Review by Halron2

"This Juste guy is the strangest Belmont ever..."

We had Symphony of the Night. We had Circle of the Moon. So now we have Harmony of Dissonance. Anyone who has played the first two will have no real surprises or new experiences while playing this third. In its essence, Harmony of Dissonance is just another Castlevania ‘exploration’ game: it follows closely the engine used in its two predecessors. However, in a sense, Harmony of Dissonance is closer to Symphony of the Night than Circle of the Moon. Still, in the same way, it fails to impress as much as the Playstation hit and even as the first Game Boy Advanced Castlevania.

In this game, you play as Juste Belmont, a new member of the most famous vampire hunting family in the universe of videogames. He lives 50 years after Simon Belmont, the hero of Castlevania, destroyed Dracula. Juste’s friend and rival, Maxim, appears suddenly one day, wounded, and informs that their childhood friend Lydie has been kidnapped and taken captive. Guess where she is? That’s right, Castlevania, Dracula’s castle. So Juste sets out to seek his friend as well as to find out why the castle has returned if its master is destroyed.

Once again, the developers of the game lost a good opportunity to explore a deeper kind of story in a Castlevania game. The idea in itself isn’t the most original thing ever conceived, but it’s good enough. But it is pretty much wasted with terrible dialogue and predictable situations that take place one after the other. The plot develops into just another stupid Castlevania story. Oh well. They put two different endings this time, but in fact it’s just a rehash of things we’ve seen in the past games. This ‘bad storyline’ trait is really starting to take its toll on the Castlevania series.

So, okay, once again, the whole game takes place inside the castle. The place is pretty much huge (much larger than in Circle of the Moon) and divided into different areas with suggestive names such as ‘the wailing way’, ‘luminous caverns’ and ‘chapel of dissonance’. Once again, it’s completely different in design and areas from the previous games’ castles. There’s nothing new, actually, and whoever played the previous games will feel at home. The place is pretty much well designed and keeps the quality and variety seen before. Oh, this time, just like in Symphony of the Night, there are two castles to be explored, but they are basically the same. This time, they are even more alike than in Symphony, since the second is not inverted.

The basic gameplay in Harmony of Dissonance is exactly the same as the previous games’. That is, explore the castle with the abilities you have gathered by finding equipment and relics. This time, however, the game is much more non-linear, meaning not every boss in the game will give you a new ability (so you don’t really have to fight all bosses in the game) and the exploration of the castle is much more free. In a sense, this really adds to the game, in that it isn’t exactly obvious what to do or where to go next all the time. Some people might find it frustrating, though, to wander the place and not knowing where you should go. To help, there is a map for both castles, that shows the areas you have visited and what you haven’t been to.

Of course, there are some changes in gameplay from the previous games. The most perceptible change is the spellbook engine, which comes to replace the DSS system from Circle of the Moon. It wasn’t such a good exchange. In this game, the spells are used when you equip a spellbook and the spell will replace your special weapon. For each combination of ‘spell book + special weapon’ you get a different spell. For instance, the ‘ice book + cross’ spell is different from ‘ice book + dagger’ spell and so on. You still have a good variety of spells to cast, but nowhere near the immense variety you had in Circle of Moon. The main complaint, however, would be that there are some spells that are just too strong. I, for example, used ‘ice book + cross’ the whole game and there wasn’t one time that I had to use the cross as a sub-weapon separately. The magic was just too powerful and didn’t spend any hearts (which makes them basically useless after you start using the spells).

There are other changes as well, such as the return of the merchant (this time he appears in many different areas of the castle), from whom you buy items and equipment. In this game, just like in Circle of the Moon, you can’t find new weapons, but now you get to upgrade your whip. It can be equipped with special stones that will enhance its strength, give it elemental properties or other abilities. Apart from that, Juste’s attack can only be augmented by leveling up, while his defense can be boosted with different pieces of equipment. Also, in this game we have a secret character to play as: Maxim, Juste’s friend. After beating the game, you can play as him and it’s a pretty different experience, so it really adds to the game. Just like in Symphony of the Night’s Richter, there’s no leveling up and collecting equipment. Maxim’s game is more like older, ‘classic’ Castlevania.

Speaking of classic Castlevania, there’s a secret playing mode that is available after you’ve beaten the game: boss rush mode, in which you fight a boss after the other, in three different difficulty levels. In this mode, however, you can play as a third character, apart from Juste and Maxim, the almighty vampire hunter and original Castlevania hero Simon Belmont! To make things better, he looks and plays exactly like he did in the first Castlevania NES game! This is a really great addition and will be a feast for older players. It’s a real shame you can’t play as him in the normal game as well.

Once again, one of the game’s weakest points is the challenge. This time, ‘challenge’ is basically having the patience to explore the castle. In terms of difficulty and skill, this game could well be simpler than Symphony of the Night and Circle of the Moon. There isn’t a single hard enemy on this game and the bosses are simply jokes. If anyone wastes their time in this game leveling up, they should have their heads checked. This is one of the easiest games I’ve ever played. I defeated the last boss with no strategy just attacking with all I had and that’s pretty much what you do through the whole game. As I said before, some spells are just too powerful and the enemies are really stupid. There is a code to tone difficulty up, but I haven’t tried it yet. On the good side, the game is longer than Circle of the Moon. But there was a time when playing Castlevania was fun partly because it was hard.

In the graphical department, Harmony of Dissonance fares well. The overall quality is one step up from Circle of the Moon, both in terms of design and detail. The backgrounds are pretty much beautiful and, apart from more characters available, their animations are also better. Juste’s animations, like the dash or the attack are really great. Of course, what would a Castlevania game be without an odd animation for the main character? Juste’s running animation is pretty awkward and keeps tradition alive. Also of interest is the fact that Juste is the first vampire hunter that doesn’t look like a vampire hunter. Actually, he looks a lot more like Alucard than like his ancestors Simon and Trevor. Some say it’s because he descends from Sypha, a character from Castlevania III. But it’s pretty obvious Alucard is a much more popular character and that explains the new design. Anyway, it’s interesting as a change. Of course, the spells and bosses are also all very well done and really deserve a closer look.

In terms of sound, Harmony of Dissonance may well be the weakest in the Castlevania series. The series has a tradition of great soundtracks and impressive sound quality, but this time, the developers failed to keep it up. If Circle of the Moon was a return to 16-bit quality, this one goes as far back as the NES-era Castlevania games in terms of sound quality. Maybe they used up too much space with the graphics and let the sound poorer this time. But no such excuse can be given for the quality of the compositions: there are some interesting tracks, but nothing that would compare to soundtracks of greatness like the first three Castlevanias, Symphony of the Night and maybe even Circle of the Moon. Being great sound one of the series’ trademarks it’s really disappointing that Harmony of Dissonance had to have one of the weakest soundtracks in the series.

In the end, Harmony of Dissonance doesn’t offer enough new elements to really impress: it’s a good game and fans of the previous two games will definitely have a good time playing it, but it proves that you can only repeat yourself so many times. The game balances some good qualities with some annoying deficiencies that make it, overall, a nice game, thanks to Konami’s well developed gameplay engine. However, Castlevania games shouldn’t be nice. They should be great. If changes aren’t to be made in the near future, on of videogame’s dearest series could be starting its journey downhill.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 05/05/03, Updated 05/05/03

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