Review by The Vic Viper
"A rather run of the mill entry in the Castlevania series, but still worth playing."
Almost all of the flaws in Harmony of Dissonance can be summed up by saying it tries too hard to be the next Symphony of the Night. However, as a game is more than the sum of its parts, merely reusing some of the parts only makes Harmony seem like a cheap copy rather than a spiritual successor. As much as I hate to review games based on how they compare to other games, even ones in the same series, in some cases it is simply impossible not to make a comparison. Games should generally be judged on their own merits and it shouldn't be assumed that every player has played the entire series. However, since Harmony borrows so heavily from the previous two games in the series. and tries to be like them in order to appeal to people who have played the others, I feel that a comparison is perfectly valid in this case.
After the outstanding success of the 2-D, exploration heavy, Symphony in 1997 and 1998, Konami decided to take the idea and run with it, but move it to handhelds where 2-D games were more welcome than with the now predominately 3-D oriented consoles. In 2001 they released Circle of the Moon to both critical and consumer praise. Despite the reception, there were a few (and I hate to admit this) valid complaints about Circle. These were generally seen as minor flaws in a very good game, however Konami seemed to have misinterpreted this as glaring flaws that needed to be fixed.
Circle, despite being being exploration driven like Symphony, went in a different direction so in the end it wasn't too much like Symphony. Konami must have concluded that Symphony = good (they were right); Circle = bad (they were not right), and decided that gamers wanted a game just like Symphony. Thus, in 2002, we were given Harmony.
Certain things are lifted direction out of Symphony with little or no changes most obviously the save points and the final boss area. While the appearance of the save points is fairly trivial, the final boss ares is not. Symphony's final boss fight took place in a room in the middle of a giant pit. You would ride an elevator down to the roof of the room, then climb down and enter from the bottom. Exactly the same in Harmony, for no reason other than to make the game more Symphony-like. The area is even a cavernous environment, despite the fact that none of the bordering areas are caves they're castle hallways. So what we have is a castle with a cave in the middle. Right. Likewise the room at the top of the tallest tower and the stairs leading up to it is straight out of Symphony.
The main character, Juste, also looks suspiciously like a low-res version of Alucard, the protagonist from, get this, Symphony. He even leaves a trail of after-images when he moves, just like Alucard did. It was acceptable when Alucard did it as he's half-vampire, so a supernatural appearance is par for the course. With Juste a full human it just looks stupid.
Additionally, Juste, the normal human being that he is, glows blue. That's right. He has a bright blue aura throughout the game. Not as a result of magic or divine birthright. He just glows blue. Now, there is a real-world reason for this. When Circle came out the only Game Boy Advance was the original model, which didn't have a back light. As a result many people had trouble seeing Circle (which was a fairly dark game) in less-than optimal lighting. Konami and you have to give them credit for actually listening to their fans attempted to fix this problem with the blue outline. That said, it still looks really stupid and there are other ways in which Konami could have fixed the problem.
Konami also tried to fix the lighting problem by increasing the contrast between the backgrounds and characters. Unfortunately they went a step or two too far and the backgrounds tend to look overexposed, especially when using a GBA SP, GBA Player, or DS; all of which have a back light so there is no problem when playing games like Circle. While the game looks nice enough, the game is a step backwards from Circle in terms of graphics. While it certainly could be worse, it is a bit disappointing.
The audio is also significantly weaker than Circle (and Symphony, but obviously as a GBA game it's not going to have the same quality as a PlayStation game). We're talking 8-bit quality here. Older fans of the series can convince themselves that it was done intentionally as a tribute to the older games. Everyone else can just turn the volume off. This is not to say that the music is unbearable, just that it, combined with the weak graphics, makes it hard to believe that this game came out after Circle.
Graphics aside (which is really only a slight flaw not a crippling problem), the castle is fairly interesting, which makes it a step up from Circle's castle. There are a variety of areas to explore which, while a tad cliché at this point, are all well designed and fun to explore. The backgrounds are cool and make the game more immersive. Out-of-place final boss cave aside, the castle is very well laid out. If you look at the map there is a very clear division between the above ground castle and and sub-terrain basement and caves and as you climb the towers you feel like you're getting higher and higher. It doesn't feel like the different sections of the castle were created separately and then randomly stuck together where they fit. Each section feels unique, as if your actually in a new environment as opposed to the same room with a new wall paper.
One common complaint about Circle was the relatively high difficultly. While not a difficult game when judged against games like Ninja Gaiden, or even the old Castlevania games, it had a heavy focus on platforming and was much harder than Symphony. Ignoring the equal number of people that praised Circle for its difficultly, Konami decided that Castlvania fans wanted easy games, so the drop the difficultly more towards Symphony. Unfortunately they reached that level and kept going. And going. Harmony is simply a really easy game in which you become incredibly powerful very quickly, even without leveling griding, and stay that way. Even if you artificially raise the difficultly by refusing to buy items or use magic, it still doesn't reach the degree of Circle.
Even if Symphony never existed and Harmony was completely original, it would still be a less-than-great game. The boss designs are bland, repetitive, and uninspired. Gigantic suits of armor are overused throughout the game, and two of the eighteen bosses are giant armor suits. Cool as it is to be attacked by a suit of armor ten times your size, it wears thin. Additionally, several bosses are mere copies of earlier ones with a new weapon and color palette. In addition to the two Armors, there are two Legions and two Minotaurs. Additionally, three bosses are merely giant versions of common enemies (for that Mighty Morphing Power Rangers look), and one becomes a common enemy later in the game with no changes. There are some cool bosses, such as the shape-shifting Shadow and the multi-form Skull Knight.
The common enemies aren't bad, though overall not amazing. Many of them are Castlevania staples (zombies, bats, bone throwing skeletons, fire-shooting skulls) that help make it feel like a Castlevania. Many others are lifted straight out of Symphony, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Reoccurring enemies helps make a series feel like a series and Symphony introduced a bunch of new ones that hadn't gotten old yet. There are some new ones as well, most of which are reasonably well designed. Overall, the enemy design could be described as solid but not exceptional.
The gameplay is decent enough to make the game playable but, like the character design, leaves a lot to be desired. There just really isn't that much to it you have a whip and the standard sub-weapons (axe, dagger, cross, etc. etc.), and that's about it. There is very little variety to the whip, aside from a few elemental enhancements (which do nothing), and a few stronger tips that change the appearance slightly. There is a charged attack that you get late in the game, but soon after get a much stronger non-chargeable tip that makes the charged one useless as a weapon and only good for breaking barriers. There's also a bullet whip which shoots a fireball across the screen. However it only works when you're at full HP, so you rarely actually see it, the whip is weak so you discard it for a stronger whip soon after getting it, and the bullet is so pathetically underpowered that it's faster to just run up to the enemy and whip it to death.
In the original Castlevanias, you could only whip forward, which was inconvenient at times, but acceptable since they were NES games and limited. Plus we had never had anything else, so there wasn't really much reason to complain. Then came Super Castlevania IV and a Belmont that could whip in eight directions in very fluid movements. In Harmony, we're back to whipping in one direction and even jumping while whipping is more like the original Castlevania than Super Castlevania. Why completely discard one of of the best gameplay systems? It's not like it would hurt the game, take long to add, or detract from the magic system. Granted, Circle had the same issue, so it isn't a reason why Harmony is worse than others, but it is a shared flaw. So far Lament of Innocence is the only other game to make whipping more than a one-trick pony.
The other "unique" element to the gameplay is magic system, called "Spell Fusion", in which your sub-weapons are magically enhanced using spell books that you find. The word unique gets quotes around it because it's actually a lot like the the DSS system in Circle except it modifies your sub-weapons instead of your whip, there's five options instead of ten, and it's much simpler. While you can find and carry five books with you, you can only hold one weapon (as is standard in Castlevania). The effects of each book vary greatly, so if you have all five you are actually carrying six weapons on you. Despite the odd name of Spell Fusion, you might be familiar with a different name: "Item Crash", because that's what most of the effects are essentinally. Straight out of Rondo of Blood and (you guessed it) Symphony, Item Crashes are Richter Belmont's signature move, and repackaging it under a new name just makes it seem unoriginal and lame instead of a good continuation of a cool concept. Granted, you could as use Item Crashes in Circle, but you got that ability late in the game and had 99 others abilities to choose from so the Crashes came across as a cool tribute to older games rather than a cheap imitation.
Originality, or lack thereof, aside, the Spell Crash system is also horribly unbalanced. Most of the attacks are cool looking but impractical due to the heavy MP consumption and low damage. By attacking all enemies for low damage instead of one enemy for large damage they are more for special occasions than as an alternate weapon. There are a few exceptions, such as the Ice/Axe spell which hits a small area hard for a reasonable amount of damage. Then there's the Fire/Axe spell which unleashes flaming dragons that seek random targets. If there are multiple enemies they all get hit and if there is only one then it take all of the attack for massive damage. Unfortunately, when used on a single target, it is so grossly overpowered that it can kill even bosses in seconds. Also, note the two examples they both use the axe sub-weapon. Combined with the fact that the Ice and Fire books are the first two you get, almost right from the beginning you have the ultimate weapons and then can simply ignore all of the other spells.
Now, Castlevania as a series has never had much of a story. With the exception of Lament of Innocence the stories have all been rather shallow and overused plots that exist solely to give a semblance of purpose to wandering through the castle. Basically, Dracula returns and a Belmont goes and kills him. Fine, especially in the original games where were purely action games with no RPG elements (and besides, NES era games generally didn't have the capacity for a great story). With the newer games, Konami has been adding to the basic plot, in order to add some depth to the games, with a decent amount of success. Nothing amazing, but enough to give you a reason for exploring the castle(s) and break up the fighting/exploring with a cut-scene here and there. Symphony was about a minion of Dracula using mind control on an ally of the protagonist in an attempt to resurrect the Count. Eventually he had his senses knocked back into him by the protagonist after a fight. In Circle, a minion of Dracula was manipulating an ally of the protagonist in order to turn him evil. Eventually he had his senses knocked back into him by the protagonist after a fight. Similar premise, but told in a different way, developed over the course of the game, and went in a different direction than Symphony. It isn't until late in the game that we truly understand the change in personality. In the beginning we're unsure if he's turned evil suddenly or is just being a dick. It's also a story about good men being corrupted through their own inherent dark side.
In Harmony an ally of the protagonist is once again under the influence of evil. (Eventually he'll have his senses knocked back into him by the protagonist, but only after a fight.) It develops kind of over time, but not really. The main problem is that right from the beginning we know something is wrong, not just from the dialog, but from the portrait of the character that appears next to the text. When his good personality is active the background color is lighter and he looks normal. When he is in evil mode the background color is dark red and he looks sinister. Right away we know they are going down either the evil-twin or multiple-personality route. Basically the story is Symphony plus Circle with weaker storytelling. There are some interesting elements to the story such as the why the castle is the way it is and Death manipulating everyone in order to resurrect Dracula. But, in the end, it's simply not that memorable and too similar to other Castlevania games to be considered unique.
One of the big problems is that the protagonist, Juste, is barely more than an Vampire Killer archetype. Alucard had a backstory that developed him as a character. While Nathan Graves (from Circle) didn't so much have character development, his personality and history was exposed as the story progressed. Juste is simply the next in line to get the Vampire Killer whip and is friends with the secondary characters. That's all there is to him, which makes it hard to care about the plot.
At this point, it probably sounds like Harmony is a horrible game and an embarrassment to the name Castlevania. It's actually not it's a decent game in it's own right. The one thing that true stands out and makes the game not only worth getting, but enjoyable is the dual castle system. Granted it was heavily inspired by Symphony's dual castle, however they are completely different so it doesn't feel like a copy. While Symphony had an second castle that was a mirror image (with a horizontal line of reflection so the second castle was upside in a completely awesome way) that you completed after finishing the normal castle, Harmony has an alternate/parallel universe style castle and you move between the two throughout the game. You even get different endings depending on in which castle you fight the final boss. The good/evil (well, evil/even more evil) castles are a result of the previously mentioned character that is possessed by the Count. The castle is created from a person's mind, and since there are two minds at work, you get one castle in two forms.
If this sounds familiar, then you are probably thinking that it's a copy of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, which had a light and dark world. There are plenty of similarities, specifically in that manipulating things in the one castle affects the other. However this occurs very sparingly in Harmony, and just as meas of blocking access to certain areas until bosses are defeated. There are no complex, trans-dimensional puzzles to solve. As such, it falls into the category of "inspired by", rather than "blatant copy of". The concept of parallel worlds predate Zelda by a very long time, after all; Link to the Past is simply the most well known use of this theme in the videogame world so comparisons are inevitable, baseless or not. Hell, people called Dark Cloud an Ocarina of Time rip off and Lament of Innocence a Devil May Cry rip off just because they were in 3D and had a few broad similarities (such as "the main characters use swords" and "the game has demons in it"). Tangent over, back to Harmony's castles. You have to move back and forth through the castles constantly you're even jumping between the two before Juste even realizes that there are two castles.
The light/dark distinction between the two castles isn't that pronounced since they are both Dracula's castles and inherently evil. It's more of a very-dark-gray/dark than light/dark. That said, the two castles just feel different. While the walls and backgrounds are the same, they are different shades of the same colors, there are special effects like fog in some areas in one castle but not the other, and so on. The original castle feels like a normal castle (demonic infestation aside), while the other has a very well done rundown and haunted feel to it. The second castle just looks more evil than the first which is a very well done effect.
Harmony is a fairly short game at about six hours for the first quest and a second game unlockable after you beat the first (as is standard with Castlevanias since Rondo of Blood). The second play through is interesting, but somewhat limited as there is no story. You just run through the same areas with a different character. You have different abilities so the gameplay is different, but it's disappointing that Konami didn't even add a basic plot to the game, considering the nature of the castle, who you play as, and the back-story to the game. It's a nice bonus for those who enjoyed the real game, but doesn't add anything.
There are a few nice easter eggs, references, and oddities that make Harmony more notable. First, there is an unlockable Boss Rush mode, and second by entering the Konami Code at the title screen you can play through it as Simon Belmont (the original Belmont) in all his 8-bit glory. There are some other nice references to older games, such as fossils of two bosses from Castlevania IV and statues of Dracula's final form in Dracula's Curse and bosses from Simon's Quest and Rondo of Blood. There is also the skull of one of the bosses from Super Metroid, which is a nice acknowledgment of the series that has so heavily inspired the recent Castlevanias.
As a "new" Symphony of the Night, it fails horribly and is a disappointing follow up to Circle of the Moon. However, standing on its own, it's a solid game with a great level design and more than adequate story, but several shortcomings and flaws that keep it from being great. Among all GBA games it's well above average and among all Castlevania games it isn't bad, just run of the mill. It is the weakest of the six so-called Metroidvanias (Symphony, the three GBA, and two DS titles). In 2006, Konami released a double pack of Harmony and Aria of Sorrow (a very good game) on one cartridge. As Aria is easily worth the price of a game, you're basically getting Harmony free with purchase.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.5 - Good
Originally Posted: 10/31/07
Game Release: Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance (US, 09/16/02)
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