Review by 94067
Reviewed: 06/01/09 | Updated: 07/06/10
Excels in atmosphere, but rather bland in other areas
Harmony of Dissonance strips Metroidvanias down to their bare bones. The game is basic, something like how you'd expect these types of games to play in the late 80s or early 90s, but HoD has a secret weapon: out of all the Metroidvanias, it has the most atmosphere. Castlevania originally started out as an excuse for players to fight all the classic movie monsters, and while Frankenstein and the Werewolf are absent, the game captures the feel of old horror movies perfectly.
Between every handheld Castlevania, there's a different style of weapon/subweapon. In Circle of the Moon, we had the card system, in Aria of Sorrow we had souls, etc. In Harmony of Dissonance we get the classic subweapons (Cross/Dagger/Axe, etc) that consume hearts and are found in random, fixed spots around the castle, and we get spellbooks, each representing an element (Fire/Ice, etc). You can use the subweapon alone or with the spellbook, which not only changes the attacking element to exploit enemy weaknesses, but changes the attack completely. For example, combining the Wind book and the Fist subweapon produces a very powerful blast, while combining the Fire book and the same subweapon produces fireballs that travel across the screen slowly. This is fun to experiment with, and there are certainly combinations that have their own purpose, and some that don't seem to have one at all. Spellbooks are changed through the menu, which interrupts gameplay when trying to exploit multiple enemies' weaknesses, but there is a secret: pressing L or R while holding Up cycles through the spellbooks without the need to access the menu, while pressing L, R and Down at the same time will disable them completely. While not documented anywhere in the game, this feature helps immensely and allows you to experiment more efficiently.
Unfortunately, the 'real' weapon portion of Harmony is much more disappointing. The only weapon in the entire game is the whip, onto which various attachments can be equipped, but even then, they only serve to add an element to the whip, and don't change the fact that whipping for an entire game quickly becomes boring. In this way, the game feels like an homage to classic Castlevania fighting styles, but in a new setting. More homages are paid to the 80s with Harmony's archaic jumping system: once you jump, you cannot move or change direction. This isn't as much of a problem as it would be expected to be since there aren't any jumps that lead to instant death pits, but it's still an annoyance. Luckily, Harmony employs a system of dashing that is a great step up from Circle of the Moon's: pressing the L or R button will send you in the direction your character is facing. You can dash without consuming any magic and chain them together, better yet, the ability is permanent from the beginning of the game onward. Without this ability, the game would become much more tedious because of the castle design.
Harmony has, without a doubt, the most convoluted castles in any Castlevania game. Yes, there are two of them, but they are exact clones of each other, except for enemies and a few rooms. You begin in Castle A and some time later, warp to Castle B, without knowing about it and with the two maps combined. Later on in the game, the maps are split between Castle A and B and much L and R pushing backtracking ensues. I've played through this game four or so times, and I still don't have a clear idea of where to go from any given spot. The game is absolute hell to pick up after not playing it for a while, because you will likely forget where you left off. However, after a certain point, the game becomes largely non-linear and you are left to explore yourself. This is a nice addition because the castles are simply so huge, but it also has the unfortunate implication that the story stops abruptly at this point. Exploring the castles is made a lot easier with the dashing system, but is still tedious. Harmony combats this with a unique save system. Save rooms exist as normal, but you can also save from anywhere in between. Doing this saves your items, experience and your map progress, but not your position. While the game is really easy enough in normal mode, this becomes very useful in hard mode.
The game's difficulty is where it takes a turn for the worse. There are few enemies that will actually do good damage to you, and bosses are rarely anything but giant versions of normal enemies. Hard mode offers a decent challenge for the first few hours, but seems to go right back down to easy. The final boss can be easily exploited using your jump kick (which does as much damage as a neutral whip hit), and almost all other bosses can be killed easily with the Wind/Knife combo. Of course, it's up to the player not to use these cheap moves, but when the bosses' tactics are little more than "run into the character to do damage" (and they good amount of damage, too), your own cheap tactics are justified. There are a lot of bosses, but they're also possibly the worst in the series.
While Harmony is average in gameplay and difficulty, and tedious in Castle design, it excels in aesthetics. Like I said, it has that eerie feel of an old black and white horror movie, and you should really only play it at night in a dark room. The game has a very surreal feeling that I simply cannot put into words. The graphics are a little blurry and look mostly like Playstation sprites ripped off onto the GBA, and the colors are bright and garish in an attempt to make things easier to see (a now obsolete problem, unless you're playing on something that isn't backlit). The music draws a lot of criticism because it sounds like something from the NES or original GameBoy, but, sound quality aside, the actual tunes themselves are very good and depressing, making the mood that much more somber. You start the game off being chased by a giant suit of armor that falls down an abyss just before it gets you, you float up to a platform far above you by hitting a switch, hearing an awful switch, only to realize that the blood of a giant enemy raised a wooden platform up. You have to knock an undestroyable enemy into gears in order to get its equipment. No other Castlevania game gives an atmosphere this strong.
I nearly forgot to mention the story, and that's mostly because there isn't one. That's not totally fair to the game, but it wasn't until my second or third playthrough that I completely understood the story, no doubt thanks to the comparitively long time in between story scenes. Castlevanias rarely have phenomenal stories, and this is no exception. There are quite a few easter eggs in this game for those that like it enough to discover. Putting in the Contra code allows you to play as 8-Bit Simon Belmont, complete with a medley of classic CV songs. You can play as Maxim, Juste's ninja friend, whose potential can only be reached knowing the right Street Fighter-esque button combinations, which is a little irritating.
The final blow to the game comes with the criteria for gaining access to the true final boss. In order to fight the final boss, you must collect Dracula's remaining earthly possessions and body parts (Simon's Quest, anyone?). These are scattered throughout one castle, and without a guide, take ages to find, considering the massive size of the castle. Even knowing their location, it takes at least a half hour to get all of them because of how spread out they are. There are a some minor inconveniences, like the way leveling works. Enemies have a base experience point value, and a level, and you get full experience if your level is below theirs, but for every level you are above it, you get a certain percentage less. This makes going beyond level 50 nearly impossible, but in all my files, I end up around level 47 and have no problem beating the final boss otherwise.
Overall, the game is decent enough. There aren't any real downsides to it other than the beyond lackluster bosses and the convoluted as hell castle design. The game excels in atmosphere, and though I would never call it a horror game, fans of the genre would do well to play this. Gameplay is more bland than most Castlevanias, but because of its easiness, I would recommend it to first time Castlevania players.
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance (US, 09/16/02)
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