"It's a Castlevania game, but with collectible cards! Wait, where are you going?!"
In 2001, we learned that Konami had decided not to abandon the Metroid-style structure showcased in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Announced as a launch title for the then-upcoming Game Boy Advance, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon promised to carry the 'Metroidvania' torch.
However, the game doesn't precisely follow in the footsteps of its older brother. Its first and most noticeable misstep revolves around its overly dark visuals, as certain regions appear murky and difficult to navigate. If you're playing on a backlit GBA, then you shouldn't experience too many visual issues, although its environmental graphics still carry an overly downbeat tone. If your only means of playing this title is the original GBA, though, you might want to reconsider. When combined with Circle's dark atmosphere, the GBA's lack of lighting renders the proceedings difficult to see properly. During my own initial playthrough, I didn't even bother to finish the campaign on the original GBA, and didn't complete it until I picked up GBA SP. I wasn't keen on squinting my way through.
Several other factors stifle this installment's attempt to recapture Symphony's magic, but none are as devastating as its unbalanced difficulty rating. Right from the get-go, armored warriors and massive beasts pummel the unholy crap out of you, forcing you to backtrack to the nearest save point often. Each conflict with these huge foes eats a decent chunk of time, too, unless you've beefed up for a good while. This isn't an isolated incident, either, as every area features its share of tough, heavy beasts.
In order to deal with the stiff challenge factor, you need to level grind. Repeated murder proves thrilling at first, because your performance improves noticeably with each level you gain. At least you know you aren't wasting your time. The only downside is that grinding is not particularly entertaining here, mostly because of the types of enemies you need to kill. Most high-experience foes require countless hits to fell, as well as expert dodging. Yeah, you could battle weaker goons, but they offer such piddly amounts of experience that they're mostly not worth the effort. Regardless of the route you take, grinding is the absolute pits.
Unfortunately, as you advance, you'll find that level building alone doesn't help you enough. If you truly wish to prepare for an ugly war with the Dracula's henchmen, you'll have to commit to tedious item farming in addition to grinding. Perish the thought of purchasing consumables or new armor, as you might in other Metroidvania titles, because this castle nixes merchants and currency. If you want new armor, special items or additional potions, you're going to have to kill, baby kill. I recall devoting whole sessions to potion farming or obtaining a powerful piece of armor. Foes don't drop items frequently, so you'll have to slay the same creatures for ages before receiving even one item. The whole process is exhausting, and serves only to provide the campaign with an illusory sense of longevity.
However, cards make repeated slaughter bearable.. You collect these neat, unique items that depict either monsters or gods, gained as random drops from certain adversaries. You then combine one of the gods with a monster, and receive benefits that tax your magic points. For instance, the Mars card transforms your whip into various weapons, depending on the creature card you select. Unicorn imbues your weapon with holiness, and combining it with the aforementioned deity exchanges your whip with a badass holy sword. Another great combination requires Jupiter and Manticore, which envelops you in a toxic gas that protects you from projectiles and damages surrounding enemies. It's also handy for discovering secret rooms hidden behind breakable walls, as the gas damages those barriers.
Half of the fun I had with this title involved experimenting with different card combos, which made nabbing new cards all the more exciting. For instance, I'll never forget combining Uranus (no jokes, please), the card associated with summoning, with several of the monster cards. Even though the MP cost proved steep, I loved calling a griffin or a sea serpent to wipe out a whole corridor full of enemies.
I'll admit that Circle sounds like a clunky, grind-heavy mess with a cool card system, but it offers a few very rewarding perks regardless. For starters, the overall world design is fantastic. It's convoluted enough that isn't too straightforward, and there's plenty of backtracking and bonus rooms to check out. Unlike Symphony, some of the areas you visit also hark back to the Castlevania titles of old by providing locales rife with platformer challenges. For instance, the clock tower features an intricate system of gears, pendulums, spikes and (gulp) flying Medusa heads. Yes, it's likely you'll lose your footing, plummet often, swear each time and probably wipe a nostalgic tear from your eye after you overcome this annoyance. This is textbook Castlevania content right here, as if GBA had a secret friendship with NES.
There's one feature, though, that I always relish in a good Castlevania game, and that's its boss line up. This title may not sport as hefty of a number of rogues as its descendants do, but it does feature some of the nastiest. For instance, if you cruise the chapel area long enough, you'll run afoul of Adramelech, an immense goat-headed demon imprisoned within a wall. Another brutal battle pits you against not one, but two dragon zombies. Seriously, what could be more Castlevania than a pair of face-crushing, undead dragons? Of course, you can't forget about Death. This time, Dracula's right-hand man dons a brightly colored voodoo-like getup that only the toughest dude would wear. However, it's what he's hiding under his robe that counts. The reaper transforms after he sustains enough damage, revealing a hybrid turtle-mantis body that'll give any vampire killer nightmares for years.
Truly, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is a respectable addition to the franchise, despite its shortcomings. It's a grindy, murky and needlessly difficult title, but a more or less worthwhile addition to the brand nonetheless. It doesn't carry the "Metroidvania" torch with as much pride as some later games (Dawn of Sorrow and Order of Ecclesia, to name a couple), but it still manages to hold the damn thing, at very least.
Community review by JoeTheDestroyer (October 01, 2019)
Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.
If you enjoyed this Castlevania: Circle of the Moon review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!