3 out of 5. Highly ambitious considering the Gameboy Advance limitations, but its attempt to expand on what Symphony of the Night accomplished resulted in a lot of content that feels like padding.
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SPOILER WARNING

I feel like it’s necessary to spoil some parts of Harmony of Dissonance to properly review it. I will mark the appropriate paragraphs with headers for anyone who wants to avoid spoilers. I'll also be spoiling Symphony of the Night in this section.

How Metroidvania is it? Perfect Fit. From a level structure standpoint, Harmony of Dissonance deviates very little from Symphony of the Night, except maybe in quality.
Primary Challenge: Melee Combat, Exploration Focus
Time to beat: ~8 hours
Review Info: Castlevania Harmony of Dissonance was played via the Gameboy Advance version using the Wii U Virtual Console

More Info

Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Sub-genre: Igavania
Features: Map System, Leveling System, Equipment System, Random Loot, 2D Platformer, Melee Combat, Narrative/Cutscenes Story Telling, Collectathon, Sequence Breaking, Bonus Character Mode
Difficulty: Low, Medium
Linearity/Openness: High Gating - No Handholding
Platforms: GBA, Wii U
Release Date: 2002/06/06
Available Languages: English

Store Links

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Buy Castlevania Harmony of Dissonance if you like…

  • Interesting twists on the Castlevania lore
  • Using the same weapon for most of the game
  • Overpowered magic
  • Playing as a Belmont
  • Detailed backgrounds and set pieces

▼ Review continues below ▼

In my opinion, Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance is in many ways a worthy successor of Symphony of the Night as the second Castlevania that involved Koji Igarashi as a direct scenario writer. Combat has a lot of improvements – dashing is actually generally useful this time around – and the game plays on some of the twists from the previous title in interesting ways. However, whether it was due to hardware limitations, deadline issues, or design decisions, there are a lot of changes to the formula that I think SOTN fans will hate. Indeed, this is apparently the most hated among the Metroidvania-style Castlevania games by the community, however I did still have fun with it.

Just like Symphony of the Night, Harmony of Dissonance is jam packed with detail, which is extra impressive given the downgrade to Gameboy Advance hardware. Backgrounds include fantastic art, there are tons of interactive elements to the stages, and a similar amount of care was given to superfluous elements that breathe life into the locations you are exploring. After SOTN’s Launchpad success for creating an interesting lore surrounding the Castlevania universe, Harmony of Dissonance starts out pretty generic, but introduces a lot of ideas that are only further expanded upon in Aria and Dawn of Sorrow, ultimately creating a game that lore fans may appreciate.

While the graphical presentation is pretty decent, the music is unusually poor in quality. I understand that they’re working with cartridge hardware instead of the high capacity CDs that the previous Igavania enjoyed, but even the 8-bit tracks from the original NES Castlevania games generally sounded better. There are some fantastic melodies, especially the main theme for Juste Belmont, but something about the instrument set used to play the music makes it feel a lot worse. The composer is exactly the same as the one that did Symphony of the Night’s music, so it would seem that hardware limitations are the primary culprit here. I also think that there was a major missed opportunity to reuse some of the series’ classic music, especially when you’re playing a Belmont, and there’s a bust of a women literally shedding “Bloody Tears” in one of the backgrounds. One thing good I can say about the music is that it’s much more tonally consistent this time around, but many of the people that consider music a major part of why they love Castlevania will be overall disappointed here.

I think the most improved aspect of Harmony of Dissonance is the combat. Instead of the awkward backdash from SOTN, Juste Belmont can freely dash in both directions with little lag. Of course this means you’ll be spamming the dash button everywhere you go in the castle, but it does allow the bosses to use telegraphed attacks in a more traditional fashion. It’s fun to dash back and forth in and out of combat when you’re traversing the castle, and many bosses have something new and interesting about them that sets them apart from the series’ previous standard. The only kink in this new design is that the magic system is straight up overpowered. If you get the right spell and item combination, you can make pretty short work of most bosses by spamming your attacks – and since your magic regenerates automatically you can spend the rest of your time dodging until you’re recharged. I don’t really see this as a fatal flaw though – players who want a greater challenge can always just abstain from the more powerful spells. It’s not that much different than playing a Mega Man game using the optimal Boss Order. Personally I still found it fun and at least mildly challenging to exploit everything the game provided me, and at the very least, it was amusing.

The biggest weakness in the combat system is that, being a Belmont, you are restricted to using only the whip throughout the course of the entire game. Games that use only one weapon can still be successful, but when you have an RPG system like these Castlevania games, it seems like a missed opportunity to not have some level of customization to play with – especially when there is technically some customization; it just sucks. You get enhancements for your whip, but all of the elemental enhancements seem pointless. I switched my elements a few times on various bosses and I never noticed a difference in damage from what I tried. The biggest flaw with the whip enhancements is that besides the two upgrades that add a ball to the end of your whip, there is no visual indicator that you’re even using anything beyond the default weapon. And frankly, the chargeable whip should have been applied to all whips – not one that you have to equip.

The lack of buttons on the Gameboy Advance restricts versatility as well, since they decided to use both shoulder buttons for the dodge. You change up your playstyle by combining elemental books with your typical Castlevania items (like the Axe and the Dagger) and you cast spells based on the combination – using your mana bar instead of your hearts. Since magic regenerates automatically, and spells are so much more powerful than using vanilla heart items, I found that I had a full compliment of hearts for basically the entire game from lack of necessity. This also negates any reward finding heart expansions could have had. The magic combo system could have been have been fine if they just used two buttons, one for firing regular heart items and one for casting spells. As-is it’s awkward to go into the menu to switch, so I never really bothered.

The general level design on a macro-scale is great, but the individual parts of the design are hit and miss. There are some absolutely fantastic puzzles and “mini-game” rooms throughout the castle, but the joy of these standout rooms is somewhat contradicted by the overuse of zig-zag level design. The zigging and zagging gets very tedious when you have to backtrack through old areas, which is something you’re forced to do a lot since fast travel is even less convenient than it was in SOTN. The only thing that saves the castle from being completely boring because of the switchbacks is the low-lag dodge and some great Shield spells giving you the ability to speed through most obstacles.

Since the game has relatively few customization options, they made the decision to reward exploration in a very un-Castlevania like fashion. For some bizarre reason you can collect furniture and decorate a specific room in the castle, which seems a little counterproductive since these castles generally disintegrate once the load bearing boss is defeated at the end. Listening to an interview with Koji Igarashi and Double Fine, apparently because Alucard is the son of Dracula they thought it would be neat if Alucard had his own room in Castlevania. I assume this room decorating thing is a realization of that scrapped concept, but it certainly doesn’t make sense for a Belmont to be doing it. I’ll admit this is a little nitpicky, but it’s a weird observation nevertheless.

Spoilers Below

One of the most interesting, but also most damning parts of the game is how they tried to top the Inverted Castle from Symphony of the Night. Instead of it being an endgame surprise, the second castle is revealed half-way through the game, and you get to traverse back and forth between the two castles from that point forward. I feel like I say this phrase a lot in so many of my reviews, but conceptually this is a great idea… however the execution is lacking. The greatest criticism against the original Inverted Castle is that the “Metroidvania” aspect of the game is pretty much over by that point. With the second castle accessible early, you can integrate the ability gating as part of the overall experience – which is what they did. The problem is that beyond the Clock Tower where the mechanic is first introduced, the two castles just don’t feel that much different. I imagine that it’d feel the same way with SOTN if you switched back and forth, but at least SOTN’s second castle was an upside down version of the original. In Harmony of Dissonance, the terrain is almost exactly the same – switchbacks and all – with some excellent but few exceptions.

Story-wise I really love the two castles and how it plays into Maxim’s duality as he struggles with becoming Dracula, but I wish more was done with the concept beyond the occasional different room and a bunch of palette swaps. Story applications an environmental story telling isn’t absent from the design though. If I wanted to overanalyze this game I bet I could come up with some Silent Hill-Esque psychological symbolism behind everything in the castle (an obvious one being that there are so many skeleton enemies as well as an entire skeleton themed level background representing the dark secrets Maxim has hiding in his closet.) But I don’t actually think the castle is that clever.

End Spoilers

In spite of its weaknesses though, I still consider Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance to be a good game – at least, I had a lot of fun with it. Symphony of the Night fans will likely be disappointed with the lack of customization options and the really kind of awful music soundtrack, but compared to all other Metroidvania games, I still consider it to stand with some other good games in terms of quality. Plus, if you’re a fan of the original Igarashi Planned Castlevania story, I think it’s worth a look just to see the budding of concepts that were to be used in the later titles.


Final Score

3/5

Scoring system overview


Metroidvania Breakdown

Combat
– 3

Thanks to better dodging mechanics, combat is deeper this time around, though overpowered magic sort of defies the improvements

Platforming
– 3

Not really a focus, but what's there is fun

Exploration
– 3.5

Would be excellent except fast travel is limited, and the castle overuses Zig-Zag level design

Puzzle
– 3

There are some really fun puzzles and mini-games within the castle, though they aren't exactly challenging

Story
– 3

The story starts out pretty bland but gradually layers in some interesting concepts into the Castlevania universe that will be expanded upon in later games

Graphics
– 4

For a Gameboy Advance game, the backgrounds are gorgeous, though it is a little weird that the hero has a blue outline

Music
– 2

Somehow the music is really bad from a technical standpoint. There are some great melodies, but they're played with this muddy 8-bit instrument set

Replayability
– 3

With the exception of some key ability gates, the castle does let you go where you please, plus you can play as a different character


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