Review by Aussie2B

"Drac is back looking for a quick snack to pack the power to give you a swift smack in the... Ack!"

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon

Another Castle-oid. When I first heard that Circle of the Moon was to be yet another Castlevania game in the vein of Metroid, I was disappointed. Sure, I enjoyed Symphony of the Night and all, but Castlevania has always been about challenging platform action to me. And not only was Circle of the Moon not as great as the traditional Castlevania games, but it didn’t even live up to the quality of the game from which it was cloned, Symphony of the Night. If you ignore Circle of the Moon’s pedigree, though, it’s still quite a good game.

“!”

The story of Circle of the Moon is as to be expected. Dracula is back from the grave to raise havoc, and the vampire killers enter his castle once again to return him to his one hundred year slumber (that is, if Konami hadn’t thrown out the 100 year rule long ago to squeeze in more Castlevania games). This time, while Circle of the Moon brings back the time-honored hero wielding a whip, the character is not of the Belmont lineage. Instead we control Nathan Graves (nice Castlevania-themed pun, no?), who trained under the vampire killer Morris Baldwin. In a controversial decision, Morris handed down the legendary Vampire Killer whip to Nathan, rather than his own son Hugh. This creates a high competitive tension between the two young men.

When the game opens, Camilla, loyal worshipper of Dracula, resurrects the Lord of Darkness. Morris, Hugh, and Nathan rush into the scene to confront Dracula, but he won’t let it end that quickly. The floor gives way under Hugh and Nathan dropping them far below into the dank, dark depths of the castle. Morris is abducted by Camilla and Dracula for use in the ceremony to restore Dracula’s power. Hugh, not wanting to cooperate with Nathan, runs off to save his father by himself. You, Nathan, are left alone both to survive the demons that await and to save humanity.

Circle of the Moon has exactly the plot that I’d wish a Castlevania game to have. It’s more or less the same story the series has always had. Circle of the Moon, just like the past games, relies on gameplay and atmosphere, not story. All Circle of the Moon has is a little intro and some short dialogue sequences. Thankfully, there’s no horrible voice acting to ruin the experience like in Symphony of the Night. The dialogue is sometimes so plain and dry that it’s to the point that it’s almost humorous. You’re thinking “Normal people don’t speak this bluntly”. But you know what? I like it. Long elaborate dialogue doesn’t feel right in a Castlevania game. The translation is coherent and not “fancy-ed up”. Just as it should be.

The gameplay is just as kinky as it’s always been.

Circle of the Moon is an adventure game that focuses on exploration. You’re in one large building that consists of vertical and horizontal shafts and many platforms. Enemies are placed throughout to kill you before you can find the next save point, knock you down, or in other ways hinder your progress. Obstacles keep the gameplay fairly linear, so you can only reach one new area at a time. Each area has a boss, behind which lies a key item that allows you to pass a new type of blockade.

My main gripe with these style of games is that there’s usually so much backtracking. Circle of the Moon in particular is a bad offender of this. You’ll find yourself having to run through the same long areas over and over. There are a few teleporters in the game, but not enough to make travelling through the castle very convenient. Missed one tiny little room far from a teleporter? Well, prepare for several minutes of backtracking. First to reach the closest teleporter, then to teleport as close as possible to that room, and finally slowly running and jumping your way through all the rooms leading up to it. Circle of the Moon does partially make up for this by changing some of the weak enemies to harder enemies once you complete a certain part of the game. It’s a surprise to go to an old area that you’d normally dominate the enemies in, but instead you find new enemies that totally wallop you.

But on the subject of challenging enemies, there just isn’t enough of them. One thing that baffles me about Circle of the Moon is how all the fanboys were saying “Oh, this game is so much tougher than Symphony of the Night. I died so many times.” Huh? It is? Any greater degree of challenge is unnoticeable to me. I find Circle of the Moon quite easy. No boss took me more than a couple tries, no area was so challenging that I died more than a few times, and just a handful of enemies and bosses required me to develop a strategy beyond ''duck and whip”, “jump and whip”, or “throw the sub-weapon like crazy”. Considering I more or less rushed through the game the first time I played it and kept my levels low, I was disappointed to see that Circle of the Moon wasn’t more skill demanding.

Circle of the Moon also features several RPG elements, which is a blessing to many but more of a letdown to me. There are stats, items to equip and use, level building, and the such. There’s even magic you can perform if you acquire at least two “DSS” cards that enemies occasionally drop. Unfortunately, like most platform games with RPG aspects, you can kill the challenge of the game. To be the master of cheapness all you have to do is level up high, collect the best equipment in the game, and use the powerful summon spells. It’s like... using Final Fantasy VII’s Knights of the Round spell... but in a Castlevania game.

On the subject of those DSS cards, there are 100 different spells you can cast, but only a few are truly useful. I stuck with the circling shields of fire and ice, the 25% increase of luck, health regenerating, and double hearts for almost the entire game. The spells the other card combinations create are mostly aesthetic, such as lots of different weapons and attacks, which are usually no better than the plain and basic whip. The most entertaining thing about the DSS cards actually is simply figuring out what they do. Since the menus don’t tell you what they do until you perform it yourself, some can be quite a mystery. When all the combination does is change the whip to a different weapon or such, it’s easy to discover, but when it requires you to do something very specific like spinning the whip to create electricity or collecting a heart to get double the amount, it might take you awhile to figure out what the spell does.

Despite all the flaws I may point out, Circle of the Moon was still a fun game to play for me... in short bursts. The gameplay itself is very enjoyable. You’re a guy toting a whip surrounded in the beautiful atmosphere of a huge ancient castle confronting a whole myriad army of the undead. You never know what may lie in the next room. A puzzle to solve? An item to boost your life? Or perhaps a ferocious enemy that you’re not strong enough to handle? That’s about the entire game, though. You get through an area, beat the boss, then get the item that allows you to access the next area. Rinse and repeat. I found myself often playing for a week or so, enjoying the game very much, only to all of the sudden stop. It simply gets a bit repetitive. That’s okay, though. Circle of the Moon is a portable game, and it does it well. It’s exactly the type of game you’d pick up, play on the bus or a lunch break, and then put it away until you want to take a Game Boy Advance with you on another day’s activities.

And Circle of the Moon will come with you on a lot of trips. There’s a lot loaded into the cartridge for you to do. There’s an entire bonus area that presents room after room overflowing with the game’s toughest monsters, and you can’t even use magic to aid you in this Battle Arena. Of course, there’s also a map to be filled in 100%, and you can make a scavenger hunt out of finding all the items. The best addition to the game, though, is all the different modes. When you beat the game, you get a password for using the Magician mode. If you beat that mode, you gain access to another, and so on. Each mode changes the game significantly, which forces you to play in an entirely different way. If you find the normal mode of the game too repetitive or easy, then you can always try the other modes.

Circle of the Moon is a Castlevania game, and it plays like it. The controls are tight, although I find the whip a little slow in this game, and double-tapping to run can get a bit painful on the thumbs. The gameplay is solid 2D platforming goodness with a variety of moves and spells to toy around with.

Why is Succubus purple, dangit?

Circle of the Moon has very detailed beautiful graphics. Too bad you won’t see them. Circle of the Moon has a reputation for being so dark and hard to see that it’s virtually unplayable. While that’s an extreme exaggeration, I have sympathy for those who say that. Circle of the Moon is really dark even in the best lighting, and in bad lighting... it’s a painful experience.

If you find good lighting, though, prepare for a treat. Each area of the game has a different unique background, although many are a little too similar as they used the “rocky catacombs” look a bit much. The backgrounds vary from a creepy tomb and warehouse to an elegant chapel and observatory and everything in between. You’ll see many familiar locations (with a new look, of course) as well as new places like the Machine Tower (which is sort of a spin-off of the ever-present Clock Tower).

The details of the backgrounds are what you’d expect of Dracula’s castle. Tall columns, mazes of staircases, classical sculptures, huge ceiling-high paneled windows that perpetually show a view of the moon, stained glass masterpieces, and such. Christopher Lowell would be proud.

The massive library of enemies consisting of very few palette swaps shows off just how much that little Game Boy Advance cart can hold. The enemies vary from tiny little specks of near nothingness to gargantuan beasts you could mistake for bosses. And speaking of bosses, these giants sometimes take up several screens. Even Drac himself must have taken the Alice in Wonderland pill to make him tall as a redwood. If size alone doesn’t impress you, the enemies and bosses are all well and smoothly animated (albeit many just have one attack they perform over and over), and while most enemies are colored with the same sort of earthy shades, they all manage to look different and almost present a sort of “personality”.

The one aspect in which the graphics are really lacking, oddly enough, is in the main character himself. Nathan’s sprite just screams “early development”. It’s like they designed a sprite for him when they started work on Circle of the Moon just for the sake of having a sprite, yet never refined it later on for the final product. It gets even worse when you see him move since he has so few frames of animation. One can only wonder why the majority of the game’s graphics are excellent, while one of the most crucial things to draw and animate well, the main character, seems to have been ignored.

YAY! Aquarius is back! Now if only Konami would bring back Wicked Child too...

No bleeps and bloops to be found here. Circle of the Moon’s sound quality will amaze you. Even with the Game Boy Advance’s tiny speaker, the game’s music packs quite a punch. Unfortunately, that sound quality goes a bit to waste when you consider only three songs in Circle of the Moon are original, and the remixes don’t live up to their original versions. Then again, these are classic Castlevania tunes we’re talking about here, and it’s especially nice to see so many songs taken Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse’s marvelous soundtrack.

For those unfamiliar with Castlevania’s long history of musical excellence, shame on you! Seriously, though, the game is loaded with nothing but eerie gothic classical music with a rocking insanely catchy edge. These songs make you want to rock out like a head-banger or get on the piano practicing Mozart and Chopin. They’re filled with organs and other such classical instruments, but at the same time, the composers incorporate funky bass lines and beats.

Sound effects are also up to par. The whipping and footfall sounds are crisp, clear, and realistic. Other sounds effects are never irritating (remember Bloodlines’ whip sound...?). Circle of the Moon even has some voice clips for Nathan and the enemies you face.

Death looks like Ed Asner. ... ... ... No, I’m not obsessed...

The main flaw with Circle of the Moon is that it’s simply nothing new. If you’ve played a Castlevania game before or if you’ve played a Metroid game, it’s familiar territory. Circle of the Moon is neither a low point in the series nor an improvement. If you love Castlevania and want more of it or simply desire a solid 2D exploration platformer on Game Boy Advance, Circle of the Moon is your ticket, but as far as innovation and creativity goes, look elsewhere.


Reviewer's Score: 6/10 | Originally Posted: 07/17/02, Updated 07/17/02


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