Monday, May 14, 2018

Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance Review

Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance is the second Castlevania game for the Game Boy Advance, and the third in the Metroidvania style. It was originally released in 2002, about a year after Castlevania: Circle of the Moon. It is also available on the Wii U Virtual Console. Development of HoD was handled by Konami’s Tokyo studio instead of the Kobe studio who made Circle of the Moon. Koji Igarashi, who was not involved with Circle of the Moon, was the producer and scenario writer for HoD.

Harmony of Dissonance takes place in 1748, 50 years after the events of Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, and 44 years before Rondo of Blood. It’s sort of a sequel to Simon’s Quest, and it references story and gameplay elements from that game. You play as Juste Belmont, Simon Belmont’s grandson, and maybe Richter's father or grandfather, too. He and his friend Maxim come across Castlevania while searching for their kidnapped friend, Lydie. It's later revealed that Maxim was jealous of Juste, because he's such a superstar Vampire Hunter, and decided to steal his thunder by collecting Dracula's body parts, which was Juste’s job as a Belmont. The collected body parts are what made Dracula's castle appear.

Juste might look more like Alucard than a Belmont, but he is not a Vampire or Dhampir. Juste has a trailing shadow because he has Belnades blood flowing through his veins. I guess Simon’s kid had a child with a Belnades. That's probably why Juste has white hair, white eyes, and really pale skin, too. Because Juste has both Belmont and Belnades blood, he’s basically a super Vampire Hunter who can wield the Vampire Killer and cast magic.

Juste plays a lot like Alucard, but with a whip instead of a sword. Most of the weird control quirks of Nathan Graves from Circle of the Moon are gone. Juste doesn't look like he's going on a stroll, he looks more like he's jogging, and he can jump much farther than Nathan, so he doesn't have to constantly sprint everywhere to make every little jump. Juste has forward and back dash moves, but he doesn't gain momentum to jump farther from them, they're just for evading enemy attacks and traversing the castle. It is weird that they used both L and R for 2 different dash moves, especially since the GBA only has 4 buttons, but it's not like they had anything better to put on them. Juste only gets 3 new abilities throughout the whole game, so everything works fine with the amount of buttons.

The abilities in HoD are all very basic returning skills from past Castlevania games. There's a double jump, a slide, and a super jump. Juste can also do a divekick after getting the double jump. A lot of the progress blocking obstacles in the castle require key items and equipment to get past them instead of abilities. There are some stone blocks which will only break when you super jump to them while wearing a specific pair of boots, and stone doors that only break when you have a special whip enhancement equipped, for example. Most of the rewards you get after beating a boss are pieces of armor, health and heart upgrades, and furniture for Juste’s room. Animal Crossing was starting to get popular in Japan around this time.

Harmony of Dissonance’s magic system allows you to combine the classic Castlevania subweapons with 5 different magic books for powerful and flashy spells. You can combine the holy water and wind book for a Rondo of Blood item crash style holy water rain spell, for example. It is a little bit like CotM’s DSS cards, but with a lot less guesswork and no farming required. The magic books are found hidden around the castle, just like most other items. Bosses and enemies have different elemental weaknesses, which are detailed in the bestiary, so experimenting with different schools of magic is encouraged.

Like in Symphony of the Night and Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance takes place in a gigantic interconnected castle. The twist here is that the castle is duplicated early on in the game. It's kind of like Hyrule and the Dark World in Zelda LttP, but not nearly as ingenious. Castle A looks like a normal version of Castlevania at night, and Castle B looks like a ruined version of the castle at sunset. They have different enemies, bosses, items, and obstacles, but the layout is exactly the same. There are a few times when doing something in one castle will open a path in the other, but I don't think this mechanic was used to its full potential. Not being able to quickly travel between the 2 castles probably hindered that.

I thought the 2 castles made the game a real slog. It feels like padding. Like they just had to do something like SotN's inverted castle. There are teleports to get around the castle, and portals to go to the other castle, but they're too apart. Since there's no real flow or logic to where you should be going most of the time, I often found myself traveling all over both castles and exploring the same areas twice while looking for the right path. The level design of the castle is nothing special either. There's a lot of dead ends, very little platforming, and lots of zigzag pattern staircases. It's almost comical how many zigzag staircases there are. There is only one breakable wall in the whole game. There are a few sections where you can break environment pieces to make platforms, but no secret wall turkeys or anything. There's a few rooms with some crate pushing, and those are the most interesting puzzles in the game. Overall, it’s a pretty boring castle when compared to other games in the series.

This game does have some nice looking areas, but also a lot of ugly ones. It looks like they threw out all the new CotM sprites, and only reused Rondo and SotN sprites. Lots of areas in the game have plain one color environment pieces and bright backgrounds with clashing colors. Some areas in the ruined castle are mostly or completely in black and white, even when other areas in it are not, which doesn't make much sense to me. I guess they didn't want to make a game with dark graphics that would be hard to see on a GBA, like CotM, but they went too far in the other direction. The frame rate is good throughout the whole game, at least.

The music in Harmony of Dissonance is just sad. The melodies are fine. There are some new and some returning tunes, and it sounds like Castlevania music, but the audio quality is pathetic. It sounds like a radio station with bad reception. It sounds muffled and distorted. NES music sounds cleaner than this, and that's not an exaggeration, I checked.

Something went wrong with this game. It's like they tried to outdo both Symphony of the Night and Circle of the Moon, but failed miserably. The castle is the worst of the Metroidvanias, and then they duplicate it, there's a lot of ugly backgrounds, and the quality of the audio is pathetic. The core Castlevania gameplay is good, as expected, Simon's Quest fans will enjoy the story, and the magic system is pretty cool, but that's not enough to carry this game out of mediocrity.