Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance
Our prayers for a new Castlevania in the 2D tradition were answered in the form of last year's excellent GBA launch title, Circle of the Moon. All was well for a time as we basked in the glory of its excellence, but when it was over, we hungered for more. More is exactly what we're about to get with Harmony of Dissonance, the latest chapter in Castlevania's long-running saga.
For the GBA encore, Konami has given the series back to the able hands of Koji Igarashi, the visionary behind Symphony of the Night (PSi), a game that all but reinvented Castlevania with its Super Metroid (Super Nintendo)-inspired gameplay. "Super Metroid is a great game that had a lot of direct influence over Symphony," Igarashi tells us during a recent visit to Konami's American headquarters. "I can't wait for Metroid IV on the GBA." After acknowledging his roots, he went on to say that his latest game, Harmony, recaptures SotN's delicate balance of fast-paced action, epic exploration and deep RPG-isms like growth and expansive inventory.
"Don't get me wrong," Igarashi explains while we get hands-on with a prerelease version of Harmony, "I thought CotM was a well-made game, but there were certain aspects of it that I thought could be improved." Well, from the few hours we spent with his latest creation, it looks like things have more than just improved from CotM--Harmony is better in nearly every respect. This is the successor to Symphony that we've all been pining for.
Taking place 50 years after Simon's Quest on the NES (see sidebar below), Harmony is set in the countryside of Transylvania, where a sinister castle appears once every 100 years. You control Juste, a descendant of the legendary Belmont clan of vampire killers, who teams up with his buddy Maxim for a damsel-in-distress search-and-rescue.
Upon stepping foot into the castle, we couldn't help but notice the graphical upgrade. Not only is HoD bright and easy to see in average lighting, the game also animates extremely well. One aspect we found disappointing in CotM was its primitive looking protagonist who harkened back to the stiff, blocky look of the series' NES roots. "We've definitely worked hard to push the limits of the GBA hardware," says Igarashi. "You can see this in the game's huge enemy bosses and how smoothly they move." Harmony of Dissonance captures the essence of its hero, the effeminate juste Belmont, as designed by Japanese comic artist Ayami Kojima, by bringing to life the fluidity of his anime-style movements and the artist's penchant for dramatic, billowy petticoats. Like Alucard from SotN, Juste also leaves behind a trail of mesmerizing shadows.
"We brought back a lot of the techniques used in Symphony to animate the bigger enemies and bosses," Igarashi tells us while we're fleeing from a tall, multi-segmented monstrosity on the screen. These massive bosses are composed of "pieces," such as arms, legs and torsos that move in tandem to give each creature a wholly organic feel.
The settings--everything from chapels adorned with ornate tapestries and stained glass windows, to the dank underbelly of Dracula's evil castle--are rich, diverse and lush with detail. It actually looks as if every brick and banister had been carefully hand-placed by illustrators.
Harmony's similarity to Symphony, however, extends far beyond just pretty hand-drawn graphics; underneath both titles lies a gameplay system (see Fusion Frenzy sidebar) that combines the best virtues of an action platformer with those of an RPG. "Action games have short lifespans," Igarashi explains. "With pure action games, many casual players never even see the end. By turning Castlevania into an RPG, we made the game accessible for a wider audience, so those who may not be as good with action games can also reach the end if they take the time to level up."
As humble as he was during our playtest, we could still feel Igarashi's excitement for his latest game. According to him, not only is Harmony's quest at least twice the size of Symphony's, "it also has lots more replay value." What kind of replay value? Will we be able to play as Maxim? "I can tell you now that the game has multiple endings," Igarashi adds. "This feature will be familiar to those who have played through Symphony."
If we had to pick one aspect of the game that didn't quite make the cut, it'd ironically be Harmony's low-quality soundtrack. Igarashi explains why the music in this game took a step back from target for a 2003 release, but he's mum about further details. "We're looking into which system to develop for and deciding whether the next game will be 2D or 3D." Uh, 3D? 3D as in Castlevania on the Nintendo 64? Igarashi shakes his head violently. "No! Please forget about the N64 version! Devil May Cry (PS2) had more in common with SotN than that game." No matter where the series goes, he's certain about one thing: "I want to continue to think of the action element as Castlevania's foundation. That area will always be my number-one focus.
Download Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance
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Your return trip to scenic Transylvania was rudely postponed when Konami delayed the release of Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance from June to September. Sure, it meant a summer without whip-cracking action, but spooky, gothic action is more thematically suited to autumn anyhow. The Japanese version did swoop onto store shelves in early summer, and we've played it so much that our hands withered into hideous, cramped claws after holding a GBA all night long. It was worth it.
Thankfully, all of the ambitious elements that producer Koji Igarashi promised us back in issue #155 made it into the game. The visuals suffer from none of the murky darkness that plagued Circle of the Moon--bright, easily viewable colors make the action easy to follow. Igarashi had also warned that the music quality would not be up to snuff with the excellent tunes in CotM, and he's right. While the compositions themselves are cool, the sound quality will remind you more of an old Game Boy Color game than fully orchestrated chamber melodies. Even so, the sound suffices, and Konami even managed to squeeze a few choice voice events into the game.
Gameplay-wise, the enormous castle easily dwarfs the quaint one from CotM. All of the distinct "levels" are intricately connected, so the overall map is much more complex and tightly arranged than even the one in Symphony of the Night (PSi). The spell fusion system (see below) provides some much-needed customization and offers nearly as much depth as CotM's DSS card system. As expected, the game boasts oodles of unlockable secrets. Trust us, your adventure will be much, much longer than you originally anticipated.