Review by Phediuk

""Alucard, I am your brother.""

After two horrifically awful titles on the N64, it seemed that the almighty Castlevania series had taken a permanent turn for the worst. However, back in 1997, a li'l game called Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was released for the PSX, and was universally heralded by the critics as one of the best games ever made. People begged for a true sequel to this gaming gem, but all they got were sloppily-made 3-D installments. That is, until 2001.

On June 13th, 2001, North America received the game we had all been waiting for. Castlevania: Circle of the Moon was an excellent followup, and still one of the best GBA games, but it felt more like Symphony of the Lite than anything else, due to the watered-down gameplay. We were all hooked on this handheld masterpiece at the time, so it didn't matter anyway.

But Konami, surprised with the success of Circle of the Moon, brought in the old Castlevania team to work on a true sequel to the '97 classic, and the hype began to build. In September 2002, we grabbed the Harmony of Dissonance box with our grimy little fingers and placed the cartridge into our GBA's, and the rest is dissapointment.

Before you make a sequel to a killer game, you must first ask yourself: why did people like the last game so much, and what can we do to build upon those ideas?

Rather than taking this simple-yet-effective approach, Konami instead asked themselves: what did people hate about the last game, and how can we exploit those shortcomings to the point of insanity?

Let's take the most obvious example. Konami, instead of building upon the challenges found in Circle of the Moon, instead decided to build upon the lack of challenge in Symphony of the Night. You may recall SotN being quite the easy game, and being extremely forgiving; well, believe it or not, Harmony of Dissonance is moreso. For instance, there is now a 'Quick Save' option in the menu that can be used to save your progress at any time. The catch is that you start at the last Save Point you visited. This may not seem so bad, but consider this: in Circle of the Moon, and to a lesser extent, SotN, there is a constant feeling of pressure not to die, and to make it to the next precious Save Point. A Save Point allows you to save your progress and heals all of your health and magic. So, by including a Quick Save option in the latest installment, Konami is basically giving us a portable Save Point, and negating any chance that you will die under normal circumstances. Low on health? Just Quick Save and restart the game! Voila, fully healed!

But you can't Quick Save during the boss battles!

True, you cannot. But see, bosses in games are meant to be obstacles in your character's path, and to slow down your progress. If bosses weren't in games, then they would be boring and easily beaten. In Symphony of the Night, the bosses were the only difficult part of the game. It's what stopped us from beating the game in one sitting. So, instead of using that for compensation of the challenge in Harmony of Dissonance, Konami decides to make each and every boss and mindless hit-and-run fest. Most bosses have a weak projectile of some sort, most of which that can be easily destroyed with a snap of your whip. Most of them also have an attack that can take off a quarter of your life if they connect. However, you can generally see these coming a mile away and never get hit by them. Aside from that, lots of them have an attack where they literally stand there and do next to nothing, allowing you to whip the bejeezus out of them before they move again.

But some of them have two phases! A few even have three!

Again, a true fact. But let's take one of those three-phase bosses, the Skull Knight, and see what he does. He isn't very large compared to most of the other bosses in the game, and has a sword and shield. During the first phase, he will just stand there and occasionally jump. After about ten seconds, he will do a pitiful attempt to stab you with his sword, which you can duck under. It takes the Skull Knight at least five seconds to finish this attack, during which he does NOTHING.

Second phase. He ditches the sword. He will then jump over your head (he wouldn't want to hit you, now) and after about five seconds, will dash across the room, which you can avoid with a single jump. Unfortunately, after dashing, he does NOTHING, for another five seconds.

Third phase. He ditches the shield, walks around the room and shoots a laser that lasts varying lengths of time. Unfortunately, you can duck under the laser and just whip him as he shoots it indefinitely. Remember, aside from this laser, he will do NOTHING, at which point you can have our girly-boy Juste whip the snot out of him. Now are you convinced?

To be fair, most of these fights are still quite entertaining and fun, but still, why do they have to be so feeble?

Hey, shut up! Juste is cool!

Ah yes, Juste (pronounced 'Juiced'.) Part of the legendary Belmont line, he arrives at Castlevania with his friend Maxim to search for their childhood friend Lydie.

Juste was designed by the same artist who did SotN's art, so there are many similarities between him and Alucard: the glossy, flowing hair, the long eyelashes, the billowing petticoat, and the overall effeminate appearance. Juste even has a trail of blue silhouettes to follow him wherever he goes!

Aside from appearance, Juste also has some of the same abilities as Alucard. Aside from doing an evasive dash backwards, just like Alucard, he can do an offensive dash forward. This is the only damn new move in the game, and these dashes replace the running ability (!) that Alucard had.

Juste can also collect Relics, just like Alucard. They may have different name, but they're the SAME DAMN RELICS THAT ALUCARD COLLECTED, save the Bat/Wolf/Mist transformations. There's your slide, a double jump, a super jump, several enemy identifiers and specifications, and Dracula's remains. In short: they're the same.

And the game still uses the same bloody Heart Weapons that have been used in (almost) every Castlevania game! You've got your standard Dagger (fast projectile), Axe (arcing projectile), Cross (boomerang projectile), and Holy Water (blue flame that slowly moves across the ground.) Konami wisely decided to remove the useless Clock from previous games and bring back the Holy Book from Rondo of Blood, which spirals outward from Juste's location and damages any enemies it hits on path off the screen. Another smart move was to introduce an honest-to-goodly brand-spankin' new Heart Weapon: the Sacred Fist, which makes a blue flurry of fists shoot Juste forward and hit any enemies in the fists' path. Unlike previous Castlevania games, all of the Heart Weapons are useful (even the Dagger), though the Cross is still da best. =D

But the Spell Books and whip upgrades are new!

I must commend Konami for the Spell Fusion system; I greatly prefer it to the clunky card system from Circle of the Moon, and even the combo/familiar system from SotN. Juste will find four elemental books throughout Castlevania (and a summoning tome) and can combine them with one of the Heart Weapons to make a new attack. Each Fusion takes a specified amount of MP from your MP Meter, but this meter fills up gradually according to a rate decided by your Intelligence stat (which seems to be quite sensitive; even one or two points gained makes a noticeable difference in your MP recovery rate.) For example, Axe+Ice makes a gigantic sharp icicle fall from the sky a short distance from Juste, and causes massive damage to any enemies standing in its path. Each of these cost 20 MP. However, if you swap your Ice Book for your Fire Book and use the Axe with that, two fire dragons will home in on the nearest enemy and cause terminal damage to it (even the bosses, which is why I like to call this attack the 'Boss Killer.') However, each pair of dragons costs 70 MP to use, so there is some strategic thinking when it comes to using your Spell Fusions.

The system is also quite polished, as you can cycle between books on the fly simply by holding Up and pressing R. You can even switch back and forth between Heart Weapons and Spell Fusion by holding Down and pressing L and R simultaneously. Quite a nifty feature.

As for the whip upgrades...they are extremely generic and lack any originality whatsoever. You can infuse your whip with stones of the four elements (for enemies that are weak against *x* element), get a wall-crusher for it, power upgrades, a projectile attack, and a spin attack, ala Nathan Graves from Circle of the Moon. Still, I like the depth of the upgrades, although it is somewhat clunky to go into the Status Screen every single time you want to swap upgrades. If you don't have the wall crusher or spin attack equipped with your whip and hold the B button after a normal attack, Juste will be able to brandish a limp whip, just like Simon from Super Castlevania IV.

And look at those graphics! They're awesome!

Harmony of Dissonance is quite the visual treat, for the most part. Many of the special effects are on par with those of SotN, and look quite impressive. All of the enemies and bosses animate superbly and without missing frames, with one exception: Konami decided not to include turn-around animations for some of the larger bosses, and it looks extremely awkward for their sprites to just clip in order to face the opposite direction. Curiously enough, some of the smaller bosses and even regular enemies have them. These particular bosses don't really detract from the overall graphical quality, however. Juste does. Yes, Juste, the playable character. His walking (running?) animation looks extremely strange, and his jumps seem to be missing frames. His sliding has only one frame of animation, and his super jumps use the same ones as the regular jumps. There is no special animation to signify a double jump, either.

However, it is my belief that good graphics can only add to the overall package of a game, but bad graphics cannot take away from it. Besides, the brightness of the game in general is quite a thoughtful upgrade to include. Good work on Konami's part.

Sound. Well...let's just start with the sound effects first. All of them seem rather static and muffled, instead of crisp and clear, like in Circle of the Moon. The various voice samples from the characters serve their purpose and are fairly sparse. And the music...many people will tell you how horrible it is. I don't believe that; I enjoyed a select few tracks in the game, but most were in the average-mediocre category, and the Clock Tower track just about made me rip my ears out. Fairly standard for GBA games, and as usual, the soundtrack sounds MUCH better if you wear headphones to listen to it. Konami's reasoning for the downgrade in sound quality from Circle of the Moon to Harmony of Dissonance is that most of the processing power went to graphics; however, I find that this is a fairly half-assed excuse. Other GBA games, most specifically Golden Sun, manage to have awesome graphics and music at the same time, so I usually compare sound/graphic quality on the GBA to those games.

BUT THE GAME'S STILL FUN!

Yes, it is, despite all my gripes. I love the collection aspects of the game, especially all of the furniture for Juste's room, yet the game isn't a string of fetch-quests. In fact, it gives you almost complete freedom to explore, yet still subtly sends you upon a set path. Truly a remarkable feat. So, all in all, Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance is a great purchase for fans of Symphony of the Night, Circle of the Moon or Castlevania games in general. While not quite as good as its GBA predecessor, Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance is still a great game in its own right. You can't really go wrong with this.


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 02/23/03, Updated 02/23/03


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