Review by Tom Clark
"Easily the CastleVania game with the best title. Which is what counts. Obviously."
In the days before Buffy, vampires had it easy. They knew that, if they approached a helpless looking girl on the street, she would actually be a helpless girl, rather than a mean, lean, vampire-dusting machine. Because, in the days before Buffy, the scourge of the undead world was the Belmont clan. These people didn't have day jobs as high school guidance counsellors. They didn't go all emotional over vampires who had souls. They didn't look good in short skirts. They were old-school. They carried whips, daggers and holy water. Which kinda made them stand out in the vampire community. They were easily noticeable. The vamps had it easy back then....
The rather fantastically named Harmony Of Dissonance tells the tale of the latest descendent of the Belmont clan, Juste. Due to his bloodline, the unenviable job of being a vampire slayer has been bestowed upon this ivory-barneted teenager, much to the chagrin of his best friend Maxim. Still, times appear to be a little more peaceful that those of Juste's ancestors. That is until Maxim returns to Juste's hometown after two years away. Maxim is battered and bleeding, and on the verge of total amnesia, but he can remember one thing - Lydie, childhood friend of both Maxim and Juste, has been abducted, and though Maxim's memory is faltering, he feels drawn to a mysterious ancient castle. Has the curse of Dracula returned once more to the land? Is Lydie really in the castle? What happened to Maxim, and why is he acting as barmy as a bog brush? Taking up the famed Belmont whip, young Juste prepares to accept his destiny, and once more a Belmont enters Castle Dracula.
As plots go, this is really exactly what you'd expect from a CastleVania title - a standard raid the castle and get the girl type affair. Even so, it is presented in this case with far more flair than in many other CastleVania titles - Maxim in particular proves to be a fascinating character, presented early on as a figure torn between impending insanity and the desire to do right by his friends. While most gamers will have likely worked out exactly where this plot strand is heading within an hour or so, it still manages to hold your interest throughout. And while at heart you know that you've seen this plot elsewhere (heck, you've seen it - albeit in it's most basic form - in other CastleVania games), it is presented here with just enough unique twists and turns to ensure that it stays just the right side of stale.
The first thing you'll notice upon playing Harmony Of Dissonance if you've played the previous GBA CastleVania offering is the much improved graphic capability of the game - the last outing was a very dark and sombre affair, and was probably the game that single-handedly caused all the complaints about the darkness of the GBA screen. So the fact that Harmony Of Dissonance is a brightly-coloured and crisp looking adventure will no doubt come as a welcome change. So as you enter the castle grounds in brightly coloured splendour, the graphics will be the first thing that occupies your mind. However, within seconds you'll be being chased through the garden by a giant suit of armour. Evade this beast and make your way within the castle walls, and the second major point about the game will hit you - the fact that this game plays in a very similar vein to the previous GBA CastleVania, and to it's PSX counterpart Symphony Of The Night. This is a Good Thing.
While the basic thrust of the game is still side-scrolling, villain-whipping action, Harmony Of Dissonance features much more exploration, and some quite tactical magic-juggling. Which brings us to what will likely be the third thing to strike you about the game - once you enter the castle you are presented with several different paths to take - it really feels like you are able to just go and explore the castle at your leisure. While this can be daunting at first, it soon becomes apparent that the game won't let you stray too far from the course it wants you to take: there are several skills, such as a Mega Man style slide move, higher jumps and other such side-scrolling adventure staples, that can only be gained by carrying out certain parts of the game, and sure enough, these skills are required to move on to the next part of the map. Still, exploring the areas that you do have access to still plays a heavy part, and so while this game is still a linear affair, the line that it walks is very wide, and very wavy. You'll more often than not find that you have a large area of the castle to explore at one time - any path that may lead out of this particular set of chambers (likely a very large set) will be blocked, but you can go around the areas you have access to in whatever order you see fit. It's quite a clever system, really, as it allows the game to give off a true air of freedom, while keeping your play quite focused. However, this system can occasionally work against the game - while it still in effect is built up of several 'levels', the distinction between levels is not always apparent. This works very well in games such as Zelda (which shares the 'hidden' levels idea by use of it's dungeons), although in these cases the flow of the game is maintained by the ever-evolving plot. In CastleVania, the plot is usually only continued in occasional conversations - normally you are left to your own devices, simply moving from room to room, killing all that moves, and as such the hidden structure of the game can mean that after a few hours play you may feel like you haven't been moving through the game... rather that you've just been moving. While this may seem like a major flaw, it isn't - it won't result in you putting the game aside for any more than a few hours as the gameplay is addictive enough to ensure that even just moving is a pleasure, but it is hard to escape the often hollow feeling that this game evokes.
The magic system has undergone a bit of an overhaul since the last Game Boy Advance CastleVania. Gone is the random collection and combination of various cards in order to create spells, replaced by a much more simplistic spell book system. During the course of the game you will find different elemental spell books. Choosing to equip one of these adds the power of that particular element to your chosen sub weapon, creating a magical reaction of varying degrees of spectacularity. This system is much easier to grasp than the departing card system, and as such gamers may feel a little let down by what appears to be a devolution. However, the complex card juggling has been replaced with a far more tactical twist - as with all CastleVania titles, you are only able to carry one sub weapon at any given time, and as such, this limits you to only one spell from each book at a time. And as some weapons have strong fire spells but weak wind spells, for example, the system becomes much more tactical than it would first appear.
There are also quite a few diversions on offer here, such as the chance to go a bit Lawrence Llewlyn-Bowen on the home decor front, and the chance to go a bit PokeDex on the monster front. During the course of his exploration, Juste will uncover items such as chairs and tables. Choosing to ignore the laws of physics with regard to the amount of space in his evidently copious pockets, Juste picks these items up and takes them with him around the castle. That is, until you encounter a large, initially empty room. From this point on, you proceed to decorate the room with the items you find. Whether this is relevant or not I'll leave for you to discover, but it adds a new level to the game, as you really want to explore thoroughly to make sure you find all the furnishings (and to make sure you defeat the evil and save the damsel, obviously). Similarly, the presence of an enemy encyclopaedia adds a little depth to the gameplay. After finding the encyclopaedia every foe you vanquish receives an entry - it's all basic stuff (name, picture etc. - there's no Pokemon style backstory), but as you progress you can build up a definitive catalogue of your enemies' strengths and, more crucially, their weaknesses through this feature. Again this proves a nice diversion, appealing to the little kid inside you that used to collect football stickers, and makes the game feel much less repetitive than it could have done.
As mentioned, the graphics are much brighter here than in the previous CastleVania outing, and while this is on the whole a blessing, it does lead to extreme frustration at times, as on occasion the bright background will camouflage either Juste or the various monsters on screen (or in extreme circumstances both), leading to intense frustration, and Game Boy rage the likes of which not seen since... well, since you got kind of pissed because you couldn't see your characters in the previous CastleVania game. It's a case of different cause, same problem here, although the hard-to-spot character syndrome rears it's ugly head far less often in this game, it must be said. Another odd graphical detail is the fact that Juste sports a garish white border, and leaves a trail behind him everywhere he goes. If this is supposed to represent something of symbolic meaning in the game, then I completely missed out on what this is... but either way, it looks really cool and unique, no matter what it means.
The sound lets the side down a bit though, and is the only department in which Circle Of The Moon eclipses Harmony Of Dissonance. Gone are the atmospheric sound effects and tunes, replaced by far more up-tempo numbers. That isn't to say that the music on offer here is bad - in fact it had me humming along like a hippie on acid, it just doesn't seem to always capture the spooky tone of the gothic castle.
All in all, Harmony Of Dissonance is a step up from it's predecessor in almost every way, but is still a far cry from being perfect - it's a tad too short for my liking, it often feels like your not getting anywhere, and it is surprisingly lacking in unlockable extras in comparison to the last game. Still, it's CastleVania, and it is just as compelling, addictive and full of ripe tasty gaming goodness as just about every other title in the series. If the forthcoming Aria Of Sorrow improves on Harmony Of Dissonance as much as Harmony Of Dissonance improved on Circle Of The Moon (damn the long subtitles.... damn them to hell) then we are in for a real treat, but as it stands, Harmony Of Dissonance is a more than passable effort. Very enjoyable, despite it's flaws.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.0 - Great
Originally Posted: 02/02/03, Updated 02/02/03
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