In Depth Review: Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance [GBA]
If you've played the others, then you know what to expect. If you haven't, and furthermore if you haven't played Metroid games, here's a very quick synopsis. Harmony of Dissonance, starring Juste Belmont, is the third game to break away from the traditional side-scrolling gameplay in favor of a continuous, seamless castle that you explore seemingly at your own will. Certain areas are inaccessible as you pass through them, and you must explore what you are able to so that you can find whatever power-up you need to access said areas. Upon accessing said areas, more of the castle opens up, and you come across more inaccessible areas, for which you must find another power-up. It's this mechanic of starting small and opening up a whole world for you to explore that intrigues me -- it's one of the aspects of RPGs and action-adventure titles that I've enjoyed the most, and the backtracking for this style of game -- so long as it's reasonable -- doesn't much bother me. And, true to Castlevania form, baddies are of an undead nature, and candles hanging on the walls can be slashed to reveal hearts (used for weapon ammunition), currency, and the special weapons.
As for how Juste himself controls, Harmony of Dissonance is a vast improvement over Nathan from Circle of the Moon as your hero is much more responsive. He runs instead of walks, so his normal pace is almost twice as fast as that of Nathan's. His jumps are also more controllable and "floatier" than Nathan's; whether or not you like floaty jumps is the question, but I appreciate the added maneuverability. He is also capable of dashing forwards or backwards with the appropriate shoulder button -- zipping through the environment quickly helps to ease the common pains people associate with backtracking.
Juste carries the morningstar version of the Vampire Killer. While his reach is not as long as the absurdly Viagra-infused Vampire Killer that Nathan used, it's plenty lengthy and he lashes quicker, to boot. Furthermore, he can now brandish the whip if you hold B after the initial slash. While brandishing, you can press on the D-pad to flick the whip in any direction. It's the same ability Simon Belmont used in Super Castlevania 4. Too bad lashing out in 8 directions didn't make it over, too. I almost would have liked to see that, except it would have then made the game *too* easy -- because it's already a very easy play, but more on this later.
What would a Castlevania game be without the special weapons? (It'd be Castlevania Adventure for Gameboy, that's what, but let's forget about that turdical turdular turdbomb.) Here, Juste has access to the cross (which is essentially a boomerang), dagger (straight projectile), axe (upward arc), holy water (waves run across the floor), holy book (spirals outward), and finally the strange holy fist (imagine E. Honda's hundred hand slap -- only holier!). Throwing a weapon is achieved with Up + B. Although a Castlevania staple, I mention this because I firmly believe that the developers could have somehow streamlined the dash to the L button (left + L and right + L -- simple enough, see?), and weapons to the R button. This way, we could have had multi-directional whipping in addition to the brandishing. But again, that would have made the game too, too easy.
The weapons bear more importance now because of the system that Konami implements in this game, called "Spell Fusion." This is Harmony of Dissonance's special nuance, and it is nowhere near as interesting as Circle of the Moon's DSS system. Throughout the castle, you will find spell books belonging to different elements (wind, fire, etc.). By equipping and activating a certain book in combination with certain weapons, a different spell is cast. For example, equip the Wind book while holding the Dagger. The result is Juste tossing a hojillion daggers in rapid succession. Equip the same book while holding the cross weapon, and Juste will conjure a barrier of rotating crosses (think Mega Man 2's Wood Man ability).
While I enjoyed the simplicity of this system, there are far too few results to be had and of course there were like only two or three spells that I actually used a lot. I also didn't like the fact that it relied on the weapon you were carrying. If I want to cast a certain spell, and I'm holding the wrong weapon, do you mean to tell me I have to go find where the appropriate weapon was -- which could be far on the other end of the castle?? They don't really provide you weapons in all the convenient places, you know.
Konami continues the infusion of RPG elements into Castlevania games by having Juste gain experience points for every enemy he turns into goo, resulting in level-ups. Level-ups automatically increase his basic stats of Strength, Defense, Intelligence (for Spell Fusion) and Luck (for picking up rare items). Frankly, I'm getting a bit tired of leveling up in this type of game; I would also have liked for there to be a more concentrated inventory -- I don't care about the 2390847 different types of Plate Armor that the game throws at you. Give us less armor, make it more effective, and save the complicated stuff for the spell system. Now I'm just ranting, so I'll stop.
Truthfully, although I would have liked a deeper spell system, the whipping, jumping, platforming action was so enjoyable due to Juste's great control. The castle design also helped this, as it is significantly less congested than Circle of the Moon's yet just as involving (if I say why, it'll spoil some of the story). Also, where Circle of the Moon (and even Symphony) featured a lot of zigzagging vertical areas, Harmony managed to cut down on this and provide more interesting designs for traveling vertically. If you look at a completed map you'll see that there are less narrow "columns" -- quite a few of the vertical areas are fleshed out to be wider. I definitely prefer this over zigzagging.
Regarding the castle's population, you'll recognize quite a few enemy designs from KCE Tokyo's previous work, namely Dracula X and Symphony. Needless to say, these enemy designs are wonderful and work in that classic Castlevania way in that, alone, they can be dealt with, but together, they may cause you a slight headache. I stop at slight because of the overall difficulty of the game, which as I'll explain, is quite low.
This game is retardedly easy, at least on default. Almost everything was either defeated by simple whipping or by conjuring up the Cross + Wind combination (rotating shield). Smack smack smack, and the boss was well done (or rare, depending how you like it). It seems like Target Practice compared to the ultimately difficult challenges in Circle of the Moon. It took me around eight to nine hours to totally complete the game and explore all nooks and crannies of the castle. In Circle of the Moon, it took me over eleven, and I hadn't even finished the hard a$$ battle arena yet (of which there is none here).
A few words about the game's balancing. The way the power-ups are placed in the castle doesn't go over well with me. It's as if I was opening almost the entire significant portion of the castle for hours using the same damn special ability that I got within the first two hours, then all of a sudden I get the magical ballerina jump that allows me to access parts of the castle revealing... oh... a heart power-up. Big nuts. (This is exaggerated, of course, but it did throw off the balance a little.) The AnTiPoDe has this beef as well.
It sounds like I'm ragging on this game, but I'm really not. I'm comparing it a lot to Circle of the Moon and with good reason, because ultimately the two are similar in concept but drastically different in execution. What have we seen so far: Juste controls much better and his castle is more enjoyable to maneuver around. Nathan has better spells, a tougher challenge, and more balanced progression. What am I missing here -- the aesthetics. Here, too, the games diverge at vital points.
Let's start with visuals. Harmony of Dissonance actually does not assume that you're a feline! The color scheme overall is just much brighter and for those poor saps without an SP, you don't have to be an alien or in a tanning booth to see the levels. Second, the game animates much better. A lot of the GBA's power was put into sprite rotation and scaling. The big living armor with the broken shin, for example, or the big living armor that chases you in the beginning of the game -- those are specimens for joint movement in 2D GBA games. Even little things like the bones that skeletons throw use sprite rotation for a smoother look, whereas the older games just had a few frames of the same bone at different angles. The game simply looks fantastic.
It pains me to say that the music doesn't hold up its end of the bargain as much. This is solely due to the sound quality. I do enjoy old NES classic music, in original form. But first, I believe that the GBA sound processor is capable of lots more. Hell, Circle of the Moon showed us Konami can use that sound chip. I realize a lot of CPU power is being used for the graphics, but it's still very irksome. Second, the composition is so amazing that hearing it in this form just makes me… sad. Let me explain via analogy. Take a wonderfully rendered scene in 32-bit color and at high resolution, 1024x768. Now, compress it into GIF form with 8-bit color and shrink the resolution to 320x240. Now you've got a grainy, ugly p.o.s. that only resembles a b@stard step-child of the original's daughter's nephew's cousin's classmate's boyfriend's father's roommate's babysitter's bully's father named Cletus. That's how I feel about the music in this game -- it tries to do so much that in limited form, it sounds very grainy. I guess I would say my gripe is that the sound quality does not do the masterful work any justice.
Thankfully the ears aren't totally tortured, as all the sound samples have made it across in stunning quality. From Juste's grunts to the clinking of his whip, to the death cries of certain enemies and the crash of broken candelabras, it sounds as if you're playing Symphony of the Night from the sound effects. So I can't totally bash the sound in this game.
I can, however, bash the way the story is brought out. I'm going to refrain from details and just say that encounters with key characters are few and far between. When you do encounter them, they just spit out a whole bunch of matter-of-fact lines that have no kind of intrigue to them. Furthermore, as matter-of-fact as the dialogue is, it really doesn't make fully clear what exactly is happening in terms of the... you know... the "thing." (It's a big plot element that's poorly explained, and I don't want to ruin it.)
At least the story provide for replay value with three endings. But the real value is in unlocking Hard Mode and Boss Rush mode. Boss Rush mode takes you through each of the bosses to see how long you can survive, but you replenish your energy after every battle so I don't see the huge challenge. Still, it's fun, and all my complaints of the game being too easy go away with Hard Mode. Plus, you can unlock a blast from the past to control in Boss Rush mode. Finally, you can take a second character from the story, Maxim, through the castle in his own adventure.
Harmony of Dissonance still stands as a welcome addition to the GBA library and the Castlevania series. Yeah, it was unbalanced, and yeah I would have liked a better spell system. But for everything that it "took away" from Circle of the Moon, it fixed other errors and more. I can definitely say that as a result, my experience with Harmony of Dissonance was better than that of Circle of the Moon (but not by much) which makes this one very good title. But I'm hoping that Aria of Sorrow combines the best of both worlds, rather than improving one thing while forgetting about another... and that maybe after Aria, we'll get something different on our GBAs.
What Others Thought
The AnTiPoDe: 7.5 out of 10
"I did come across a few disconcerting elements of the game. Since the game is non-linear, you'll find yourself often backtracking to pick up items that weren't accessible earlier. This is a great feature of the game, but I was often confused because almost every new path required the same relic to access, and it was very difficult to find the relic since I had already explored the area it was in. I literally spent hours traveling back and forth, searching high and low for this 'legendary' relic so I can get on with the game."
IGNGameboy: 9.2 out of 10
"It's almost a no-brainer to learn that a new 2D Castlevania ends up being one of the best games on the system, but hey, it has to be said: Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance is really great. The gameplay techniques, the graphics, the length of the quest, all top-notch. The music isn't quite as bad as importers have made it out to be, but yes...the tunes aren't nearly as nice as they have been in past Castlevania adventures.
If there's any one thing to complain about (besides the music), it's the drastic change in difficulty. Circle of the Moon was definitely a much, much harder challenge in the boss battles...almost unfairly so. The developers went back and reworked the bosses, giving them attacks that have patterns that can be avoided, dodged and countered. There are no cheap attacks in this game, other than maybe the very last boss in the adventure."
GameSpot: 8.2 out of 10
"Harmony of Dissonance is in some ways a simpler game than last year's Castlevania. Juste mostly relies on his whip to deal with his enemies, and though you can upgrade it, the whip's attack itself remains basically the same throughout the game--you don't have access to other main weapons like you did in Circle of the Moon. That game also featured a surprisingly robust magic system that allowed you to combine pairs of special cards for dozens of different effects. It was strange that seemingly so much effort went into the system, many of whose effects were either too subtle or more interesting than useful. Harmony of Dissonance streamlines things by giving you the chance to discover just a handful of different not-so-secret elemental magic books that imbue your secondary weapons with their powers."
Electronic Gaming Monthly: 9.5, 10, 9.5 out of 10 [Game of the Month]
"Harmony of Dissonance has the same feverishly addictive qualities that made the last two 2D Castlevania games—Symphony of the Night and Circle of the Moon—such an absolute joy to play. The perfect mix of action and exploration keeps you constantly coming back for more in hopes of opening up more of the castle map and beefing up your character."
"Circle of the Moon was a really good game, but Harmony of Dissonance is great. Just about everything I didn't like about the first GBA vampire-slaying adventure has been fixed here. An easy-to-use magic system replaces the overly intricate card system from the last game. Juste Belmont controls really well and has a limp whip (quit giggling!). I could go on and on, but I think the part that convinced me of HoD's excellence was that I started playing it and didn't stop until I beat it."
"Juste's gameplay perfectly combines traditional Belmont whipping with Alucard's magical acrobatics. It's a thrilling, engrossing adventure that sucks you back in for more just when you thought it was over. My only gripes concern the low-fi music and overly easy bosses, but neither of these issues really impacts the game's greatness."