Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance

This game almost made me feel bad regarding my Carrion review.

To be clear: I still don’t think Carrion is a good game, and it may be my least favorite Metroidvania. It messed up in too many ways and was too anti-player. But it did at least one major thing that this particular game didn’t: it had an original idea.

Harmony of Dissonance here is the second GBA Castlevania game in the “action-exploration” setup, sometimes called Igavania after its maker but really the starting point for the oft-used Metroidvania term. It originally came out in 2002, and yes, I’m inclined to take that into account. I certainly did when reviewing its prequel a few weeks ago, which I considered an above average -vania game that held up to the test of time with several good ideas.

None of which this game has.

see the prettiest part of the game

The story of the game follows Juste Belmont (had to look up the name, thought he was “Julian”; y’know, an actual name) as he journeys to Dracula’s castle. His best friend Maxim had returned from a long journey, injured and missing memory but insisting that their female friend whatshername (she’s a plot device, not a character) has gone missing. I know all this because it’s literally introduced in the opening crawl.

To be fair, the game engages in some of the Castlevania cheese. There’s the overwrought dialogue and the amped up stakes that a player should come to expect from this series. Part of the appeal of the series is that their stories often come off like high school fanfiction. It’s bad, but in the same way that melted cheese is bad for you: doesn’t make you want to stop engaging.

Yet this time, I did not care about anybody. I didn’t care about Juste enough to memorize his name; didn’t care about Maxim; don’t really acknowledge whatshername as a character. Unlike the previous game, Dracula doesn’t feature into the plot. Speaking of: how could they not see that they were repeating the exact same plot beat as their last game? Like, this isn’t even them drawing on Symphony of the Night or another entry. It’s literally the game that came right before this one. Same relationship between two males who measure their prowess by their ability to use their whip, same stakes of saving them (spoilers: I did not save Maxim), only the previous game had the good sense not to introduce a female plot device.

even Death can’t be bothered to learn her name

So the plot offers nothing, but nobody really plays Metroidvania games for the plot. The biggest meat of a Metroidvania game is the exploration, discovering new areas and using your powers. To some degree, HoD here does pull that off. The usual -vania based powerups are all here and I did feel like more and more of the castle opened as I found them. The castle looks alright, though for some reason everything seems to have regressed in presentation from the previous game (more on that in a bit).

Then you get to this game’s big twist: there’s a second castle! Yes, you get most of the way through the first only to discover that there’s a second castle that may or may not be inside Maxim’s head (or the first was). Anyone familiar with the franchise would notice this: it’s the exact same thing they did in Symphony of the Night. Okay, that’s not strictly true: SoN had the decency to give you most of the exploration abilities first and then turn the interior of the castle upside down.

This game? Palette swap. Same castle, different interior designer.

Even the areas are the same, making huge sections of the game feel like padding. This is increased by the fact that some areas aren’t really heavily populated by enemies or anything interesting. And that doesn’t even get into this game’s biggest sin:

It’s unbalanced.

Just a few hours into the game, you gain the ability to use “magic.” This combines your secondary weapon, which is a -vania standard, with a magical book to create different effects. These are usually moderately interesting, mimicking some of the effects that we saw in the previous game, but at least showing the tiniest bit of originality, which in a game that seems petrified of it, is saying something.

hello crosses my old friend

I got the cross subweapon, because this is my fifth -vania game or so, and I know that crosses are the best weapon. At first I used the ice book, which created a floating cross of ice that shot shards at the enemy. Then I got the thing showed above: a circle of crosses that constantly flows at top speed. And I mean constantly: they never stop moving, and never stop making a consistent noise.

This noise literally gave me a headache.

See, these crosses deal a decent amount of damage, particularly if you spec into them, which isn’t hard (there’s equipment that literally reads “increases cross damage”). They move rapidly. And the summoned ring lasts enough hits to make it worth it. Your MP recovers gradually, so all I had to do was summon the circle of crosses and run through the game. This includes through almost every area they wanted me to backtrack, and almost every boss.

There is no difficulty here. None.

To be fair, there was a boss or two that game me some trouble. They hit hard and Juste is apparently very squishy. But this game reintroduces the merchant, and since my cross circle was killing everything in its path, I was always loaded with money. Which meant I could buy a near infinite amount of potions, which made almost every fight an utter joke even without the crosses.

this is Juste’s “push a box” animation; it’s also his running animation, and his up against a wall animation and—-

I don’t usually care much about graphics. I like the hand drawn look (Spiritfarer) or beautiful sprites (Flynn) more than anything modern graphics produce. But this game looks legitimately awful. I know what you’re thinking: it’s nearly twenty years old and made for a lesser system. But here’s the thing: it has a prequel, and we can make direct comparisons, which always leave HoD wanting.

It reminds me of an 8 bit game for some reason. Everything’s a little blurry, and for some reason Juste has an aura of blue. He also has the Alucard after-image effect going, which is cool but makes zero sense since Juste isn’t a half-vampire cool guy. It’s pretty much the only noteworthy thing about the graphics, besides maybe a relatively coolly designed boss or two.

But surely the music shall save us! This is a -vania game, they are renown for their music! Yeah, the music sounds like a garbled mess of 8-bit noise, and the constant “whumping” that came from my ever present cross circle of death didn’t make things any better.

actual in-game image

In case it wasn’t clear, this game isn’t very good. It’s serviceable: the controls are tight, and I never felt like the game was being unfair, which sometimes happens in a -vania game (usually around a boss). But there’s absolutely nothing to recommend this game. The story is unoriginal, the music is awful, the graphics are hard to look at, the castle is boring to explore. Honestly unless you’re a Castlevania completitionist, you have no reason to play this game (I didn’t 100% it, by the by; that requires finding Dracula’s body parts which are somehow hidden throughout both castles; even with a guide I wasn’t interested; Maxim can stay dead).

Carrion at least had some original ideas. They angered me and felt anti-player, but they were there. HoD had none. This does mean I’m ending this year with a negative review (spoilers: I’ve beaten three games since this one, including my second play through of Spiritfarer with all the DLC, so it’s not like I’m ending my year with bad games). But this game deserves it. If you’re buying the bundle for the good -vanias, this will sit there. I wouldn’t advise playing it unless you wanna complete the set.

3 since the controls were good in an otherwise bad game

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