Review by timebombtown
"Circle of Dreck."
Remember Castlevania: Symphony of the Night? That was a great game. The characters in it were beautifully drawn and sported graceful animations. Every wing of Dracula's Castle had a distinct musical theme, almost every one an aural masterpiece. There were nearly 2000 rooms to explore, located in beautiful chapels, a mysterious "marble gallery", a musty library, and other notable places that immediately evoke images and details from your memory. Just when you thought you had found everything there is to be found, a revelation turned your world upside down... literally!
I remember that game. This one, on the other hand, I don't.
There is no creativity to be found in Castlevania: Circle of the Moon. It is a soulless, uninspired trek through yet another incarnation of Dracula's chaotic domain. The big difference here is that the castle lacks majesty, the characters and enemies lack grace, and the musical score reeks of "also-ran".
Instead of controlling an actual Belmont, we are put in the role of a forgettable Belmont stand-in named Nathan Graves. Nate is in big trouble: Drac has revived, and the Belmont family seems to be on vacation. Graves' master was the man who previously sealed The Count, and now the lord of darkness wants to exact his revenge by using the old man as a sacrifice to himself. It also doesn't help that Nathan's "partner", Hughes, is a douchebag who immediately abandons his friend to "prove something" to himself.
Left alone in The Catacombs, it's up to Nate to explore Castlevania and stop Dracula... again!
The first thing you'll notice about Circle of the Moon is how microscopic the characters' sprites are. Nathan looks like a green stick; and if a stick could walk, I imagine it would move as stiffly as our vampire hunter. Speaking of walking, the hero we control does a lot of that... and he does it reeeeaaally sloooowly. Even though 99% of human beings are born with the ability to run, Nathan can't do so without first finding a pair of "magical" boots. In Symphony, Alucard never walked; he ran.
For the majority of the game, Nathan will wield a whip. That is most unfortunate, because one of the best things about Symphony of the Night was how you could upgrade your equipment. You have some semblance of that here, but only in regards to armor; also, there's no shop from which you can buy anything. Since you almost never find new equipment lying around Castlevania, you pretty much have to pick up armor and accessories dropped by enemies.
The gimmicky card system is also about chance. Enemies randomly drop cards, which you can equip and combine in a submenu labeled "DSS" (Dual Setup System). You can combine two different types of cards to yield a number of effects, many of which are useless and obscure. The one thing I like about this, though, is that you can change the protagonist's whip into a number of different weapons with a certain series of card combos. Then again, this makes me wonder why the developers didn't just include weapon pick-ups.
So what horrors await our hero in the depths of Castle Dracula? Boring ones. 90% of enemies have the same movement pattern: lumber toward Nathan, and try to swing at him if he gets close enough. Sometimes, enemies will throw things and cast magic spells. It's very rare to find an opponent who capable of performing more than one type of attack. Dracula sure enlisted a lot of one-trick ponies for this go around.
That might explain why I can hardly remember the majority of Circle's rogue gallery. They lack color. Spunk. Style! The enemies in Symphony of the Night and Dawn of Sorrow knew how to mix things up; they had a little spring in their stride. In both of those games, the Wolf Man could jab, perform flips, strike the ground, and toss fireballs; in Circle, he just strafes left and right, occasionally charging at you as a reminder to stay awake.
I guess the bosses are mildly interesting. They're certainly big, and they certainly deserve credit for having for than one attack. Still, none of the bosses really impress. Cerberus, again? Didn't I kill that thing in both Dracula X and Symphony of the Night? Why's he still here? Also, what's up with that huge Goat that's padlocked to that wall? Is he a half-hearted attempt to emulate Beelzebub from Symphony? Why should I feel menaced/horrified by this thing? All it does is sit there while assorted projectiles apparate out of thin-air and attack me. Even Death is a turkey. His second form attacks you by smacking its fat butt against the ground, which causes a mild tremor that somehow damages Nathan. There's no scythe-against-whip melee fighting here, because the thought of coding all those complex movements must have scared the programmers.
I wish I could say that the castle itself didn't disappoint as much as the enemies, but that would be a lie. There are a lot of big rooms, but very few interesting ones. Of course, sometimes it's all about what's inside these rooms; there are a lot of power-ups that improve your max health, magic, and hearts. Unfortunately, there's not much else. In-depth exploration tends to yield little surprises: every "ability" item is blocked by a boss; and every fake wall has either a life, magic, or heart enhancer. I didn't even bother to go the whole 100% with this game, because what's the point? I can already beat Dracula with ease, and you don't get anything special for completing the map; so why should I bother seeking out that extra 0.5% I overlooked?
If I'm playing an exploration-centered game and I don't find myself intrigued by that little sliver of map I missed, that's certainly a sign that someone on the design team failed. A truly excellent game is timeless. Circle of the Moon should have an expiration date slapped on it, and it should read 10/04/05.
WARNING: Freshness not guaranteed after the date shown on the label.
Reviewer's Score: 3/10 | Originally Posted: 07/18/06
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