"In fact, things are much more visually pleasing in all areas than last year's title, Circle of the Moon. No longer are you forced to find perfect lighting. The system's lack of lighting is still an issue, but not half the one it was previously. This is good, because you'll definitely want to see the title's spectacular happenings."
Back in 1997, Konami released the eagerly-anticipated next installment in its famed Castlevania series. Featuring the character Alucard from the original NES title known as Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, this 2D adventure stood in defiance of the industry's--and even Konami's--tendency to take tried-and-true franchises and take them into the third dimension on next-gen consoles. Lush visuals, stunning sound and addictive gameplay reminiscent of Nintendo's Super Metroid amounted to an experience many jaded gamers found shockingly immersive. Since then, many of those people have been anxious for a sequel. With the release of the Game Boy Advance, they found an appetizer. Castlevania: Circle of the Moon contained many similarities to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, including a sprawling castle and level-building. It wasn't enough, though, and now the next contender for the Castlevania throne has arrived. Its name? Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance.
The first thing worth noting is that this isn't a direct sequel. Perhaps there never will be a direct sequel. But Harmony of Dissonance falls within the same universe, and is directed by the same designer. In short, it's the closest we've come to a successor to Symphony of the Night. In various interviews, he stated that his goal here was to recreate that experience. And for the most part, he and his team have succeeded, most certainly to the extent that the system will allow.
Visuals are the most noticeable similarity. While Castlevania: Symphony of the Night boasts superior levels of detail and frames of animation, the difference ranges from moderate to negligible. Shadows here aren't quite so dark or effective, but they're present just the same. There's a sense of dreariness when you enter a dungeon, brightness when you're atop the castle towers, and so forth. There's also a sense of depth. Multiple backgrounds scroll at different rates, at times giving you an illusion of a three-dimensional building. The doors leading between one area and another are especially well-rendered. In fact, things are much more visually pleasing in all areas than last year's title, Circle of the Moon. No longer are you forced to find perfect lighting. The system's lack of lighting is still an issue, but not half the one it was previously. This is good, because you'll definitely want to see the title's spectacular happenings.
One of those things you'll want to see is the typical boss. Even the first one impresses, and things only get better from there. Some foes fill a good portion of the screen. They animate well, too. You can tell when the minotaur is about to swing his ball and chain, when a charge is imminent, and so forth. Some enemies even go through alterations between the start and end of boss encounters. There are some repeats from earlier franchise titles, too. Considering hardware limitations, they look remarkably good.
Hardware limitations. An accurate review will mention that a lot, because it's just about the only thing holding this title back from true greatness and finely-polished perfection. Just when the title is excelling past your wildest dreams, it hits a tiny bump in the road that reminds you what small things you're missing. Generally this isn't in the visual department; things are entirely competent and beautiful in that regard. Rather, the problems are most clearly manifested for your ears. While the compositions here have all the elegance you might hope for from a Castlevania game, the system executes them poorly. This is obviously a cost of such fine graphics, but some gamers won't approve. Castlevania: Circle of the Moon proved what audio the Game Boy Advance can handle, so the muffled effects here are a disappointment. Still, the overall selections are preferable. If only they sounded nicer.
Sound and visuals are, of course, only a small part of the enormous cake that is a recent Castlevania title (Nintendo 64 disgraces aside). There's also the structure of the castle. Fortunately, this is one thing the developers managed to perfection. In fact, this place is the easiest to navigate of all the castles in the last three titles. Er, once you get to know your way around. When you begin, things will look quite standard. Explore further and you find the key-shaped portals to other portions of the castle. There really aren't all that many of those, actually. Next come the gates, which lead to destinations unknown. Or they can also be used (you find later) to warp from one area to another. Most appreciated. The reason this is so good is that the sprawling chambers of Dracula's tomb are monstrous, almost as enormous as those in Symphony of the Night. They certainly dwarf the area you explored in Circle of the Moon. Once you've accessed a few portals, wandering the dark halls you've already explored a few times is for the most part a thing of the past.
Helping things along even more is the invention of the dash. True, it's not really anything all that impressive, until you see how it's implemented here. Juste, the character in this game, moves more quickly than Alucard ever did. A stroll through the halls might take only half the time it would have taken in an older title. Exploration is not the only area where that comes into play, however. Boss encounters practically demand that you use the ability. About to get your head smashed in by a mace? Dash swiftly back to avoid the attack, then slip back to where you were and counter-attack. Controls are blissful.
Another thing you might like is how the game increases its length. Rather than pull the inverted castle switch, the developer chose a different tact. And it works. Things remain fresh in these two parallel versions of the same area. More importantly, it all works into what is not a stunning plot, but which is the best we've yet seen from the Belmont clan. And as you might expect from the developer of Symphony of the Night, there are multiple endings. For the most part, these differences are pathetic, just the placement of an extra sprite or two and some changed dialogue. But they do the job.
Also, getting the best ending is the only way to unlock another playable character, Maxim. Like Richter Belmont before him, he can have fun exploring the castle in a way the game's star cannot. The intricate design allows for a refreshing new experience even as you cover old ground, though it would have been nice if poor Maxim could build levels, too. Regardless, it's a nice addition.
Another nice addition is the boss rush, which you get for completing the game under any terms. This mode allows you to challenge yourself to see how many of the game's extensive number of bosses you can defeat consecutively. There's even a ranking for best times and number of foes defeated. It's not a whole lot, but it does add to the time you'll spend playing this title. Speaking of that, doing everything here will only last you about half the time it did you in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. This is partly because there are no familiars to build up--though there is a summoning and magic system, however weak it might be--and partly because overall, the ground you're covering is about a third smaller.
Whether you play this game ten hours or thirty, however, you should definitely give it a try. Seldom has there been a portable title with more value. Built to maximize the on-the-road experience to the greatest extent possible (there's even a quick save feature in case you have to leave early), Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance is a wet dream for those who have been waiting for a follow-up to Symphony of the Night. Highly recommended for anyone with the chance to try it, and a title that will make a welcome addition to nearly anyone's video game library.
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Staff review by Jason Venter (September 28, 2002)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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