Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance

Platform:  Nintendo Game Boy Advance
Developer:  Konami
Released:  2002
Genre:  Metroidvania (Action Adventure)

The Game
Juste Belmont, grandson of Simon Belmont, is drawn into the fight against Dracula when his friend Maxim returns from a long journey having lost both a huge chunk of his memory and Lydie, his and Juste's childhood friend.  Together, the two men retrace Maxim's steps until they come across a strange castle filled with monstrous beasties.  Over the course of the game, Juste comes to find out that it is Dracula's castle (duh) and that the spirits within now threaten not only Juste and Lydie's life, but Maxim's very soul.

This is the second game created by the people who made the widely acclaimed Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, making it one of the earliest installments of the Castlevania series to help bring about the fan term "Metroidvania".  It also pulls some thematic inspiration from Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, as you go around the castle collecting the same body parts of Dracula that Simon grabs up in that earlier game and they are intimately tied into the mystery behind the bond between Maxim and the castle.

The Characters
Though there is an interesting story to be had, like most Castlevanias, characterization is fairly sparse, the worst instance being Lydie, who doesn't really progress beyond being your typical damsel in distress.  Juste is more or less your standard hero type, his emotional range staying pretty well within the "angry-concerned-jovial" trilogy of action hero acting.  Maxim is the one who comes closest to approaching interesting, since he's the only one to have any real motivations and internal conflict, but he's only seen on a handful of occasions throughout the game.

Still, the lack of real characterization doesn't really detract from the game, as it's more or less just a basic framework upon which to hang the other elements of the game.

The Writing
As with the characterization, the story is a fairly basic tale of rivalry, betrayal, action, heroism, self-sacrifice, and good vs. evil.  Nothing to get too excited about, but it does its job adequately.

The Gameplay
The gameplay is where Harmony of Dissonance truly shines.  Juste moves extremely well, and gains several power ups that improve his maneuverability even more.  Considering the scale of the castle and that you'll be spending a massive amount of your time just moving from one section on one side of the map to another section all the way on the other side, this is a good thing.  Without the dash and slide abilities, I would most likely have given up after the third or fourth time having to walk through any given section.

Though Juste's primary attack (the whip, natch) stays more or less the same throughout the entire game, I like the depth they gave to the subweapon system.  You've got all your standard Castlevania mainstays such as the Dagger, Axe, and Holy Water, but you can also mix and match them with the five spellbooks you can find throughout the castle for varying effects.  The one I ended up using for the most part was the Wind Book + Cross combo, which caused a shield of flying crosses to whirl around Juste in a wide circle, damaging any creature hit by it.

The equipment system is pretty basic, but solid.  Most items are rare, but you rarely ever even use them, so it's not a big deal.

The Challenge
If there's one spot I can point to and definitely say "I'm not happy with this" without any qualifiers, it would have to be that Harmony of Dissonance is too damn easy.  I explored 200% of the castle (there's two castles, by the way, just like in Symphony of the Night), got all three endings, found almost every single findable item in the game, beat every mini-boss . . . and I died a total of two times.  And it wasn't even because the guys I was fighting were particularly difficult.  It was because I'd gotten so used to just flying through every obstacle that I stopped paying attention to my health meter most of the time.  Things jumped to being a little bit tougher in the second castle and I hadn't been prepared for just how much life each hit would take from me.  After these two deaths and after just a few minutes of collecting better gear, I was able to go right back to coasting through the entire rest of the game.  Even the end bosses ended up going down like little bitches.


The Graphics
Stellar.  The castle is beautifully atmospheric, looking just like Dracula's castle should in a Castlevania game.  The monsters, both the classic and the new, have wonderful designs and well-made sprites.

Unfortunately, this cannot be said of the human character sprites.  Juste, Maxim, and Lydie are all very muddy and ill-defined, looking more like they belong in the NES era than the SNES look that the GBA usually achieves.  Further, Juste is inexplicably surrounded by a blue aura that trails behind him as blue afterimages of himself.  Now, I know that Alucard had a similar shadowy effect on him in Symphony of the Night, but in SotN, it looked cool and wasn't very obtrusive.  In HoD, it's this terrible flat neon blue that looks horribly out of place and is, frankly, an eyesore.  An eyesore that follows you around the entire damn game because it's attached to the player character like some sort of super-resilient bioluminescent fungus.

The Music
I typically don't pay attention to game music unless it's particularly bad.  Since I didn't really pay that much attention to it here, I've just gotta assume that it wasn't bad enough to attract my notice.  The only points at which the music did catch my ear was during the file naming screen (a funky beat that I rather enjoyed) and in the save rooms (there didn't seem to be any music, and the sudden lack of audio output caught me off guard and annoyed me every single time).

The Bottom Line
The creators of Harmony of Dissonance, it seems, wanted to try and make lightning strike twice by crafting what would basically be a portable version of Symphony of the Night.  For the most part, I would say that they succeeded.  It's of a smaller scope and naturally limited by the platform that it was created for, but still a very entertaining play and, in my opinion, worth wasting a few hours on.  I just wish that it had been a little more difficult and that the hero wasn't lined with dayglo shoelaces.

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