The Wii U eShop is becoming an embarrassment of riches, with a robust library of indie titles complemented by a growing lineup of strong Virtual Console games. Konami's Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance is the second of three Castlevania titles released on the Game Boy Advance, and while it controls and plays similarly to its predecessor Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, there are enough differences and improvements to make it feel fresh for anyone looking to play a big, rich game on the eShop.
Taking place in the 19th century, several years after the death of Dracula at the hands of the Belmont clan, young Juste Belmont travels with his friend Maxim to a seemingly abandoned castle enshrouded in fog to save their friend Lydie, who has been kidnapped. Quickly realizing that the castle must belong to Dracula, Juste sets out to find Lydie and destroy whatever evil lurks there; yet as he explores and makes his way through the strange, dangerous castle, Juste realizes that there is more than meets the eye to Lydie's disappearance.
Harmony of Dissonance's story is interesting and compelling, with characters that are multi-layered and mysteries that slowly unfold. While not quite as simple as Circle of the Moon, which kept protagonist Nathan Graves in the dark for much of the game, Harmony of Dissonance manages to tell yet another chapter of the Belmont/Dracula saga without things becoming stale. Juste is much more confident and sophisticated than Nathan, and it feels as though the gameplay is tuned to make the player feel stronger from the beginning, even though there are similar limitations and inaccessible areas.
Aside from both games featuring a sprawling castle to explore and a protagonist who levels up and gradually gains more powers and abilities, Harmony of Dissonance is a much different experience to Circle of the Moon. The first, most notable change is in the visuals. At the time of its initial release, Circle of the Moon was criticized for its dark environments being difficult to see on the Game Boy Advance's dim screen. Harmony of Dissonance goes the complete opposite direction, with bright colours popping all over Dracula's castle and the surrounding outdoor areas. The flashy, almost-psychedelic visuals engulfing the game reminded us of old Vincent Price horror films from the 1960s, and we mean that as a compliment. The atmosphere is absolutely fantastic, from the background to the character designs, which are surrounded by glowing borders. On the Wii U GamePad, the already-impressive visuals pop even more, making Harmony of Dissonance a treat for the eyes.
While the main gameplay will be familiar to Castlevania fans, there are some new wrinkles to keep things fresh. Juste uses a whip to fight enemies. As he progresses through the castle and defeats bosses, he finds items that give him access to parts of the castle that he could previously not reach, such as the Lizard Tail, which lets him slide, and the Sylph Feather, which lets him double-jump. There is a real sense of progression as these items are obtained. There are also other items, known as relics, which enhance Juste's abilities — the Soul Orb, for example, displays the amount of damage to enemies.
Juste can also be equipped with armour, whip upgrades, and sub-weapons. Sub-weapons drop from enemies and one type can be held at a time; using a sub-weapon takes up hearts, which are also dropped by enemies. There are also spell books that can be obtained that, when activated, empower sub-weapons and use MP — there are heart, MP, and HP upgrades throughout the game waiting to be found. In keeping with RPG elements, Juste gains experience as he defeats enemies and will level up, making him stronger.
Perhaps the biggest feature in Harmony of Dissonance is its two-castle structure. Juste eventually discovers that there are two dimensions in Dracula's castle. "Castle A" and "Castle B" have different layouts, and have a cause-and-effect relationship; travelling to new areas in one castle may open up a previously blocked off path in the other; travelling is done through portals at certain points of the castle. The two castles make for some interesting travel, and the atmosphere in each is vastly different, but occasionally the shifts can be frustrating and confusing. Still, there is a ton of variety here, and players will enjoy discovering the secrets each castle keeps. After completing the main game, more modes become unlocked that extend replay value, including a boss rush and a really exciting mode that shouldn't be spoiled.
The only truly weak spot in Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance is its soundtrack. Overly simplistic and rarely atmospheric or even appropriate, the music is a disappointment, especially given the series' usually strong track record with epic, sweeping scores. Series creator Kogi Igarashi has even stated that the game's sound design was compromised due to the amount of effort put into the impressive visuals. It's by no means a deal breaker — the music isn't like nails on a chalkboard, but simply generic and forgettable.
Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance is a great action/adventure game. The visuals are wonderful, the gameplay deep and satisfying and the story compelling and mysterious. While the sound design leaves a bit to be desired, fans of so-called "Metroidvania" games would do well to play a title that contributed to the "vania" part of the genre. Harmony of Dissonance is highly recommended.