keskiviikko 5. tammikuuta 2011

REVIEW - Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance (2002)

Genre(s): Action / Platform / RPG
Released: 2002
Available on: GBA
Developer(s): Konami
Publisher(s): Konami
Players: 1

Fed up with Castlevania games he wasn't involved with and which turned out to be not to his liking, Koji Igarashi took the lead in the development of Konami's second Game Boy Advance title. His aim was to create a true successor to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and a game that felt like Castlevania altogether, from gameplay to atmosphere and character design. He wanted the story to be one that could be easily fitted into the Castlevania timeline even without the application of age-old concepts. The result was Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance, another much debated Castlevania title, which in my opinion was a good effort by Konami. Not much of an audiovisual treat, but a fairly captivating 'Vania experience.

Symphony of the harmony of the innocence of the darkness... let's just play it.

Juste Belmont is an incredibly talented vampire hunter with the Belmont and Belnades blood flowing within him, making him adept in both physical and magical skill. Fifty years ago, Juste's grandfather Simon destroyed Dracula by gathering his remains and resurrecting him, only to put an end to the curse that ailed him and to the scourge of Dracula forever. Juste's best friend Maxim has been gone for two years, on a training expedition. He returns badly wounded, suffering from a severe case of amnesia, and with bad news; Juste and Maxim's childhood friend Lydie Erlanger has been kidnapped. Maxim leads Juste to the scene, where a dark castle has appeared out of thin air. While investigating the dark corridors of the castle, Juste finds it to be Dracula's abode, but no signs of the prince of darkness are present. What evil is at work?

"What is a man? A miserable mile of blue
What the game is to fanatics of the Castlevania storyline and how it plays out like are things that are easy to explain. Harmony of Dissonance is more or less a direct sequel to 1987's Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, a game that I have bashed so generously that I probably need not explain how much I dislike it. The main character Juste Belmont is closer in style, all the way from his movement to his clothing and looks, to Alucard than any of his ancestors. His swift, almost demonic movement and skill are explained by the fact that he has a better dose of both the Belmont and Belnades blood pumped into him than his couple of predecessors. He could be seen as the perfect piece of sub-sperm born from that one night Trevor and Sypha got a little drunk and personal hundreds of years ago. I could come up with all kinds of jokes, but I digress.

The gameplay's pure Symphony of the Night, with a few unique features. The stand-alone game Circle of the Moon came pretty close to the PlayStation classic in terms of gameplay, but Harmony of Dissonance brings back relics, the spellbook and item shop, among other things, and of course, the classic Castlevania atmosphere. Alucard's natural speed and dodging skill are brought back, and Nathan's neat slide kick from the previous game is brought back as an upgrade. The game is ugly, it sounds even worse, it's overtly Japanese in its anime style, but for the most part, it's a very controllable and playable Metroidvania experience.

Harmony of Dissonance does look better, or at least more dimensional and dynamic than Circle of the Moon, and the sheer size of the map takes up quite a lot of capacity from the Game Boy Advance, so the graphics aren't fit to be excessively criticized. However, I just can't get used to the thick, blue outline that surrounds Juste. He looks like a remnant of an ambitious NES project that never came to be. The character design's quite bland, but in turn the level design is quite OK, and surreal effects rule the show. The differences between the alternative realities - yeah, Konami got a bit stuck on the Silent Hill schtick - are notable.

There's no way around the fact that the music sucks. Some die-hards defend the soundtrack with their lives on the line, but I think they're just begging to differ for the sake of being contrarians. There's absolutely no vintage Castlevania music in the game, and this time that is definitely not the only problem with the soundtrack. Soshiro Hokkai makes Michiru Yamane look like a genius. The music is repetitive and twitchy, like it's written and even sequenced for an old, standard Game Boy game. I can't help but to join the majority: as much as I wanted to like the music in this game, I must say that the game has the worst soundtrack in Castlevania history, it's right down there with Yamane's Lament of Innocence soundtrack. Koji Igarashi has later said they intentionally sacrificed music for the graphics. WHY? First of all, the game doesn't look that special and secondly, music is a crucial part of Castlevania! I thought this guy wanted to bring back the genuine article, and not destroy an important element of it! Once again there are notably bad sound effects as well. The death scream from the previous game is still there to haunt - although deaths aren't quite as prominent as they were last time around - and the feminine, Japanese scream Juste lets out whenever he gets poisoned or cursed is just revolting.

Quite a lot of size for a pathetic wretch!
The DSS system from the previous game is scrapped, due to Igarashi liking it, but deeming that it was not the kind of mana system a modern Castlevania game should have. However, he didn't want to repeat Symphony of the Night's features (read: mistakes) either. Your only primary weapon in the game is the Vampire Killer, but you can modify it with several different stones or other artifacts to enforce it with offensive attributes. You can use the whip as a shield and swing it 'round like in Super Castlevania IV, which is really cool. Juste apparently hasn't found the tome which would unlock the secret to whip the Killer to eight different directions, though.

Spellbooks are actually worth something this time. No more complex combos: the spells are based on your current secondary weapon alone. For example, if you have a boomerang equipped, try equipping the Fire Book as well. You can then unleash a potentially deadly, fiery boomerang attack, as long as your MP meter and hearts can take it. Sadly, the book doesn't switch off automatically. You always need to return to the menu and switch it off manually, if you're out of MP and feel the need to use the standard boomerang.

I've got to admit, he's one capable Belmont.
The game starts out like any Metroidvania game and remains that way for the first three or four hours. Checking the map again and again reveals that you're making progress real fast, perhaps too fast - there's got to be something wrong, since you still can't reach certain places and you've already cleared 85% of the map. Well, that 85% finally reveals to be the completion of Castle A. In addition, there's Castle B, and Castle A+B. You see, inspired by the concept of the "Otherworld" in the Silent Hill series, the developers decided to create three different realities for this game. One's pretty basic for a Castlevania game, the second is a run-down castle which seems to have been abandoned for the last century or so, and the third one's from the between, not quite one way or the other. There's a fine dose of surrealism, right there, but it also means some of the worst and most tedious backtracking in the franchise's history - the amount of backtracking which you are ready for is not enough. You see, some passageways that are not open in the "real" castle, might be in its darker counterpart, and vice versa. Unfortunately, the only pathways between the realities are the classic teleports introduced in Symphony of the Night, and there's only a handful of them on the whole map.

So, the worst issue about Harmony of Dissonance is that it turns out perhaps the most aimless game of all Metroidvanias. The worst thing about the map is that unlike the previous games, it declares corners done by the slightest touch. For example, if you have not yet acquired the ability to slide and make it to a room that has an important item on its other side - which you can't reach without the slide - you just leave and come back for it later, right? The room's still marked in dark grey, right? It's easy to spot, right? No. If you made it to the room itself, it shows on the map as an already visited spot, which of course prompts any old Metroid player to stay away from it for the rest of the game. You can't memorize all of these places. The most practical thing for you to do would be to draw a copy of the map on paper and mark the spots you couldn't reach before, but that's just tedious extra work for someone who just wants to play a game.

The number. Look at the number. Shall we
leave it here? No, still two more castles to
go. Damn.
To compensate for the worst back-and-forth trip in the history of Metroid, 'Vania and Metroidvania, we have perfect controls on the mark with Symphony of the Night, and perhaps even better. It's smooth and comfortable to play, a huge upgrade from the stiff Circle of the Moon. The difficulty level of the game is bit of a downgrade - of course, it has some benefits over the frustrating difficulty of Circle of the Moon. Although most of its "difficulty" is based on simply trying to find the right path each time, the game is a bit harder than Symphony of the Night, once again the appearance of save points isn't quite on the mark. However, the bosses are easy to beat with the right weaponry, there's a lot of items and methods to conserve and maintain health, and platform jumping is pretty much limited to the terror that has plagued Castlevania games since day one: the Clock Tower, complete with Medusa Heads and Harpies. The game will take a relatively long time to beat, though, even if you're being all casual about it. As always, there's a hard mode or two to unlock, as well as three multiple endings.

Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance is not perfect, but despite its dull moments it's definitely a solid gaming experience, in my mind it's the real Castlevania game that Konami had been bombarded for by many fans for quite a while back in the day. I have to admit that I didn't have the time to beat the game, since a friend's pressuring me to take on Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, beat and review it before the first DLC comes out - it's his game. But, I will return to Harmony of Dissonance to take care of the few ends I left loose soon enough - it's good enough for me to care. The next handheld game Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow still stands as one of the proudest moments of the Game Boy Advance - all but an honorary mention since it has already been reviewed a long time ago. A shame, really. I would've loved to review it again after experiencing these predecessors to it. Perhaps I will, some day.

Graphics : 7.7
Sound : 5.5
Playability : 8.0
Challenge : 8.2
Overall : 7.9


GameRankings: 85.03%

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