3.5 out of 5. Between its no-handholding castle and the card system, there are undeniably some impressive things about Circle of the Moon, but you do need to accept that you have to grind to get there.
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How Metroidvania is it? Perfect Fit. Circle of the Moon is possibly even more open than Symphony of the Night, while retaining all of the same genre defining elements.
Primary Challenge: Melee Combat
Time to beat: ~8 hours
Review Info: Castlevania: Circle of the Moon was played using the Wii U Virtual Console version.

More Info

Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Sub-genre: Igavania
Features: Map System, Leveling System, 2D Platformer, Melee Combat, Fast Travel/Teleporters, Narrative/Cutscenes Story Telling, Character/Class Options, Blood and Gore
Difficulty: Medium
Linearity/Openness: Open Low Gating - No Handholding
Platforms: GBA, Wii U
Release Date: 2001/03/21
Available Languages: English, Japanese

Buy Castlevania: Circle of the Moon if you like…

  • Customizable Game Systems
  • Breakable Walls
  • Frequent Small Rewards
  • The Castlevania Whip
  • High Replayability

▼ Review continues below ▼

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is the first Castlevania game post Symphony of the Night to include the Metroidvania elements that have since defined the series and the genre. It’s a very important game in a lot of ways; if you like the direction the Igavania series took from Aria of Sorrow up until Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, it’s likely you have Circle of the Moon to thank for it. With that said, I really have to pluck away at my biases on this one, because of all the 2D Metroidvania-style Castlevania games, this is the one I had the least fun with, and its entirely because of my personal preferences. Circle of the Moon has some great ideas but it also has an unusual focus on disseminating its mechanics through random drops. This means that you’re either going to have to use a guide and play the slots in order to see everything Circle of the Moon has to offer, or you’re going to be facing off with a pretty hard time. If you don’t mind grinding – or if you even enjoy it – then Circle of the Moon is a very good game.

It’s fairly common for Castlevania games to be about trying to stop the resurrection of Dracula, but Circle of the Moon opens right up with the revival being pretty much complete. Dracula isn’t at his full power though, so you have to do your Metroidvania thing to stop him before that happens. The story in Circle of the Moon is about as cliche as it gets, which isn’t unusual for the series but there is also no real effort put into establishing any kind of emotional connection for the characters. Symphony of the Night and future Castlevania games also tried to have some kind of mystery for you to solve, but the only mystery here is finding out where the key is to that door that Dracula is hiding behind.

With no other direction given, the default course of action in any video game is to find the ugliest monsters and beat their face in with the weapons you’re given. In Circle of the Moon’s case that weapon is the iconic whip that was notably missing from Symphony of the Night. The Vampire Killer whip has incredible range and that range can be extended vertically by holding the button to spin it around. The whip also has a fairly persistent hurtbox that remains active as long as its on the screen. This basically means that if you have a row of enemies in front of you, one swing of the whip will hit and damage all of them. The game gives you plenty of opportunities to put this feature to use, which initially makes you feel powerful. Besides the whip you also have the usual Belmont items that expend your heart-shaped ammo pool to use. This brings Circle of the Moon much closer in alignment to the Classicvania games for how the game plays initially.

The whip alone would have a hard time carrying the game for its extended playtime though, but Circle of the Moon addresses this with its innovative “Dual Set-up System”, or DSS for short. If you’re lucky enemies will sometimes drop a card, which does nothing on its own, but if you have two cards of opposing types you can combine them to create magical spells. There are action cards and attribute cards, one defines how you execute the magic and the other defines what the magic does. What’s interesting about this system is that your options are multiplied by the number of each card type you have. For instance if you have 5 attribute cards and you find an action card, now suddenly you have 5 more abilities to test out and play with. With 10 of each card being in the game, this means you potentially have over 100 different tools you can bring into a given encounter. Many of these effects are just a change in element, like one attribute might make your whip catch on fire while another makes it icy, but nevertheless the implementation is fairly robust and fun to play with. Capturing all of the game’s cards turns Circle of the Moon into a very unique 2D Action RPG.

The depth that the DSS system brings to the table is sadly thwarted by how you’re forced to access it. The cards only come from monster drops. There’s no bestiary in the game to help you know which monsters you’ve checked for what they drop, nor is there any other clue that a monster will drop a card at all. Playing the game by sheer luck, with only the occasional attempt at targeting specific enemies for loot, I ended up with three of each card type by the time I reached Dracula, which wasn’t enough to persuade me to use something other than the boomerang cross on most of the game’s bosses. That boomerang cross is actually something of a dominant strategy because of the way it hits enemies multiple times, which diminishes the value of the DSS system even further. If you use a guide and take the time to grind out each card then you’re in for a treat, but it’s quite a bit of work to get there. After you beat the game once, there are options to avoid the grind a little though. Each full play through unlocks a new password which you can use to play a different “class”. Each class has different stats when you level up, and at least one of them gives you access to cards right from the start. There’s also another class that disallows the use of any cards while boosting your main attack stats, and you might as well call this mode the “Boomerang Cross Run”.

The way leveling works is a little strange, and the stat system is only justified by the aforementioned post-game class options. With the default Vampire Killer class, you start with 100 in each stat and gain more than 10 points per level, with all your stats raising more or less equally. Leveling up just makes you better, and since there are no real weapons in the game, knocking out enemies is the fastest path to power, even with as slow and tedious as it can be. If you’re having a hard time with a boss, then camping near the closest save point and teaching the local minions not to respawn so much will eventually get you enough exp to trivialize the encounter. The leveling system also diminishes the value of exploration. There are no shops in this game and none of the gear you can equip comes from the exploration either, just from monster drops so leveling up and gearing up are basically the same activity. What you can find from exploration are health-ups, heart increases, and magic increases, but the heart increases are the only meaningful one. Health and Magic items give you the same bonus that you get from leveling up, so while they’re not unwelcome they’re just redundant and not that exciting to find as you start entering the late game. Hearts on the other hand give quadruple what you might get from a level up, and since using a heart-based item is your recourse if you don’t have DSS cards you’ll want to find as many of those as you can. I’m going to praise Circle of the Moon’s castle design in a little bit after I address one more thing that is tainted (in my opinion) by the grinding, but ironically the benefits of the castle are also thwarted by the designer’s obsession with locking all the good stuff behind random loot.

Boss fights are at least a step up from the relatively static AI that we saw in Symphony of the Night. With enough practice you can feasibly react to most of the Boss’ attacks. The trouble comes from, again, the fact that so much of your power progression is locked behind just grinding things out. Enter a boss room under leveled, and you’ll be facing off with the same three attacks over and over again in a loop until you finally take down their vast HP pool. The boomerang cross helps with this, but it just isn’t that fun when you could be playing other games that do the basic combat better. I’ve been repeating the same point over the last three paragraphs, but if I get nothing else across in this review I want to emphasize that if you hate grinding as much as I do then circle of the moon is going to rub you the wrong way. If you do get all the cards that you need, bosses suddenly become more about RPG style strategy rather than just repetitive pattern exploitation, and that results in a much more interesting experience.

I wish I could say the grind is the only problem with Circle of the Moon, but I do have to mention a minor gripe with the controls. One of your early movement upgrades is a dash ability which for some reason they decided to tie to a double-tap motion rather than a dedicated button. I understand that the Gameboy Advance was very limited with its buttons, but I also can’t think of any situation where I would ever want to just walk. Nudging a character that moves at a relatively fast speed with a light tap is something platformer veterans have done for a long time. Double tapping before making a long jump however takes some getting used to, and occasionally while you’re being harassed by flying enemies you may find that you got the input wrong and miss your landing. You can eventually get used to it, but at least in my case I never learned to actually like it.

Trying to move the narrative back to positivity, because I do actually like this game, my favorite part of Circle of the Moon is the castle itself. Just like they throw you straight into the Dracula plot, they also just throw you into the castle proper and let you get lost from the get go. For new players this might lead to some confusion and frustration, especially since there’s no real easy way to heal yourself from the outset and there are enemies that can poison you in the first area. In fact, Symphony of the Night had a pretty good transition from the Classicvania style into its genre defining map by basically making you move in a straight line for its early critical path. This is arguably the best way to tutorialize any Metroidvania game and it’s a pattern copied by later Igavania titles including Aria of Sorrow and Bloodstained. For Metroidvania veterans however, Circle of the Moon’s approach of tossing you into the fire actually feels kind of refreshing. Not only can you access so much of the castle with only a few key upgrades, but there are also areas and upgrades that are entirely optional. While the exploration isn’t as rewarding to do as I’d like it to be, the castle is nevertheless a fun place to wander around on a large scale.

What Circle of the Moon does right is quite laudible, it’s just weighed down by some key design decisions that make me like it less than I want to. If I could romhack the game I’d replace more than half of the health/magic/heart upgrades with the cards and equipment gear, and it’d be a much better game for me. It can be argued that the random loot system benefits replayability – which is indeed something Circle of the Moon excels at – but we now have five other future Igavania titles that use similar systems that show how it can be done so much better. Comparing these loot systems is something I may discuss in more detail in a different article since that may be a long tangent. Even if I try to turn off my experiences and judge Circle of the Moon on its own merits I still hesitate to to call what it offers “great.” With all that said, if you go into Circle of the Moon expecting either a clunky old school challenge or a time consuming RPG where grinding is king, then I think you’ll find a very good game.


Final Score

3.5/5

Scoring system overview


Metroidvania Breakdown

Combat
– 3.5

If you're playing the game as intended, bosses have great patterns and there is an impressive number of strategies you can apply. It just takes some grinding to get there.

Platforming
– 2.5

It's about normal for an Igavania style Castlevania game, however the double-tap to dash control method can cause some issues.

Exploration
– 3.5

There are lot of dead ends and secret passage ways to find with incremental health, hearts, or magic boosting rewards, however you can accomplish a similar power increase just by grinding.

Puzzle
– 3

There are a couple of spatial reasoning puzzles that range from welcome pace breakers to slow and arduous. Not a huge focus.

Story
– 2.5

The story is fine if not cliche. The English localization at least is a little hamfisted with conveying its tired tropes.

Graphics
– 3.5

Very impressive for a Gameboy Advanced game, although some of the classic Castlevania monsters diverge from their usual appearances.

Music
– 4

Circle of the Moon really seems to push the limit of what the GBA can do in terms of sound quality.

Replayability
– 4

Once you complete the main campaign there are five other ''Classes'' you can play as that change up the rules of the base game.


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