as a "Castlevania HD Collection" they should have just let you select which of the games you wanted to play from the menu, instead of making you play through the main game to unlock them. I'll betcha that would have been received better.
I didn't play long enough to unlock Rondo of Blood, and I've never played it, or Dracula X for SNES before, so I have no frame of comparison between those two and this. I'd hope that both of them are better than this remake.
So, let's get to the meat of the reason why we're here. The main attraction, one of the greatest games ever made, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
I didn't play a whole lot of the original PlayStation version, but I'll try to do my best to compare the two from what I know of the original.
The very first thing I noticed was that the dialogue has been changed, and for the worse.
Yeah, I know the translation needed to be improved, but not at the expense of some of the most iconic lines in the series. Gone is the line "What is a man?! A miserable little pile of secrets!" I don't care if that's a mistranslation or not, that was an awesome line! What's replaced it is overly flowery, Shakespearean purple prose that feels out of place, unnatural, and just plain stupid in some places.
Not to mention that the voice-acting has taken a huge hit in the transition, because with a new script comes new voice-acting. And in some remakes, that's a good thing. Take Resident Evil on the GameCube, or Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes. While they re-recorded their voice-acting for different reasons, they both still needed it.
That's not really the case here. While the new translation has cleaned up a lot of the big issues I noticed, the new voice-acting is leagues behind the original.
I'm going to single out one specific performance here. Yuri Lowenthal. I have nothing against him, and I actually kinda like him as a voice-actor. He played Ben Tennyson in Ben-10 Alien Force, Sasuke Uchiha in Naruto (And I mean all of Naruto) and he has literally hundreds of credits to his name. Hell, he's playing Beck in Mighty No. 9! But there's something that's just wrong about the way he played Alucard in this game.
All of his dialogue sounds like they were recording him when he was reading the script for the first time. And all of Alucard's lines just lack any kind of power, or emotion, or even just the correct inflection.
Like I said, I like Yuri's work. Ben 10 Alien Force is still a great show, and it wouldn't be as good if Yuri's performance in it sucked. The problem is that in this he just sounds like a robot...
And you know what? I think I'm going to say it. He sounds like Kristen Stewart in Twilight. It sucks that I have to say that, but he does. But at least Yuri is a better actor than Stewart.
The worst part is that Alucard sounded a lot better in the original, when he was voiced by Robert Belgrade.
I'm happy to see that Belgrade is going on to act in Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, working alongside another of my favorite voice-actors, David Hayter.
In the PlayStation version of SotN, Alucard sounded confident, self assured. He sounded like someone who could punch a giant wolf in the face and kill it with a single hit. Yuri's new work for Alucard includes grunts and whatnot, and those are the worst of all of his work for this game. Those samples are just too soft for Alucard. Like I said before, they lack emotion, and they're not as good as the samples.
Speaking of annoying voice-acting, the text-scroll after you beat Dracula for at the beginning of the game has some amateur dramatics student narrating it. Back in the original version, there wasn't a narrator talking over it, just the background music. In this one, some dude is talking over it. He puts the emphasis on the wrong syllables of his words, and his voice is just not epic.
The thing about a text-scroll like that is you either get a great voice-actor to narrate it or you don't narrate it at all. Would Star Wars have been made any better by getting someone to narrate the opening text crawl? No, it wouldn't have. Unless they had James Earl Jones himself, or Morgan Freeman narrating the crawl, it would have just sucked. And that's why you leave text crawls to be read by the audience. A bad narrator can ruin the atmosphere.
Now that I've gotten my critique of the most annoying thing about this port out of the way, let's go ahead and talk about the good stuff.
The castle is expansive, it's got a load of interesting enemies to tangle with, and plenty of cool architecture to jump around on.
Now, while the graphics have aged very well, as I mentioned early in the review, Konami unfortunately did not opt to expand the cameras field of view. There's an option in the menu to either display the game at its "Native" resolution (Which I kind of doubt is the native resolution of the game since the PSP and the PS1 have similar resolutions) or to stretch it to fill most of the screen.
Now, when I was getting my Fallout playthrough set up, I was experimenting with the mod I installed that allowed me to play the game in windowed mode. With that mod comes an option to upgrade the resolution from the original 640 by 480 to much higher resolutions. And instead of upscaling the graphics, they just expanded the cameras FOV, which makes the graphics look much better than they would have otherwise.
And back when I played Cave Story for the PSP (Which was an unofficial port not worked on by Pixel) they'd expanded the games FOV to fill the PSP's screen with the graphics.
It's always head-scratching whenever I see any game that doesn't expand the FOV so the game fills the screen. Especially ports of older games. I guess it all depends on the limitations of the engine, but if you have access to the source-code of the game and the source for the engine itself, you should be able to make the necessary changes.
That is if Konami didn't lose the source-code and some of the assets like they apparently did when they made the Silent Hill HD Collection, at least according to Jim Sterling. Which, considering what I've heard, I wouldn't necessarily be surprised.
I've heard that the XBLA and PSN releases of Symphony of the Night don't expand the FOV either, opting to pose still images of Alucard and Dracula on opposite sides of the screen to fill the gaps.
As for the plot, I don't know what to say. I've never played any of the Castlevania games that came out before it for more than a few minutes at a time, so I don't know a whole lot about the plot of the series as a whole.
But the story is actually pretty good. They really take the concept of "Show, don't tell" to heart. Alucard is a great character, Richter is cool, Maria is cool too, and Dracula is freaking awesome.
The weird thing is that you have to run around and find a few specific items that you wouldn't know to get without either talking to someone who had done it, or looking up a walkthrough. And if you don't do that, you literally miss out on half of the game.
I did my best to map out all as much of both castles as I could, and I wound up with a completion percentage of 195.4%. Man, oh man. There is so much to do in this game, and so many places to go. If you wind up being stuck on one area you can go off somewhere else and find something else to do.
The gameplay is great, and the controls are a dream, especially compared to those from The Dracula X Chronicles.
Now, let's talk music. This is one awesome soundtrack, with plenty of good music in it. The unfortunate thing is that when they redid the game for PSP they removed one of the best songs from the soundtrack, I Am The Wind. Yeah, it's kinda cheesy, but I think it's a better song than what they replaced it with, Mournful Serenade.
Now, if they wanted to do this, they could have, and it would have been great. Use Mournful Serenade in the bad ending and I Am The Wind in the good ending. That way you include both songs, and it works out for everyone.
I know Mournful Serenade was the original ending song in the Japanese version, and I know they were trying to be more accurate to the original version with this release, but all in all I think that was a bad idea.
Not that that makes this a bad game, by any means. I'd still rate it as one of the best I've ever played.
And you know what? I'll give it a 9.8* rating, knocking off three points from perfect for the script, acting, and the removal of I Am The Wind.
So, after having spent all day working on this review, I hope you guys liked it!