Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance will enchant those with a love for meticulously exploring a large map and figuring out a world that is itself one large puzzle; to anyone else, though, its intricacy and frequent backtracking may be a bit too much
Castlevania: Circle of the Moon landed on the Game Boy Advance with two goals. Firstly, it was meant to be a worthy successor to Symphony of the Night, the franchise’s Playstation classic that brought non-linear gameplay to the Gothic landscapes of Konami’s vampire-hunting property. Secondly, it had to face the challenge of living up to its phenomenal precursor whilst being supported by hardware that was far more limited.
Although amounting to a satisfying experience that, to a degree, was able to carry a labyrinthine map that dared gamers to both solve it and overcome the hundreds of monsters patrolling its halls, Circle of the Moon failed to completely fulfill its promise. It was held back by visuals whose darkness and absence of bright colors turned its scenarios into an endless mass of brown and gray; it stumbled on a difficulty level that was a bit too unforgiving for it to be embraced by all ranges of gamers and that led to a good deal of grinding; and it featured a complex system of spells that, albeit undeniably varied and appealing, had major roadblocks to those who wanted to explore it significantly.
Arriving one year later, then, Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance was pretty aware of the issues it had to deal with in order to deliver a better package to fans of the series. And the game unquestionably dismantles those problems. For starters, it looks much better than its predecessor, as it paints its version of Dracula’s castle with a wider palette of tones that adds brightness to the visual equation without ever sacrificing the darkness that Castlevania titles demand. Additionally, it turns the dial of its hardships down a couple of notches, offering bosses and enemy-ridden segments that are more navigable and feel fairer than most of the brutal pieces that made up Circle of the Moon. And, finally, it implements spells in a way that, despite being simpler and more limited than the path taken by its spiritual prequel, is – ultimately – more smoothly integrated into the Castlevania gameplay fabric. For those reasons, Harmony of Dissonance rises as an overall better effort than Circle of the Moon. However, rather than surpassing its predecessor solely because it does some fixing, the game actually topples it for it does a good share of creating as well.
Half a century after Simon Belmont famously took down Count Dracula, one of his descendants, Juste Belmont, is once more put onto a road that will lead to a confrontation against the sinister figure. One night, Juste meets a childhood friend, called Maxim Kischine, by a castle. As it turns out, Maxim has lost part of his memory; he does, however, remember that a mutual friend of his and Juste’s is, for some reason, locked inside the building. After telling Juste that the girl has been kidnapped, the protagonist of the adventure and member of the Belmont clan jumps into action and decides to walk into the castle.
It is a straightforward setup that allows the game to start not too long after the system is turned on, which suits Castlevania and the portability of the Game Boy Advance just fine. Yet, the initial position of its three main characters leaves the door open for somewhat unexpected developments and surprises to pop up along the way, and they unfold via quick encounters between the involved parts and major villains, bestowing Harmony of Dissonance with a plot that is good and superior to the slightly narrow vampire-hunting tale of Circle of the Moon.
From that point onwards, Harmony of Dissonance follows the recipe of Symphony of the Night with dedication. Divided into various areas that are seamlessly connected, the castle consists of halls, shafts, and large rooms filled to the brim with light platforming touches and a whole lot of demons that come in different shapes and sizes. More importantly, Juste’s navigation through it is both delightfully non-linear and completely unguided, as in no point in the quest will the game ever tell players where they need to head to.
Following the tradition of the Metroidvania genre, Juste starts the game with nothing but a simple whip, and the ability to jump and perform a defensive dash. It is by exploring the map with extreme care that gamers will encounter the items that will grant him skills that will allow him to reach new places. As the third game in the series, after Symphony of the Night and Circle of the Moon, to dabble into that kind of gameplay, those elements should come as no surprise to anyone who is aware of where the focus of many 2-D Castlevania efforts lie. Nonetheless, Harmony of Dissonance does take some steps to build its own character.
It all starts, goes through, and ends with the fact the game carries not one, but two full-fledged castles. With their existence neatly tied to the storyline, these two buildings are the reflection of one another, meaning that – in purely structural terms – they are the same and that, occasionally, alterations in one version of the castle will cause changes to happen in its twin. However, given one works as the darker counterpart of the other, distinctions are quite palpable when it comes to foes, general difficulty, and the backgrounds of many of the areas they contain; even bosses, which are sometimes shared between the two maps, have versions that are obviously different when they show up twice.
Thanks to that configuration, Harmony of Dissonance is notably complex in matters of progression. Circle of the Moon, in spite of its non-linearity, involved clearing one region, finding a new skill, and moving on to the next portion of the castle that ability allowed the hero to reach; Harmony of Dissonance, meanwhile, is considerably more open-ended. Juste is able to get to many areas and go deep into them only to find out he cannot advance any further without a specific item; moreover, even if there is a certain optimal path for one to take to get to the end of the adventure, the game gives players the freedom to tackle a few of its bosses – whether they are optional or not – in various orders.
Effectively, then, what Harmony of Dissonance does is swap the difficulty prominent in the combats of Circle of the Moon for the challenge of finding a way around the castle. The game’s generally very good bosses and varied minor foes alike are never too troublesome, and some may argue they are actually a tad too easy, which means that the spotlight of the challenge is fully directed towards opening the way forward. It is surprisingly common, therefore, to get lost. And not knowing where to go is a feeling most that choose to go through Harmony of Dissonance will come across at least once, especially on a couple of moments when what needs to be done is a bit too obtuse for the game’s own good.
Consequently, having Juste walk through the entirety of the castle – or a good slice of it – a couple of times until the riddle of finding the path forward is figured out is likely to happen. As such, getting enjoyment out of this second Game Boy Advance entry of the Castlevania saga is intimately tied to one’s love – or tolerance – for map navigation. Those that admire it will be enticed by what the game offers; and those who are intimidated by it will wish Dracula had not gone so over-the-top when putting together his newest residence.
Truthfully, even gamers with a strong passion for that sort of quest may find a couple of fair reasons to point the finger at Konami and complain, and that is because Harmony of Dissonance drops the ball on a couple of areas that – if done better – could have greatly increased the positive feelings brought up by the experience. For starters, half a dozen or so save points could have been brought closer to boss rooms, as their distance from the lair of the big bad fiends will lead to the frustration of having to retrace one’s steps through enemy-infested areas in case of failure.
Furthermore, these locations of relief – given the portable nature of Harmony of Dissonance – could have been more abundant to support shorter gameplay sections. On a similar note, and perhaps as an even graver problem considering the size and complexity of the map, the game is a bit short on warp points and rooms that allow Juste to switch between castles. As an annoying consequence, when players are looking for the hero’s next destination and combing the map, long distances will have to be covered over and over again.
Supporting that daunting maze is a solid RPG net inherited straight from Symphony of the Night. As Juste kills enemies, he gains experience points; and as he accumulates these, he levels up and has his stats increased. In addition, the scope of the castle and also the few merchants within it mean that its halls are bursting with pieces of equipment that produce a variety of effects when put on the vampire hunter; items that allow the character to heal or cure statuses inflicted on him by foes; and upgrades that augment his health, his magic power (which is consumed when using spells), or his hearts (which are consumed when using sub-weapons).
In comparison to Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance is far more generous when handing out health-restoring items and antidotes, which is a more than welcome turn of events considering that – without those – the only way to heal is by saving the game. Likewise, its easier bosses thankfully do away with the need to grind mindlessly for experience. Besides that, upgrades and valuable pieces of equipment are generally more smartly tucked away, as they tend to be protected by hazards, sequences of enemies, optional bosses, or even a few puzzles, making it an alluring proposition to go for full completion and add some extra length to the six hours of gameplay players will spend on average to get to the end of the game.
Other than taking down enemies with his whip, which is a pretty effective option, Juste has – at his disposal – both sub-weapons and books that give him elemental spells. The six sub-weapons, which are dropped by enemies, are only available one at a time; in other words, when Juste picks one up, the one that is currently in his possession gets replaced. The five books, meanwhile, which are hidden all around the map, are permanent, and the selection of which one is active is done through the game’s menu.
Since spells, which come very much in handy when dealing with bosses, are a result of the combination of the selected tome with the sub-weapon that is being held, there are thirty magic attacks to play around with. Sure, it is a more limited array of options than the one from Circle of the Moon, and their effects are certainly not so varied. However, the fact the tomes are smartly hidden, rather than being frustratingly dropped by foes at random rates as it was the case in that game, makes finding them more enjoyable, less dependent on grinding, and quite rewarding.
But even if it is overall a better game than its predecessor, Harmony of Dissonance falls behind it in three specific areas. Its replay value, though excellent, is a bit inferior, for although it holds a boss rush, an alternative mode where it is possible to play as Maxim, and three endings with very different outcomes that depend on how players beat the quest and on whether or not they find all of Dracula’s relics, its post-game content is not as varied and challenging as the myriad of modes included in Circle of the Moon.
Its soundtrack, meanwhile, is not up to the franchise’s extremely high standards, and it suffers a bit from the low quality of the Game Boy Advance’s speakers; more so than its prequel. And, finally, the fact sub-weapons can only be employed on their own when Juste runs out of magic power, given the same command is mapped to unleashing spells and using sub-weapons, comes off as a very odd design choice. Still, it is easy to see that these complaints are nearly insignificant and will not diminish one’s enjoyment of the game.
Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance does have a couple of issues that make the size and complexity of its scope, which are undeniably its biggest qualities, not be as thoroughly delightful as they could have been. Still, by implementing punctual improvements in areas where Circle of the Moon was lackluster, and by embracing the intimidating value of its twin castles and turning the navigation of its map into its biggest source of challenge, the game succeeds in presenting a very satisfying and somewhat original take on the non-linear facet of the Castlevania franchise. Due to that trait, Harmony of Dissonance is bound to enchant anyone with a love for meticulously exploring a large map and using their wits to figure out a world that is itself one massive puzzle. To anyone else, though, its abundant intricacy, its frequent backtracking, and the long distances it sometimes forces players to traverse may be a bit too much.