Review by Diplocephalus
"The First GBA CV Game Remains, Arguably, Its Best"
"Castlevania: Circle of the Moon" (CotM) was one of the first games to be released for the Game Boy Advance. Borrowing elements from the unexpected hit, "Symphony of the Night," K.C.E.K. (the Konami division responsible for the N64 Castlevania games) has created a familiar, yet still totally enjoyable, Castlevania game, and arguably the best of the 3 for the Gameboy Advance (the other two being "Harmony of Dissonance" and "Aria of Sorrow").
Story: Castlevania has a rich history when analyzed deeply beyond the games; though, the actual storylines in the games take a backseat to other elements. CotM sets up a plot in the beginning, has bits and pieces interspersed after major events in the game, and resolves it all in the end. The year is 1830. Rather than having Dracula resurrect naturally, a dark priestess named Carmilla resurrects him pre-maturely, and seeks the full-regeneration of the Dark Lord's powers by using the life essence of a captured vampire hunter, Morris Baldwin. His two disciples, Hugh Baldwin (the son of Morris) and Nathan Graves, are given the task of saving their master, and destroying the Count, too. You take the role of Nathan Graves, and will meet up with several characters in your adventure through the Castle. The storyline is nothing deep or engrossing, but, it's definitely far from horrible, and decently entertaining.
Gameplay: Wonderful. It's kind of like SotN, but with a whip, though still not as silky-smooth. The controls allow you to change direction while whipping in mid-air, too. Nathan doesn't have any fancy moves like "Juste-dash" to get around faster, but you can double tap the d-pad to make him run once obtaining the specific item, and this is more than adequate. Nathan can spin his whip around when the attack button is held down to deflect projectiles and do quick damage. Also going along with SotN, you will obtain certain relics while progressing through the Castle, which help you explore new areas. Items include the "Tackle," which allows you to smash through stone blocks, and the "Roc's Feather," which lets you perform a Moon-Jump (this was introduced in SotN). CotM is also the innovator for the "Gameplay Gimmicks" in the recent Castlevania games, such as AoS's Tactical Soul system. CotM's is called the DSS, where certain enemies will drop cards (either Action or Attribute cards), twenty in all, and you can combine them to create different effects. For example, combining the Mars and Mandragora cards lets you use a huge sword that shoots out a cloud of poisonous roses for extra range, while also increasing your attack power. You can also create a small rotating set of flames around your body to ward off attacks, make your whip double its reach, and much, much more. All in all, I would say it's the smartest of any of the systems used in any Castlevania. Almost nothing is useless, and has its own advantages, unlike AoS's myriad of pointless souls, and "Lament of Innocence"'s and "Harmony of Dissonance"'s number of useless attacks. Like the other "Castleroids," you'll collect armor and accessories to equip on your character. Most of the equipment is quite useful, and almost all (except for one certain armor) are dropped by enemies to make collecting them harder and more rewarding. Healing items are rare, and there is no merchant this time around, forcing the player to rely on his/her wit and skill, rather than copious amount of potions and such, making the game a lot more challenging and, consequently, fun.
Level Design: The best out of the three GBA titles. There is a huge emphasis on platforming in this game. Rather than making the main challenge be getting past enemies, like in games such as AoS and HoD, CotM also forces you to battle with your environment. To be sure, there are loads of tight spots, like the Machine Tower's layout, with its constantly moving platforms and electrically charged ceilings, and most noticably in the last area, the Observatory Tower (made even harder, considering the the abundance of super enemies). Most of the rooms are completely different in their layout, and this gives the game a fresh feeling throughout, since you are constantly presented with unexpected challenges. There is the occasional puzzle, such as the Underground Waterway's switches, or the box puzzles in the Underground Warehouse. It's very nice that the game makes you think beyond, "How do I kill this next enemy?", and I hope this amount of level interactivity is reproduced more often in future Castlevania games.
Graphics: Though not as flashy and detail-filled as AoS, CotM exudes its own certain charm, reminiscent of Super Castlevania 4. Whereas HoD and AoS seemed to feel more contained and small, CotM is full of huge rooms and corridors, chock full of grand expanses of spooky skies, spires, and dark, towering pillars. While being pretty basic in terms of the "Ooh-Aah" factor, CotM has plenty of superb atmosphere that comes from its well-realized dark nature in its dark color composition and abundance of gothic architecture. Multi-scrolling in the backgrounds is minimal, and I wish the developers had spent more time on this to create more of a sense of dimension, but what is here I found to be particularly intriguing and more than adequate. Pack a GBA SP or DS, though, when you play this, as playing it on the GBA renders the graphics too dark to see. Nathan's sprite could have used more frames of animation, but his animation is decent and, for the most part, believable. I found the enemies in this game to be especially charming. You won't find multi-segmented beasts like HoD's Living Armors, or stunningly weird denizens like AoS's Stolas, but, rather, beasts that seem to be more realistic and organic, with its anthropomorphic creatures like the Were-jaguars and Fox Archers, or the humanoid bunches of armored knights. None of them will really blow you away graphically, but I found them all to be interesting and fun to see in action. They, too, though, could have stood to have more frames of animation. The special effects in CotM are nice, concerning the use of your DSS cards to create new attacks. There are all sorts of fun things, like the giant hammer, or flaming sword. Again, they all get the job done, but are nothing incredible.
Sound: This is one of the high points of CotM. It's made all the more incredible by the fact that this was one of the first-gen games for the GBA. Quality-wise, it's on par with some of the highest quality soundtracks on the SNES; compositional-wise, it's on par with some of the highest quality soundtracks for video games, period. Rather than follow the trend of most Castlevanias and introduce totally new soundtracks, with perhaps one of two older tunes remixed, CotM opts for having a majority of its music be comprised of some of the greatest Castlevania tunes, masterfully redone, and interspersing it with a few new powerful melodies that will not soon be forgotten. The start-up screen's song is very well done, taken straight from the PC's Japan-only Dracula X. The ghostly vocals will send chills down your back. The first area's music, "Awake," is one of the most memorable and impressive songs to ever be in a Castlevania; I'd rank it among the likes of "Dracula's Castle" and "Vampire Killer." It's no wonder the music in this game is so great, as the composer of Castlevania 4, Sotaro Tojima, is the composer for this one, too. Repeat performances include "Clockwork Mansion," which has an oddly psychadelic feel to it, "The Sinking Old Sanctuary," which is more upbeat this time around, and "Aquarius," another incomparable classic of the CV series. Then, there are new ones, like, as mentioned, "Awake," along with the heart-pounding final battle theme, "Proof of Blood," and one of the greatest ending songs for a Castlevania, "Repose of Souls." As far as sound effects are concerned, they're pretty minimal. Enemies generally are totally silent, and most of the sounds you'll be hearing are the yells and grunts of Nathan as he performs certain moves. More attention should have paid in this department of the sound. However, this is overlooked quite easily, as CotM is one of the best musical experiences on the GBA, if not THE best.
~ Music: 9.5/10
~ Sound Effects: 6.5/10
Replay Value: I've played through this game three times so far. The average player will probably find enough in this game to at least come back for a second helping, eventually. There usually are rooms you might have missed your first time through that you'll find your second or third romp through. And there are additional modes, such as "Magician, Mode" (which will allow you to start the game with higher magic power, but have your other stats lowered), helping to make the experiences of playing through multiple times more varied. Sadly, there is no "Hard" mode, which would have been a truly wonderful addition. The game will probably take a person familiar with the map a little more than 6 hours to beat (while also getting 100% of the map); however, for a first-timer, it will most likely take them ten or more hours.
Satisfaction Value: CotM is also an extremely satisfying game. It makes you feel truly good about accomplishing certain things in it, such as beating a particularly tricky boss, or finding an item in a hidden spot. Like the "Metroid" series, CotM's satisfaction comes from the journey itself and the discoveries along the way, not the conclusion of everything...and what an engrossing and memorable journey it is.
"Circle of the Moon" is a fitting end to K.C.E.K.'s Castlevania games, and remains one of the highest points of the series. Displaying near perfect controls, difficulty progression, atmosphere, sound, and more, it's one of the best games you can get for any hand-held system, and easily holds its own in this year, and will continue to do so. Konami's people are geniuses when it comes to creating instantly classic games.
~ Total (not an average): 9.5/10
Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 05/15/05
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