Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance was released on September 16, 2002, a little over a year after the first GBA Castlevania game, Circle of the Moon. Circle of the Moon was a great game but it had some issues. Some of these issues are addressed in this game but, unfortunately, some new issues arose as well. HOD tries to be the portable version of Symphony of the Night that COTM couldn't be. It borrows heavily from SOTN in terms of aesthetic, story, and even gameplay, but it still falls short of that great adventure. However, falling short of perfection is not a bad thing when the end product is still great.
This was also Koji Igarashiís (Iga, Director of SOTN) first Castlevania game on the GBA. He wanted to distance HOD as far from COTM as possible. He did so by brightening up the graphics, finding a different composer, and using a different gameplay system. These changes resulted in a game that felt more like SOTN than itís predecessor but some elements still fell through the cracks.
Story The story in Harmony of Dissonance is a little bit better than the one in Circle of the Moon. The year is 1748. Fifty years have passed since Simon Belmont rid himself of Draculaís Curse (see Castlevania II: Simonís Quest). His grandson, Juste Belmont, has been trained in the ways of Vampire Hunting as has become a tradition for the Belmont Clan. He was chosen to wield the Vampire Hunter, just like his grandfather before him. This made his friend Maxim Kischine leave on his own training expedition two years prior. One day Maxim returned, badly wounded. He told Juste that their childhood friend Lydie Erlanger was kidnapped and taken to a strange castle. Maxim had also mysteriously lost part of his memory. He was still able to lead Juste to the castle. A castle Juste was destined to the enter day he became the wielder of the Vampire Hunter.
This is why you are going into the creepy castle? Where do I sign up?
Graphics The graphics in Harmony of Dissonance are miles better than those in Circle of the Moon. The characters are larger, the animation is smother, the game is brighter, and the backgrounds are a lot more colorful. In fact, the backgrounds are extremely colorful. It seems that Iga was trying to compensate for the fact that you couldnít see anything in the first game if you played it without a backlit or sidelit screen.
You can actually see whatís going on in the game this time.
The character designs in HOD are far more interesting than those in COTM. Juste looks regal, just like Alucard, Maxim looks cool like a Ninja, and Lydie looks beautiful. This is all thanks to Ayami Kojima (no relation to Hideo) the character designer from Symphony of the Night.
Juste, Lydie, and Maxim, courtesy of Ayami Kojima.
Her designs of the enemy characters are also fantastic. Gone are the boring enemies from COTM, replaced by interesting monsters and huge bosses. There is one really cool moment in the game where you see a boss that is twice the size of your character. Before he is able to attack, he is destroyed by the real boss, a monster thatís as tall as the screen.
Castlevania itself is far better looking too. Unlike the drab corridors from COTM, the castle in HOD looks alive and diverse. In COTM, it was difficult distinguishing one area from the other. In HOD, every area looks different. In one moment you could be going down a castle corridor, while in the next, you could be fighting some lizard enemy in a psychedelic underground cave with background effects that resemble Mode 7 graphics from the SNES era. There are also some other nice effects throughout the game. There is one moment where you are going up a tower while lightning and thunder fill the air outside. Sometimes, when the lightning strikes, you can see a monster looking in through the windows.
There are two things I donít like about the graphics,however. First, the castle is so bright and cheery that it takes away from the somber mood. Second, Juste has a shadow trail behind him, just like Alucard in Symphony of the Night. However, the effect doesnít look good and itís distracting. It also doesnít make any sense since Juste is a man, while Alucard is vampire who, according to vampire lore, are said to move much faster than men.
Juste does the moonwalk.
Sound The sound design in this game is similar to the last one; i.e. itís still nothing special. There are some grunts and yells from Juste here and there, the standard monster sounds, environmental effects, and the sound of the cracking of a chain whip. Itís interesting that the Vampire Killer is sometimes depicted as a leather whip (Circle of the Moon), a chain whip (like here), or both (Super Castlevania IV).
The music in Harmony is a mixed bag. The music fares a little better in terms of composition. While not up to par with the music from SOTN, the musical score for HOD is much better than the soundtrack for COTM. The music is more exciting this time around. However, the aural quality of the music is sketchy at best. Iga has admitted in interviews that he sacrificed sound quality for graphics, which makes the music sound kind of garbled. Itís pretty apparent in the Data Select Screen. Hereís a sample of the piece from the Marble Corridor. By the way, the shop music is absolutely horrible.
Gameplay The Gameplay in Harmony of Dissonance can best be described as Symphony of the Night Lite with a whip. The game features the Metroidvania style of gameplay but itís not as long as Symphony of the Night. Once again, you can go anywhere as long as you have the right Relics. Also, taken from Symphony of the Night is (huge spoiler for both games) the concept of playing in two castles. In Symphony of the Night, the second castle could be reached after defeating the orb controlling Richter Belmont. In HOD, you actually traverse both castles as you play by going into warp areas. You donít realize this until a bit into the story. It is quite a cool concept but itís not implemented very well here. You are going to be very confused when you try to warp from one castle to another because some warp areas transport you not only between both castles, but also to different areas within the castles at the same time.
The combat system is similar to Circle of the Moon in that your main weapon is a whip, you have subweapons, and you have a magic system. Thatís where the similarities end, though. The whip in this game can be upgraded by installing different tips. One of these tips is actually crucial to navigation. Also, you can make the whip go limp, just like in Super Castlevania IV. The L and R buttons can be used to dash left and right respectively, regardless of which way you are facing. The subweapons are similar to any other Castlevania game. You have a cross that acts as a boomerang, potions you can throw across the floor, etc. The magic system is extremely different from COTM, though. In this game, Juste can acquire magic books and, by pairing them with the subweapons, he can produce different effects. All of these books are elemental except for the coolest one, the Summon Tome. This one lets you summon different creatures that attack your enemies.
One of the summons from the game.
Item equipment is a bit weird in this game. You have 5 slots, one for the whip, one for the body, and the rest you can use as you see fit. The weird part is that you can put any item in the remaining slots that are not assigned to specific parts of your body. Meaning, you can have three accessories and no other physical protection. I know some people will prefer this but Iíd rather have specific slots for body parts and accessories like the other Castlevania games. Also, you have to rely on white arrows that indicate whether your the equipment is better or worse for you instead of the colored indicators from Circle of the Moon.
You really want me to go barefoot?
The worst part of the gameplay is that Juste feels floaty. In COTM, Nathan felt stiff, but at least he had some good physics to his jump. Juste jumps and it seems like heís floating in the air. Itís not tight, like COTM or SOTN, and it detracts from the gameplay. Youíll get used to it, but you will wish his jump had more weight to it. But this is not such a terrible problem because the game is horribly easy. In the 9 hours 12 minutes and 55 seconds it took me to finish this game, I died twice. And the first death was because I was experimenting with something. The game is that easy. I did not have to grind once to finish any boss.
There are two other elements in this game which are very curious. The shop from Symphony of the Night is back, which is a welcome addition to the game. However, the shop is located in different parts of the game and each room has ridiculous requirements for the shopkeeper to appear. Why they couldnít just have one or two shops with no requirements to enter is beyond me. Also, there is a really useless sidequest throughout the game in which you collect furniture and place it in a room. There is absolutely no purpose to this since you donít get any reward.
Thereís absolutely no point to this room
Extras Though not an extra per se, I should point out that this game has three endings. You acquire the bad ending by defeating Maxim in Castle B, the good ending by defeating him in Castle A, and the best ending by defeating Maxim in Castle B while having the Maxim and Juste bracelets equipped and then defeating Draculaís wraith.
You can also unlock Hard Mode and No Magic mode by completing the game once. Just enter the your names as HARDGAME or NO MAGIC respectively. The names of the modes explain what they are. Also unlocked after completing the game is the Maxim Mode. Enter MAXIM as your name and you can play as him. He is faster than Juste and has different moves. He doesnít gain experience and the mode doesnít have any story elements. If you go into the main title screen after getting the best ending, you will be able to access a sound test mode. Finally, after completing the game once, you will unlock the Boss Rush Mode. You will fight for time records and there are three difficulty settings which must be unlocked by beating the Boss Rush on the previous difficulty. You can play as Juste, Maxim, or even Simon Belmont (use the Konami Code on the title screen).
Final Thoughts: Castlevania Harmony of Dissonance is a great game. The graphics are a huge improvement over Circle of the Moon. The music, though, is a mixed bag. The gameplay is fun but itís too easy for a Castlevania veteran. Harmony of Dissonance tried its best to emulate Symphony of the Night but it still fell short, just like Circle of the Moon. However, in the end of the day, it is gameplay that matters and the gameplay from COTM is superior to that of HOD. After two failed attempts at trying to emulate Symphony of the Night, will the third and final GBA Castlevania be any better? Or will it fall into the same trappings as its predecessors? Iíll give you my take soon when I conclude my reviews for the GBA Castlevania Trilogy.
Trivia: In the Cave of Skeletons, several background details make references to other games in the series; most notably, the large statue, reminiscent of Dracula's final form in Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, another statue which is clearly intended to resemble Camilla's mask (Vampira) from Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, the giant three-eyed skull from Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, the skeleton of Medusa, and the skeletons of the dynamic duo from Super Castlevania IV, Slogra and Gaibon.
This is actually my favorite game in the GBA trilogy. The best of the bunch, IMHO.
I have some notes about your review, but I'll get to those sometime later. Maybe. But I do want to note that Juste's "shadow" that follows him is actually his aura - it's something Iga wanted to include due to the Belmont's "supernatural" bloodline. Yeah, the Belmonts aren't just normal humans - they are the best vampire hunters for a reason. A supernatural reason.
Otherwise cool review! I look forward to your review of Aria of Sorrow!
@GameDadGrant Disagree, Harmony is great, but Aria of Sorrow is the best Castlevania game, period! That's right, better than SotN*, suck it PlayStation fans!
*Maybe, I dunno they're both pretty good, Aria is just way more fleshed out in terms of weapons, skills, and items. It's a great game if you love loot, and I love loot. It's like the freaking Diablo 2 of side-scrollers.
@GameDadGrant I never knew that! I liked the effect a lot better in SOTN, though. It looked cooler and smoother at the same time. I've read it looks even better in the Saturn edition. I'm going to have to see it in person to see if this is true. I have to agree that the Belmonts are not normal humans. However, given Iga's comments, it's interesting that he didn't continue this trend with other Belmonts in the GBA and DS games. I look forward to hearing more of your opinion on this game. And I'm also looking forward to reviewing Aria of Sorrow.
Great review Sir Master, your ongoing GBA Castlevania reviews makes me want to play these games all over again.
That's cool that you explain where the game fits into the story line, that stuff usually goes over my head.
Watching the video you posted, I can remember that I simply wasn't big fan of Juste's character design (referring to the in-game model, not Ayami Kojima's artwork) or the way he moved in the game, compared to COTM before it. I was thinking about this when you specifically addressed his 'floatiness' a few paragraphs downward!
I don't remember a whole lot about whether the music was good or not, but it did sound a bit teeny at times, a bit too synth, and not as rich as other Castlevanias. But that link to Marble Corridor is pretty good (and UGH at the shop music! ).
That's really weird how you collect furniture in this game, it seems so out of place.
Yeah, I'm in the minority when it comes to Harmony of Dissonance. I like Aria of Sorrow just fine, but my personal preference is for the former. Can't really explain why - I think I didn't like the map or something in Soma's adventure. *shrugs*
Yeah, Alucard's aura looked better on Playstation, but hey. GBA isn't exactly a PSOne! I've played the Saturn version of Symphony of the Night, and the effect looks more or less the same as the Playstation version. It's not really noticeable one way or the other, IMO.
As for Juste's aura, I think Iga wanted him to have it mostly because Juste is supposed to be *especially* gifted with magic, more so than the other Belmonts. This is reported to be because of the magics derived from the Belnades clan (Syfa Belnades from Dracula's Curse). And as for why this "aura tradition" didn't continue with the other Belmonts in the GBA/DS series... well, that's because Belmonts were not in those games!
Soma Cruz was the protagonist in Aria of Sorrow and Dawn of Sorrow, Jonathan Morris and Charlotte Aulin are in Portrait of Ruin, and Shanoa starred in Order of Ecclesia. None of these characters are Belmonts!
Of course, I suppose Julius Belmont is playable in Dawn of Sorrow, and he doesn't have the aura effect. I suppose this could just mean that either Iga didn't care for him to have it, or perhaps Julius isn't quite as gifted with magic as Juste was. Julius doesn't use much (or any, really) magic attacks, so I tend to think that latter is the case.
I was going to mention Julius. I'd say he's one of the most powerful Belmonts considering he was the Belmont that sealed Dracula for good in 1999. We really need to have this game on the 3DS; Castlevania: The Battle of 1999 or Castlevania: Nostradamus' Prophecy.