Sunday, June 25, 2006

Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance Post-Mortem

[Now Experiencing] [Computer Gaming]

I have memories. Horrible, horrible traumatic memories. They date from a time in the late 80s, when a friend who shall remain nameless dragged out his NES, fired up the original Castlevania, and handed me the controller.

As those who have played it will know, the original Castlevania is a hardcore game. It is not for those faint of heart, or slow of wit, or really for anyone who doesn't have thumbs of Mercurian speed and a nearly bottomless tolerance for frustration. In the course of my time with that game, I honed my pre-existing loathing for platformers to a new and nigh-on superhuman level. Oh, how I hated that game.

So you can understand that I was a little skeptical when I started hearing talk that these "new-wave" Castlevania games of the last half-decade or so were really quite good, actually.

Our story jumps to about three months ago, when I was cruising the bargain bin at the local Games Wizards and happened to come across a little late-release GBA title called the Castlevania Double Pack. This modestly priced package promised to deliver not only Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance, which by all accounts was rather good, but also its purportedly superior follow-up, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrows. The prospect of two complete games in a single game-pak, priced to please and portable to boot was too much. I decided to give Castlevania another chance.

And I'm glad I did. Harmony of Dissonance is definitely one of the better games in my non-small collection of GBA titles. Gone is the punishing difficulty of its ancestor. Instead, Harmony of Dissonance offers free-roaming exploration of not one but two giant castles, with gameplay more than a little reminiscent of the 2D Metroid titles. You wander around, finding keys to doors, increasing your abilities to be able to jump higher and slide through tight gaps (and so forth), and then exploring the new areas that these discoveries unlock. The hero this time around is Juste Belmont (descendant of the original game's Simon Belmont) and he's supposedly on a quest to save the beautiful Lydie. (Actually he seems a lot more emotionally preoccupied with his buddy and rival Maxim than with anyone in particular of the female gender, but whatever.)

If anything, Harmony of Dissonance is too easy. You acquire several sets of magical power as you progress through the game, which combine with the game's "subweapons" (of which there are six, although you can only carry one at a time) to produce powerful magical attacks. Some of these attacks are so powerful that they will connect with a nearby enemy five or six times a second for significant damage, and continue doing so for some five or six seconds (after which you can immediately recast the spell). This turns the majority of bosses into less of an exercise in skill, and more of an application of brute force. In the unlikely event that something goes wrong, you are able to carry around a disproportionately large stock of healing potions which can be consumed at the drop of a hat to set you back on your feet.

Still, the fun in Harmony of Dissonance comes less from the combat and more from the exploration, and the game definitely shines here. It's always clear whether you can or cannot reach a new area with the skills you possess. Your travels are marked out on a set of very clear maps of the castle,which make it easy to see where you haven't been to yet, and there's very rarely a point where you don't have several new things to try out. The castle itself is quickly revealed to actually be two castles, one hovering in a somewhat generic "dimenson of darkness", each castle possessing a parallell layout to the other. Predictably, solving problems in one castle occasionally yields a result in the other, and switching between the two castles is often key to progressing.

One place where the exploration could have been better crafted becomes more and more apparent as you play through the game, and that is the matter of backtracking. You are regularly required to travel from one remote location in the castle to another, often passing through long stretches of terrain you've already conquered. Luckily, the design of the game and its lack of difficulty means you're never faced with having to re-face a frustrating section you didn't enjoy the first time, but nevertheless this could have been better crafted. There are a range of teleporter-style rooms to facilitate your travel, but these are ever so slightly less frequent than would be ideal, and there are a particular couple of locations that always take several minutes of travel to return to whenever you want to try something new.

Graphically, the game is well suited to what it claims to be, but excels neither technically nor artistically. The castle contains a somewhat predictable array of gothic hallways, spiralling clocktowers, and skull-lined catacombs, but you never really need to take a moment to admire how good it looks. Interestingly, it was clearly decided at a late point in the game that certain of the game sprites (including the protagonist, Juste) didn't sufficiently stand out from the background, and so these characters bear a strange blue outline to enhance their visibility on screen. I suspect this would have been more an issue if I were playing it on the original GBA that didn't feature the backlit screen, as opposed to my significantly more friendly DS. Still, congratulations to the developers for being willing to so quickly sacrifice the visual aesthetic to create a more playable game. It's a shame about the sound, though, which is really quite bland and forgettable.

The structure of the game is perfectly suited to a handheld. Rarely does any single task or point of exploration take more than a couple of minutes (including boss fights), and although there are discrete save rooms that must be discovered to record your progress, you are also given the option at any point to save your game to your last save room, including all achievements since you last visited it. This allows you to travel to distant locations to check if you can move past them without worrying about the long trek back if it turns out you can't.

In addition to the obvious goal of finshing the game's plot, there are also side goals which include achieving 200% map exploration (that's 100% in each of the two castles), discovering each of the game's three alternative endings, discovering and defeating one of every monster in the game, and (for some reason) collecting a full set of furniture to decorate an empty room in the basement. Not all of these tasks give any sort of reward, but they're clearly marked and still kind of fun to shoot for.

I can thoroughly recommend Harmony of Dissonance to anyone who hasn't already played it, particularly if you like the free-roaming exploration-based gameplay made famous by such classics as Metroid and The Legend of Zelda, and although I'm a bit Castlevania-ed out for now, I'll certainly be coming back to play Aria of Sorrows in the near future.

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