Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

Picked up this legendary game on iOS for £3 and it’s worth it even if you have to make do with touchscreen controls, which will never be as intuitive as having actual buttons to mash. Thankfully, Symphony of the Night is pretty easy as action platformers go, thanks to the introduction of RPG mechanics like levelling, consumables and a massive variety of equipment that make you more powerful as you progress, as well as allowing for a certain amount of player expression in terms of builds you can use.

That said, as with a lot of RPGs the hardest part is the beginning. You start off with your endgame equipment, which is then quickly taken away and you have to scramble around in the early areas of the castle finding basic swords, shields and armour to survive. I didn’t really understand the process of saving or using secondary weapons, which made the game feel far more frustrating than it actually is. Once you know what you’re doing and have beaten the first few bosses the world becomes your oyster.

Symphony of the Night is one of the most famous examples of a game that gates areas by equipment and abilities, so rather than progressing in a linear fashion through levels, you are constantly exploring a giant map, and doubling back through old areas to find new pathways and treasures. At several stages, you have a choice of what to explore next, and you can check out early by beating the main boss of the castle, although that doesn’t give you a very satisfactory ending. The game is designed to reward exploration – only by unlocking its secrets do you get the full story (meagre as it is).

You also get a huge amount of extra content. The biggest trick Symphony of the Night pulls is to reward the player who has explored every nook and cranny of the castle with a whole other one to play in. Granted, it’s just the same castle turned upside down, but there is still a heap of new enemies and equipment to discover. It’s not quite a doubling of the game’s runtime, but it’s close. And that moment of revelation is a powerful one.

Unfortunately, the inverted castle doesn’t quite live up to its promise. Large portions of it are only accessible through flying, which isn’t a particularly enjoyable way to traverse new areas. It’s pretty obvious that the developers didn’t design the map to work effectively when it’s turned upside down – plenty of platforms are just out of reach of your double-jump, which is frustrating. The inverted castle is also far more hostile than the game thus far would lead you to expect. The power curve is very effectively reset, but at the beginning you are reliant on using your mist form (which makes you invulnerable) to bypass certain enemy-filled corridors until you gain enough levels and endgame equipment to navigate properly, which is again, not very satisfying.

The RPG elements save the day in the end. If you explore enough you will find enough health, armour and weapon upgrades to give you the resilience to survive. The bosses you encounter are actually not too difficult, and by the time I got to confronting Dracula, I had so many consumables on me that I just drank them all and aced it with most of my health intact. There is one impossible boss –  a giant mecha called Galamoth – which can be a bummer. But there are game-breaking tools available (a weapon and shield combo that does huge damage while healing you) to get you past things you can’t be bothered with. Ultimately, the inverted castle is an awesome idea that doesn’t quite stick the landing, but there’s enough fun to be had to make it worth engaging with.

Beyond its open-world experiments, Symphony of the Night is not complicated or especially cohesive. The plot is a ridiculous mish-mash of vampire tropes that is difficult to take seriously. There are entire systems that I didn't engage with at all, such as the economy of the game (there's a merchant that will buy gems and sell you things that you don't really need). You can cast spells – which might have made certain areas easier although I never figured out how to work them.

The look-and-feel of the game is very ornate and impressive, however. The game is basically still a 2D platformer, but it uses 3D to embellish the backgrounds of the world to achieve startling effects. There are also quirky little easter eggs throughout – although ostensibly set in the 18th century you can pick up pizzas and ramen to eat, and you can lounge around in banquet halls and eavesdrop on ghosts in confessional booths. It's silly and delightful, even if it doesn't hang together very well. But it holds up, and you won't find many better ways to spend £3 on over 10 hours of entertainment.