In Depth Review: Castlevania: Circle of the Moon [GBA]
By now you've probably heard the rantings and ravings of Castlevania heads everywhere regarding Circle of the Moon's ridiculous lack of lighting, and the rejoicings regarding the newfound brightness of the sequels, Harmony of Dissonance and Aria of Sorrow. Yet, if you manage to find yourself proper lighting for the game, Circle of the Moon proves to be a fantastic adventure through Drac's castle.
Castlevania: Circle of the Moon was designed like the Playstation prequel, Symphony of the Night, and the Metroid games that came before it. That means you can explore the castle as you wish, provided that you have the proper abilities to do it. Rather than have separate levels to plow through from point A to point B, the entire game is set within the incredibly huge castle. This gameplay mechanism masks most hints of linearity within the game and provides for that familiar Metroidy feeling of really adventuring into a large world. I love this m.o., especially now that I can take this gameplay to the bathroom with me. What makes it fun is the fact that you never really feel too forced along a path, like the old 2-D platformers -- of course, you eventually end up going from point A to point B to point C, but you can do it while sidetracking wherever your powers let you, and you can feel free to backtrack (in fact, you must at some points) to wherever you want to.
Circle of the Moon follows an RPG-like character building mechanic, with every enemy kill netting you some experience points and level-ups (more hit points, magic power, heart-carrying ability). This is in addition to finding hit-point, magic and heart upgrades throughout the castle, Metroid style -- so sitting in one spot and slaying enemies endlessly will eventually allow you to romp through the game as if you were a deity. For me, it never became a problem, because some portions of the game became exceedingly difficult -- but more on those later.
Control more or less feels like you would expect from a Castlevania game -- strangely, it's as if they combined some old school NES conventions in with the 16-bit era and on. For example, the protagonist, Nathan, walks at an excruciatingly slow pace -- but his jumping is far better than the hampered hops from good old Castlevania 1 on the NES. His whip's range is also very long... yet he attacks fairly slowly. Therefore I felt the control was a mixed bag that could have been done a bit better. Thankfully the special abilities he gains throughout the game alleviate some of the shortcomings. A dash becomes available that makes him faster than his normal snail-crawl, and some of his DSS attacks -- which are the meat of the magic system in CotM -- allow him to attack faster.
Well, since I just mentioned it, I might as well go into it. The DSS system consists of two sets of "cards" -- one card from each set can be combined to produce different effects. Not all combinations will work, but most of those that do are useful if you know how to use them. While I found this system to be intriguing, giving me lots to experiment with, I have a problem with the way you obtain cards. You basically obtain each of the different cards from different enemies in separate locations around the castle, but they drop with such infrequency that I've questioned whether or not the game just simply hates me. Perhaps they could have dropped some cards after a boss battle, or have them hidden just like Hit Point upgrades, or just made the really, really really powerful ones rare. But I had to fight the same exact enemy literally about 15 times (enter room, kill, exit room, enter room, kill, exit...) just to get the card it drops. It's aggravating for sure; however, I've read where others have ranted about how this makes the game terrible beyond belief -- and I vehemently disagree. It's just slightly annoying, is all.
The game can take you anywhere from 8 hours and up to finish it. I clocked in at about 11 hours after taking some time to level up and drastic (failed) attempts to get some cards I wanted. But that doesn't count the times you die and restart from your save point, and that may be a recurring theme throughout the game. Most of the enemies are standard platformer fare -- i.e. just moving targets sitting there to deter you from moving. But some of the stronger enemies have projectile attacks that are either lightning quick or that follow you relentlessly, coupled with other, smaller, moving monsters (i.e. ghosts) that follow you around, that you quickly find yourself surrounded and to the brink of throwing your GBA against the wall. However, finishing it once won't deter you from playing it through a second time -- it's got a slick replay value incentive by giving you a bit of a surprise (in the form of new classes) after completing the game.
Aesthetically, Castlevania CotM generally does not disappoint. The backdrop graphics are splendidly drawn, with a variety of environments and colors. They almost rival Symphony of the Night's brilliant graphical work. The drawbacks include highly stiff character animation, especially for Nathan, and incredibly dark coloring. Hence the intro to this review. It's impossible to play this game without being under the sun, or a bright light, having a GBA SP, or being an alien. Even with the Pelican light, the kind that covers your GBA screen and "protects" it, I had to struggle with it to find an angle suitable enough to actually show me a majority of the screen.
Although it could stand to use a few hundred shots of brightness, CotM is still a beautifully rendered game. And it triumphs aurally as well. The music is some of the best on the Gameboy Advance, in quality, and in my opinion, theme-wise. Some old Castlevania tunes are hidden in there, including one from the Genesis Castlevania game. The opening tune is particularly breath-taking, slightly resembling the singing choir that opens Symphony of the Night. There's a clunker or two in there, and of course I wanted even more tracks.
Castlevania: Circle of the Moon took me freaking years to finish. I bought it when it came out and I just finished it at the end of May, 2003. But that doesn't speak anything about its quality -- it's a brilliant (except for lumination) game, and very much worth playing through. I guess I'm just slow when it comes to good games sometimes. Next up, Metroid Prime, still unfinished... Zelda, still unplayed... Symphony of the Night (!!!), still unfinished... and the list goes on.
And while its small flaws keep it from being legendary, I'm very glad -- and you will be too -- to have added Circle of the Moon to the "I've Experienced a Great Game" list.