Konami in 2001 released for the Game Boy Advance Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, and its solid, challenging title went on to become a critical and commercial success on what was the world's most popular gaming device in any of its forms. Circle of the Moon sold very well for Konami and to this day remains one of the best titles available on the system. Circle of the Moon's release was more important because it marked the final redemption of KCEK (Konami Computer Entertainment of Kobe), the division of Konami that had the distinction of being responsible for the two N64 titles and the fallout that ensued; in effect, the game served well its purpose to return the series to its side-scrolling roots and thus rescue it from the doldrums from which it had subsided for the previous five years.
Based off of its success, a sequel was surely imminent, but the direction was at this point unclear due to change. In truth, KCEK was soon going to be shutting its doors in light of impending consolidation. It was really no surprise, then, to learn that Konami was shifting control of the now-orphan trademark over to its new division in Tokyo (KCET). In more meaningful terms: They were handing control of the Castlevania series over to lead director Koji Igarashi and the team of people who played a big role in the creation of such masterpieces as Dracula X: Rondo of Blood and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. The trio of Igarashi, Michiru Yamane (musical director) and Ayami Kojima (lead designer) and their staff had become known as the Dracula X team for its outstanding contributions, and it was prepared to lend to the series its magic and pick up right from where Circle of the Moon left off.
Naturally, the team that captured our imagination with Rondo of Blood before tweaking and transposing its style of gameplay into the free-roaming Symphony of the Night wasn't going to overly deviate from the formula it perfected. Thus, its newest entry into the series, Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance, was predisposed to know exactly what it wanted to be and would pretend to be nothing more. If anything, KCET was clearly intent on abandoning Circle of the Moon's sense of challenge and compression and distancing itself in favor of its own anyone-can-play-and-win mentality.
Their story: Juste Belmont, the direct descendant of Simon, is abruptly reunited with his good buddy Maxim Kischine, who he hasn't seen in over two years. Maxim, who sports unexplainable injuries, greets Juste with the sad news that their childhood friend Lydie Erlanger has been kidnapped and taken to a large castle. Maxim is incapable of going on in his current state, and his memory is shot, so Juste finds that it's now his responsibility to enter into the dreaded Castlevania, to discover what's wrong with Maxim, to save Lydie, and to put a halt to what is sure to be an even grander scheme. Igarashi and company don't try to overwhelm you with Hamlet-level drama, and that's OK, because they understand that these games are more about the sights, the sounds and the colorful characters--the atmosphere that Konami always manufactures so well--that better complement their now tried-and-true style of gameplay.
So what you should expect to experience is another in the line of nonlinear adventures that more closely emulates the formula of Symphony of the Night rather than the similar but old-school iteration utilized by Circle of the Moon. You'll take control of Juste Belmont, your more traditional whip-and-jump hero, and move him through twenty-six castle sections at your own convenience. You'll once again navigate through the "rooms" that are defined as the areas that comprise each section; therein, you'll again encounter randomly paired minor enemies and any associated tricks and traps. The accessing of new areas and, eventually, the adventure's completion is dependent on meeting specific goals; that is, at the most basic, you'll have to beat the most immediate boss to find a certain item that'll allow you access to a new area. You've seen this all before.
Juste is similar to Nathan Graves in how he handles: He's always equipped with the famed Vampire Killer whip, which remains in long-chain form; he can only thrust the whip left and right, but he's blessed with a more traditional brandishing move that allows him to in wild fashion both swirl the whip around and hang it straight down. This allows him to combat against less-threatening dangers, like bats and skeleton bones, and damage enemies that lurk on platforms below; in that vein, this attack is equally effective as means of close-range defense. Juste can also command one of six sub-weapons--the typical axes, daggers, holy water, boomerangs and holy books plus a unique entry to the arsenal, the sacred fist--that can be powered by the big and small hearts earned by whipping candelabras and by destroying enemies. Otherwise, Juste can dash both forward and back, an important power that allows him to either slip away from danger or speed his way through the castle.
Harmony, like its two predecessors, is supplied an RPG system on which all of its mechanics are based. In order to deal with the progressively tougher foes and challenges, you'll have to increase and maintain Juste's stats--in the categories of Strength, Defense, Intelligence and Luck--and his health and magic meters; you'll increase these stats in three different ways: (1) By defeating minor enemies to gain experience and thus gain levels, wherein all of his stats will be updated incrementally. (2) By collecting the armor, whip extensions and accessories that affect his stats in varying ways. And (3) by collecting life- and heart-up symbols that allow for increased health and a higher heart-total. Also, in the area of maintenance, you can collect and store different types of health replenishment items that replenish Juste's energy meter and cure any negative status.
It's no question that you'll have to upgrade Juste's physical abilities by collecting the relics that are scattered castle-wide. The necessary relics will supply Juste the mandatory special moves such as the slide, double jump and super jump--full castle accessibility depends on the collection of such relics. Also in their class are the six well-hidden body parts of Dracula that you'll have to collect, as you did in Simon's Quest, if you hope to further the story and get the most out of Harmony of Dissonance; additionally, the body parts offer Juste increased protection from elemental attacks while bolstering his stats. The rest of the relics are situational and not vital to completing the game.
Furthermore, if this weren't enough to manage, KCET tries to keep up with Circle of the Moon in terms of systems. Whereas Circle of the Moon had the "DSS Card System," Harmony presents to you the more simplistic "Spell Fusion." That is, Juste can collect five magical books--four elemental and one with the power of summoning--and use them to add additional power to the six sub-weapons; by combining the books with the sub-weapons, Juste can render thirty different magical effects, some of which are similar to the item-crashes made popular by Richter Belmont. Because each effect drains his slow-to-refill magic meter accordingly, Juste will have to use these attacks intelligently and sparingly.
As you may deduce, Harmony's RPG system as a whole is not as deep as Circle of the Moon's, wherein most every aspect of the game was highly dependent. Juste doesn't really need all of these items and systems if he hopes to clear the game, so the conditions are more lax. With that said, you'll find that leveling-up comes very naturally; rather than having to spend extra hours fighting the same minor enemies over and over again, you'll gradually gain levels almost without noticing. There will be instances where you'll run into enemies that are too tough for your level, yes, but this will always be by design.
The castle structure is nothing out of the ordinary--or, at least, it's nothing I'd call terribly interesting--and this doesn't make for the most thrilling of platforming experiences. Really, Harmony's is mostly a bland collection of those large rooms that feature that tiring theme of zigzagging around and around to find an exit. There are too many similar-looking halls and too many completely baron areas found in succession, and these instances only magnify the overdone nature of this game and its particular design. KCET does its best to hide this gameplay limitation by offering the second, "transient castle"--its answer to Symphony's upside-down castle--a gameplay premise that requires Juste to move between the two castles to solve puzzles. They intend for it to mimic the formula of the light and dark worlds that you might encounter in Zelda: A Link to the Past, but because it has attached to it a strange quirk that is never fully explained, it results in one of the more confusing "conventions" you'll ever encounter. To this day, I still don't completely understand what's going on.
Where Harmony manages to decisively trump Circle of the Moon is in its graphical presentation. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who was happy with Circle of the Moon's overly dark backgrounds, small characters, and the lacking of quality animation. The developers look to the past to borrow from Symphony's template, and this works for them in a big way. Though bland in a platforming sense, Harmony's more typical and scrolling backgrounds and its textures are detailed and atmospheric, are actually visible due to better use of the GBA's palette (read: much brighter and more colorful), and are overall excellently produced; every background, you'll find, holds at least one visual treat. They know the importance of the past, and they use it well--you will, this time, actually notice familiar landscapes, like the grandfather clock room and the castle keep, and their quality is strikingly similar to those found in Symphony of the Night and other memorable titles. You'll even notice some Super Castlevania IV-like occurrences: You'll witness sprites that rotate, scale and sparkle brilliantly; you'll gaze at several layers of scrolling backgrounds that come alive due to waves ominous clouds and mist; and you'll experience the joy of Juste's brandishing technique, which continues to be one of the more impressive visual effects ever conceived in a side-scrolling game. They put the system's 16-bit powers to good use.
They also bring back their famed selection of minor enemies for a taste of that Dracula X goodness. You'll recognize more than sixty foes from your previous adventures, and they, too, are equally as big, as bright, as colorful, and as well-animated as the game's textures. This is quite a feat considering the large number of them. They cheat a bit in recycling already existing enemy designs and passing them off as a new ones, true, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Juste is unfortunately yet another in a long-line of ugly-looking heroes, which is more the fault of questionable art direction, but he does come with his own Alucard-like "transparency" effect--a shadowy yet colorful silhouette that follows him around to distinguish him from the backgrounds, foregrounds and the other surrounding madness. While not everything is on this level, and some compromises had to be made, this is a good-looking presentation for what is a large handheld game. If you do encounter a bad-looking sprite or an ugly texture, you'll quickly forget it as you indulge in the presence of gorgeous areas like the Sky Walkway.
I've noticed that the music and sound effects have been hammered by critics for, in their opinion, "not being up to par," but I don't have a problem with KCET's effort here. It's true that they sacrificed a little in the way of sound quality in order to enhance the graphics engine and speed while increasing the game's length, but Konami and its teams have always had the knack for getting around limitations, and they've done a fine job, here, of doing justice to Michiru Yamane's talents. It's not her best work, but the overall soundtrack is pretty memorable even despite the lack of remixed or familiar tunes. As my contemporary Eric Roman would say: "It's what Game Boy music should sound like," and that's not to question its quality. In reality, it's the sound effects that suffer the most because there's a real lack of them in the case of the characters. Juste is a noisy little fellow, rightly, but the enemies are mostly bound to silence. Voice samples would have afforded the presentation a sense of life, which the castle's platforming and level design fail to provide, but it wasn't meant to be. Though, if it's a choice between the sacrificing of the sound for more in the way of gameplay, I'll always choose the gameplay.
Circle of the Moon's control problems have also been tackled. Harmony is a really fast game, and you won't have much trouble absolutely buzzing through areas of the castle with your dash and slide attacks. Juste's jumps can also be controlled very smoothly, to a tee, with the exception of those instances when he slashes the whip while airborne, wherein he's forced to commit to the direction. The brandishing move isn't handled quite to the level of Super Castlevania IV's, but I guess that this is also done by design due to how overpowered Simon was back then; the brandishing move does help, really, in a game where zigzag-plaftorming action is a repeated theme, where enemies above and below are always plotting an ambush. Special moves are also easy to pull off, with no lapse in response and no crazy button combinations assigned to them. Everything is mapped out really well, and this makes it an easy game to just pick up and play.
Challenge is where the game really isn't up to par. Truthfully, it isn't easy at all--you'll suffer many deaths as you familiarize yourself with the enemies and their methods. The point, though, is that the enemies, especially the bosses, are creatures of habit, and they're very limited in the offense they can mount. We can understand why: The Dracula X team has shown time and time again that it doesn't see boss battles as that important; as part of its philosophy, the bosses are simply treated more like larger obstacles than enemies. In most encounters, therein, it seems as though bosses just stand there as you wail on them. If you're looking for the strategic and fun battles found in Circle of the Moon or perhaps Belmont's Revenge, you'll indeed be disappointed. Instead, the key to defeating bosses is to learn simple patterns and then to respond to make it a general slugfest. As they've done in the past, the developers make this all easier for you by supplying too many power-ups and save rooms, and there's of course the natural advantage of being able to level-up to a point where you're unbeatable anyway.
The challenge is unbalanced because the game is easy in spots where it should be difficult. Really, Dracula should put up some sort of fight, don't you think? You'll naturally lose that sense of satisfaction for overcoming bosses--it'll be like the victory was just handed to you, which is a feeling you didn't experience in Circle of the Moon. The real challenge, I find, is the discovering of the two castles' secrets and learning how to move through them. It gets confusing and repetitive, and you'll scratch your head often as you wonder, "Am I in the right castle?"
Still, Harmony of Dissonance wants to showcase its appreciation for the past, and it wants you to come back for more. It very cleverly makes reference to the game to which it's a direct sequel, Castlevania, and it contains plenty of the extras to which we've over the years become accustomed. The multiple endings are up to your discretion: You don't have to play through the game again--you can instead go back to a currently saved game and manipulate conditions to advance the ending's story in different ways, including triggering the real boss battle and the game's best ending. Do you want to play as Maxim? Or maybe you want to play on a higher difficulty level? Go ahead--you know the drill. There are also some nifty unlockable features: First, there's the "Boss Rush" mode (derived from the Metal Gear series), where you face all of the game's bosses in a gauntlet challenge to earn time and point bonuses. Most intriguing is that you can unlock Simon Belmont, ripped right out from his NES adventures, to partake in the Boss Rush fun. Last but hardly least if the run-of-the-mill sound test provided for all of the series' music-lovers. Through these additions, KCET adds a strong dose of replayability to its side-scroller, and while all of this may strike you as Symphony-lite, which it is, it's a fun experience that makes you appreciate the division's game-making ability even if you disagree with its methods.
I referred to Circle of the Moon as "solid," and I reserve that same opinion for Harmony of Dissonance. It's a very good game. Therein, sadly, lies a trap that I feel Konami and its teams have been falling into: When you're as skilled as they, it becomes too easy to pump out "solid" games. With Symphony of the Night, they found a successful formula, but it seems as though they're willing to repeat it again and again until it loses all luster. You can see it in the uninspired castle structure and in the crazy ideas that they have to begin using to mask it. In their case, complacency is overriding their sense of imagination, and it'd be too bad if Castlevania were to fall into that pit of redundancy (population: Mega Man) reserved for milk-it-dry retreads. Even though I'm happy with my purchase of Harmony of Dissonance, I can't help but have a feeling of underwhelment. I know that the people at Konami, especially those in the Dracula X team at KCET, are talented enough to take the "next step" that I feel is needed to avoid this trap, and I'd like it to take its time, perhaps years, in doing so. All considered, there's nothing wrong with "solid," but I know that there's more they can do--that they're just waiting to blow me away like they've done so many times before.
In the end, you can't really go wrong with Harmony of Dissonance. As a handheld product, it's much better than the average game, and it fills the Symphony of the Night void very well while offering a different, more action-packed take on this formula than what you'd find in, say, Metroid Fusion. Harmony employs elements of fun, clever use of nostalgia, the right atmosphere, and a bevy of characters--all of those factors that make this type of game so successful. So I award their product four Medusa Heads with the hope that they'll one day find newer, even better ways to wow us and put this series back up in the upper echelon where it belongs.