Review by YusakuG

"You'd think by now Dracula would just go and kill the Belmonts right away, instead of waiting for them to come"

The launch of the Game Boy Advance last year was met with much celebration by long-time fans of Konami's classic Castlevania series (myself included). The reason being that the system was launched with Circle of the Moon, the first 2D game in the Castlevania franchise since 1997's masterpiece, Symphony of the Night, for the Playstation. After two disappointing attempts at the 3D realm on the N64, and a failed attempt at a Dreamcast game that never even got released, the Castlevania series was finally returning to its 2D roots where many fans felt it belonged. Konami's decision to return to 2D paid off, as Circle of the Moon became the highest selling of all the GBA launch titles.

Although many praised Circle of the Moon for its old school feel, and gameplay similar to Symphony of the Night, I walked away disappointed. The game was of high quality, there was no denying that, but it also frustrated me to no end. The main cause of my frustration was a problem shared with many - The game was so dark and the character sprites were so small that it made the game almost unplayable at times.

Fortunately, Konami heard the cries of let down fans, and have decided to alleviate the problem with their latest GBA offering, Castlevania: White Night Concerto. (To be known as Harmony of Dissonance when it's released in the US this fall.) White Night Concerto is certainly a better game than its predecessor in many areas, but at the same time, it has a slightly rehashed feel to it.

The latest entry of the Castlevania legacy begins a few years after the time of Simon Belmont, the original hero of the Castlevania series, according to the official series timeline. Dracula's castle has once again materialized in the Transylvanian countryside, and evil demons are roaming the land. Of course, the people of Transylvania are used to this by now, as Dracula is destined to return every few years (''Oh, look, Dracula's back...*yawn*...Better get the Belmonts...''). And so, Juste Belmont, the latest member of the vampire-hunting clan sets out to earn his place in history.

However, Juste has a personal reason for this mission. Dracula has taken his young lady friend, Liddy. Juste sets off toward Dracula's castle, accompanied by fellow hunter, Maxim. Juste and Maxim are separated shortly after entering the castle, but as our hero explores deeper into the castle, he frequently runs into his friend. Each time Juste encounters Maxim, he recognizes his friend less and less. It seems that Maxim is under control of the spirits of the castle. Juste must now embark on his mission, not only to save the young girl, but also the soul of his friend.

Anyone who has played Symphony of the Night or Circle of the Moon will feel right at home almost instantly. The gameplay has not changed much from those two earlier titles. You guide Juste through the many rooms of the castle, slowly revealing the massive map of the building, which is accessible at any time with a push of the Select button. Juste uses his trusty whip, and any secondary weapons that he can find handy (axes, holy water, daggers, etc.), to battle the many monsters that patrol the halls. As Juste defeats enemies, he earns experience points, just like in an RPG. Earn enough points, and Juste will gain a level, making him stronger in all personal statistics. He can also find weapons and armor to increase his stats, as well.

The name of the game in White Night Concerto is exploration. Juste must literally explore every inch of the massive castle if he wants to find all the secrets it holds. Many areas will not be accessible to you, until you find a special item that gives Juste new abilities. These are usually found after you defeat a boss, and include the ability to slide under small cracks in walls to reach new areas, and even the ability to double jump to reach higher platforms. You have to do a lot of backtracking in this game, and remember where various obstacles and items are located, so you can go back to them when you've gained your new abilities.

One feature that is new to the Castlevania series is the ''Fusion System''. During his travels, our hero will find spellbooks that are related to the different elements. (Fire, Water, etc.) When you combine these spell books with the current secondary weapon that you are holding, it creates a combo spell attack that is useful on bosses and tougher enemies. Each weapon creates a different spell with each different book equipped, so part of the fun is finding out what monsters are weaker to which element. This is also useful, since normally, using secondary weapons would take away hearts that Juste collects throughout the game. But, when the weapon is combined with a spellbook, it takes away Magic Points, instead of hearts. It is useful to keep in mind, if you are ever running low on hearts, and need to use your secondary weapon in an emergency situation.

Konami was even nice enough to throw in some extra surprises for added replay value. Once you've beaten the game, you can unlock hidden characters and new game modes. The added game modes include a boss run, where you battle all of the game's bosses one after another, and even a harder difficulty version of the original game. You can also use passwords that allow you to play the game as Maxim, and even the classic Castlevania hero, Simon Belmont.

Despite the winning gameplay, the big news that everyone's been talking about are the graphics. No longer do you need to squint in order to see what's going on, or need a powerful light for a clear image of the action. White Night Concerto's graphics are much brighter than that of its GBA predecessor, and the character sprites are much larger and easier to see. No longer will you have to worry about running into tiny bats that blend into the dark backgrounds, because not only are they bigger to see in this game, they have a helpful blue outline surrounding their bodies.

Aside from the increased clarity in visuals, the graphics are just much better all around. Juste animates very smoothly, and is much more agile than the pokey Nathan Graves who headlined the last Castlevania GBA adventure. There're even some nice 3D effects, such as the doors opening and closing, and clouds that come rolling toward you in the background while you're in the towers of the castle. The coolest graphics effect occurs right at the game's title screen, where you see the game's title reflected upside down in a pool of water, only to have the pool be disturbed by a falling leaf. Konami certainly succeeded at making White Night Concerto a much more visually pleasing experience than before.

However, those lovely graphics came with the price of sound. Due to the fact that the graphics are so detailed and take up so much memory, it did not leave much room for the music and sound effects. There is certainly nothing wrong with the music's composition, it's the quality of the game's tracks. The soundtrack sounds like something out of a late-generation NES game. (Probably the early 90s or so.) It's nothing that will make you turn the volume down, but you'll wonder what this music could have been on a much more powerful system. The sound effects do their job, but they have kind of a far away sound to them, and fail to make much of an impression. However, when you realize that the sound suffered for better graphic clarity, you'll conclude that it was a noble sacrifice.

Despite the fact that this is an excellent game, and of the highest quality, I can't shake the feeling that it's just not enough. My main problem is that the game just feels too similar to Symphony of the Night. (No surprise, since this game is by the exact same team.) Not only does Juste Belmont hold a striking resemblance to Alucard (the hero of SotN), but many of the enemies from that previous game make appearances, as well. The game just does not do enough to separate itself from its predecessors, except for the new Fusion system. This gives White Night Concerto sort of a ''been there, done that'' feel.

Don't let that fact keep you away from this game, though. It's a definite classic, and is everything Circle of the Moon wanted to be. Definitely pick this one up when it finds its way over here in September. Or, if you're impatient, import it! There are many good FAQs and walkthroughs right here on this site, and all of the game's menus are in English. (The items listed in the menus are written in Japanese, however.) Now all I want to know is when are we going to see a true next generation Castlevania game on one of the current consoles?

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 06/23/02, Updated 06/09/03

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