"If you combine Symphony of the Night with Circle of the Moon, what do you get? Harmony of Dissonance. Pick this one up as soon as possible."
Along with Metroid Fusion, of all the GBA games coming out this year, I was looking forward to Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance the most. I've been a huge fan of the series ever since Symphony of the Night, and I was ecstatic to hear of another sequel. My expectations were high, and I wouldn't be let down. I had come to love the last two 2D Castlevania games in a different way to any other games in my collection. They were an ingenious blend of sidescroller and RPG, which made for two of the most enjoyable adventures ever to grace a console. I expected Harmony of Dissonance to match these two, but also improve upon some of the shortcomings which the other games were not without. To put it simply, I was far from disappointed.
If you've played SOTN or COTM, you'll know how this game plays. It's slightly more like the former than the latter, for a number of reasons. For one, the main character looks nearly identical to Alucard. That aside, the overall feel and layout of the game is very similar to SOTN's. Unlike in COTM, where the main focus was on magic, HOD weighs equally equipment and spell books--the medium for earning magic in HOD. There really aren't any unique elements introduced in this game, but the spellbook system is rather interesting.
Instead of having 20 different cards, or 100 different combinations, HOD has 5 spellbooks. The spellbooks are almost like a simplified DSS system (COTM), but they are directly connected to your sub-weapon. When active, a spellbook will replace your standard sub-weapon with an enhanced version. Each sub-weapon yields different results, and because there are 6 sub-weapons in the game, that makes for 30 different magic spells. It may not have the creativity that the 100 different spell functions of COTM featured, but at least all of these 30 are very useful, and easy to use.
Of course, there is another slight twist. Like in the other games, regular sub-weapons use up hearts, which are collected by killing enemies and slashing at candles. However, an enhanced sub-weapon uses magic-points, represented in a blue bar below your life. As before, your MP and intelligence can be raised through the use of items or the collection of experience points. This system is a welcome addition, and is a cool idea, but certainly has its faults. The most obvious is its practical destruction of the need for hearts. Since the spells are so much more powerful than the normal sub-weapons, you'll probably hardly ever use your normal ones. Another factor which adds to this is the lack of a button to toggle on and off magic. You have to push start, go to spellbooks, select your spellbook, and push A. That's a lot of work just to do one small thing. If they had considered these issues, the system might have been perfect. Until they create a better one, I prefer CotM's DSS.
Other than this deviation, HOD is nearly identical to SOTN in terms of gameplay. There are relics which you collect that allow you special abilities, such as double-jump, slide, things like that. You can also collect equipment, like in the other two games, but like in COTM, Juste is limited to using only a whip. Therefore, the only equipment to be collected is accessories and armor.
As for control, Juste is as easy to navigate as any of the previous Castlevania characters, if not slightly easier in parts. For one, the R1 and L1 buttons have been utilized to perform a forward or backward quickdash maneuver which is surprisingly useful. Unlike SOTN's, which wasn't quick enough and didn't go far enough, HOD's is lightning quick and send's Juste a safe distance from his previous spot. The whip-swing from COTM was changed back to the one from many of the other games, where the player controls where the whip swings. Not exactly good or bad--Just depends on which you prefer. A handy little featured included in the game is a quicksave option. You can use quicksave anywhere except during boss battles, and it will automatically bring your character back to the last save room you were in, with all the experience points, items, et cetera you gained since then. It's a smart idea, especially for a GBA game.
All in all, Konami was smart. They didn't make any huge changes--They went with what has worked in the past. Like the next Final Fantasy game in the series, there are always going to be some changes, but usually never anything big enough to throw fans off. This was an intelligent thing to do on their part, and they managed to, once again, create a game that plays like a dream.
While COTM's graphics were certainly pleasant to look at, they weren't nearly as impressive as SOTN's. Since then, it looks like Konami decided to struggle a bit harder to push the GBA to its potential, because HOD is significantly better-looking than its predecessor. The most noticeable change, straight from the beginning is the lighting. COTM was a dark, difficult-to-see game with small characters and enemies, for the most part. HOD is much lighter, and Juste is larger than Nathan (not to mention more detailed.) They even highlighted some of the darker enemies in blue to make them easier to see.
Aside from this, the level of detail in the graphics is much higher. In fact, it looks almost exactly like SOTN, both in style and quality. Some 3D illusions have been thrown in, such as doors opening sideways, and some nifty background effects. All the animations are much smoother than in COTM, and the enemies are far more detailed. If COTM's graphics are an 8, then HOD's graphics are at least a 9.3, because they're far prettier.
You'll swear you're looking at a miniature SOTN, when you see how nicely everything moves, and how detailed the different background layers are. If I had to guess, I'd say that Hod's graphics are a hair under the quality of SOTN's, but this is only because the GBA screen simply has fewer less pixels. There is very little slowdown of any kind, and Konami didn't push the system to where it wouldn't run like it should--Everything goes just as you would hope.
Unfortunately, HOD falls short where all the other games succeeded. The sound isn't bad, but it's far from great. Mediocre is a good word to describe most of the music you hear, while the sound effects are above average. For the everyday game, you wouldn't notice the under-par sound in any other game, but this is Castlevania! SOTN had, as thought by many, one of the greatest videogame soundtracks of all time, and COTM wasn't far behind. I suppose the lower quality music has something to do with the better graphics. I just wish we could have it both ways.
HOD will probably take someone who has played COTM or SOTN about 6 hours to beat, but it could take 8-10 to get 200%. This is a decent length, but of course, it can be taken a step further. When you first beat the game, you unlock a different character, and you can play through the game with him. Plus, you'll make available a boss rush mode which lets you pit yourself against all the game's bosses in a row--fun little extra. There are also lots of goodies to find, including a whole room's-worth of furniture. When you reach Juste's room in the game, you'll be able to furnish it as desired. This is a really funny little sidequest, but you'll be surprised by how delighted you feel when you acquire a nice new piece of furniture. All in all, 10-15 hours isn't unlikely, if you're going to really suck the game dry.
Who could have hoped for more? Harmony of Dissonance delivers in all the ways which we would expect of a Castlevania game. And while it doesn't introduce any groundbreaking elements, it handles well what has already been proven effective, and tweaks it slightly. Is it better than COTM? As a whole, it's very hard to say, but it gets my vote. The graphics are much more satisfying, and the game feels simplified without it being a bad thing. If you combine Symphony of the Night with Circle of the Moon, what do you get? Harmony of Dissonance. Pick this one up as soon as possible.
Staff review by James Gordon (September 25, 2002)
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