Review by Halron2

"'Amusing. To use my nemesis' life to return my power.'"

After the huge success of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, it isn’t at all surprising that the next titles in the series would follow the gameplay style of that game. What wasn’t expected was the fact that it would take so long for another game in that style to be released – while Symphony was released in 1997, Circle of the Moon (the next in the series) came out only in 2001 and was followed quickly by another title, Harmony of Dissonance. It’s needless to say that Symphony fans – and there are many of them – were eager to play the new game, having spent the last four years trying to complete 270% (or more) of Alucard’s map. Oh well...

What they got then was a great game, even if it isn’t exactly another Symphony of the Night – a good and bad trait at the same time. Being for the Gameboy Advance, it’s obvious that the game wasn’t as spectacular as its predecessor when it came to video and audio, the map had to be smaller, as well as the options of gameplay (no secret characters this time) and the game will suffer forever from these comparisons. Seen as a game on its own, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon proves to have enough firepower to entertain both fans of the Playstation/Saturn title and new players as well.

In Circle of the Moon, you control Nathan Graves. In case you’re wondering, he isn’t a Belmont, but he does play like one: we have a return to the famous whip-yielding vampire hunters. He invades Dracula’s castle, together with his friend Hugh Baldwin and their master (and Hugh’s father) Morris Baldwin. As soon as they reach Dracula’s room (it isn’t at the top of long stairs covered with red carpet this time...), the Count returns and separates the two young men from their master, trapping him. While Hugh tells Nathan to stay still while he searches for his father, the hero can’t stay still while his master’s life is in danger and sets out to explore the castle.

Looking at the synopsis above, one might think that it’s deeper than most Castlevania games, but, as is common in the series, the developers didn’t spend much time trying to make it interesting. In the end, it’s just another bunch of cliches, so there’s nothing of particular interest in Circle of the Moon’s storyline. To make matters worse, the dialogue is terribly corny and there’s only one ending in the game. Okay, maybe this whole story affair doesn’t make the game bad, but a solid story with good characters would certainly be welcome.

Once again, the whole game takes place in Dracula’s castle. The place, just like in Symphony, isn’t divided into stages, but areas, each with its own interesting name, and again completely different from the castles of previous games (and the excuse for this was given in Symphony, so...). The place is pretty well designed and offers a good variety of places to visit. It may be a little smaller than last time (and they didn’t give any excuse for this) but it still takes some good hours to explore.

The gameplay itself is basically Symphony of the Night, with a few changes. The core of the game is still exploring the castle with the abilities you have at your disposal. Each time a boss is defeated, a new ability is uncovered or new places in the castle are opened for exploration. These abilities, for the most part, are really great and well-thought. The abilities require certain commands to be used, but are really easy to master and don’t require any level of skill to pull out. Once again, you have a map to know the places you have been to and those you still need to visit. But, this time, there’s only one castle.

The changes – well, there’s basically one major change in the game: the DSS system, which is quite interesting, actually. There’s 20 cards than can be found throughout the game, required to use magic. Ten of those cards set the ‘action’ of what kind of ability will be used (like elemental whips, summons, familiars etc.) and the other ten specify the ‘attribute’ or element of the spell you’re casting. Combining the first ten with the second, voila, you have a hundred different spells to cast in the game. It’s so much that I haven’t had the patience to test all of them. On the good hand, there’s the variety. Unfortunately, only one spell can be used at a time, meaning you can’t, for example, use a familiar (they don’t level up like in Symphony) and a defense spell at the same time. But the system works pretty well and everybody will want to collect every single card in the game.

Apart from that, changes are small. For instance, you never get to upgrade your weapon, your strength increases with level up and that’s it. There’s no shop, so you collect items only from enemies, from which you can get usable items (potion, antidotes etc.) and armor to equip. Obviously, you don’t collect money. Also, instead of only increasing HP and hearts maximum from special items, you can increase the MP bar as well. If there are any other differences at all, they are in the same league as these, keeping the basic gameplay very similar to Symphony of the Night. As for secrets, instead of being able to use secret characters after you beat the game, you can play in special modes, like Magician (you have all cards and, therefore, spells, but weaker physical stats), Fighter (stronger, with more HP and defense), Thief (high luck, but other stats low) and Archer (better use of special weapons). It is a good idea, but not really spectacular.

The only real problem with the game is, once again, the challenge. Okay, so it’s harder than Symphony of the Night. But what isn’t? When comparing to older Castlevania games, this is really easy. Even the secret modes, like Magician, Thief and so on are still too easy. If you’re having trouble, you can use the universal solution of RPGs: level up. So, there’s no real mystery. The game is also too short. The first time through, I beat it in little less than seven hours without any kind of help. Of course, I wasn’t trying to complete the map or anything. But a little more challenge would be appreciated, making beating the game more rewarding.

The graphics in Circle of the Moon are pretty good, specially if you keep in mind that you’re playing a handheld system. The backgrounds and monsters aren’t so detailed, but their design is pretty solid and convincing. The castle, specially, looks really good and most of the bosses manage to impress in their visuals. The hero, Nathan, surprisingly enough, doesn’t have an odd walking animation as usual! The same can’t be said about him running, which kind of awkward. Anyway, his animations are good overall, specially the Kick Boots thing, which reminds me a lot of Batman bouncing off walls in his first NES game.

In terms of sound, the game is great. In comparison to Symphony, it’s a kick back to the 16-bit era games in terms of quality of sound and styles. There isn’t the diversity found in Symphony, but the songs are pretty strong, which is no surprise, considering the fact that most of this game’s songs have appeared in older Castlevania games. So, we have the opportunity of hearing ‘Vampire killer’, ‘Clockwork’, ‘Sinking old sanctuary’ and other stuff in new and great arrangements. The few original songs are also great, keeping the quality up and making the soundtrack to Circle of the Moon one of the game’s high points. Of course, it should be noted that there isn’t any voice acting in this game, which is probably for the good in the end.

Overall, Circle of the Moon is one hell of a game, that will always be compared to Symphony of the Night, and most people will dismiss it as a ‘copy’ only because it came in second. If this game had been released earlier, it would probably be hailed as much as the Playstation/Saturn Castlevania. But, chronologies apart, the game is smaller and does offer less exploration and gaming possibilities than Symphony. The DSS was an excellent idea, but it doesn’t make Circle really as classic as that game. If we can, one day, look at the two games separately, we may have a better idea of what Circle of the Moon really represents. For now, this is impossible, so we can consider it a worthy follow up to Symphony of the Night in every sense possible.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 09/04/02, Updated 05/05/03

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