The prodigal son returns. Etc, etc.
Its been a while since I’ve interacted with my blog in any meaningful way. I’d use finals week and family holiday escapades as an excuse, but if I’m being honest, my absence can mostly be attributed to my wanderlust-esque approach to videogames. That is to say, I suspect I have undiagnosed ADD, and this reflects on my inability to finish the vast majority of the videogames I play. For example, I’ve easily sunk over sixty hours into Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin and the Final Fantasy X HD Collection each, but have not earned myself a final credits screen for either. Its mildly embarrassing.
That being said, I did recently finish a game that has been on my backlog for a while, and I feel it’s a title relevant for discussion, despite its niche status. I doubt most gamers would have heard of it, and I promise, that isn’t me trying to pass off some kind of hipster remark…
Those among the audience who are familiar with my ramblings will recall my intense affection for the Castlevania franchise. I will make the case that these metroidvanias that exist in the Castlevania series are among the best, and unappreciated by gaming as a whole. I mean, I understand that 2D sidescrollers stopped being all the rage quite some time ago, so I acknowledge that an article about Harmony of Dissonance isn’t going to go viral overnight…but hopefully, you’ll be interested in what I have to say about this particular gem.
For those who are unacquainted with the term, “metroidvania” refers to the videogame genre pioneered by the earliest Metroid games, the term itself derived from the superb game Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which popularized the genre with its success. The genre has lost most of its steam nowadays, but some modern entries are still floating about, such as the recently remastered Shadow Complex, or last year’s Axiom Verge. Metroidvanias are themselves a subgenre of action/adventure, with a focus on exploring sprawling, detailed environments and discovering new areas and enemies, treasures, abilities and challenging bosses. Harmony of Dissonance is itself a Gameboy Advance title from 2002, but despite its age and the limitations of the portable console’s hardware, I found the game highly entertaining.
Harmony of Dissonance, like Symphony of the Night and the other Castlevanias, is rich in atmosphere. The visuals in these games are invariably a treat, with a dark-fantasy, gothic design that bleeds into everything you see. Skeletons, ghosts, suits of armor, witches and golems are just a few of the bizarre, often unsettling enemies you’ll find wandering the halls of the demonic castle, and the castle itself usually steals the show. Each Castlevania game hosts dozens of decadent, yet decrepit environments, each featuring their own soundtrack, theme, and enemy lineup.
Playing through a Castlevania title can be compared to taking a trip through a theme park, with winding paths branching out into various new locales, every area with its own distinct flavor. The Castle Treasury, for example, features foggy vaults filled with dangerous, armored undead guardians, some of its longer hallways offering a menacing view of volcanic plains off in the subterranean distance. The Chapel of Dissonance, on the other hand, possesses a very solemn, church-like theme, featuring massive cathedral halls and airborne enemies who harass you from afar.
Really, this is my favorite thing about the series, running through these captivating environments and facing off against nasty enemies. Of course, excellent presentation alone isn’t enough to make a game great, which is why the graphics serve as a gorgeous wrapper for superb gameplay. Wandering through the rooms of Dracula’s castle feels quick and breezy because the main hero, Juste Belmont, controls superbly in a swift, graceful manner. This is important, because it is often the greatest advantage you have against your enemies, many of whom can take and dish out a lot more damage than you can. You have to utilize forward and backwards dodging techniques, as well as jumping and ducking, to avoid damage from the scores of foes who stand between you and the the next saving point. In a way, I could compare the careful, acrobatic fighting to that of a Dark Souls game, because placement of your character and the timing of attacks and dodges are the only things that decide whether you win in a fight, or die.
Well, okay, skill isn’t the only thing that matters. Something I appreciate about Harmony of Dissonance and its sibling titles is the inclusion of character stats and leveling up. As you slay enemies and explore the nooks and crannies of the grand castle, Juste will gain experience and collect increasingly powerful equipment, buffing his various parameters related to health, magic, damage, etc. Different artifacts and equipment sets allow you you to tailor your play style to a small extent: for example, I traded some bits of protective armor for accessories that made me more vulnerable to attack, but boosted my magic, allowing me to spam powerful spells against tough enemies. You still need to “git gud” and learn how to deal with enemies and bosses, but grinding enemies to boost stats and finding powerful equipment can make your stay at Dracula’s pad go much more smoothly.
I feel compelled to mention how seamlessly the exploration and platforming blends in with combat. The layout of the castle is more than simply just hallways that run left and right, rather, it features scores of towers, staircases, pits and every combination of two dimensional traversal you could imagine. Jumping and running every which way as you jam out to the soundtrack is fun in its own right, with the various areas tossing varieties of residential hazards and baddies to prevent you from moving forward. Unfortunately, HoD’s soundtrack is often irritating, and only mildly enjoyable at best. This is a shame, because the other titles in the series feature catchy tunes that enhance the mood and guide the player into a rhythmic, platforming/monster slaying groove.
And unfortunately, the musical accompaniment isn’t the only thing that bugged me about this title. Castlevania games have — I cant help but crack up as I say this — hardly ever possessed anything that even comes close to a passable story. It certainly doesn’t help that the narrative is little more than an afterthought, but the hamfisted exposition, bizarre phrasing of dialogue and the absolute blandness of the characters ruins what little story there is available. It can be charming, in its own awkward, campy way, like the Resident Evil games for instance, but if you’re looking for a beautifully done gothic narrative, keep looking, because the devs drop the ball on almost every single title somehow.
HoD can be forgiven for its mediocre musical composition and poor writing though, because everything else is pretty spot on. The bosses in particular get a special mention, because they really are the high points of the game. While there were more than a couple giant-armor-suit enemies, which annoyed me a bit, there were plenty of others that were fun, interesting and exciting. Giant bats, gelatinous cubes, menacing demons and a massive floating ball of corpses are just a few of the epic encounters I can list off of the top of my head, and each of them were challenging and required at least a couple tries to defeat. Even the infuriatingly difficult final boss was enjoyable, in a masochistic sort of way.
Harmony of Dissonance, despite its age and the hardware limitations of the GBA, captivated and entertained me in a way many of my glitzy, modern PC titles couldn’t. And maybe this is the fanboy in me speaking, but I think that alone makes this one worth mentioning. Those of you itching for an entertaining title that doesn’t require top notch hardware, give this one a spin on your laptop or tablet, you just might love it. In fact, I encourage you all to give any of the Castlevania sidescrollers a chance, especially. These games are influential in many ways on the gaming world of today, and they possess a quality and atmosphere that is unique to their legacy.