Admittedly, My First 30 Minutes Playing Castlevania

 Harmony of Dissonance were a little under-whelming Although there were some cool elements, I was just not impressed in comparison to the hype and my own personal excitement that had built up. Once those 30 minutes passed though and I started to move through more and more of the game, it became clear Harmony was in fact living up to all its hype. The game is certainly not *better* than Circle of the Moon, but instead, is an excellent compliment and balance to it, offering more Castlevania, with new and different elements of play.

HoD is the story of Juste Belmont, descendent of Simon Belmont. It’s been nearly 50 years since Simon’s defeat of Dracula and the dark lord is not scheduled to return for another 50. However, when Juste’s friend Maxim returns after a 2 year training hiatus and says their friend Lydie is in trouble, Juste and Maxim head out to the newly created castle of Dracula. This story is surprisingly interesting and throws some excellent twists at you that really push it forward, and add to the overall flavor of the game.

As far as the gameplay goes, Harmony offers several different elements over Moon, which really gives it its unique and fun feeling. The game still progresses in the same basic manner, in that you explore areas and find items, eventually finding bosses and fighting them for more unique items. These unique items usually allow you to access new areas previously unattainable. However, this progression is paced differently than Moon and the castle opens up differently as well.

The main difference is that there are not as many strict blockages in your way, although many standards still exist like platforms requiring a double jump or walls needing to be broken. Instead, Harmony has many “boss” battles, some really feeling rather minor, that block your path, although some only guard extra items. You do still need to collect special items, but more of the castle is open to you overall as you go, with smaller areas blocked off, offering a larger concentration on exploring and adventuring in Harmony.

This works well, giving you lots of freedom in exploration, but also lends itself to lots of repeat traveling, some very anti-climatic boss battles, and lots of repeat traveling. While repeating areas is nothing new to the series, although early on you do it far too much, the unchallenging boss battles were rather disappointing. Many are “walk into it once and beat it battles,” instead of having to learn the strategic edge to win. Also, with the right equipment, some bosses are terribly weak and die within a short amount of time, even some of the later bosses which you expect to be hard. The number of boss battles help make up for this some, and you will love just running into a boss room door when you weren’t expecting one to be the area or so soon after another.

Despite the repeat traveling I mentioned, the layout of the castle is very well done and compliments the more open feel well. It has many series’ standards, but also some very interesting new areas, although they lack the same “oomph” since you do not “open them up” from battles or whatnot. I especially loved some of the small elements like giant gears to jump on with gaps in them or swinging pendulums, which are not exactly original but fun elements overall. Only bad thing is though, there was very little danger in these parts and they really only served as something interesting instead of foreboding. In fact, besides enemies, the castle itself holds few dangers, with a few exceptions, which tends too be anti-climatic as well when you enter areas that feel as though they should hold countless dangers. Overall though, you still get a great sense of awe exploring the castle, and one story twist REALLY adds to this, when you think you have it all figured out.

One feature that must be mentioned here though, is the great puzzles or tasks laid out for you in Harmony’s levels. Usually hiding good items and sometimes a pathway to other areas, there are several areas where you must either be on your best performance to complete the task (such as racing a ball, trust me, its cool) or fighting an enemy a particular way. These areas really break up the pace of the game, in a good way, and give you something really cool to focus on, either for a few seconds or a few minutes. Also, instead of numerous hidden passages like Moon, you encounter well hidden or tricky to uncover areas that are fun to discover. You may search for hours for something, only to find yourself trying something new and giving yourself the “well, duh” slap on the head when you figure it out.

The fighting in Harmony is nothing new, but well-paced and action-packed. Many tried and true enemies return (zombies inside the front door anyone?) and many great new ones show their faces. What’s nice about Harmony, is despite the lack of boss size, the regular enemies help make up for it. Armors are probably the major enemies as they come in various forms and are HUGE. Also though, you encounter great enemies like phantom swords of various levels and belly-flopping fish who are tougher than they appear, as well as many original takes on old enemies. It all works very well and somehow, despite having to retrace many steps, enemies remain interesting and fun to fight and sometimes even challenging.

What I can not figure out though, is why my whip now must have a power-up to twirl in a circle? Although Harmony does let you stand stationary and throw your whip out a direction based on the control pad while holding the attack button, I much prefer the twirl. That aside, the rest of Juste’s arsenal is pure Castlevania fun. You get upgrades for your whip which equip and add bonus damage like fire or electricity, you get items to equip like various armors with great effects and rings that effect sub-weapons, and of course, there’s always your sub-weapons (dagger, ax, holy water, holy book, cross, fist), all of which are very useful and some slightly tweaked for this game. The best part though, is the magic system which allows sub-weapons to be turned into magical attacks.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the DSS system. It offered a massive array of possibilities and lots of mystery as to what the cards did. Harmony’ssystem though, fits the fast-paced action of the game better with a nice compliment of attacks and defenses that are all useful in their own way. You get cool effects like a whirlwind of holy books or homing ice daggers. Also, things like fiery dragons being summoned and attacking with a short-lived but powerful attack are useful on tough enemies. The only downfall to the system is the need to decide ahead of time, and find, the sub-weapon you want. But, you quickly adopt favorites and strategies and know when to pick up what.

The final big change and probably the one thing more people wanted more than anything in the gameplay is a save anywhere feature, although it puts you back at your last save point when you load. This feature is incredibly handy, if not a bit too nice to gamers. It takes some of the edge out of playing, since you can explore an area, find a dead end and reload to start where you were, but offers the flexibility of not needing to worry about finding a save point before shutting the game down.

Harmony has received a graphical overhaul over Moon with rather nice results. Levels look great and the parallax backgrounds in some areas are absolutely incredible, and I mean incredible. Konami put some extra effort to really give this castle design a great feel. Effects like ghosts in windows in skeletons in mirrors are also very nicely done. Some enemies, such as the huge armors and some bosses are amazing looking as well, although some smaller ones are a bit drab. Sadly, some animations and effects are not all that great, although good enough. Juste’s movements look rather stiff at times and the lack of things like his not whip flaming with the fire add-on, etc., are little elements you really long for that just take away from the feel of the game. Also, none of the magic effects are really spectacular looking, although some are better than others.

Sound is well done, although again, nothing great. Some areas have really good music, others don’t. Some sound effects are really good, others aren’t. Overall, it all fits the game well and works well enough, but is nothing memorable or exciting.

For those looking for more than just a quick game, Harmony offers several secrets and some different ways to do things, including turning features off to make the game harder. Some things are hard to find or figure out, but overall you’ll find plenty to keep you busy.

As I said, I like both Harmony and Moon the same. I honestly think Castlevania fans of all types are going to love Harmony as well and really enjoy it. What’s nice though, is it offers a new type of gameplay while sticking to the Castlevania formula. You get more of an overall exploration feel in Harmony, while still getting the thrill of uncovering new areas, items and fighting challenging enemies.