The punctual flaws that it displays in the main components of its fabric turn Circle of the Moon into a Castlevania installment that is good, but not great
Chronologically, three Castlevania installments separate the glorious landmark that was the PlayStation’s Symphony of the Night from Circle of the Moon, released for the Game Boy Advance in 2001. Yet, given that trio of games consisted of a couple of irregular Nintendo 64 outings that took advantage of the system’s 3-D visuals and a Game Boy effort that neatly divided its quest into levels, Circle of the Moon is – effectively – the first time Konami went back to the successful formula established in the sidecrolling PlayStation classic. Certainly, there is a great degree of comfort to be found in going back to a formula that was lauded enough for the game that birthed it to be frequently regarded as one of the greatest products of the industry. At the same time, though, a considerable level of pressure must exist in trying to follow up a masterpiece and having to engineer its spiritual sequel – which will inevitably be compared to its popular older brother – in the limited confines of a handheld machine.
As such, although Circle of the Moon is not the kind of adventure that has all odds stacked up against it, it is certainly a game that has to face a slight uphill climb thanks to how much it needs to live up to. And, fortunately, to anyone who wants to go into the first leg of what would turn out to be a pretty great Game Boy Advance trilogy, Circle of the Moon – even if held back by a handful of shortcomings – delivers a quest that is worthy of the heavy mantle it wears. It is satisfyingly big, it is structurally complex enough to quench the thirst of those who long for intricate maps filled with secrets, it adorns its core gameplay with elements that add pleasant depth to its combat, and it does a good job – especially on the soundtrack front – of translating the Gothic fantasy atmosphere of the franchise to a small screen.
Moving away from the Belmont clan and their seemingly endless struggle against Count Dracula, Circle of the Moon quickly introduces players to three new vampire hunters who storm the villain’s castle just as he is revived by his faithful servant, Camilla. Morris, and his apprentices Nathan, and Hugh arrive in the room where the resurrection occurs a bit too late, as Dracula – though not yet possessing his full strength – has already been awaken from his slumber. Recognizing Morris as one of those who had been responsible for his latest banishing, the count imprisons him in preparation for a ritual – to be performed during the next full moon – where he is to regain his power. Simultaneously, by destroying the floor below Nathan and Hugh, he sends both towards the depths of his stronghold. Angered, Hugh – Morris’s son – leaves to try to rescue his father alone. From that point onwards, it is up to players to control Nathan and guide him all the way to the room where the rite is to take place before it is too late.
It is a simple narrative that nicely fulfills its task of getting the game underway. Nevertheless, although Circle of the Moon does stop occasionally to move its script forward, it is arguable it does not do much with it, for the plot is thin and the routes that are followed in character development are obvious from the get go. But since the game never leans too heavily on its script, the weakness of its plot rarely rises as a notable issue. Instead, Circle of the Moon devotes the eight hours of its running time – which could be far more to those who scour the castle for all of its optional collectibles – to gameplay. Therefore, it both lives and dies through it, and it does much more of the former than of the latter, because it keeps the book written by Symphony of the Night very close to its chest and follows the patterns established in it with visible diligence.
The first rule it bows to is in its progression, because Circle of the Moon is non-linear. When starting the game, Nathan – with humble health, magic power, and heart gauges – can use his whip; perform a short jump; walk or run; and pick up secondary weapons, whose usage consumes hearts, dropped on the floor by defeated enemies. However, as he explores Dracula’s home and slowly navigates through its immense map, he will come across items that unlock permanent extra skills. And these will, in turn, allow him to reach new places that can be anywhere within the massive building. That lack of linearity is, nonetheless, somewhat limited. Once a new item is acquired, there is – of course – an alluring quality of discovery and mystery that emerges from the game; after all, a thorough combing of either the castle or of players’ brains has to be done so that places where it is usable – be it to find extra collectibles or the next mandatory tool – are uncovered, and it seems like every corner of the map that is visited will yield some sort of reward.
Circle of the Moon, however, is very methodical in the way it organizes its map. The castle is divided into a handful of areas, each boasting a specific song, scenario, atmosphere, and set of foes, the last of which being of commendable variety. Far more impactful, though, is how all of these different locations also hold a single boss and a lonely new skill. What that means is that once one area is cleared (in other words, after its boss is beaten), there is almost no need to go back to it save for finding optional collectibles that upgrade Nathan’s health, magic power, and hearts. That characteristic is not inherently a problem; in fact, it might as well be a positive trait to those who think the backtracking found in many Metroid games is a bit too much. Still, such kind of overworld configuration does make the richness of Circle of the Moon’s level design fall a bit short when compared to other giants of the genre, whether those that preceded it or the ones that followed it.
Within the way it chooses to approach the construction of its world, though, Circle of the Moon is almost entirely unreproachable. The castle has abundant secrets that will be found, with good frequency, by those that look for them; its design has a nice mix of platforming and action; the few warp points it contains are, albeit not very numerous, positioned strategically enough to give gamers quick access to all areas; boss rooms are highlighted by special doors that let players know they are about to face one particularly tough challenge if they opt to get inside; and the well-placed save points strike a good balance between providing relief and not being overly generous to the point they kill tension. The sole caveat that comes from this aspect is in how sometimes it seems Circle of the Moon is padding its map for length, as there are many corridors and shafts that repeat combinations of enemies and platforms over and over again, as if designers ran out of ideas for the size of the area they hoped to achieve.
The second note it takes from the Symphony of the Night playbook comes from the RPG elements it throws into the cauldron of non-linear exploration. As Nathan beats down foes, he will accumulate experience points, and these – in turn – will eventually lead him to go up a level. When that happens, the character’s stats – such as health, intelligence, luck, strength, and defense – will go up automatically. Moreover, as a way to customize the hero to one’s liking, pieces of armor (dropped by bad guys) can be equipped onto some parts of his body to further boost certain traits. From a positive standpoint, it is an interesting ingredient that turns defeating enemies into a rewarding necessity rather than a purposeless task. From a negative perspective, however, it also brings forth the occasional need to grind. And that is because Circle of the Moon is a very hard game. Its bosses are brutal tanks whose attacks are not easy to dodge; Dracula’s castle is filled with sequences of foes that are positively murderous; and healing, frustratingly so, is only achieved via potions that are hard to come by, spells that are tough to unlock, or in save points. Consequently, for those who are not extremely skilled, it is – many times during the adventure – nigh impossible to advance without increasing the character’s level by beating foes repeatedly.
Inside its RPG fabric, the most unique twist of Circle of the Moon appears in the shape of what the game calls DSS cards, which stands for Dual Set-up System. As the quest goes along, Nathan will acquire – from downed foes – cards that are divided into two types: action and attribute. At any time, by accessing the game’s menu, players can select a combination of two cards, with one belonging to each type. When joined, these will allow the starring character to perform a specific magic-consuming move, which may modify the hero’s whip (such as covering it in ice, hence giving it the power to freeze enemies); let him execute a spell (from shields to HP restoration); or boost one his stats temporarily. Since there are ten cards of each kind, the Dual Set-up System of Circle of the Moon features a whopping one-hundred distinct effects, opening the door to an amazing deck of possibilities.
As incredible as it is, that system has a central problem that partially undermines it. And that is related to how the cards are just way too hard to come by. Due to how they are dropped by enemies (with each card usually coming from a single type of baddie) and to how the rate of their appearance is somewhat low, at times to come across a card one has to literally defeat dozens of the same foe. That means that many players will get to the finish line without being able to explore the biggest slice of the game’s defining system. To a less significant degree, that problem affects all assets generated by the corpses of bad guys, including potions, antidotes, pieces of armor, and secondary weapons. They are all very hard to find, and when it comes to secondary weapons that reality is especially frustrating because of how they work. Once a sub-weapon is collected, the one that is being held is immediately replaced and left lying on the ground for a brief period of time, meaning that after it disappears it can only be re-equipped if Nathan happens to find it again. What is bad about that twist is that it eliminates gamers’ freedom to adapt their play-style to the situation they are facing, as some bosses – for example – are quite well-suited for some secondary weapons.
The final stumble that keeps Circle of the Moon away from greatness is found in its visual department. Its wonderful songs do succeed in conjuring the usual Castlevania spirit and soundtrack quality; its graphics, however, do not rise to the same height. Circle of the Moon lacks colors and artistic inspiration in its scenarios, which are bland and gray; additionally, characters and enemies are arguably too small, which makes them devoid of any notable details. Despite those technical flaws, players who either love the series or enjoy non-linear gameplay – while also nurturing a passion for challenge – will find a lot to like in Circle of the Moon. And Konami does a good job in adding depth and value to Nathan’s journey via a brutal and optional Battle Arena that is fully integrated into the map; and four extra gameplay modes (Magician, Fighter, Shooter, and Thief) that are progressively unlocked and have the starring vampire hunter re-tackle the quest with altered stats and limitations on the use of certain tools, therefore forcing gamers to completely change their play style each time around.
The punctual flaws that it displays in the main components of its fabric turn Circle of the Moon into a Castlevania installment that is good, but not great. The transplant of the Symphony of the Night formula into a portable is, in a way, a success, because the marriage of non-linear exploration and RPG elements makes traversing Dracula’s fiend-infested castle an appealing experience filled with discoveries, secrets, challenge, and unguided progression. However, the game could have certainly been more careful with the way it handled its elevated level of difficulty, its visual presentation, and the implementation of the central gameplay mechanic that it builds to call its own. With those problems in mind, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon cannot be universally recommended, as the Game Boy Advance itself holds a couple of entries of the franchise that are easily superior to it. Nevertheless, there is great enjoyment to be found in its imperfect Gothic quest if one has fondness for lack of linearity, is able to ignore its shortcomings, and can deal with some moments of grinding.