tiistai 4. tammikuuta 2011

REVIEW - Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (2001)

Genre(s): Action / Platform / RPG
Released: 2001
Available on: GBA
Developer(s): Konami
Publisher(s): Konami
Players: 1

After the critically acclaimed Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Konami made one ill-fated Game Boy title and two equally shunned Nintendo 64 titles before they once again hit the vein by publishing the first Castlevania game of many for Nintendo's new handheld, the 32-bit Game Boy Advance. The first of many handheld successors to Symphony of the Night, as it derives from the "Metroidvania" style of gameplay originally created for the PlayStation classic, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon was a critical and commercial success. Fans have mixed opinions on the game; some die-hards dislike it since it doesn't share too much storyline with the rest of the series. Yes, well, the plot is quite bad - parts of it are actually somewhat similar to that of the Sega Genesis exclusive Castlevania: Bloodlines/The New Generation - but the game is quite good. Another widely overrated Castlevania title, though, by all means. And a difficult one.

Circle of blood, sweat, tears and a lot of dirty words

It's the year 1830. Ten years ago, vampire hunter Morris Baldwin fought Count Dracula and won, but lost two of his friends, a married couple who had a son, Nathan Graves. Morris adopted Nathan and raised him as an apprentice of his, finally naming him his successor, over his biological son Hugh. When Dracula is resurrected by an Austrian cultist named Carmilla, Morris storms her castle with Nathan and Hugh, only to be captured by the vengeful prince of darkness. Hugh goes his own way to save his father and prove his worth, while Nathan is left alone to fight for his life in the darkest depths of the Abyss.

Outside or inside a castle tower? I can't quite
make it out.
The plot and dialogue's as stupid as in Symphony of the Night - luckily we don't have to deal with horrible voice acting as well - and for the most part the game plays out like Symphony of the Night, but something's a bit off. No Belmonts, no Alucard, no Vampire Killer - another quite efficient whip, though - and not much that really ties the atmosphere to the vintage horror franchise we so love. It isn't much of a reboot, either. At times it feels like a decent Castlevania copy, or a decent spin-off. But that's the most important point: it's decent, so who cares?

The game could look better. It was a launch title for the Game Boy Advance in Japan, but so was Super Mario Advance and it looked awesome. The level design's pretty much one-dimensional and bland, enemies are often lost in the detailed backgrounds, and the sprites look obsolete, like just slightly polished and coloured versions of the sprites in the old Game Boy titles. Some random graphical effects rock, though. The bosses are quite big in size, but they don't look that special otherwise.

Damn you, humping monkeys! I need that
The music's pretty good, mostly original stuff - quite sufficient, but also quite repetitive Castlevania jive. Better and worse remixes of many old tunes appear from time to time, even "Vampire Killer", even though the namesake weapon's gone from the fray on the behalf of the Hunter's Whip. Nathan's dying scream has got to be mentioned as a sound effect I can't stand - just because I've heard it break about a dozen times within an hour. It's easy to imitate - just play the game, and if it isn't enough, try ONE of the hard, alternative modes. It'll come out of your mouth naturally. What I'm trying to say is: Circle of the Moon ain't an easy game. I actually consider it the second hardest Castlevania game after Castlevania III on the NES. Know that before you even try it.

The game is a bit lacking, physically, and that adds to the difficulty as well. Some special moves are really awkward to execute using the Game Boy Advance control scheme, Nathan is really stiff in general - not quite as stiff as his black 'n' white predecessors, though - for example, a simple thing like turning around seems taxing to him at times, and the game has the worst flying bastards that ever appeared in a Castlevania game. These range from the usual bats and Medusa Heads to flying and rotating swords with minds of their own. And yes, even in the year 2001, a Castlevania main character STILL makes a ridiculous jump backwards whenever hit by the tiniest object. And yes, enemies respawn and regenerate each time you exit and re-enter a screen, even for half a second and because of a bump caused by one of those airborne menaces. I guess the game IS a Castlevania game after all.

Well, THIS does look familiar.
Well-timed platform jumping is more of an important part of the game than it had been in years. Many parts of Carmilla's castle are basically towering series' of platforms, which you usually need to climb all the way to the top to advance in the game. Everything else is almost pure Symphony of the Night, with worse controls. There's no shop, though, and the map of the castle is drawn further as you go - the map's not available as an item. Relics, spells and special armour are replaced by a unique Dual Set-up System - the DSS. Based on your Luck stat, you might stumble on magic cards when you dispose of certain enemies. There are 20 different cards. 10 represent your stats - strength, defense, and so on, while the other half represents magical elements, such as fire and ice. You need to equip two cards to create an effect, one stat card and one attribute card. Putting it simple, if you equip a defense card, and an attribute card with the element of fire, you gain resistance against fire-based attacks. If you didn't already do the math, there are 100 different card combinations at your disposal.

The menu is easier and more comfortable to use than in Symphony of the Night; you can use items easily without having to equip them. Health items are pretty scarce, though - good luck even finding them! On top of it all, potions are really lame. They only restore about a measly 20 HP of your total health. If you made the same false conclusion as I did and thought Symphony of the Night had save points in the most illogical of places, you're in for some whole new level of terror in Circle of the Moon. You will be literally fighting for your life and hoping to find a save point in every screen while you're climbing those towers of platforms. Usually there aren't any to be found before you've cleared the whole ordeal; there's one near every boss, thank Lord, but the bosses might be the least of your concerns every once in a while. Even the tamest of enemies can turn into a hell's army if and when there are enough of them standing as one against you. And believe me, there will be. You will be lashing that whip like there's no tomorrow.

The whip's dual-set with the power of fire.
Did I already mention how hard the game is? No, actually I didn't. The first round is hard, sure, but quite beatable if you're a veteran of this whole vampire killin' business. Yet, get this: each time you beat the game, you get a chance to try a new mode. Not just any old hard mode, but a special mode - there are five in all. Vampire Killer is the name of the initial round, and of course, it's the most balanced one. In Magician Mode, Nathan has all the DSS cards at his disposal from the beginning, but a notable decrease in his physical stats. Fighter Mode is the complete opposite: Nathan can't use DSS at all, but his physical stats are notably increased. In Shooter Mode, Nathan's (very traditional) secondary weapons become even more powerful, but once again, his physical stats are decreased. The last and hardest mode is Thief Mode, in which ALL of Nathan's stats are notably decreased except for luck, which gets a huge boost. All of these alternative modes have their own difficulties - none of them's a breeze. Then there's the Battle Arena from the start, which you are required to complete to achieve 100% map completion in any mode, and let me tell you, every enemy in that God forsaken place wants a piece of your ass! Circle of the Moon is, in my honest opinion and all of its five different gameplay experiences considered, one of the hardest games of the decade.

It's not my favourite Castlevania game, though, not even on a handheld. It's a huge facelift from the last handheld installment, Castlevania Legends, and it does a pretty good job in bringing Symphony of the Night's Metroidvania schtick to the small screen, but it just doesn't feel like 'Vania, not even with its quite decent rendition of "Vampire Killer", the controls just aren't up to par and it's even more aimless than Symphony was at its worst. You will suffer heaps of pain and keep on backtracking to the tiniest corners of the Abyss and the castle just to raise your maximum MP a few too many times, since there aren't that many special items to be acquired in the game. Yet, I have to say that I didn't expect even this much fun out of the game; I thought it was crap the moment I laid eyes on it!

Graphics : 6.9
Sound : 7.8
Playability : 7.1
Challenge : 9.6
Overall : 7.5


a.k.a. Akumajo Dracula: Circle of the Moon (JAP), Castlevania (EU)

GameRankings: 88.28%

Nintendo Power ranks Castlevania: Circle of the Moon #108 on their list of the Top 200 Nintendo Games of All Time.

One of three totally different games simply known as Castlevania in Europe.  

Producer Koji Igarashi was not a part of the Circle of the Moon project, and he was highly critical of the game - for example, he liked the DSS system in theory, but felt it didn't belong in a Castlevania game. In 2002, he removed the game's storyline from the series' official canon. The game's events are noted, however, in a written timeline that accompanied Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin (DS, 2006) as a pre-order bonus.

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