It’s definitely prettier than the last handheld Castlevania, but how does it play?
Harmony of Dissonance is a tough cookie...to review, not to play. See, that’s the problem in a nutshell. In a series cherished for its challenging gameplay and difficult bosses, the newest Castlevania for GBA is, for the most part, pathetically easy. Whether this fact bothers you or not will basically determine if you should get the game.
How is HoD so easy? It’s actually a combination of many factors, most of which could have easily been fixed during development. Juste Belmont, the main character, is simply too powerful. His whip can kill most enemies in one or two hits, even at the beginning of the game. His slide is both quick and powerful, dealing exactly as much damage as the whip. Likewise, his Chun Li-style heel kick is also equal to the whip, and it can be easily chained to form a ridiculous head-stomping combo. The magic meter is very quick to refill, and Juste’s spells are, for the most part, very powerful. I beat the final boss with just three summons, didn’t even need a magic-refilling item. That’s sad.
Another unfortunate consequence of the magic system is the death of sub-weapons. Which one you have still affects which spells you can cast, but the actual classic weapons, holy water and cross boomerangs and such, have become useless. Even if you wanted to use them, it’s a pain to do so because you have to enter the sub-screen to turn a spellbook on or off. In short, the magic system is not nearly as deep as the card-combining system in Circle of the Moon, or as balanced as the spells in Symphony of the Night. I could suggest a dozen ways to fix this aspect of the game, but the point is that Konami should have taken care of it before releasing the game.
Most of the other modern Castlevania gameplay features are intact and properly executed. The Metroid-style progression is as solid as ever, although it’s not always clear what areas a new item has opened up, especially with the keys later in the game. Leveling up happens often and without special effort, and it’s likely that you’ll finish the game without ever stopping to methodically build experience points. Save points are nicely spaced out, and although warps seem too few at first, they become quite plentiful late in the game, when you most need to quickly traverse the castle. Sadly, Konami really half-assed the shopkeeper this time around. He’s rarely selling anything you need, but when you do need to fill up your stock of potions and whatnot, you can never find the guy; he jumps around among a dozen or so rooms, practically negating any solid impact he could have had on the gameplay. If the man who gets things is never around, you can’t get things from him. So what’s the point?
Although the two dedicated dash buttons seem like a cool idea at first, the game quickly tires of providing you with good opportunities to use the feature. The forward dash is particularly pointless; it has no tactical use, and for simply covering ground, the slide move is much faster and more responsive. Juste can brandish and “flick” his whip, and HoD does indeed manage to provide some cool uses for this move. It’s a shame that the directional whipping, also from Super Castlevania IV, wasn’t included. With a relative backwards dash mapped to one shoulder trigger, the other could have activated sub-weapons and spells, leaving the D-Pad for fancy whip-slinging.
As for the graphics, I doubt anyone could argue that Harmony of Dissonance isn’t a marked improvement over its predecessor. These are simply some of the best visuals to grace the GBA yet. The excellent animation and great sprite art are meshed with every hardware effect in the book, from sprite scaling/rotation to Mode-7 to parallax scrolling to even simple polygonal trickery. All of this is highlighted (literally, yar) by a considerably brighter display than last year’s game. My only complaints about HoD’s graphics are the garish outline around Juste and the fact that his sprite isn’t affected by equipped items. Still, these minor, minor quibbles can’t take anything away from this beautiful game.
The sound, famously, has lost some quality from the series standard. The compositions are still quite good, some of them rather catchy, but it’s obvious that low-grade instruments and heavy compression have been used to save CPU power for the graphics. There’s no voice-acting to speak of, which is perhaps a blessing in light of previous efforts from this series.
Harmony of Dissonance is a lengthy quest by GBA standards, somewhere around ten hours plus however long you spend on the extra modes that open up with completion. Unfortunately, some of this time will be spent aimlessly wandering the castle rooms, looking for places you’ve opened up with the newest relic. The map helps somewhat, but sometimes a room will show as visited even though it contains an item you couldn’t reach previously. To make matters worse, the game likes to hand you items without telling you what to do with them. I spent at least an hour wandering around with Maxim’s Bracelet before finally resorting to GameFAQs for a bit of guidance. Also, some scripted events can open up paths in the other castle (don’t ask), but the game never gives you an indication that the castles are linked in that way. On the plus side, the small handful of block-pushing puzzles can be quite devious and challenging.
Overall, Harmony of Dissonance is, for the most part, a nice little sequel to Symphony of the Night. Its game design and style are much more in tune with that PSX classic than last year’s Circle of the Moon, though it’s arguable as to whether that makes HoD the superior handheld Castlevania. Regardless, this is a very fun game that should provide a great fix for Castlevania junkies or a pleasant introduction for anyone new to the series. Symphony of the Night still reigns supreme in my book, but Harmony of Dissonance is money well spent.