Review by TIDQ
"The black sheep of the handheld Castlevanias is oh so sweet"
It must suck to be Dracula. Over the last millennium, he's been revived and killed so many times that I can hardly imagine a more torturesome existence. Imagine how it must feel to be whipped to death, too. I don't know how Dracula manages to keep his cool after all these years. Regardless, Dracula is on the verge of being resurrected once again, and it's time to scale Castlevania for the umpteenth time to turn his lights out.
Enter Juste Belmont, whip-toting descendent of the now-fabled Belmont clan. Do not be fooled by his ghostly pale appearance. He may not look much like Simon or Trevor or Richter, but he can kick some serious demon booty just the same. He, along with his best friend, Maxim, are on the trail of their childhood friend, Lydie, who just happens to have been kidnapped and stored away in Dracula's Castle. Thus, the stage is set for the beginning of Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance.
Much like Symphony of the Night and Circle of the Moon before it, HoD adopts a more Metroid-style of gameplay than the original Castlevania games. Emphasis is on exploring and uncovering the secrets of the giant castle, one room at a time. Bosses and hordes of enemies will slow you down, as well as the terrain of the castle itself, which is impossible to scale in some parts until Juste gains a new power or item to help him cross or climb these rooms.
The level design is almost always one of the best qualities of a Castlevania game. There's something about exploring new areas and trying to uncover every square of the map that's been addicting ever since Super Metroid, and HoD does this not only well, but better than Circle of the Moon. In Circle, the sprawling castle was made more linear than it looks on the surface. It's not uncommon to be restricted to certain areas until you obtain something that lets you pass, but Circle took limitation to an extreme fault, forcing you in small, specific zones at a time, and making it very obvious where you can and need to go next. In HoD, you still have to earn your way into various parts of the castle, but it also does a lot to put back the exploration aspect into the game. HoD opens up big, sprawling areas with multiple paths, and allows the player to get lost and have to feel his way around the castle. It's much more non-linear, to the extent that many bosses can be fought in a different order, and some don't have to be fought at all.
The controls are pretty tight for a Castlevania game, which is a franchise notorious for its painfully awkward jumping. Juste can't jump like Mario, but he can do some things many of his other vampire-killing brethren can't, like change direction in mid-air and actually control the distance of his jumps. He can also dash, slide, jump-kick, and double jump with relative ease. There are two aspects to the controls though that make this Castlevania special, and in a way better than other games in the franchise. First, it's a lot easier to recover from being hit. In most situations, you don't fly backwards 20 feet just from walking into a bad guy, like you do in previous Castlevanias. You do get stunned, and are at a disadvantage, which is fair, but recovering in a tight jam is much less frustrating than it has been. Secondly, the whip, while only able to be whipped straight ahead, can hit things just above and behind Juste. The range is short, but it is possible to hit things above and behind you with good timing. Finally, your character isn't completely helpless when those super cheap Medusa Heads descend on you from above. The coupling of these two features may seem like a small thing, but it makes the game better.
Magic makes a return in HoD. The interesting twist here, is that even after you gather all of the magical tomes to learn the spells, you can't have access to all spells at the same time. You see, magic now works in conjunction with your sub-weapon. Your given sub-weapon can mix with each of the five magic types to create five different spells, and each sub-weapon produces a different spell effect. Since there are six sub-weapons, that means you have 30 different spells at your disposal, which is plenty. It's not as many spells as Circle, but in that game, there were so many spells that most of them don't even get used. Spell fusion adds an element of strategy, as choosing a sub-weapon means more now than just picking what weapon you like to wield. You're also choosing the set of spells that will help you out the most in a certain area, or against a certain boss.
While the controls are good and the castle is extremely fun to explore, there is one thing that's disappointing with HoD, and that's battling bosses. Most of the bosses, while fun to look at, tend to be dumb as a brick and have fairly predictable attack patterns. This is one aspect of the game where Circle and Symphony are superior, because those games have some epic boss fights. Although, the second to last boss in HoD I found to be tougher and more complex than the rest of the bosses in the game. Fortunately, this can be remedied to a degree with Hard Mode. Hard Mode doesn't make all the bosses smarter, but it forces you to make fewer mistakes to win. And if you find the bosses adequately challenging, you don't need to try Hard Mode.
The graphics in Harmony of Dissonance are a mixed bag, but overall very nicely done. There's no doubt that the enemies and scenery in most places look more detailed than they do in Circle of the Moon. Juste also looks less like a generic, bland person than Nathan, the hero of Circle. However, I wonder if the makers of HoD weren't a little too excited to use as much color as possible. It starts curiously enough with Juste, who for some reason has a thick, ugly blue border around him. It's probably because his skin is so pale, he probably blends in with some backgrounds, but a less noticeable color like black would've been preferable. Then, it goes to some of the backgrounds, where they splatter rainbows of psychedelic colors. The Technicolor mindblow is fun for a while, but eventually you start to think to yourself, that there are too many rooms with loud, obnoxious background coloring. It doesn't get in the way of enjoying the game or the detail of most of the castle, but it's noticeable. Really though, you'll find some of the best detail that can be found on the GBA here in this game. It's a treat more often than not.
The only other thing that could really bother people is probably the music, and even then, only because the Castlevania series sets such a high standard for music. There's nothing about the sound that turns me off. It's just not quite as memorable as other games. It probably doesn't help that renditions of classic tracks like "Vampire Killer" and "Bloody Tears" are absent here. However, this is still an adequate to above-adequate soundtrack for a GBA game.
The story in most Castlevanias is usually an afterthought. Like in most Castlevanias, the time you spend here reading text compared to playing the game is fairly minuscule. However, I did enjoy most of the story parts. Juste doesn't always act too bright, and he asks a lot of really stupid questions. However, his lines are usually amusing, even if unintentionally so, and his friend Maxim has a genuinely interesting character. It doesn't throw too much at you, but the story works for what it is. Don't read too deeply.
Overall, the positives of Harmony of Dissonance far outweighed the negatives in my experience. I loved the feeling of getting lost with too many places left to go, which Circle of the Moon didn't have. I love the controls, which made it easier to enjoy the fine level design. I even enjoyed the ridiculously absurd room-decorating side quest, which makes absolutely no sense since Juste knows he's going to destroy the castle when he's done. I only wish that some of the boss fights were a little better, and that the music were Castlevania-quality instead of just decent. Those two things incline me to give a score of 8 instead of 10, but this is still one of the best games you can pick up for your Gameboy Advance.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 03/02/07
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