I only played Symphony of the Night for the first time last week. Any past mention that I’d never played it was met with ‘OMFG DUDE YOU HAVE TO PLAY IT NOW’ sort of reactions, it’s one of ‘those’ games. And I see why, at the time of relese, this game must have been stunning: the animation is absolutely gorgeous and the art direction of the areas of the castle is full of great touches. There’s the RPG systems to bring depth to the gameplay, the creature design is wonderfully imaginative and it still feels good to play; only the voice acting has suffered the ravages of time.
I was pushing through it smoothly, bosses got beat and Alucard got equipped with some swanky sunglasses, but it got to a point where I had to start backtracking to find doors previously locked to me…this was where I started to lose interest a bit and a familar sinking feeling began to creep up as my thoughts moved towards another game: Devil May Cry 4.
DMC4 had promise. The first ‘next gen’ (360/ps3) iteration of the franchise, I expect massive bosses that the old consoles just couldn’t handle, towering art design and walls of enemies to plow through and get my SSS-Rank on; I got all this but in the most half arsed way possible. DMC4 recycles its levels and bosses at the half way point so once you’ve gone through with new kid Nero, you go backwards through them as obnoxious shite-bag Dante. This drags the game down massively, all excitement about seeing new areas, different enemies and the feeling of progression is totally gone, killed by boring game design.
That’s where my problems with backtracking lies: the death of progression. Once you have to backtrack, a game flirts with the danger of becoming a dull, monotonous slog. A big reason that usually drives me to complete a game is the excitement of seeing new things, much the same as a game that throws the same enemies at you (the Deadpool game killed itself with this little sin…that and being a bit shit), you get bored, there’s no thrill in seeing the same thing again and again. It’s lazy padding at its absolute worst. DMC4 takes this to even lower levels by reusing the same bosses over again, it’s almost like the game ran out of budget half way through.
DMC4 is an example of using backtracking in a bad way, thinking about some of my favorite games made me realise they use the concept, but they all do it to enforce other mechanics. Arkham Asylum, A Link to the Past, Half-Life (to an extent), Metal Gear Solid(s) and obviously Super Metroid are all built around the concept of one sprawling area that slowly reveals its secrets to you. And this is backtracking done right, giving you a reward at the end; a secret, an item or a even populating old areas with new challenges makes you want to explore every inch of the world over and over.
Take a look at Resident Evil, the entire gameplay is built around finding a key/emblem/blue crystal to open a door/hatch/tiger statue on the other side of the mansion. Without pushing you back through areas to re-explore, the game wouldn’t be anywhere near as memorable; the mansion forgettable without having to retrace those horror filled corridors. Casing point: you’ve just been out into the gardens, fought off a giant plant and you’re pushed back into the mansion with a new key. You feel powerful now, ready to take on anything…
…and then a hunter comes creeping around a corridor and rips your head off. Back to square one.
In taking you back to the familiar grounds of Arklay Mansion, you feel safe…you’ve been here before and you know what to expect. All of that confidence ripped from you in an instant, the fear slaps you in the face to remind you who’s boss.
And of course, the glorious beast that is Dark Souls. Backtracking is used as a reminder of where you came from and how far you’ve come. Rising up from Blightown and passing back through Firelink Shrine after the horrors of The Depths and Quelaag is the games way of gently resting a hand on your shoulder and saying ‘hey…see that? Remember when that was a struggle? You can do this’, it’s about the only positive encouragement you’ll ever get from that game. One of my favourite memories was getting to the top of Sen’s Fortress for the first time, taking a look over the horizon and seeing the bell tower of Undead Parish rising up from the forest, I felt like I had achieved something seeing that familiar sight from so far away.
These two examples are a different ball game to DMC4, a large cohesive world that you travel back and forwards through the same areas making the game seem like a tangible place. DMC4’s separate level structure bypasses the positive world building aspect and acts more like the mirror stages in Ridge Racer. Padding, essentially.
So back to Symphony of the Night. Comparing it to DMC4 was not a diss, not at all. Thankfully, it’s one of the good guys, you backtrack to get to new areas, to unlock doors and items, fight new bosses and level up; not the DMC4 repeat-levels-pad-the-games-pitiful-play-time-out-lazy-design style. It just reminded me of how a good game can turn into a bad one very quickly. Done well backtracking through areas can make you feel powerful, remind you how weak you actually are or create a real sense of place within the game world. Done badly and it’s nothing more than piss-poor game design, a lack of imagination and near contempt for the player.
Also, whilst I’m here: Fuck Dante. Fuck that white haired egotistical ball-bag. If you knew him in real life you wouldn’t think he was cool, you’d think he was a cock and probably roll your eyes and mutter ‘…fucking wanker’ under your breath every time he attempted one of those shit puns. New Dante was a much better character.