If imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, then Castlevania: Symphony of the Night must be blushing like a schoolgirl.

Scarlet Symphony¬†is actually a remaster of the 2009 release (which I never played) and is a love letter to both Symphony of the Night and Touhou Poject. Whilst I have no experience with the latter, I am fully aware that it’s famous for extreme bullet hell. This game effectively acts like a fusion of both gameplay styles in one package

An ambitious undertaking, for sure, but how does it pan out?

Many thanks to CFK for the review code.

LADY IN RED
A scarlet mist descends upon the land of Gensokyo. The shrine maiden Reimu Hakurei senses tell her that this phenomenon is similar to something she has experienced before, so she heads off to the ‘Scarlet Devil Mansion’ to find out if the vampiric mistress that resides there is causing all this.

The plot bears some similarities to that seen in Castlevania titles, but with a very strong anime focus. Expect characters with ridiculous motivations, and plenty of hilarious misunderstandings throughout. It’s quite a charming tale, even if there isn’t really that much in the way of character or plot development. It comes off like an anime parody of the franchise, and in that sense the developers have definitely succeeded.

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SYMPHONY OF THE NOT-QUITE
Despite how the game looks, it is in no way a Metroidvania. It may have very similar looking environments, enemies, and level design to Symphony of the Night (seriously, just look at it), but it actually plays more like the older games in the series. Set over 8 stages, you proceed down a linear path until you reach the boss waiting for you at the end. Defeating said boss causes a gem to appear (much like in the older Castlevania titles) and you get a score for how well you did. There’s no backtracking here, and secrets are kept to a minimum.

Levels should trigger the nostalgia triggers of any Castlevania fans too, since the vast majority rely on a heavy mix of SOTN ‘inspired’ visuals mixed with old school CV gameplay – and it feels really good. The level design might not be quite as creative as the classic games, since the layouts opt for the simpler platforming challenges of a Metroidvania, but they’re still pretty enjoyable to whip and jump your way through. This is mostly down to Reimu controlling really fluidly too, with a slide, backflip, and whip at her disposal. Whilst this moveset seems very similar to that of Richter Belmont’s, what makes Reimu different is that she has the ability to fly wherever she wants. It may be slow and a single hit will send her plummeting back down to the ground, but it can still make a joke out of a lot of the platforming sections. One later stage, reminiscent of the Clock Tower, requires you to ascend by jumping on rotating cogs whilst avoiding spinning blades. It’s fun and tricky platforming which can be completely skipped by just floating vertically up. It’s a laughably broken ability, but that’s also what gives it its charm. Besides, the main focus of the game is more towards the combat than the platforming – and thankfully that is where most of the fun lies.

Enemies in the game are mostly based on those found in SOTN, with some sporting near identical designs and attack patterns to their Konami counterparts. These patterns are just as fun to fight here as in Castlevania, and some of the placement makes them quite tricky to take down. Since this is also a Touhou-inspired game, there are also anime fairy girls scattered around the place, that ‘borrow’ attacks from Castlevania foes, such as one that throws a horizontal axe out towards you. Getting through levels can be tough, but manageable – especially as losing one of your lives (defaults to 3, but can be increased to 20) simply places you back to the start of the room. Even when you lose all of them, you are free to start from the beginning of the last level you made it to with a complete life refresh, so you needn’t worry too much about the life limit. What you should worry about are the incredibly difficult boss encounters.

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A STUDY IN SCARLET
Bosses are where the Touhou influences really come to the forefront. Instead of the monstrous beasts found in the Castlevania games, bosses are … anime girls! Don’t let their cutesy appearance fool you though, as their attacks tend to be sheer bullet hell. It’s quite overwhelming, especially as the majority of attacks seem impossible to avoid. You can slide through certain attacks, sure, but that usually leads to you sliding into yet more bullets. For those not accustomed to this intense style of bullet hell, attacks just seem incredibly unfair – even right at the start of the game. Every single one is a gruelling encounter, and these moments will no doubt be where most people end up seeing the game over screen.

That difficulty also becomes the game’s biggest drawback. Whilst there is an easy difficulty available (and even a very easy for those who are really bad at the game!), it doesn’t seem particularly balanced. Enemy health and damage has certainly been altered to make the game far less stressful, but the boss patterns themselves remain unchanged – leading to stages that offer a reasonable challenge, but then culminate in a ridiculous boss fight with near-impossible to avoid attacks. The altered damage and health values mean that you are able to brute force your way through and tank any incoming damage, but that feels extremely unsatisfying. I wish they’d have given the boss more health but then fewer projectiles; that way regular gamers would actually have a chance at avoiding the attacks. These fights could easily be the highlights of the game, but their difficulty means that only bullet hell masters are truly able to appreciate them.

Whilst the game will probably take an hour or so to beat, depending on your skill level and difficulty settings, the game has more to do once you hit the credits. There’s a short postgame mode that sees you playing a cut-down version of the main game, albeit with with harder and remixed enemies and boss encounters, and eventually culminates in a fight with the true final boss. It’s a nice touch, but the boss fights here only emphasise the issue mentioned earlier. There are also various challenges (achievements) to unlock, and they range from simple level completion to something more challenging such as beating levels without getting hit. It’s a nice touch, but not something that helps justify the game’s high price tag.

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Scarlet Symphony is a nice homage to Symphony of the Night, taking its story and flipping it into anime style nonsense and turning the gameplay into a more traditional platformer – albeit one infused with Touhou-inspired bullet hell. It’s a charming little romp, even if the difficulty balancing feels a little bit off due to the incredibly difficult boss fights. Whilst it’s probably not an experience that justifies its high price point, it may be worth putting on your wishlist and keeping an eye out for a future sale.