Yeah yeah, SEXIE MAN J00ny Metts has had Castlevania since BEFORE launch day. Just shut up and read his review.
Being a huge fan of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night on PSX, I was naturally VERY excited about Circle of the Moon, which is essentially SotN’s sequel. However, despite a very similar game design, these two entries into Konami’s most recognizable franchise are actually very different. In SotN you played as Alucard, a vampire who attacked with swords and used magic and familiars to aid his quest. CotM goes back to a more traditional vampire-hunter theme, complete with the whip and all that stuff. Still, this new game doesn’t really have that much in common with the old Castlevania platformers. It’s very much an adventure game...there are no bottomless pits, you’re not going to run out of lives, and you explore a giant castle filled with secret rooms. What’s funny is that even after shedding the vampire powers and stuff, CotM feels even less like a traditional Castlevania game than SotN did. That may bother some old-school fans, but at least you aren’t getting a rehash of old material.
The two most noticeable characteristics of CotM are the darkness and the difficulty. I think this game’s brightness (or lack thereof) has been very well documented, so I’m not going into it very much. Suffice it to say that it is indeed a very dark game, and you’d be wise to try it out before dropping forty bucks on the cartridge. I know some people who were so bothered with it that they returned the game...others will surely think it adds to the game’s atmosphere. Regardless, you are going to need a well-lit room to play Circle of the Moon, and that does reduce its portability.
The difficulty is another thing that will be loved by many players and hated by the rest. CotM seems to delight in catching you off-guard with how hard it is, and I’ll admit that I did get pretty frustrated at times. Health-restoring items are largely useless and almost impossible to find. Thank goodness there are lots of save points, but unprepared or just unskilled players will die many, many times, especially at the bosses.
The Dual Select System, or DSS, is pretty much a success. I found only three or four card effects that I used regularly, but there’s enough variety in the system to accommodate many different gameplay styles. Some of the really rare, advanced cards create awesome effects that can add a whole new dimension (or two!) to the game. My only real beef with DSS is that, as essential as the cards are to progressing in the game, finding them is mostly up to luck. It’s easy to miss one that might have made all the difference, and there usually isn’t any logic to which enemy type holds the specific card you want.
In the end, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is an impressive handheld entry to this classic series. I found that the difficulty started to outweigh the fun towards the end of the game, but perhaps I’m just impatient. ;-) One thing’s for sure: this game really is designed for hardcore gamers, and casual players might be turned off by the sometimes extreme difficulty. CotM often asks you to repeat a battle several times until you pull off a victory, and many people just aren’t interested in that kind of gameplay these days. But, if you crave a challenging experience and aren’t bothered by the dark screen, CotM will certainly keep you busy for a while.