Review by Xa-4
technically impressive, classic action, but boy do I hate the endless backtracking!
Castlevania Harmony of Dissonance
This is the second Game boy advance castlevania game.
For those unfamiliar with the series, you play as a member of the Belmont family, which for some obscure reason is cursed and must fight Dracula each time the famous vampire reincarnates (which, given the number of episodes, must be pretty often). But Dracula is not readily accessible, and you'll first have to navigate his maze-like castle before you reach the place where you'll finally have an opportunity to teach the old gothic freak a lesson.
You move around like you do in your typical action/adventure, jumping on platforms, fighting a whole lot of different enemies, mostly of the undead or mythological kind. Your weapon, a whip, is really a trademark of the Castlevania games. But you also get these so-called sub-weapons, which are actually more classical weapons for bashing living deads, such as holy water, a bible or crucifix. There's even a magical system implemented, in which you combine these subweapons with magical tomes to create about 20 different effects.
The game is not purely action/adventure though: some role-playing elements have been added. By defeating monsters, your character gains experience and, when he has accumulated enough, will gain a level. Each time this happens, you become slightly stronger. There is also quite an extensive inventory of things you can equip, so much so that it becomes slightly difficult to manage once you reach the middle of the game.
The wide variety of monsters (over 100) is definitely one of the most attractive features of the game, even if their behaviour is for the most part very predictable. Bosses are also very predictable and overall, they're just very stupid and a breeze to beat. That's quite a major problem of the game: actually, the challenge lies more in determining where to go next than in fighting some tough baddies.
Like other games in the series, Harmony of dissonance gives you a good feeling of freedom in exploring the castle. Of course, at first your progression will be blocked by different obstacles, such as barriers too high to jump over or stone walls, but you later earn new moves or acquire new weapons that enable you to overcome them, opening yet more areas for your exploration. This, coupled with the very little guidance the game throws at you has its downside: you'll find yourself going back and forth the same areas over and over again, up to a point that it becomes a chore, especially when you reach a high enough level that the enemies encountered become too easy to present an interest. The fact that there are actually two parallel castles, sharing the same map, only with different enemies and overall graphical design, makes this problem even more serious. In an attempt to overcome this issue, the developers have introduced rooms where you can teleport to other such rooms, but they are far too scarcely distributed to be an effective cure to the problem.
Graphically, the game packs some nice style, with genuinely gothic and dark backgrounds. The castle does feel creepy, and that's certainly a good thing. Another pleasant recurring feature of the game is the giant bosses you have to fight, and, graphically at least, the game does not disappoint in this respect. The bosses are genuinely huge and really impressive to look at. The rest of the monsters also look decent. What is slightly disappointing, though, is the animation of your character, which is obviously made out of too few a number of frames. Your movements therefore lack smoothness. It only distracts in the first few minutes and you quickly get used to it, but still, it is difficult to understand why the designers would not put more effort into animating a sprite that remains on screen all the time. The monsters, on the other hand, are for the most part flawlessly animated.
The music has been described by a lot of reviewers as lacking, but frankly, it gets the job done decently. It's certainly not very successful at making you forget that it is just video game music (we know the GBA is capable of sounding more like "real music"), but it sets a nice mood and its retro touch will appeal to fans of a series that started on the NES.
The sound effects, on the other hand, are mostly unremarkable, lacking variety. At least they do not distract or irritate, but they remain pretty basic all the way through.
As far as value is concerned, given the overall lack of challenge, it won't take you that long to complete Harmony of Dissonance. And, because so much time is spent revisiting the same places over and over again, you may feel that the total time played has been artificially inflated.
As far as replay value goes, the developers made reasonable efforts to incite you to come back to the game. First, there are 3 different endings, and of course, the better ones are also the most challenging reach. Then, once the game is beaten, you gain access to a "boss rush mode", where you'll fight boss after boss, trying to complete the challenge in the shortest time possible. And finally, the game can be played again with an entirely different character when you enter special codes, but you'll have to read a gameguide to get knowledge of that fact because there is absolutely no hint at that feature in the game or manual. The question is: will you want to revisit the places you've already been through such a huge number of times ? My opinion if that you will not, at least not right away, but maybe after a couple of months have gone by.
Overall, Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance looks really good and is certainly not bad value for money, but there are a couple of gameplay issues too serious to ignore. It's certainly worth playing, but those coming with the high expectations they have for anything bearing the name "castlevania" are in for some mild disappointment.
Sound/music : 13/20
Subjective score :13/20
Rating: 3.5 - Good
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