Review by Korubi
"Circle of the Moon's expertly crafted level design, sharp environments, and hard-boiled mechanics shine on the GBA."
The Good: Lots of different enemies, weapons, and power-ups to discover; outstanding soundtrack for a handheld game; detailed graphics and animations
The Bad: Ideally the quest could have lasted just a little bit longer
Anyone that's been playing games for a while will tell you that games simply aren't as difficult as they used to be. Gamers today recall that games were probably more difficult because they lacked the longevity of the games we play on consoles today. But something has always been true about these hard (but fair) games: Finally completing them is just oh so satisfying. Castlevania's debut on the Game Boy Advance rekindles that fire of yore with one of the best Castlevania games to date. Its tough enemies, inventive boss fights, and epic castle environment all contribute to Circle of the Moon's stunning success. And on top of all that, it's portable.
Circle of the Moon takes place inside of a gigantic and run-down castle from the 1800s complete with grungy dungeons with rotting carcasses, grimy sewers, grand halls, and ceremonial chambers. You play as Nathan Graves, who at the outset of the game has had his father Morris kidnapped by the recently resurrected Dracula. While your brother Hugh goes to try find your father, your goal is to traverse the castle to eventually defeat Dracula, find your brother, and save your father Morris. The story is engaging enough to get you started, and the castle atmosphere provides a compelling atmosphere for a 2D side-scroller.
Just because Castlevania is a side-scroller doesn't mean it only moves from right to left. In fact, the castle is intricately designed so you'll have go to up, down, left, and right as well as backtrack to find newly discovered areas several times throughout the adventure. Castlevania's gameplay can be described best as mixture between the NES Metroid games and Zelda with a quite a bit of RPG elements thrown in. At the start of the game, most of the doors and portals will be closed, and it's your job to navigate the castle in order to ascertain the location your father and find new items to access new areas that will take you deeper and deeper into the castle. Your weapon of choice is, you guessed it, a whip. Although the concept seems ridiculous at first, the mechanic works quite well. The whip goes straight out in front of you and hits anything in its path, whether you're on the ground, in the air, or even crouching.
Both you and your enemies are equipped with progressively destructive weapons that add several layers of strategy to combat. As you defeat enemies they'll drop DSS cards as they dissolve into smoke. In the pause menu you'll be able to combine these cards for various devastating effects. For example, you can create a shield of temporary fire balls that oscillate around your body, enable your whip to shoot thunder, or your health to gradually increase over time. While there are no doubt some abilities that are far more effective than others, you'll enjoy picking your favorite powers for different situations. Besides your whip and DSS cards you'll also have secondary weapons that aren't quite as helpful, but still handy in certain situations. You'll be able to throw daggers, axes, ninja-star-like objects, and even holy water on your enemies in order to do a decent amount of damage to your foes. You'll replenish your secondary weapon by collecting hearts that you find by breaking various objects in the castle.
The plethora of different enemies and bosses will always keep you on your toes. Throughout the castle there are various types of bats, gremlins, undead skeletons, gargoyles, you name it. Anything you can think of that goes along with a medieval theme is there and more. The enemies will do everything in their power to eradicate you. Some will stay stationary, making it difficult for you maneuver around them while others will fly towards you and even throw projectiles ranging from arrows and fireballs all the way to ice cubes, and beams of light. Maneuvering around enemies' attacks to get in your final blow is what Castlevania is all about, and this is most prevalent in the multiple exciting boss fights strewn throughout the game. Most bosses are colossal creatures multiple times your size that will wield weapons oftentimes much more powerful than your own. But, they can and will be outsmarted. You'll certainly enjoy figuring out each boss's complicated attack patterns to avoid taking and damage and eventually defeat each one. But, if you're still having trouble you can choose to grind your character more by leveling up against weaker foes. And that's where the RPG element comes in. Every time you defeat a foe you'll gain experience towards your next level: weak foes obviously giving you less experience as harder foes give you more. As your level progresses so will your total HP, attack power, defense, etc. So although bosses can be at times super tough, you'll always have a chance to level up your character.
More often than not, the level design in Circle of Moon is just as engaging as the combat. Navigating the castle isn't a straightforward task, and for the most part, that's a good thing. As you traverse the castle and defeat bosses, you'll receive new special items that will help you reach areas that you might not have realized you could reach before. For example, the double jump will help you reach higher ledges, and push technique will help you move crates blocking your path in certain areas. Even if you're paying close attention it's not hard to get a little bit lost, but that's the fun of games of this nature -- figuring out how you can use your new ability to progress.
To top off Circle of the Moon's great gameplay is a superb technical showing for the Game Boy Advance even five years after the game has released. Whether it's the grimy bricks in the dungeon or shimmering moonlight seeping through the window panes, the environments are always incredibly detailed for a handheld 2D game of this caliber. And the music matches just as well from what you'd expect. The orchestral score comes through great on the GBA's little speakers and the songs are catchy enough to love, but not to the point where they ever get irritating or feel overplayed.
If Circle of the Moon had one major flaw, it would be its length. Considering you don't try to collect every DSS card in the game, Circle of the Moon should take you about eight hours to complete. While this might be a decent length for a GBA game, there's so much fun to be had that you wish there was just a little bit more to it. On top of that, you can't really play in short bursts like you would most of your other Game Boy games; save points are few and far between. And if you forget where you're supposed to go you might have quite a lot of trouble figuring it out because the game doesn't help you any in that category.
Overall Circle of the Moon is one of the best 2D video games to come out in years, let alone on a handheld. Although the length of the main game is somewhat limiting, you're welcome to discover all of the hidden power-ups and DSS cards if you'd like. Circle of the Moon proves yet again that the folks at Konami really know how to whip up an outstanding side-scroller with each installment of the Castlevania series. Let's just hope that they continue to do so from here on out. Even in this HD era of video games it's important to remember our roots.
[This review was originally published by Korubi, myself, at GameSpot.com and appears here unabridged]
Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 12/18/06
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