While last year's nearly simultaneous release of the GameCube and Xbox consoles was a huge deal, the Game Boy Advance also hit the shelves earlier in 2001, and this great system appeared alongside several great games. Castlevania: Circle of the Moon was probably the best of them, as it featured the classic side-scrolling, action-packed gameplay of its numerous predecessors, as well as the open-ended structure of the outstanding Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for the PlayStation. Castlevania games have always been popular for their gothic theme, impressive boss battles, and variety of enemies, and Circle of the Moon combined many of the best aspects of its predecessors while introducing a number of new twists. And it was portable, to boot. More than a year later, another new Castlevania has finally hit the GBA, and by and large it's a worthy successor. Boasting better visuals and lots of gameplay, Harmony of Dissonance is not just a fine Castlevania game--it's also one of the better Game Boy Advance games to come around in a while.
Every Castlevania game basically tells the same story. In this case, you play as Juste Belmont, a smartly dressed descendent of Simon from the original Castlevania (and a dead ringer for Symphony of the Night's Alucard) who arrives at Dracula's castle to help a friend of his on a rescue mission. The pair splits up, leaving you to travel around the sprawling castle on your own, defeating its dangerous inhabitants using your trusty whip. As you might expect, the plot really doesn't figure prominently into the game--it only serves to set up another romp through another version of Dracula's castle. It's all the excuse anyone would need.
Harmony of Dissonance is in some ways a simpler game than last year's Castlevania. Juste mostly relies on his whip to deal with his enemies, and though you can upgrade it, the whip's attack itself remains basically the same throughout the game--you don't have access to other main weapons like you did in Circle of the Moon. That game also featured a surprisingly robust magic system that allowed you to combine pairs of special cards for dozens of different effects. It was strange that seemingly so much effort went into the system, many of whose effects were either too subtle or more interesting than useful. Harmony of Dissonance streamlines things by giving you the chance to discover just a handful of different not-so-secret elemental magic books that imbue your secondary weapons with their powers. Castlevania's classic secondary weapons, from the boomerang-like cross to the axe to the holy water, all return here (plus a new one that makes Juste lash out with a flurry of punches), but now each has a unique effect when coupled with a spell book. You still can carry only one secondary weapon at a time, so while you'll only be able to choose from a few different magic attacks at any point, you'll still end up having access to a good variety of different powers.
Juste has some unique abilities, as well as some that you'll recognize from other games. Fans of Super Castlevania IV for the SNES will be pleased to know that Juste can lash out in different directions with his whip when you press and hold the attack button and push the D pad in the desired direction. Unfortunately, this move is mostly useless in practice, and it doesn't even look particularly good since Juste stands frozen like a statue while his whip flails about. One far more effective technique is Juste's ability to execute a short, quick dash forward or backward when you press either shoulder button. Rapidly tapping these lets you cover a lot of ground quickly, and doing so is less cumbersome than having to double-tap the D pad to get Circle of the Moon's Nathan to run, though here, you just might end up wearing down your GBA's delicate L and R buttons.
Like Nathan or Alucard, Juste needs to find relics throughout the castle that provide him with certain necessary abilities, which is how the game limits you from being able to go anywhere in the castle right off the bat. Some areas won't be accessible until you learn the double jump, others won't be reachable until you can slide through small gaps in the wall, and still others will require the use of a super high jump. If this sounds like Circle of the Moon or Symphony of the Night, that's because Harmony of Dissonance makes use of the same general formula. Which is fine, because that formula works great, though it bears mentioning that it does date back at least to 1997's Symphony of the Night or possibly to 1986's Metroid, so don't go in expecting anything other than a tried-and-true nonlinear side-scroller.
For that matter, don't go in expecting the same level of difficulty found in Circle of the Moon, because you won't get it. Clearly, word got back to Konami that Circle of the Moon was pretty hard, so as if to make amends, Harmony of Dissonance turns out to be pretty easy--especially in comparison. Juste gets stronger as he gains experience by defeating enemies, and in certain sections of the castle, it's simple to just keep whacking the same enemies over and over, thus making yourself far more powerful than you'll think you deserve to be at that point in the game. Regardless of whether you exploit the experience system, you'll likely find that boss battles in Harmony of Dissonance, while both plentiful and visually stunning, are also not much of a challenge. Bosses tend to follow straightforward, predictable patterns, and your whip and secondary weapons can often make short work of them. Nevertheless, it bears reiterating that these large monsters at the very least look great and make impressive use of the GBA's various sprite-rotation capabilities and other visual effects.
It's also worth pointing out that the biggest hurdle to overcome in Harmony of Dissonance is simply figuring out where to go next. Sure, you can bring up a map at any time, but it lacks detail and will lead you to dead ends as often as it will set you on the right path. Besides, having to constantly switch between the game screen and the map interferes with the pacing of the game, and having to backtrack through the same areas while looking for a new place to explore can be a bit tedious.
Harmony of Dissonance is a great-looking GBA game that offers better visuals than its predecessor--and most other GBA games, for that matter. The game features dozens of different types of enemies, though series veterans will notice that a number of them seem ripped straight from the previous games. Juste is animated pretty smoothly and looks good in action, though his floaty jump leaves something to be desired. Generally, Konami seemed to respond directly to criticisms of the previous Castlevanias in how it redid the graphics for this installment. Last year's game was very darkly colored, so much so that the action could be difficult to see even in direct sunlight. So Harmony of Dissonance has a vibrant color palette and larger characters. You'll notice conspicuous details like the way Juste is surrounded by a shimmering aura that makes him stand out against the game's backgrounds--is it his mystical powers, or is it Konami making sure you don't ever lose sight of the hero? Speaking of the backgrounds, what they lack in structural complexity--just basic platform jumping here--they more than make up for in aesthetic variety. Seeing each strange, new area of Dracula's castle is certainly one of the more enjoyable aspects of the game.
Castlevania games are known for their outstanding musical scores, among other things, but unfortunately, Harmony of Dissonance fails to live up to that part of its heritage. The music here is decent, and some of the compositions are fitting or even catchy, but they simply don't sound anywhere near as good as those of Circle of the Moon, and they don't stand up to the high standards of the series. Despite there being some other issues with the game, most any Castlevania fan would agree that the music in Harmony of Dissonance is really the one thing that absolutely should have been better. Fortunately, the game's good sound effects do help make up for its tunes.
It'll take you 10 hours or so to whip through Dracula's castle, find most of its secrets, and reach one of several different endings. After that, the game makes available a boss battle mode in which you fight each of the game's boss monsters one after another. There are some other nice extras as well, including a great throwback to the series' roots and the ability to play as a different main character, and it all adds up to make Harmony of Dissonance an excellent value. Overall, this latest Castlevania is a great side-scroller on its own merits, and it won't disappoint the series' discriminating fans, who rightfully have come to except nothing less.