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‘Castlevania: Symphony of the Night’ and The Inverted Castle — Gaming’s Greatest Twist

A good twist plays on an audience’s expectations in order to contextualize something. More often than not, that “something” is the story. Books and movies use twists to reframe narratives, shaking up a plot’s foundation in order to give readers or viewers something to think about. Although video games likewise tend to use twists for narrative purposes, the medium has the luxury of being inherently interactive. Twists in gaming can play on gameplay related expectations, and few video games embody this idea as well as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night‘s Inverted Castle.

In many ways, the Inverted Castle plays on the idea of an expected twist so as to leave a more prominent impact. As the title features a distinct lack of Dracula in a series primarily about the eternal struggle against Dracula, it perhaps goes without saying that the plot will eventually build up to one final confrontation between Alucard and his father. Regardless of what happens to Richter, a Castlevania story is not over until Dracula’s demise is in view.

As the seventh mainline entry in the series (and the fifteenth overall), Symphony of the Night plays with fan-rooted expectations of the franchise. Of course, Symphony also marks a radical departure for the franchise, with its RPG elements, non-linear level design, and emphasis on action over platforming. Thus, the idea of the game sincerely ending with Alucard killing Richter isn’t totally out of the question, but the general tone of the story is enough in line with previous entries, where the death of a former protagonist as an ending should raise red flags.

This is to say nothing of the fact that Symphony of the Night has not come to its narrative conclusion should Alucard prematurely kill Richter. There are still questions of how Castle Dracula came back so soon after Rondo of Blood, why Richter is seemingly its master, and what Maria’s role in the plot was seemingly building up to. Regardless of their familiarity with the franchise, a savvy player will understand that there must be more to Symphony of the Night, but considering that the map percentage would be nearing 100% by the supposed end game, whatever remains would likely be little more than an alternate final boss and some narrative clean up.

Everything leading up to Symphony of the Night’s “finale” suggests that the game has just a little bit extra in store for players, which makes the impact of the endgame — now turned mid-game twist — not from how there was more after Richter, but how there was so much more after Richter. Upon defeating Richter the right ways, players are greeted not with their fated fight against Dracula, but an entirely new castle to explore. The inverted Castle works as well as it does due to Symphony of the Night building up to a clear twist without ever giving away the sheer scope of its twist.

The Inverted Castle is, at its core, the second half to a game that already feels quite full, at least in comparison to other Castlevania titles. It does go by at a much brisker pace, in large part due to how free-form the exploration is, but this in itself is not a problem by any means. Rather, the Inverted Castle feels like the ultimate departure from the franchise’s pre-established structure, allowing Symphony of the Night to fully embrace the new coat of paint it had given the series.

Although the Inverted Castle may not be as well designed on a whole as its main castle counterpart, what it represents for Symphony of the Night on a conceptual level is enough to carry the experience on roughly that wavelength of quality up until the very end. What it lacks in level design it makes up for in atmosphere, novelty, and non-linearity. The map is almost directionless in nature, nudging players to explore as thoroughly as possible in order to make progress.

Considering how out-of-nowhere the prospect of an entire second castle is, especially one thrown at the player shortly after reaching what was built up to as the game’s prospective end, a directionless feeling to the Inverted Castle does make sense. After all, Alucard was previously being led to Richter’s chambers at the peak, but is now tasked with exploring a familiarly unfamiliar fortress with no real guiding point leading the way to the end. It is a twist that works on multiple levels, influencing gameplay, narrative, atmosphere, and tone.

More importantly, the Inverted Castle represents a twist that could only be done in a video game, while also exemplifying what exactly makes a good twist. Symphony of the Night builds expectations for a minor twist at the end of the game, expanding the story and potentially offering a new final boss, but it pulls the rug from under the player by giving them an entirely new castle, which may as well split Symphony into two key halves. The Inverted Castle builds narrative expectations only to throw a major gameplay twist at the audience.

Other games in the series have tried their hands at recreating the Inverted Castle, but none have managed to recreate its impact. Order of Ecclesia comes the closest by holding off Dracula’s Castle until the very end, but even that lacks the same weight as players finding themselves in an inverted version of the castle they so tirelessly explored. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night literally flips the world of the game on its head in order to craft one of gaming’s greatest twists.

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