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Game Profile
Game Boy
Konami TYO
GENRE: Action
September 24, 2002
Castlevania: Rondo of Blood

Castlevania Puzzle: Encore of the Night

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

Castlevania: Harmony of Despair

More in this Series
 Written by Ilan Mejer  on October 04, 2002

Review: Always looking for a portable Symphony of the Night? Look no further. Looking for something new? Keep on searching?

It has not been all that long since some of us christened our brand new Gameboy Advances with Castlevania: Circle of the Moon. Yet, that has not stopped Konami from pumping out an entirely new Castlevania adventure for Nintendo's dominant handheld. Konami's newest trek through Transylvanian mythology, Harmony of Dissonance, takes place roughly 50 years after the famous Vampire Killer, Simon Belmont, defeated Dracula and broke his evil curse. Juste Belmont, inheritor of the Belmont and magical Fernandez (Belnades) bloodlines, encounters a dear friend, Maxim Kischine ? who has been gone two years for independent training ? gravely wounded and barely conscious. He is eventually able to report that their close mutual friend, Lydie Erlanger, has been abducted. Unfortunately, Maxim's memory of those events and her exact location remain obscured by his trauma. Though the story is fairly generic, the game manages to succeed in telling a tale that renders relevant one character's amnesia, wonderfully intertwining his condition with the resurfacing of the dark castle and all of the evils associated with it. Not a plot that compares to Symphony of the Night, the Playstation classic, perhaps, but it is more complicated and interesting than Circle of the Moon was.

Harmony of Dissonance was not developed by the internal Konami team responsible for last year's success, Circle of the Moon. Instead, those responsible for 1997's surprise PSOne hit, Symphony of the Night, were recruited to head the project for this Belmont adventure. Those lacking significant pre-Circle of the Moon Castlevania experience will probably be overwhelmed by what Harmony of Dissonance has to offer. However, those who have either played Symphony of the Night to death or have played it recently, will find that Harmony of Dissonance is not so much a spiritual sequel, but a dumbed down rehash of the venerable PSOne classic. Everything from the hidden quest, dual castles, inventory system, shopkeepers, bosses, and relic system remain relatively intact from Symphony.

Once again, our intrepid adventurer enters Dracula's Castle as a level one Vampire Killer, wearing little to no worthwhile equipment. You progress, in a somewhat open ended manner, from section to section within Dracula's castles in an attempt to thwart his resurrection and save your companion, named Lydie this time around. Throughout the 10 or so hour long quest, you will have to whip, jump, and dash your way through hordes of enemies while accruing experience and gold. You will also be able to utilize the traditional Castlevania sub-weapons, such as the dagger, holy water, axe, and cross in order to help vanquish your foes. Juste's magical heritage comes into play in the form of five spellbooks that will allow him to empower these sub-weapons in order to cast spells, burning up magic points, instead of the usual hearts. You will still be able to disable the spellbooks and wield the sub weapons normally, of course, though this is a much weaker alternative. This system, dubbed the Spell Fusion system, is one of the only new additions to Harmony of Dissonance. While more focused than Circle of the Moon's DSS card system, it is not as varied or as balanced, ultimately.

The focus of the game is to collect the fragmented body parts of Dracula's corpse in order to prevent his return to reincarnated un-life. Throughout this quest, you will collect a slew of other relics, which will expand your abilities and allow you to access otherwise impossible to reach sections of the castles. Unfortunately, we have all done this in the past, some of us multiple times over the course of multiple Castlevania games. There is nothing truly flawed in Harmony of Dissonance's technical execution of these elements, the game is just lacking a certain freshness. Perhaps because Circle of the Moon was headed by a separate team, the game succeeded in creating a unique, difficult experience that was, at the time, unimaginable on a handheld system. Sure it drew some influence from Symphony, but its own legs to stand on. Harmony of Dissonance simply lacks the crucial element that made the previous game so rewarding to play.

If the developers simply meant to extend exactly the same gameplay as Symphony of the Night, then they succeeded with distinction. Unfortunately, Harmony of Dissonance shares one crucial flaw with Symphony: A complete and total lack of difficulty. The entire game will take you no more than 12 hours to complete, perhaps a bit longer if you seek to explore all 200% of the castle and acquire every single item in the game, despite there being much more terrain to cover than in last year's adventure. Ultimately, Circle of the Moon was a lengthier game due to its more intelligent level layout and significantly higher difficulty level. Juste's new ability to dash rapidly towards or away from enemies will allow him to dart within the guard of foes, attack, and retreat with a modicum of safety not usually afforded to Castlevania heroes. This same technique, with some minor variations, can be employed with devastating effect against the game's many bosses, all of which are simply too weak to ever pose a significant challenge to experienced Castlevania players. Ultimately, Harmony of Dissonance is a game that plays beautifully, but provides an experience that is marred by its simplicity and, at this age, lack of originality.

Minutes after booting up the game it will become readily apparent that graphical presentation was a key factor when upgrading the franchise. All of the major complaints voiced over Circle of the Moon have been addressed. The animation and special effects have been greatly stepped up, providing a much richer visual presentation. Additionally, the castle backdrops were all designed with a much brighter color palette, actually allowing us to see, without any difficulty whatsoever, the fruits of Konami's artists' labors. Of particular note is the animation and design of the main character, Juste Belmont. Not only does he move much smoother and more realistic than Nathan from Circle of the Moon, but all of his actions are wonderfully highlighted by a blue aura (upping his visibility against the backgrounds) and he is followed by Alucard-like shadows, ala Symphony of the Night. Unfortunately, some basic animation problems remain, marring the otherwise slick character visuals. For instance, Juste can flick and twirl his whip in any direction while standing still, which is an old ability used by Simon Belmont in Super Castlevania IV. Unfortunately, he somehow manages to flick and twirl his trusty whip without moving his wrist, arm, and shoulder, or indeed, any part of his body. Compounding this animation no-no is a truly horrible jumping animation. The stilted animation resembles a slight twitching of Juste's legs, somehow propelling him high into the air, and once airborne, his aerial stance greatly resembles his standard standing pose. It looks neither convincing, nor appealing.

Complementing our hero's satisfying representation are equally well realized boss fights. These guardians inhabit the deepest recesses of the castle's specific sub-sections, and are usually a prelude to a new area, an important piece of equipment, or an ability-enhancing relic. Bosses in Harmony of Dissonance are usually giant, hulking machinations composed of not one, but a collection of independently animated sprites, which are constructed together such that to resemble one impressive and imposing abomination. Those guardians that are not physically imposing are complemented by very nifty morphing animations or related special effects. Here too, flaws can be found however, since many of the enemy sprites have been rehashed from Symphony of the Night and other Castlevania games. Enemy encounters, and their patterns, are not as original as they once were, unfortunately. Is it pleasant, at least, to be able to recognize that in some respects, the Gameboy Advance can push similar 2D trickery to that of the Playstation.

The gameplay is technically on par with the Playstation incarnation. The graphics not only hold their own when compared to more advanced examples of the franchise, but also hold the honor of making this title one of the most gorgeous games on the system. A stunning soundtrack, like last year's game, would have rounded out that package perfectly. Unfortunately, as it was revealed through an interview with the developers, they focused on the graphics and gameplay to the complete exclusion of the soundtrack. The composition is actually top notch, as we would expect from Konami's star composers. However, instead of attempting to utilize the GBA sound system, they seemingly ran the music through the GBC sound chip, providing us with music that is only a step above the four-channel synth of the NES and GBC days. In fact, the ending credit theme is a digital sounding rendition of the first castle area's music, much like Golden Sun's digital music. It is quite disappointing and illogical that the rest of the soundtrack could not benefit from this treatment.

On a brighter note, though not quite erasing the blight of this game's music quality, the sound effects and vocals are immaculately rendered. From the cracking of the whips, to the shopkeeper's evil cackle, to Juste's large variety of grunts, groans, and yells, the sound effects and occasional vocal moments are spot-on convincing. In this regard, the game is truly a treat to listen too. The excellent, almost entirely original (barring a hidden mode that plays a nostalgic Vampire Killer remix) soundtrack could have complemented these aural treats wonderfully, had the soundtrack actually taken advantage of the GBA's sound system.

Bottom Line
Harmony of Dissonance is one of the greatest rehashed titles I have ever played. I generally stay away from exhausted ideas, but those timeless elements that were carried over from Symphony of the Night are adapted wonderfully in this newest release. The story was also different enough to hold my interest for the duration. The game is both a technological marvel, and in other ways, a bitter disappointment. Overall, it is a good Castlevania title, which in laymen's terms means that it is a great game, if not entirely original. For those that have not experienced the glories of Circle of the Moon and Symphony of the Night, or simply seek more of the same greatness, this game is a necessity.

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