Review by Bkstunt_31
"It feels like Castlevania to me, IGA...."
It's undeniable: 1997's Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was a game changer. It changed what gamers defined and expected out of 'Castlevania' by adding in several RPG aspects and exploration features to the series. Yet even after meeting with critical acclaim, we didn't see another game like it until 2001's Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, which was released for Nintendo's Game Boy Advance (one of the Game Boy Advance's launch titles in the U.S.). So what can you expect out of Castlevania: Circle of the Moon? Read on!
"What, no Belmonts?!"
The game opens up explaining to you that the year is 1830 and the followers of chaos plea for the return of the Lord of Darkness. The scene will shift to Dracula's casket with a woman named Camilla summoning Dracula back to the world. However, immediately after awakening, an older man named Morris Baldwin will burst in with his two apprentices (Hugh, Morris' son, and Nathan Graves, son of Morris' vampire hunting partners who were both killed while facing Dracula last). Dracula will recognize the man as one of the vampire hunters that sealed him away years before, commenting on how much he has aged. Dracula will then announce his intention to use Morris' life to return his power, while making a huge hole appear under the two apprentices ("I have no need for children"), banishing the two young men to the catacombs below. Hugh tells Nathan that is is up to him to rescue his father and to go home as he'll only be in the way before running off. Nathan will state that he wants to find Master as much as anyone, and so your adventure will begin!
Despite an interesting back-history about Morris Baldwin and Nathan's parents (protagonists dying isn't TOO awfully common in the series), I'll be the first to admit that Circle of the Moon is NOT all that story-centric. There is the obvious rivalry present between Hugh and Nathan that is explored as you play throughout the game (the two will run into each other every now and again) and Nathan will get to talk to a smattering of bosses as you play (but not the ONE boss he should have been able to talk to), but there is very little story in the game.
It's also worthy of noting that officially, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is NOT an official 'Castlevania' game: it was retconned from the series timeline in 2002 and labeled a 'stand alone' title. Official or not, it sure FEELS like a Castlevania game to me!
Game play: 8/10
"Why won't that card drop!"
As I've already mentioned, Circle of the Moon borrows a LOT from Symphony of the Night. As Nathan you will explore the Castle room by room, coming across dozens of the castle's denizens and killing them for experience points.You'll also have a HP bar (to measure your health) and an MP bar (to measure your magic, which we'll get to later), however unlike Alucard, Nathan will only have a single weapon: the hunter whip (probably meant to be the Vampire Killer). You will then of course level up and become incrementally stronger as you explore the castle. The developers design the castle in such a way that you can only explore SO MUCH of the castle before you are out of options, forcing you to travel to a boss room and defeat the boss there so you can acquire a new piece of equipment. These pieces of equipment often give you new moves which allow you to explore the castle even further, often opening up multiple paths throughout the castle.
As you can see, exploring the castle is a HUGE part of the game play's appeal, however there's also the extreme amount of fun you'll have defeating the wide variety of enemies. To make it even better, enemies will often drop pieces of equipment (armor or accessories) that you can equip to increase your stats (STR increases your attack, DEF increases your defense, INT increases how fast you recover MP, and LCK affects how often items drop). Every single enemy in the game (with the exception of bosses) has an item they can drop, although some drop rate percentages are abysmally low (Leading to my comment by the score!).
Onto what makes Circle of the Moon different: the DSS (Dual Set-up System). It's a pretty simple system; as you play you will collect magic cards. These cards either represent an 'Action' effect (such as the 'MERCURY' card that has the power of strength) or an 'Attribute' effect (such as the 'SALAMANDER' card that has the power of fire). There are about ten cards of each kind. To USE them, you must pair up a 'Action' card with an 'Attribute' card. For example, our cards above (mercury + salamander) would turn Nathan's whip into a fire whip. Swap out the Salamander card for another card (let's pick the ice-bases 'Serpent' card) and now Nathan's whip is an ice whip (each of the 'Attribute' cards is element based). With 10 cards in each category, you'll soon build up quite a repertoire of moves. The selection is quite impressive, with some of the card combos being truly fantastic by the end of the game.
Overall, Circle of the Moon brings back the exploration and RPG aspects that helped to turn Symphony of the Night into a classic while adding its own flair with the DSS system.
"Haven't I seen you somewhere before?"
The graphics in the game are enjoyable. Each area of the game has its own theme behind it (and its own name, which flashes on the screen whenever you enter a new area). A lot of these areas are well-designed with a good amount of detail thrown in to add to the atmosphere. Its pretty much all for looks though, as every area (with the notable exception of the Machine Tower) has nothing you can interact with (being just a series of platforms and door openings).
Nathan himself is EXTREMELY mobile. You won't agree with me if you JUST start a game (he's very slow in the beginning), but after obtaining the dash boots and an item that lets you double jump, you'll soon be zipping around the castle. Nathan's animations are also very impressive, especially the summons and unique attacks you can do by the end of the game. Enemy animations are impressive as well, with the sheer amount of variety they boost (even if the enemies movements are stale and predictable).
However, the ONE big sticking point I have with this game is the sheer amount of palette swapping they do. You can't hardly find a single enemy that doesn't have a stronger version of itself that shows up later on! In fact, some of the enemies have up to 5+ versions of them (Or, in the case of the 'Armor' series of enemies, I counted at least a DOZEN different palette swaps!). Granted, the vast majority of these palette swapped enemies usually sport a new or different type of attack, but still!
"You either have it or you don't..."
It's safe to say I love my video game music, and Circle of the Moon starts things off with a bang. The 'name entry' screen kicks things off with "Requiem" (A very well-done choral piece), and by the time you reach the first area "Awake" will knock your socks off! After that you'll enjoy the songs "The Sinking Old Sanctuary" and "Clockwork" as you progress... but things start to stagnate from there. The rest of the tracks are decent (and "Vampire Killer" makes an awesome reappearance) but just aren't as good as the first couple of tracks.
The biggest problem with the music is the sheer repetition throughout the castle. While "The Sinking Old Sanctuary" is a great song, it gets played WAY too much. There's also an entire section of the game that doesn't have ANY music (which is CRAP; I have NO idea how they got away with thinking THAT was a good idea). All in all a good, if somewhat disappointing showing.
"One more time, with feeling!"
Circle of the Moon ISN'T the longest game out there by any means, but it will last you one or two good afternoons. If you are the completion-ist type of gamer, you will spend 2-3 times as much time with all the things you can do ( getting all the items, completing the map 100%, etc..). Once you beat the game, you get a special password that lets you start a NEW game with Nathan, except the game automatically gives you all the DSS cards from the start (which is perfect for anyone who didn't spend the time to find them all). In fact, there is a total of FOUR different game mode types that you can unlock as you continue to beat the game with the previous game modes (including the 'Fighter' mode, the 'Archer' mode, and the 'Thief' mode). It's a good showing, but is awfully repetitive as you are essentially playing the same game over and over.
To note, the series as a whole gets better re-playability in later games as they usually let you play as an entirely new character instead of the same person over and over.
Circle of the moon continues the game play that Symphony of the Night brought to the series, and is a welcome addition (even if it isn't officially a "Castlevania" game) to the series. It was also the beginning of a string of great handheld games. However, it is far from perfected and could have used more attention in a number of areas. Is it worth a play? Heck, yea! If you've enjoyed any of the previous "Metroidvania" games you will undoubtedly enjoy Circle of the Moon. Have fun and keep playing!
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 07/14/11
Game Release: Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (US, 06/10/01)
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