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Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance Review

Harmony of Dissonance came out for the Gameboy Advance in 2002, hot on the heels of the much better Circle of the Moon, which I hopefully will have time to review before Halloween hits us. The player takes the role of Juste Belmont, who rather than setting out to kill Dracula, has come to investigate a castle with his friend Maxim, where he thinks his other friend, Lydie, has been held captive. The two explore the castle, trying to answer the mysteries of Maxim’s amnesia as well as fighting Maxim’s doppelganger and a retinue of enemies mostly copied from earlier games. The gimmick this time, instead of a totally bitching upside-down castle, is a lame exact copy of the same castle you came from, complete with all the same gating in the same places, but we’ll get to that. Also I’m going to warn you ahead of time that this is a pretty heated hate letter for this game, so if you’re a Harmony fan, prepare to get angry, I guess.

Where Symphony’s inverted castle was brilliant and played well off of your knowledge of the area, Harmony’s second (or B-side) castle is far too similar to excite any exploration. You are literally going through the exact same areas, often with similar enemy placement and the same architecture. If there’s a boss in the A-side of the castle, there’s probably a boss on the B-side as well, though not necessarily. There’s also an abundance of rooms that actually have nothing in them at all, in both versions of the castle. In general, the areas are far too big for how little content there actually is. They copied the exploratory elements of Symphony straight, without even realizing what made them good. Few of the bosses actually have an item hidden behind them, which is fine, since not every boss needs to give a reward—but many of them don’t even obstruct your path, since you can just go around! Additionally, unlike Symphony, there’s no generic reward for each boss. Before, you would always get a life upgrade, but not this time. While Symphony constantly rewarded you for your arduous and thorough exploration, there is pretty much nothing to do so in Harmony. There’s few relics that are really interesting, like the admittedly useless upgrades for Alucard’s transformations, and the pieces of Dracula which return again are required for the best ending. Symphony was throwing relics at you everywhere you went. Sure, there’s some good gear around, but the item drops off enemies aren’t even that rare and are usually better than what you can just find. The normal reward is potions, but hell, you can just buy those at the shop, and they hardly cost anything! It’s $200 for a high potion, and you get $25 or even $250 regularly from just destroying torches. Not that there’s even a reason to destroy torches normally, because you’ll basically never eat down your supply of hearts.

One thing I mentioned during the Symphony review was how Alucard always has an ample amount of options for dealing with bosses. He’s got two weapons, a subweapon, a bunch of spells, and a familiar, all available to him at any time without pausing the game. Juste, on the other hand, has a whip (which always has the same attack arc, unlike Alucard’s variety of disposable weapons) and a single spell OR subweapon. You form a spell out of a combination of a subweapon and spellbook, which are found hidden throughout the castle, but in order to do this you have to go in the start menu and enable them. So, you know, the optimal strategy for each boss fight is to burn all your MP, and then disable the spellbook from the menu (since it won’t even let you use the subweapon normally once you run out of MP) and start spamming crosses. Nevermind the fact that the spells are terribly balanced, and the cross ones are universally more powerful than all the alternatives, while the cross itself is also the strongest subweapon in the game. Most bosses will die before you even come near running low on hearts. In the next game, Aria of Sorrow, they actually just remove the difference between hearts and MP entirely. All your subweapon equivalents just cost MP, and finding hearts restores MP, which makes it a nice change of pace. But it’s not like both existing was pointless in Symphony, it’s just that they actually had a reason for being different. MP fueled Alucard’s personal powers, and hearts were for the generic daggers and crosses.

The bosses themselves, in addition to mostly being rehashes, are incredibly easy. Some of them hit very hard, but they all only have a very small selection of attacks which are universally easily dodged. The only times I died were times where the enemy literally ended up on top of me, and somehow I wasn’t able to walk out of him, so I just stood in place taking huge amounts of damage until I was dead. The boss fights back in Rondo, which did less damage but whose attacks were harder to dodge, were a lot more engaging to fight. Dodging was hard, sure, but the punishment was relatively light. Not so in Harmony. Getting hit by nearly any boss can take off a huge amount of health, so the punishment for stupid mistakes is ridiculous. Not that it’s really a big deal, since you just die and come back, but this time knowing how to dodge all of his easy attacks. Never mind that, like I said, potions are plentiful and cheap. There’s no real reason to buy anything besides potions, since they benefit you a lot more than the crappy armor the shopkeeper has for sale. You can use them both on the go, to prevent deaths while exploring—effectively removing all the fear and trepidation you experienced while lost back in Symphony of the Night—and also chug them during boss fights with no retribution or danger, since you use them from the safety of the start menu and they heal you instantly. The reason the potions weren’t overpowered in Symphony was basically because using them had a delay, so while they would help, they weren’t an instant panic button. The game also didn’t constantly throw potions at you, and they’re pretty expensive and heal relatively less of your health in that game. Don’t get me wrong, I love being able to take my heals with me, since it gives me more agency as a player on when to use them. Mega Man has been doing this in every game since the second one. But there’s a point at which it gets ridiculous, and gives you far too much safety. Harmony of Dissonance is way beyond that point. I suppose that some of the bosses—mostly just Death and the final bout with Maxim—could be neat without potions, but that’s a self-imposed challenge, and not really what the game is designed around. Additionally, finding a potion is never the reward that it honestly should be. In Mega Man, you have to work for your e-tanks. But in Harmony you just trip over them constantly. Every one you get diminishes the emotional impact of getting one. Enemies also can drop potions, but again, the drop rate for items in this game is already really high. In Circle of the Moon potions are incredibly rare, which makes using them that much more of a tough decision. In Aria, the potions are actually capped at 9, so while you can buy them you can’t just abuse them to get past every boss.

The story isn’t really important, but Harmony’s is a bit awful, especially compared to the surprisingly effective narrative in Symphony. Alucard is out for revenge for the death of his mother, which is never really explained why he blames his dear old vampire dad for it, but whatever. You feel the personal nature of his quest, both in finding the Alucard armor (which is described as being a family heirloom) and in the dream sequence where his mother is killed. You also feel for Richter, since he’s a known hero from an earlier game. It doesn’t take much for the theming of the game to work. Juste, on the other hand, is surprisingly distant and unrelated to all the events that are going on in his game. Maxim is really the central character: he goes off to destroy Dracula, so that Juste won’t have to face his destiny. His split souls are what caused the existence of the doubled castle, as well as what caused the kidnapping of Lydie. It should be a game about Maxim, not Juste. Even Circle of the Moon’s basic theme of acceptance by one’s father and master is more interesting than what this has to offer. What’s even the theme, here? Why even have a story at all if it’s gonna be this lame? Might as well just go back to the classic series standard of not having a plot at all. At least then it wouldn’t be wasting my time. Like the heart thing, this’ll be fixed in the next game.

Overall, the biggest problem with Harmony of Dissonance is that it’s just too close to Symphony of the Night. It isn’t really that, even, since a straight successor to Symphony would be great, since Symphony is great. The problem isn’t that the game doesn’t try anything new, it’s just that nothing about what made Symphony such a unique and special game is here. The exploration is trivial, since there’s few rewards and the castle is so barren. The bosses are beyond easy. Juste doesn’t have nearly as interesting as a range of abilities as Alucard. The fact that the whip is his only weapon—which, I guess, is understandable, since all Belmonts use the whip—also really holds back the variety of attacks that Symphony offered. Your upgrades to it are basically straight numbers, and not longer ranges or different areas. Everything that made Symphony great is here, but twisted and ruined. Circle of the Moon managed to be a great game despite being in Symphony’s shadow, just by branching out a little and doing its own thing. It lacked a lot of the exploration elements, but did it really need them? It ultimately benefits by being a more gated and linear game, while still retaining some of the exploration. Harmony, on the other hand, could do with stricter gating. There’s a lot of times when you reach a fork where they both branch out into huge explorable areas, but one has three or four areas you can’t progress through. The other fork has what you need to get through one of those, but not the other two. By the time you finally get the keys—which are incredibly boring, compared to all the great things Circle of the Moon or the Metroid games use as gating—there’s so many locked doors you’ve seen, you don’t know where to begin! You just have to spend a lot of time running back through the same empty corridors, and when you finally do reach the new area, you’re just as likely to be greeted by the same generic skeletons and flea men you fought hours before as you are by anything new and exciting.

I can’t do much better than a 3 out of 10 for this. The game definitely has better game feel and conveyance than the atrocious Castlevania II, but it’s not a lot better. And, ultimately, I think that playing Castlevania II was a more enjoyable experience, despite all its confusing oddities and lack of bosses and explanation of anything. You can pick it up for the GBA if you really want to. I suppose I recommend the game for people who want more of the same and are okay with it being, well, a lot worse. I dunno, some people seem to like it. Can’t imagine why.

Oh, and, a lot of people think the soundtrack isn’t very good. While it doesn’t sound as good as Circle of the Moon or Aria of Sorrow, I find the compositions themselves to be fine. Definitely not of the level of the other two games, but it’s not really ear-grating or anything. Ah well. See you next time with Aria of Sorrow!

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