Review by LordShibas
"A Few Steps Forward and a Few Steps Back"
The portable Castlevania games continue to impress me. While the console Castlevania games are running off to 3D mediocrity land, the classic 2D gameplay style of Castlevania is being preserved in the portable market. It's really a great thing too. Harmony of Dissonance for GBA is the second game in the GBA Castlevania trilogy. After playing Circle of the moon, I had pretty high expectations for Harmony of Dissonance, and I was not let down in general. I say in general since Harmony of Dissonance is a tad different than Circle of the Moon, but the core gameplay remains intact.
Just to let you know, I will be making a lot of comparisons to other Castlevania games in this review.
You will play as Juste Belmont (it seems they are really reaching for Belmonts these days), who is a direct descendant of the Belmont bloodline. He's not much different than the rest of them either. He brandishes a standard Castlevania chain whip, and uses the normal sub-weapons that are found in the Castlevania games. He is joined by Maxim, a friend of his, who ends up going to Dracula's castle to look for a lost girl named Lydie, whom Juste and Maxim both know.
Once inside the castle and playing, you will have the standard Castlevania castle map which you will need to uncover. However, this is where some of the differences begin. Thanks to my playtime with Symphony of the Night and Circle of the Moon, I'm so used to looking for secrets, hidden areas, and breakable walls and floors in Castlevania games. Harmony of Dissonance doesn't really have too much of this. While you will find a secret room here, and a hidden item there, HOD (Harmony of Dissonance) isn't really about this kind of gameplay. Most of the secret stuff to get is right out in the open, or visible to the eye, but you need to have a certain relic to get it. So getting the hidden stuff is pretty mindless, and doesn't require much though, just the proper tools or Relics to get to them.
For example, you will see items behind a wall with a narrow opening at the bottom. Once you get the slide move, you will be able to get the items. Nothing too mind numbing. So it's more of a straight forward Castlevania game, kind of like Super Castlevania IV for SNES, with elements of Symphony of the Night thrown in there, such as a save system, a giant map to un-cover, and huge boss battles.
Due to these changes, I heard that some people disliked this game, or did not like it as much as COTM (Circle of the Moon), but I still enjoyed it a good deal.
HOD has 2 castles to explore, much like SOTN (Symphony of the Night). While SOTN simply flipped the Castle and repopulated it with different enemies, the 2 castles in HOD are set up exactly the same, room per room, but they have different textures to make each area look different. Enemies are repopulated and new bosses await in the 2nd castle. While I liked the idea at first, it gets kind of confusing sometimes, since you may forget where a certain area was, and be forced to trudge through 2 castles to find a certain place you're looking for. Also, the color coding scheme for the maps just makes it more confusing, and they should have just had separate maps instead of over-lapping maps. You can view the maps separately though, but due to the small DS screen, it's pretty tough to see what areas of the map you can get to sometimes. Especially on the 2nd castle since it's a light green, and the white pieces that join the rooms kind of blend in together.
Another thing about HOD is that it's incredibly easy. I think I died once the entire game, and that was because I was messing around with the spellbooks during a boss fight for fun. COTM was a pretty tough game, so I guess Konami was trying to ease the suffering of those that played it. It's not really a bad thing that the game is easy, I just usually expect a challenge from the Castlevania games, and it just wasn't there this time.
As you can see, there are some changes to the formula with HOD, but a good bit of stuff has stayed the same too. So let's look and see how it affected the game.
The graphics in HOD have been improved a good bit over the graphics of COTM. Don't let people fool you and tell you that this game looks as good as SOTN because it doesn't. It's still a GBA game, despite it being a very good looking GBA game, it still has system limitations dragging it down.
First thing to notice is that the animations on Juste look great. Not only is he well animated, but there is a shadow trailing behind him constantly, which is neat for added affect. The whip animation may seem stiff at first, but it's not a graphical limitation, it's a gameplay limitation. Once you send your whip out while in the air, you have no control over where you land, so it seems kind of limiting at first, but you'll get used to it.
The enemies look like standard Castlevania enemies, and the bosses are pretty well done graphically. Some of the bosses are sprite swaps, and require the exact same strategies to beat, but it's okay I guess.
The Castle looks a bit better than it did in COTM. Rooms have more detail and backgrounds, such a gusting winds (when outside) look pretty good. Graphically, the game is a step up from COTM, which is a good thing.
It's a Castlevania game, so the story is not really the main focus. It's about addictive gameplay, which HOD does quite well. As I previously said, HOD drags Juste, Maxim, and Lydie into Dracula's castle, and they get separated once inside. So the ultimate goal is to find the others, but you will forget about them 5 minutes into the game, and get lost in the exploring of the castle. When you finally run into Maxim a few times, it's more like Oh yeah, that guy is running around here too. Maxim didn't really come off as a strong supporting character, but he's not really meant to be. He's just a means to an end, that's all. As well as the rest of the characters.
Seriously, most Castlevania fans don't need a reason to re-enter Dracula's castle, since it's so fun.
Sound and Music 7/10
While the music in HOD would be considered great by an average game's standards, it falls a little short of Castlevania standards. Castlevania games are known for having great soundtracks, and HOD's isn't bad, it's just not great. The music sounds a little grainy at times, and it just didn't captivate me like the music in other Castlevania games. I'm not really good at explaining it, you'll see what I mean if you play it.
The sound effects are good and sound just as good as ever. Whipping enemies sounds awesome, and shattering large skeleton creatures will be music to your ears. There is some voice work in the spells, but it's nothing to really worry about. It was welcome and didn't annoy me.
Castlevania is known for its excellent gameplay, and HOD is no different. The game flows smoothly, and is a joy to play. You have a button to jump and a button to attack with, along with shoulder buttons for dashing. Dashing with the should buttons is actually really nice. It's a quick way to dash through the castle without even having your thumb on the D-pad. You can even whip mid-dash to slay enemies. Initially, I though that I preferred the double tap the d-pad to run style of Castlevania, but the shoulder button dashing really grew on me, and I like it much better now.
During the game, you will try to uncover the map of the castle and kill demons along the way, all the while, trying to increase your levels and acquire new items to get to unaccessible areas of the castle. Standard Castlevania stuff. However, as I said before, there are not too many secrets that are not in plain site, so the exploring factor in the game goes down a peg. Early in the game I was running around whipping walls like I do in most Castlevania games, but I found that it netted no results, and accepted it.
In COTM there was a card system to give you magic spells, in HOD you have the spellbook system, which is slightly broken IMO. Basically you obtain spellbooks during your journey, and when a spellbook is equipped with sub-weapons, it will give you a different magic effect. For example, having the Ice Book and the axe equipped, will give you a spell that will drop chunks of ice on your enemies. I'm not going to explain them all, but there are quite a few of them. The problem is that when you have a spellbook equipped, you cast magic by pressing Up and the attack button, but that's the same motion for using your sub-weapons. Spellbooks take priority over the sub-weapons, and use magic points. So if you want to use your sub-weapons, you have to go into your menu and un-equip the spellbook every time you want to use it. With such a fast paced game, it's not even really worth using your sub-weapons. I just stuck to magic for most of the game.
So not using sub-weapons pretty much makes hearts useless, and makes whipping half the candlesticks you come across useless as well. As I said, the spellbook system is broken, but it's still fun to use, and some combinations of spellbooks and sub-weapons can be pretty powerful.
The boss battles in HOD are decent, but not as memorable as other Castlevania games I have played. Some of them are simply swapped sprites with different weapons, and you use the exact same strategy to beat them. Whipping a boss and dashing away to safety is a pretty good way to ensure victory during most boss fights.
So HOD is more focused on the actual enemy encounters than previous Castlevania games. It's a slight difference that only people who have played other Castlevania games will pick up on, but it's noticeable, and a slight twist to the Castlevania design.
Re-play value 8/10
There are tons of things to do in this game, multiple replaying modes with different characters, a boss rush mode, and a whopping 200% of the 2 castle to find and explore. I finished the game with 198% in about 12-13 hours, but I took my time in general.
HOD is deep enough, yet short enough to go back to and play again at a later date. The experience of playing again may be the same, but you will have just as much fun. Experimenting with the different spellbooks will also take some time and add some more play time if you're looking for it.
So I would recommend HOD to any Castlevania fan. It's a fantastic game which may get picked apart by Castlevania elitists, but holds it's own right up there with the best that the Castlevania series has to offer.
My Review Score 8/10
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 02/11/08, Updated 06/03/09
Game Release: Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance (US, 09/16/02)
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