Review by gbarules2999

"The standard of handheld and 2D alike."

The full moon rises, the castle's silhouette is revealed in the shining light, and bats swoop in from the depths of the adventure that awaits the very one who holds it…it sounds like another Castlevania game!

Castlevania has been going uphill ever since the developer, Konami, opted with the seminal classic Symphony of the Night (on PlayStation, Xbox Live Arcade, and PSP) to go with a more Metroid approach to the exploration of their latest castle. What was born from this sub-series, “Dracula X,” was possibly the best thing to happen to 2D gaming in the past decade. The series continued on the Game Boy Advance with Castle of the Moon, which was praised for its similar gameplay and also mourned for its much-too-dark screen. Once Konami got over this hump (which was primarily a result from the launch of the GBA) Harmony of Dissonance was born.

The gameplay is very much in the spirit of the “Metroidvania” games, as they are now referred to affectionately by fans. The character leaps and whips through Dracula's castle on the latest plot cooked up about the Belmont clan, gathering power-ups and making it further into the long, complex map. Nintendo created this kind of gameplay, but Castlevania tweaks it and makes it better: now it's more of an action role playing game, with the skills and levels mixed in with twitch combat.

The game plays like a dream: addictive as a dungeon crawler (such as Diablo), exhaustingly action filled like a great shooter, and as deep as any console game will ever get. While some fans claim it's not as good as Symphony of the Night, I disagree: it's refining the gameplay so well that it's the very epitome of 2D games, and it's the benchmark for how handheld games should be made. Each hallway is designed to have the perfect playthrough, and I never felt as if the game was a chore or had any filler sections: it brought back memories of Metroid, but in a new, tweaked way, so it brought back thoughts of so many amazing genre moments.

The experience is never too linear: it always gives you the freedom to explore the new area that you just made it into. Dracula's castle is a sprawling maze filled with monsters (common and rare, fill up your bestiary), items (equip your whip, magic, and healing items), and optional quests that it's almost a crime to not explore beyond the next boss instance. There's even an extra room for you to fill up furniture scattered around the castle as sort of an aside to busy yourself, and this is all done in perfect but modulated freedom. There's always a way forward, through the boss, puzzle, or gap in the map, and the game gives you packets of the castle, edging but never forcing the player forward.

The customization in the game, while not at the level of usual RPG games, is plentiful and varied. The magic system is especially solid: the player finds one of six items (which fall from hit torches or statues) and combines them with five elemental books (found and kept by the player as the game progresses) to make plenty of very flashy magical attacks. I found my favorites right away, and used them many times, though it lacks the strategy that Aria and Dawn of Sorrow's soul system had, because they can't be switched in the thick of a battle. They have to be hunted down elsewhere. On another front, the whip can have several different elemental attachments, and can have extra or lowered damage depending on the monster's weaknesses.

If there is anything at all unbalanced in the game, it's the player's stats, which are a little too high to make the game a challenge. This becomes very apparent when the boss fights get larger and more dazzling, but fall faster and faster. Some critics balk at the lack of oomph in these areas, and I agree to a fault: while the game isn't as hard as some of its sequels, it certainly isn't something my little brother will be beating any time soon. It's the perfect Castlevania to start on, because of the lowered skill required, and for those interested there are handicaps and hard modes available for a second playthrough.

Castlevania games usually have the same sort of story: the Belmont clan fights Dracula, kills him, but then that bugger pops right back into history five minutes later. This game is no different, and while there is a small supporting cast, the dialogue in this game is so badly writ, there's no real reason to read it other than further directions in the gameplay. Some of my favorite lines: “Halt! The color of your soul... you must be a Belmont...” and “Arghh, Death has returned!” or even the infamous “Death is at hand! Die, vile dog!” The game is almost fun to pick on, perhaps through translation or a wimpy script, because the wording is like the Superman 64 version of Shakespeare (a delicious analogy).

I really like this game's mindset: make this game really good, and nobody will care how long it is. Actually, it's still longer than the dismal two hours given to the player from Metroid Fusion: HOD will give a reasonable player a good 4 to 6 hours of solid gameplay, and then a boss rush mode as a nice diversion. And with those other, harder modes that were mentioned earlier, there's plenty of reason to go back and play the game again. Sometimes it's nice to not even worry about the main quest, and just roam the halls, killing stuff. It's that good.

If you haven't noticed yet, this game is on the Game Boy Advance, and this presents a problem: the series has already gone and flourished on the DS. While the game shows the peak of the GBA's power, it's a bit lacking in sound and in graphics. The graphics are clean and smooth, but not as clean or smooth as the DS…and the music is awful. It sounds like what would come out of the back of your computer in the early nineties, except that it's trying to be gothic as well (in fact, the game uses the original Game Boy sound channels). The funny thing about both of these points is that it's still okay: the graphics still look nice enough to play and the sound can (and should) be muted. So, it's aging, yes, but it's also serviceable.

A nice part about the game is that gothic feel that the music doesn't quite emulate. The rest of the game does this perfectly, from the great monster and background drawings to the stunning character portraits. Done by Japanese artist Ayami Kojima, those pictures add a lot of spice to the people who make up the game, and the artwork is phenomenal. It very much feels like a Castlevania game, even though the game is made much brighter for viewing purposes.

Other things to say before this gets wrapped up: the game is rated Teen. It's not too bad, though some kiddies should stay away. It's rated Teen for “Animated Blood and Mild Violence,” and I agree very much with the rating: there is blood aplenty in this game, and kids under 10 years should just play something else. The game has also been released with its sequel, Aria of Sorrow, in a duel pak, and if you can get a hold of this two pair, buy it immediately. AOS is also a great game, and it builds off of the customization that HOD might have needed.

Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance: a portable masterpiece. It's one of my favorite games, personally, and it deserves to be looked at again, even five years later.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 08/09/07

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