Review by darthjulian

"An outstanding Castlevania title, even if it does not reach the high level of Symphony of the Night"

Judging from the most recent Castlevania games Konami dished out, it appears that the series only works in the familiar 2D realm. "Castlevania 64" and "Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness", the series´ first two forays into the 3D world for the Nintendo 64, are generally despised by Castlevania fans for their graceless and muddy visuals and the clunky controls. "Castlevania: Lament of Innocence" and "Castlevania: Curse of Darkness", might have a better reputation than the aforementioned titles, but they also failed to translate the brilliant atmosphere and the near perfect gameplay, the two aspects that have become the trademark of the series by now, appropriately into the 3D realm. Fortunately, Konami continued to do their long running series justice by releasing classic 2D Castlevania titles for Nintendo´s handheld consoles, having started with "Castlevania: Circle of the Moon" as a powerful launch title for the Game Boy Advance and now reaching a new highpoint with this year´s Nintendo DS masterpiece "Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin". One of these highly regarded titles happens to be "Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance", the second entry of the series for the Game Boy Advance, yet another classic 2D Castlevania.

The story in "Harmony of Dissonance" takes place 50 years after the NES installment "Castlevania II: Simon´s Quest" and the last defeat of Count Dracula. Just like in so many titles of the series before, the main character here also happens to be a member of the Belmont clan, Juste Belmont, a direct descendant of the legendary Simon Belmont whose famous whip he inherited. One day, Juste´s best friend Maxim returns from a training expedition, heavily injured and with bad news concerning their childhood friend Lydie has been kidnapped and brought to a castle that mysteriously appeared out of nowhere. The two of them make their way there in order to save Lydie, but as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that there´s more behind Maxim than he wants to admit, and of course, you can expect our mainstay villain to make a return as well. Admittedly, the story in a Castlevania game almost always follows the same concept of killing the resurrected Count Dracula, even though especially in later titles of the series, there have been some interesting plot twists to flesh out the experience, just as it is the case in this game, especially in view of the events revolving around Juste´s friend Maxim. All in all, it´s a good story that will keep you interested throughout the entire game.

It´s not really a surprise that much like its predecessor, "Harmony of Dissonance" follows roughly the same gameplay style that has been introduced to the series with the superb "Symphony of the Night". That means that the game mixes the action/adventure elements similar to those found in the Metroid series (especially in "Super Metroid") with some RPG elements like customizable weapons, armors and other equipment, as well as experience points and level ups. And once again, this mix works perfectly well here, as the exploration of the vast rooms of the gigantic castle is a lot of fun and excitement, with unfortunately only a few bonus rooms to search for. Apart from the whip as your main weapon, you can again make use of the famous sub-weapons, including axes or holy water, and whenever you use such a sub-weapon, it will reduce the amount of hearts you collected to some extent, as another returning feature of the series, and once the number of hearts drops to zero, you can no longer use your sub-weapon. Fortunately, though, you will be able to find tons of hearts scattered throughout the castle, for example by destroying lamps, so you don´t really have to worry that much about running out of hearts. The game also features a magic system for the whip and the sub-weapons in order to increase their power. For example, by finding so called magical stones and equipping them, you can use their abilities on your whip, which can provide the whip with elemental attacks. For your sub-weapons, you need to find spell-books in order to enhance them with magical abilities, and even though you will gain some new and more powerful attacks, they will drain your MP, so you have to use this ability wisely. Another familiar aspect of "Symphony of the Night" as well as "Circle of the Moon" returns in "Harmony of Dissonance" as well, and that would be the fact that Juste can learn new abilities throughout the game in order to reach new areas, for example by finding a relic for the famous double jump. What´s new in HoD is the introduction to the concept of two different world within the game, so to speak. You will find so called dimensional doors within the castle from time to time, and entering them will transport you into "spiritual world", the second realm on which the castle exists, and you have to travel between the "real" world version of the castle and the "spiritual" one in order to make your way through the game. It´s an interesting idea, slightly reminiscent of the light and dark world of "The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past", serving for some clever puzzles. As far as the difficulty level goes, I´d say that HoD is quite average. Castlevania experts won´t have a hard time playing through this one, while beginners will be exposed to a challenging and rewarding experience, as especially some of the boss enemies have quite a few assets up their sleeves. In the end, "Harmony of Dissonance" manages to deliver the same gameplay style that made "Symphony of the Night" such a memorable experience, without seeming like a mere rehash itself.

Graphically, we´re being treated to state-of-the-art 2D visuals in this game that represent a huge improvement over the first Game Boy Advance Castlevania. Most notably, the animations of the main character have become smoother and more fluid this time around, a difference you´ll definitely notice when compared to the wooden walking animations of the characters in "Circle of the Moon". The character sprites are a lot bigger now and also feature some more details as well as the backgrounds, of course. It will happen quite often that you can´t help but notice these minor details like, for example, pictures, mirrors or bookshelves hanging on a wall, and even though these details are practically tiny, they still help to add a lot to the dark atmosphere of the huge castle, by giving each room enough details to make it seem valid. In general, one could say that compared to its GBA predecessor, "Harmony of Dissonance" now resembles "Symphony of the Night" even more in terms of visuals, even though this title still is unable to rank on the same high aesthetic level as the PSOne legend, mostly because of Juste´s character sprite being a little too blurry at times, and the dark colors of the background graphics are not that fitting sometimes due to their slight murkiness, either, but Konami more than makes up for that with a great use of parallactic effects as well as some neat lightning effects for the magic spells. In the end, it´s safe to say that the graphics certainly earn their spot in the GBA elite.

Contradicting a well known tradition of the Castlevania games, the music in "Harmony of Dissonance" ends up being almost disastrous in view of the series´ track record of featuring excellent music and especially when compared to its direct Game Boy Advance predecessor "Castlevania: Circle of the Moon". The problem for this can be found within the composition of the songs themselves. Strangely enough, it appears that multiple melodies have been layered into each song, in fact too many melodies at once, so in the end, the result sounds rather odd, unfitting and simply dissonant. In fact, I unfortunately have to say that I found most of the songs to be unpleasant to listen to, detracting a lot from the dark atmosphere of the game. It´s utterly disappointing after the great efforts that have been done with the soundtrack in "Circle of the Moon", a game that proved what can be done with the GBA sound chip in terms of variety and aesthetics of the compositions as well as their very sound quality, and "Harmony of Dissonance" fails to excite in this regard as well, featuring only slightly above-average quality that simply isn´t enough for the standards of a series as highly regarded as Castlevania. The biggest mystery that remains for me, though, still is why Konami thought it would be a good idea to include songs as bizarre as the these, and even though the atmosphere itself is quite bizarre and dark, too, that does not mean that the music has to be messed up like this. Fortunately, Konami went on to redeem themselves with the soundtracks to later Castlevania titles, and after all, it´s only one of the very few negative aspects in "Harmony of Dissonance", anyway.

I am sure that Castlevania fans already have this title in their collection, so I don´t have to recommend this excellent game to them anymore. As for anyone should give it at least a try. You just can´t go wrong with "Castlevania - Harmony of Dissonance", as it is a perfectly polished and outstanding effort by the masterful programmers of Konami yet again, and even though "Aria of Sorrow" and its two DS successors might have surpassed this one, it remains a must buy for any Game Boy Advance owner and a worthy entry into your video game collection.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 12/18/06

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