As a game reviewer I often feel “hollow” when I know I’ve missed out on good titles. I try to play as varied a selection of games as possible, but sometimes some great titles slip my fingers. The Castlevania series is the one I will be dealing with today. Back when the Nintendo Entertainment System was “the thing” I was a genuine Nintendo created character fan boy. I was a sucker for Mario and the likes, and even though I was perfectly aware of the Castlevania games I chose not to try them. To me they seemed awfully dark and gritty, unlike the friendly Mario, Turtles etc.
Over the years quite a lot of Castlevania games have been released, on a wide selection of platforms. Some have been more successful than others, and the most recent one happens to be one named Harmony of Dissonance. This title has so far gotten a lot of positive press coverage, actually so much that while waiting for Unreal Tournament 2003 this was to be my addiction.
In the beginning of the game we’re presented with the following story:
“Fifty years have passed since Simon Belmont vanquished the curse of Dracula. Fate has dictated that Juste Belmont, blood descendant of the Belmont Family, hunt for the relics of Dracula. One day, Juste’s best friend, Maxim, who had been on a training expedition two years earlier, returned unexpectedly... his body covered with wounds. He informs Juste that Lydia, a childhood friend whom they both deeply care about, has been kidnapped. Passing through thick fog, the two men happen upon a castle undocumented on any map. Could this be the fabled Dracula’s castle? Standing solemnly in the night, this forbidding castle welcomes its unexpected guests as the moonlight shines upon it...”
To summarize; you’re with the good guys, the castle has bad people in it who are keeping valuable relics, and to get all of them you need to remove all that’s bad. Armed with a whip, and a lot of courage you enter the castle. In the game you run around in this enormous castle, fighting progressively tougher monsters, including a good selection of bosses, picking up tons of items, and uncovering dark secrets. One of the things that make this game particularly interesting is the RPG-element. You see Juste can improve himself in several ways, so the stat points are divided into: health, mana, “heart points”, strength, defense, intelligence and luck. As in every role-playing game your character gets for instance stronger by having a higher value in strength. Being stronger means you deal more damage, and who wouldn’t want that?
Along with the whip Juste is also able to use special weapons that you can pick up along the way. To name a few; a throwing knife, a cross and an axe. Each of these have special attacks, and since you can only carry one at a time you will have to consider which one you need the most. To make it all even more interesting you have a spellbook that expands as you progress in the game. The spellbook can fit five different elemental powers, which add a lot of power and coolness to the special attacks. These powers show Harmony of Dissonance’s best graphics, and to be perfectly honest they add a lot to the fun-factor.
The relics I previously mentioned are also an integral part to the fun-factor in this title. In total you can pick up twelve of them, and all of them add abilities that sometimes are just useful, while some are essential to progressing. Early in the game you will stumble across ones like Fairie Journal, which lets you see the names of the enemies you attack, and Monster Tome, which lets you see data about the various monsters through the menu. The latter is especially interesting because it shows for instance the level of the monster, HP and weakness. Later in the game this can come in handy because it helps you decide which elemental power will be the most efficient. Later in the game you find relics like Sylph Feather, which lets you perform double jumps, and Lizard Tail, which lets you perform a slide-attack.
The biggest problem with the gameplay lies in the level design. Often I found myself aimlessly running around in search for the correct way to go. Some areas are locked until you pick up a certain item or defeat a certain bad-guy, so after having done that task it’s not always easy to recall where the locked door was located. You can use a map, but it doesn’t help as much as I would have wanted. It’s usually only a matter of time until you figure out the right route, but it gets annoying when you have to kill a room’s selection of enemies many times. The game would probably be boring if the enemies disappeared completely after killing them, but as it is you can also easily exploit the experience system. In some areas there’s a constant stream of weaker enemies, so if you simply use an attack that spins your whip around constantly for a long period you should have earned a substantial load of experience. This can come in handy at times though, since if you aren’t able to kill a boss you can always just spend a while beefing up your character as much as you need.
As you slay vicious monsters you will be well accompanied, by detailed and colorful graphics, a decent selection of music, and cool sound effects. Years ago when I decided not to go for the Castlevania series it was partially because of its dark and dull graphics. In this iteration of the series the developers decided to go for a more colorful scheme, and this certainly turned out well. It doesn’t feel like you’re going through one enormous level, instead a lot have a distinct look. That way it feels more like you’re exploring something new, raising the fun-factor even more. Juste and the villains are well animated, and even though there could’ve been even more animations (such as when pushing a crate) it generally works well. The graphics aren’t extremely innovative, but when playing it’s evident that the artists have worked a lot – giving a visually impressive atmosphere.
I won’t go out on a limb and say the music is brilliant though. It is certainly not bad, but there is room for improvement. Earlier Castlevania titles have had excellent musical scores, but I’m sure that in most cases the awesome gameplay will take your mind of the background music.
As you might’ve gathered so far, this is not your every-day platform game. It’s clear to me why Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance has received so much positive press. It is a game with solid visuals, good sounds and music, but most importantly it is a game with much more depth than the regular Mario-like platform games. Harmony of Dissonance may not be as suited for children, but for gamers who are a bit older this should be a great game for any platform game.