Playing through Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (SOTN) has been a surreal experience for me. When my co-host James first suggested it for our podcast, I was excited - this was the ‘vania’ part of metroidvania, after all! And while SOTN wasn’t the progenitor of the genre (what is an inventor anyway, in this field of flowers), it has certainly gone down in history as one of the most influential and well regarded.
I’m a relative newcomer to this genre. Of course, like every video game critic on the planet, I’ve played Dark Souls. I’ve played Ori and the Blind Forest and Guacamelee. I’ve dabbled in (although not finished) Salt and Sanctuary and Cave Story. I even love games where knowledge is the tool that opens pathways, like in The Witness or Antichamber.
But there’s one metroidvania that stands out, one that turbocharged my interest in the genre. And that game is Hollow Knight. Hollow Knight was my game of the year for 2017, and it is probably in my top 5 games of all time. It’s a masterpiece, and I treasure it all the more for how unexpected it was - I started playing it entirely on the recommendation of a friend. Hollow Knight is the reason playing through SOTN feels so strange. Because the fact is, Hollow Knight equals or exceeds SOTN in every conceivable way.
I think this is a rarer thing in the game industry than one might think. The nature of creating the systems that govern games is that they are ruled by opportunity cost. More complex does not equal better. More pixels does not mean better graphics. Larger levels can feel more empty than smaller levels, and more options isn’t always better than having restrictions. They’re just different - we assess them through our experiences and feelings rather than saying a level has a size factor of an 8 out of 10.
So why then do I feel compelled to compare SOTN to Hollow Knight?
Its because Hollow Knight is the true, next generation successor to the title of metroidvania. It expands where it should grow, cuts where it needs to trim the fat, and it refines so much of the experience to a mirror sheen. It may have taken 20 years, but we finally have a title that someone can point to as a true evolution of the genre.
SOTN has platforming. That is, you traverse between platforms - on occasion. Sometimes, when the game is feeling especially frisky, you need to do a double jump. Most of your time spent moving around the level is going up and down staircases. The most exciting platforming section in the entire game is when you have to jump between some (2!) very slowly swinging pendulums. Later on, there are some traps, but luckily by that time you’ll have unlocked the bat transformation, completing negating the need to confront any further platforming ‘challenges’.
In Hollow Knight, platforming is at least an entire third of the game. From the very beginning, you’re dodging stalactites, jumping over spiked filled pits and dodging enormous bug-devouring worms. You gain movement upgrades - a dash, a wall grab, a double jump - that the game demands you learn how to use if you want to access its secret areas and upgrades. By the final challenge in the White Palace its some kaizo mario-esque nightmare of stringing moves together with instantaneous death on all sides.
Hollow Knight takes one of the genre mainstays - learning new moves to access new areas - and wrings every last drop out of the mechanic. A double jump is much more than just a ‘key’, it's a way to unlock a new gameplay experience. Much of the joy in Hollow Knight comes in the mastery of your movement set in rising to meet the challenges set before you.
But if all Hollow Knight did was add stuff, it would be so far removed from Castlevania that they’d barely be worth comparing. It would be like putting Doom alongside Call of Duty 17: Mountain Dew Edition. Knowing when to cut the chaff is just as important.
And that is exactly what Hollow Knight did in trimming down the over bloated RPG systems that exist in SOTN. SOTN has 12 different basic swords, 10 different throwing items and 19 different healing items. There are items with status resistance, and items with elemental damage types. You would need a comprehensive degree in Castlevania-ology to remember half of what's contained in the item wiki. And what it boils down to is a bunch of inventory management simulator instead of just playing the damn game.
It's not all bad - I like how there are special moves and abilities associated with various weapons and shields (even if activating some of them is a little obscure). A lot of it is just swapping out a +3 defence Shield for a +4 one though, or re-equipping different throwing items. Hollow Knight, on the other hand, has one weapon - your nail. Its RPG systems exist in learning just three spells, three special moves and a modular charm system. Oh, and there are health and mana upgrades scattered across the map. It's incredibly simplistic and streamlined.
Simplicity in design does not equate to a simplicity in gameplay options though. Having to choose 3-4 charms from the 40 you eventually have available to you is absolutely agonising. And it allows for a greater variety in builds than exist in SOTN. Most importantly, all this menu management is done at save points - once you get into the action you get to actually play the game instead of pausing and sorting through your inventory every few steps or points of damage taken.
That being said, It is possible to cut too much. A brainless experience is not worth the cost of making things ‘easier’. Hollow Knight doubles down on the complexity in probably the most important area in the entire game - the combat. The combat here is the definitive refinement of SOTN’s, improving it in every possible area.
First, let me just say that SOTN control like a dream - it’s incredibly responsive, from jumping to turning on a dime. One of the things that made me realise just how much shared DNA there is between the two games is the identical speed and feel of the sword slashes. They’re both instantaneous and give immediate feedback on a hit.
But the ‘sameness’ ends there. The fights in SOTN are usually in cramped corridors (even in a lot of the boss fights). Some attacks are telegraphed clearly - but many will come out of nowhere. Your character model is huge, making dodging cumbersome and you’ll often collide with enemy models. I found that most of the time, the best strategy was to walk up next to the enemy or boss, crouch down and hit them as many times as I could. I’d either tank the damage and enter into a dps race, or learn to back away from the single move that damaged me. That’s it, that’s 90% of my effective combat strategy.
Hollow Knight matches the tight controls of its predecessor, but gives you much larger arenas to work in. Your character model is half the size of alucard’s, making weaving through and around enemy projectiles and swings much more doable. The emphasis is on damage avoidance, and sneaking in attacks when a window of opportunity presents itself. Of course, you need to balance that out with healing, because just like in dark souls, you need to choose between damage and healing in those critical windows.
Hollow Knight’s later bosses are stupidly challenging, many of them turning into bullet hell shooters as you reach the bosses’ final form. But even a lot of its regular enemies are enjoyable combat challenges. The grunts you find patrolling the city of tears are quick and lethal and require precise timing and spacing to defeat - but they have clear windows of weakness for you to exploit. And as the difficulty ramps up, that never changes - every thing is fair and well telegraphed (Except for level 2 laser gem guy).
Now, after hearing all this you probably think I hate SOTN. And nothing could be further from the truth. It's a gorgeous looking game, which you can see in the screenshots. The Roman/Gothic blend of architecture works wonderfully. The variety in beasts and monsters your run into is amazing - I particularly liked Scylla, one of the weirdest sea monsters I’ve ever seen. And the music is wonderfully varied and striking - from its heavy bass to more piano driven tracks. SOTN nails a particular type of atmosphere and its hard to avoid getting sucked right in. I enjoyed my time exploring its crooked and dark corridors, and ascending beyond the clouds.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was a giant that stood out even amongst its accomplished peers, and continued to tower over the industry as it unfortunately descended into a general dumbing down. The titles that we thought were the precipice of a new era in gaming all faded away, to be replaced by waypoints and hand holding. Hollow Knight has came crashing down on top of SOTN’s shoulders and stuck the landing as easily as Alucard balances on his toes. Its head now towers above even the inverse tower, and alas - it doesn’t have much company.