Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance – GBA
Platform: Game Boy Advance
Release Date (NA): September 16th, 2002
Developer: Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo
Nerd Rating: 6.5 out of 10
After the sleeper hit Symphony of the Night, Konami took a(n expected) stab at 3D with the N64 games Castlevania (colloquially referred to as Castlevania 64 to avoid confusion with the original) and Legacy of Darkness. When the concept totally bombed, the company took the franchise back into the realm of exploratory 2D sidescrollers with RPG elements, a genre/style that would be coined “Metroidvania.” Circle of the Moon, the predecessor to Harmony of Dissonance, began a long line of SotN clones and also kicked off a trilogy of Castlevania games on the Game Boy Advance.
For the record (and if you’ve been keeping up with these reviews with any frequency you probably already know what I’m about to say), I spent the majority of my time playing Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance not on a GBA, but on the big screen with the help of my GameCube and Game Boy Player. I also employed the use of the elusive GameShark SP to make things a bit easier for me. As per the norm, I chose not to beef up my stats or inventory from the beginning, but instead to give myself an edge by using codes for infinite health, hearts, and magic. Say what you will, I don’t care, I did what I did and I had fun doing it.
I just finished Circle of the Moon not more than a couple of days ago, and I thought that I’d be in store for more of the same with Harmony of Dissonance. Superficially, the games are quite similar, and if you were merely watching someone play both games, you’d be hard pressed to point out any major differences. However, even the most non-discriminating gamers will notice that Harmony of Dissonance is a bit of a different animal after logging an hour or so of gameplay. But let’s start at the beginning.
The original Castlevania storyline bounces all over the place from release to release, and this game is no different. Whereas the previous Circle of the Moon took place back in the 1800s with a wholly different subset of vampire hunters, Harmony of Dissonance better interconnects with other established plot points and brings us back to the Belmont family. Our hero, Juste Belmont, is the grandson of Simon, which places this installment firmly between the events of Simon’s exploits in Castlevania and Castlevania II, and Richter’s era spanning Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night. Although not explicitly stated, one can infer that Juste is probably the grandfather of Richter based on the dates given in various games.
The year is 1748, 50 years after Simon’s latest adventure. Juste Belmont, at 16, is now the current wielder of the Vampire Killer whip, and he runs into an old friend named Maxim Kischine. Maxim has been away for some time, and returns badly injured with little memory of the past 2 years of his life. The two establish that their childhood friend Lydie Erlanger has been kidnapped and soon find Dracula’s castle where they set off to find her. Maxim’s role and identity are initially shrouded in mystery, while he slowly regains bits and pieces of his memory during his time in the castle and his occasional run-ins with Juste.
Like nearly every other Castlevania game, the player assumes the role of Juste Belmont and begins exploring the castle. Harmony of Dissonance is laid out in the increasingly familiar Metroidvania style of gameplay; the player is free to roam around, eventually piecing together the castle’s layout. Certain parts of the castle remain inaccessible for various reasons, including out-of-reach ledges and locked doors to name a few. As Juste defeats bosses and covers more ground, he gains items that will then allow him to jump higher, pass through locked doors, etc. In this regard, Harmony of Dissonance is nearly identical to Circle of the Moon and Symphony of the Night.
Another concept taken directly from SotN is the inventory system. Whereas the number of the items and their availability were scaled back for Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance copies SotN in a more straightforward manner, complete with in-game currency and a shop (well, multiple shops really) in the castle. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the inclusion of such elements, but it does tend to feel a little too much like Symphony of the Night at times. Even the idea of “relics” are reused, and while several may have different names, they serve identical functions to those in SotN. The game is still fun to play, it just has a bit of a “been there, done that” feel to it.
If you’re new to the series, you’ll be able to take most aspects of the game at face value. However, if you’ve been around the block a few times, the cracks will start to appear and Harmony of Dissonance will begin to feel a lot like “Castlevania-lite.” For starters, the layout isn’t nearly as intricate as before. Level design seems a little hasty at best, and the platforming elements are repeated again and again. It’s all kind of just one ledge after another.
One interesting dynamic about the castle in Harmony of Dissonance is the fact that, well, there’s 2 castles! Symphony of the Night used the “regular” castle as the first part of the game, and the inverted castle comprised the 2nd half, but Harmony of Dissonance takes a much different approach. About halfway through the game, Juste discovers that there are 2 castles. The strange thing is that both castles have identical layouts. Stranger still, Juste has already explored parts of both castles that have just now separated. After this revelation, the player must explore both castles, complete with different bosses, items, and enemies but with the exact same structure. At least the colors and scenery are slightly changed. I’m torn as to whether I find the concept enjoyable or not. The idea is novel, but it can be really frustrating having to constantly run back and forth between castles. The good news is that several “warp rooms” simplify the process. In addition to using each warp room to travel between castles A and B, one can also teleport from warp room to warp room. But to add more confusion, there are regular teleportation rooms in the castle as well. Most of this goes back to the aforementioned sloppy level design. It isn’t incompetent or horrible, but it doesn’t have that level of polish and refinement usually associated with Castlevania.
Castlevania games are notoriously difficult, but Harmony of Dissonance is a cakewalk by comparison (though it can get tiresome later in the game), so much so that I’d go as far as to consider it another shortcoming. Enemies are predictable, there’s little to no problem/puzzle solving to be found, and the bosses are surprisingly simplistic. Past games utilized colossally difficult monsters that were impossible to face head on, leaving players to experiment with equipment, magic, and other strategies to make the most of a complex system of strengths and weaknesses. Exploiting this system is pretty much completely unnecessary in this game due to poor (or lazy) design. Ostensibly the lack of difficulty can be satisfying, but after scratching the surface, it’s clear to see that something has been taken away from the game.
While we’re at it, let’s talk about the graphics too. Normally I don’t focus too much on the graphics, but having come straight off of Circle of the Moon released only a year prior, I think it’s a fair criticism. The good news is that Harmony of Dissonance must’ve listened to fans and critics about the dark graphics from the previous game. Everything here is much brighter and clearer. The problem? Well, apparently the only way that Konami could figure out
how to manage such a feat was to make the entire game almost cartoonish looking. Juste’s sprite is particularly fuzzy, blurry, and indistinct. Some backgrounds are creative and appealing (Room of Illusions, the Skeleton Cave), but many of them are downright garish. The intense colors and heavy outlines detract from the more mature and subdued animations of past games. Enemy sprites look comparatively decent, though they still retain a bulky, heavy handed appearance. The problem isn’t so much the artwork as it is the limited use of color. Without all the subtle variations and gradients of color, they have a distinct 16-bit feel to them. One feature I did find impressive was the use of dual backgrounds, a static outside scene (seen through windows) with scrolling interior settings. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that the graphics are unpleasant, they’re just a stark departure from the standard degree of realism one would expect in Castlevania. All of the dark and gothic and horror-themed overtones are still present and accounted for, it’s just that they feel like a technological low point in the series. Harmony of Dissonance, from a visual perspective, would be much more at home back on the Genesis or SNES. Again, not bad, and kind of enjoyable in a retro sort of way, but certainly not where they ought to be in 2002.
Finally we come to the sound. Most Castlevania games have exceptional sound quality, especially from a composition standpoint. Most installments are full of moody, atmospheric, and recognizable music. Before the days of elaborate musical scores being included in games, Castlevania, as a series, was near the top of a very short list of games where the music has been singled out as a respectable achievement in its own right. For whatever reasons, Konami skipped over the quality of previous soundtracks and instead chose to churn out generic 8-bit chip tunes. In all seriousness, any one of the music tracks here could’ve been pulled from a mediocre NES game. They’re repetitive, monotonous, and uninspired, at times even annoying and irritating. There’s a catchy synth riff here and there, but it isn’t a soundtrack I can get behind. Supposedly the sound quality was scaled down to make room for the graphics, but I fail to see how any of that panned out.
For all of its faults, Harmony of Dissonance does manage to trump its predecessor in one important way, and it wasn’t until playing this entry that I realized exactly what was wrong with Circle of the Moon. Nathan, the hero of Circle of the Moon, can be sort of sluggish and stilted in his movements. Looking back on it, moving around with Nathan can be somewhat unnatural. Juste’s movements are much more fluid and manageable. Another small but noticeable point is Juste’s ability to stand his ground when hit instead of flying backwards 37 feet. This makes it much easier to bite the bullet, push through the baddies, and suffer the consequences to make progress when necessary.
When the game finally does come to an end, the player can be met with one of 3 different endings: a bad one, a good one, and the best one. This is typical of Castlevania, but never have the requirements been so vague and elusive. There are a number of measures one must take to ensure the best the ending, and they aren’t exactly made clear or hinted to within the game. Even after receiving “the best” ending, the story arc is pretty disappointing and is, so far, the only Castlevania ending that leaves a bad taste in mouth. More SotN elements are recycled, including a battle with a possessed ally. Dracula’s final form is usually a highlight of any Castlevania game, but in this one…well, I’ll just let the picture speak for itself.
I know I’ve been pretty tough on Harmony of Dissonance, but a 6.5 is still a respectable rating in my book. It’s not a bad game, in fact it’s still very much a good game, it just doesn’t quite measure up to the high standards set by most Castlevania releases. There’s no question that my critique has a lot to do with my very fresh experience with Circle of the Moon; I’m not sure if this makes my review more or less valid, but there it is. I will give it credit for addressing many of the issues that sprung up in Circle of the Moon; brighter graphics, better control, and a tempered difficulty are all improvements (to an extent). Harmony of Dissonance will scratch most any fan’s Castlevania itch, and though it may fall short of the franchise’s best offerings, its still a solid piece of work.
And now that this entry is out of the way, next I’ll be moving on to the final and most critically acclaimed GBA installment, Aria of Sorrow…
Reviewed by The Cubist
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