Review by Overdrive
"A bit more tedious than the average trip to Castlevania"
If I were forced to come up with one flaw in Konami's masterful Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for the Playstation, it would involve that game's lack of difficulty. For a person who had nearly cried bloody tears after suffering his millionth death at the hands of Dracula, Death and pals in Castlevania III, the utter ease at which I was able to bully my way through C:SotN was a bit disconcerting.
Well, with the creation of the Game Boy Advance, Konami had a new outlet to make two-dimensional adventures in the C:SotN model an opportunity to correct old flaws on a new system. On the bright side, the first Castlevania game to grace that system, Circle of the Moon, is far more difficult than Symphony of the Night could ever dream of being. Sadly, that bright side is marred as you have to spend a good deal of time running in and out of rooms repeatedly killing assorted monsters in order to build enough levels to counter the excessive difficulty of certain areas.
You wouldn't know that from the innocent way in which Circle of the Moon begins, though. A vampire hunter, his son (Hugh) and another apprentice (Nathan) corner Dracula and the evil Lady Camilla in the evil vampire's castle. Dracula is a bit too tough for the hapless adventurers, though, and easily captures the elderly hunter. Not finding Nathan and Hugh worth his time, he casts them into the catacombs beneath his castle. Showing a strong spirit of teamwork and camaraderie, Hugh immediately throws a hissy fit and storms off, leaving Nathan to inch his way through the castle in search of Hugh, his master and Dracula.
Initially, Nathan's quest is an easy one, with weak skeletons and bats forming most of his opposition. However, as the young vampire-hunter corners and defeats bosses, recovers the artifact they were guarding and uses said artifacts to advance to new sectors of the castle, things rapidly change. Skeletons and bats are replaced by animated suits of armor emitting lasers from their sword, demonic females firing powerful orbs at you and spider-women that shoot webs to slow you down. Sure, save rooms that completely restore your life and magic are plentiful, but the action is so fierce and enemies so powerful in many sections that just making it from one save room to the next can be a challenge at times.
And with a couple of exceptions, this game's bosses make the rest of the game seem easy. I remember challenging Death. I'd gotten quite proficient in whipping (Nathan is a true Belmont disciple, so no SotN swords and maces for you in this game) the snot out of the Forest Armors, Hippogriffs and Succubi of his domain, so I felt quite confident of my changes against the sickle-tossing menace. Roughly 90 seconds later, I was starting over from my last save point, wondering just what had happened. So, I spent a half hour gaining two levels and tried again. This time, I held out for about two minutes before perishing. This happened a couple more times before I finally outlasted Death and was able to move on. Sadly, this pattern repeated itself with both Camilla and Dracula making me realize that the only way this game can be beaten is if the player is patient enough to find the best places in each castle region to kill high-experience monsters and harvest them for hours on end. It wound up taking me nearly 25 hours to beat CotM, with over half that time spent building up levels outside of the rooms of various bosses.
Other than building up levels incessantly, Nathan can only increase his power and stamina by finding items and equipment throughout the castle. Loads of heart (needed to use special weapons), HP and MP-raising items are scattered throughout Dracula's abode some easily found and others hidden in secret rooms. While Nathan's only weapon is his whip, many types of armor, accessories and items can be found by killing the appropriate monster. Of course, anything that's actually GOOD will likely only be dropped rarely IF you've painstaking raised your hero's luck to obscene levels. It might be a pain to do so, but the defensive benefits of clothing like the Needle Armor or the godly Dark Armor make it worth your time. Collecting the magical DSS cards, which also are dropped by various foes, makes monster harvesting even more essential, as collecting, mixing and matching these items allows you to utilize up to 100 magical spells. With the right card combinations, you'll be able to hit with elemental attacks, shield Nathan from harm and summon powerful monsters to do your bidding. A few are very useful others are mere novelties you'll likely never use in battle (Look, kids, Nathan's whip is made of flowers! Wow!).
While the extreme difficulty and reliance on level building, level building and more level building really detracts from the gameplay of C:CotM, this game does succeed in providing a great reason to explore every nook and cranny. As Nathan gains new abilities, he gains the ability to explore new places. While some of those places are related to the plot, most are single rooms with items. Without backtracking through previously explored regions of the castle after each boss fight, you'll miss out on plenty of valuable stat-enhancing items. Also, after beating a few bosses, you'll find that some weak enemies throughout the castle are replaced by more powerful foes. A couple of the better-hidden (and very tough to dispatch) baddies tend to drop some great suits of armor in the game if your luck is high enough giving you another reason to go down each dead-end corridor and into each tiny room over and over again.
Much like Symphony of the Night, there is very little story to this game, which revolves around Nathan and his quest to save his master and vanquish Dracula. There is a nice little sub-plot involving Hugh and his frustration at his inability to get the job done combined with his jealousy of your superior skill in the art of vanquishing evil but other than that, the focus is completely on the gameplay and adventuring, which is how a Castlevania game should be.
And as I've said before, those two elements are a mixed bag. I loved backtracking to find those secret rooms only made available after you obtained a new ability. I loved going to a previously deserted room only to find a rare, possessed candle just waiting to drop one of the more elusive DSS cards. I loved the wide variety of monsters. Although there were a number of repeat sprites, there still are plenty of bad guys to whip to death many only found in a scant handful of locations after you've met certain criteria. I loved the game's aesthetic virtues, as C:CotM has good, if not exceptional, graphics backed up by an epic soundtrack that resonates through every chamber and corridor of Dracula's castle. Heck, I even liked the battle arena, an imposing (but optional) gauntlet of rooms with supercharged foes ready to tear Nathan limb from limb. Oh....and you can't use DSS spells there forcing you to rely on your whip, holy cross (or other support weapon) and healing potions to survive.
All in all, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon should have been a wonderful quest, loaded with monsters, items and secrets. But after finishing the game, my main memories were not of finally getting the Dark Armor or beating Dracula. No, what I remembered most vividly was repeatedly ripping through hordes of Werebears and Hyenas before toppling a gigantic goat-headed boss killing dozens upon dozens of Forest Armors to get strong enough to beat Death slaughtering countless Lilims before finally successfully challenging the final boss. C:CotM is good, but the unbalanced difficulty of some of its bosses makes it drag on for way too long in some areas, preventing it from being a great game.
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 09/01/04
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