Review by The Vic Viper

"A Metroidvania with elements of traditional Castlevania games."

Castlevania games generally fall into one of two categories: the traditional action-heavy platformer and the newer style, which is an action/adventure with RPG elements with a heavy focus on exploration. Of the six action/adventure Castlvanias (Symphony of the Night and the five on the Game Boy and DS, collectively known as Metroidvanias), Circle of the Moon is the closest to a traditional Castlevania game. It's also the best of them, which is not a coincidence.

Circle follows in the style started with Symphony of the Night, giving you a large castle to explore in your quest to find and defeat Dracula. While the game is non-linear, you are blocked off from many sections until you get a relic which gives you new abilities allowing you to get into the next area. These abilities include everything from being able to push heavy crates out of your way to being able to double jump and run quickly. While there is a lot of linearity to the game – since you can't enter the next area until you beat the boss of the current one, there is an order in which you have to do things – there is a lot of exploration involved and there are several sections of the castle that are completely optional, giving the game the feel of non-linearity.

In addition to finding the boss of the section of the castle that you're currently in, you also have to explore the castle looking for power-ups to raise your life, magic, and hearts (ammo). While there are a few in plain sight, most of them are in hidden rooms, or at least in rooms that are off the main path. You will have to search high and low (literally) for all of them. Circle uses a very basic leveling system in which you gain a level when you have enough experience and your stats go up by a constant amount every time. The power-ups supplement the boosts gained by leveling up, and they make a significant impact on how powerful you become. Depending on your levels, boosts from the power-ups can account for as much as half of your total HP/MP/Hearts.

Along with finding all of the hidden items in the castle, there is a heavy focus on navigating the environments. There are many tall towers in the castle that require you to climb by jumping between platforms while fighting off enemies. This is a significant distinction from the games that would follow it, which generally featured long corridors that you fight through with a very limited amount of jumping and environmental challenges.

The castle is excellently designed around both of these focuses. With the exception of two areas, each section consists of numerous large, interconnected rooms that require you to jump, crawl, and fight your way from one end to the other. Smaller rooms are attached to the sides, and are generally where the power-ups are kept. Most of these entrances are hidden, appearing as a normal wall until struck with a weapon. After you get a new ability, you will be able to return to old areas to pick up power-ups that you couldn't get when you went through the first time. Normally this amount of backtracking would be highly detrimental to the quality of the game, but thanks to the excellent layout of the castle, it actually works to the game's benefit. All of the sections of the castle are connected to each other at multiple points, allowing you to cover the entire castle in one large loop in less than fifteen minutes (should you want to; it's never really necessary to go through the whole castle at once). Many of the high towers are designed for you to be able to get back down at a much faster rate than going up by adding narrow gaps that you can slide through one way but not the other, or chutes that drop you back to the bottom of the area. There are also five warp points throughout the castle, letting you instantly transport around.

While the castle is physically laid out very well, the graphical design is both good and bad. On one hand, the areas all seem very similar, but with a different color scheme. The extremes look and feel different – the chapel doesn't feel like the catacombs – but many of the areas that compose the interior of the castle are all in the same style, but with a different theme (stonework in one area, metal in another, and so on). This can make the areas seem rather repetitive at times. However, there is some good to come out of this type of design: the entire map feels like one castle. In several other games, each section is made too distinct; to the point that it feels like ten different castles stuck together randomly, instead of ten different sections of the same castle.

Repetitiveness aside, the game look very nice. Characters, enemies, and levels are all gorgeous and mesh perfectly. As usual with videogames, many of the enemies are the same design of a previous enemy, but with a new color palate. However, there is still a large enough variety to keep things interesting. Most enemy designs are used only two or three times, and generally there is enough time between when you encounter the repeated design that it doesn't negative impact the experience. Of the enemies that are reused a lot (skeletons, armored knights, and flying demons), each enemy has very unique attacks, making the enemies varied enough that similar graphics are trivial. For example, the armored knights are all based on one of the 10 elements (fire, water, etc) and some attack with swords, others with spears, axes, or whips. The may all look similar but, since you have to fight them in different ways, they are different enemies. Perhaps most notably, not a single boss is little more than a super-sized version of a common enemy. There aren't that many bosses (only nine), but they are all unique, both in terms of appearance and abilities.

Both the enemies and the platforming work together to make Circle a fairly hard game. It isn't hard in the sense that Contra: Shattered Soldier and Gradius V are hard. It is, however, the hardest of the Metroidvainias. What this basically means is that you will have to put effort into staying alive – selecting the right magical ability for the situation, actually trying to avoid getting hit instead of just taking every blow and still having more than enough HP to get you to next save point, and so on. You might not beat a boss on your first try, but that just means you have to try again until you adapt. The difficulty doesn't come from obnoxiously overpowered bosses that require more luck than skill to beat, but from having to use a strategy to defeat them. You will also have to learn when to run away, rather than killing every enemy in every room. Fortunately, the experience needed to gain levels is set very fairly. Even without killing everything, you'll generally be powerful enough to at least stand a chance against the enemies and bosses without having to level grind at all. When you are right at Dracula's door, you might want to gain a few levels, but by that point a secret enemy is available that, with the right technique, can let you gain a level in a few minutes.

In addition to the general difficulty of the main game, there is an optional area in the castle designed for those who want even more of a challenge. Known as the Battle Arena, this section consists of 17 rooms of pure combat . No retreating to heal and save, then coming back later to pick up where you left off. Possibly the hardest area in any Castlevania, this is rewarding for those seeking a challenge.

After you beat the game, you can play it again, but in a different "mode". While all Castlevanias since Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night have had a bonus play through with a different character after you beat the real game, Circle takes it to a new level. Rather than play through as a different character from the game, you play the exact same game, but with different stats. In "Magician" mode, you have very limited strength, defense, and life, but incredibly high MP and intelligence; plus you start the game with all of the spells. In "Fighter" mode you have no magic at all, but ridiculously high strength and defense. After that there's "Shooter” mode in which you have to rely on your projectile weapons instead of magic and your whip, and finally "Thief" mode where you have very low stats in every category, but high luck, meaning enemies drop items (healing potions and the like) constantly.

All five modes require you to adopt a different fighting style and use different strategies for the bosses, as well as a different degree of difficulty. Shooter mode is incredibly hard, while fighter mode is laughably easy and the other three are somewhere between the two extremes. When you beat a mode once, the next one becomes unlocked and you can choose among all available modes when you start a new game. Aside from the significantly varied gameplay, what makes this style of bonus quests better than other Castlevania games is that its has a complete story. With the other games, the story would either be stripped out entirely or not changed at all (often resulting in your character fighting or otherwise interacting with themselves). While Circle has the exact same story every time, it is a full story that makes sense, even in the context of the new game. This prevents the new modes from feeling tacked on as an afterthought. Enjoyable as it may be, with other Castlevania games you're often left thinking "why didn't they just make this one little change", or "that was fun, but it would have been so much better if it had a story".

The story in Circle is quite good, at least by Castlevania standards. Circle takes place 10 years after the defeat of Dracula (not one of the defeats in previous games) when an chaos-worshiping cult has resurrects the Count ahead of schedule. You play as Nathan Graves (who is not a Belmont) as he tries to save his master (he's an apprentice Vampire Hunter) and re-defeat Dracula. There are a couple of things that make it different than other recent Castlevania games. First, Dracula is already back at the beginning of the game, you're not trying to stop his resurection only to have him predictably return at the end of the game anyway. Second, the person you're trying to save is not a helpless damsel in distress – it's a middle age man. Sad as it may be that simply not being a major cliche is a big plus, it is nice when it happens. (In all fairness to the Castlevania developers, there are as many strong, capable women in the series as there are helpless girls who get kidnapped.)

Most of the story doesn't even focus on Dracula – he's locked himself in his room and is biding his time until he can perform a ritual to restore his powers. Instead it focuses on Nathan and his friend/co-apprentice/rival, Hugh. Always a tad arrogant and competitive, Hugh begins acting even more aggressive than normal when they enter the castle. You'll encounter him off and on throughout the game, and each time he's more paranoid and hostile towards Nathan than the last. While it doesn't culminating in an amazing story with a great twist, it is interesting enough to break up the gameplay and to make you care enough to wonder where the developers are going with it. The conclusion is fairly predictable, and more than a bit similar to Symphony of the Night, but Castlevania has never been about the original and amazing storylines, so it's easy enough to enjoy for what it is.

The combat system is very traditional. You have a whip, and that is your only primary weapon (you don't even find new whips). This is very different than Symphony of the Night and Aria/Dawn of Sorrow, which let you find tons of weapons – everything from swords, spears, and axes to guns. You also have your basic set of secondary weapons: the axe, dagger, cross/boomerang, stopwatch, and holy water. Unfortunately Konami (again) didn't reuse the gameplay from Super Castlevania IV in which Simon Belmont could whip in every direction. You are limited to whipping directly forward, though you can also spin your whip by holding the attack button. This in no way hurts the enjoyability of the game or the depth of the gameplay; it would just be nice to see Konami continue to develop an existing system that is already very good.

The variety and originality in gameplay comes from the magic system, called the DSS (Dual Set-up System). Basically, you find magic cards throughout the game and by combining two cards you get a special ability. There are two types of cards – ability and attribute – and ten cards of each type. You combine an ability card with an attribute to get a magic ability. As an example, the Uranus ability card lets you summon monsters to attack for you. Combining Uranus with Salamander (the fire attribute card) lets you summon a fire monster. Combining Uranus with Serpent (the ice attribute) lets you summon an ice monster. There is also a lot of variety from the 100 combinations that you can make; including calling familiar spirits, boosting stats, modifying your whip and secondary weapons, and so on. Some combinations are traditional spells, others are new weapons, and many are quite unique. Some of the effects are fantastic, a few are useless, and most are useful in some situations. Everything is very balanced so you don't simply activate the most powerful spell and only use it throughout the entire game.

Sadly, no game is perfect and Circle has its share of flaws. The biggest problem is that it basically impossible to find everything in the game without a strategy guide. Not the bosses or the next area to go (these are all obvious), there are no mazes to navigate, and even the power-ups can all be found with a reasonable amount of searching. What you need the guides for are knowing which enemies drop what items. An item that has a 7% chance of being dropped is considered very high, and most items have a 1-2% chance of being dropped. A lot of the items dropped are equipment and restorative items which, while a nice find, are not a major part of the game. However, the 20 magic cards are an big part of the game, and without a guide you won't know who to kill to get them. You can't even kill everything as a way of insuring that you get everything because you can kill 50 of a single type of enemy, but won't know if it hasn't dropped a card because it doesn't have one or if you just have really bad luck. You could kill a hundred of every enemy in the game and not get everything because the drop rates are so low. For all practical purposes, you have to go look up what enemies drop what items and cards.

Along the same lines, new enemies appear in old areas late in the game, but chances are you would never find them without a guide. Would you, after beating the second to last boss in the game, go back to the third boss's room (which is very out of the way as you have no other reason to go back), notice that the room now has candles in it, destroy them, and then kill the enemy that appears forty to sixty times until you get a card? No? Then better go get that strategy guide. Now, having to use a strategy guide doesn't ruin this particular game, especially nowadays when people make guides for free, as this isn't the type of game where looking at a guide ruins the game, none of the items from enemies are strictly necessary to beat the game, and the information that you need can be gained by looking at a single map instead of going through pages of information that you don't need. Regardless of these mitigating circumstances, this is really poor game design. You should not need third party references to play a game. Being able to beat the game without the aforementioned items isn't enough. You should be able to play through all major parts of the game (so anything that doesn't qualify as an easter egg) without a guide.

There are a few minor gripes, but the necessity of a strategy guide is the only really big flaw. There are a couple of instances (two or three) of slow-down in the game when you first enter a room. It isn't that detrimental to the game since it occurs when there aren't many enemies around, always occurs in the same spots every time you play, and oddly enough only occurs the first time you enter the specific room. Subsequent time that you pass through, the game will run perfect.

While the translation and dialog are great, the in-game descriptions of the DSS combinations are pretty bad. Most are decent, but many range from unhelpfully vague to flat out wrong. With one combination the description will be along the lines of "x appears and attacks enemies” and the next will be "y appears and attacks", which doesn't tell you what they do or how to use them. Other times it will have errors like "hold attack to use this", when you actually have to mash the attack button repeatedly to use it. A minor issue, as you can just activate the combo to see what happens, but it can cause confusion if you do what you're told and nothing happens. Of course, since you'll have a strategy guide with you anyway, it's really not a big problem...

The game is also very hard to see on the original Game Boy Advance in less than perfect lighting. The game is very dark and Nathan tends to blend in with the environments at times. This is only a problem if you are playing it on the original Game Boy Advance. As the GBA SP, GBA Player for the GameCube, and Nintendo DS all have back lights, this flaw does not apply if you are playing the game on one of them.

As long as you're not vehemently opposed to even looking at a strategy guide, Circle is one of the best games in the series, and one of the best games on the Game Boy Advance. Easily better than the other Castlevania games on the GBA and DS (though they are all good in their own right), Circle is just as good as Symphony of the Night (better in some ways, even). However, Circle still isn't for everyone. It might be too much like the older games for people who only like the newer games (the so-called Metroidvanias), and it definitely is too much like the newer games for people who only like the old ones. However, if you like both types of Castlevania, you will probably enjoy Circle.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 11/05/07

Game Release: Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (US, 06/10/01)

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