Harmony of Dissonance is director Koji Igarashi's attempt to rescue the Castlevaniaseries by wresting control back from the negligent supervision of Konami's Kobe studios. While last year's Circle of the Moon, developed by KCEK, was essentially unrelated to the greater series continuity, this new game is Castlevania in function as well as in form. While it might not ultimately be any better a game on its own right, HoD is a vastly superior Castlevania game in nearly every respect.
As convoluted as the series is, Castlevania so far kind of works out into a core trilogy of trilogies (with a generous handful of complications and remakes along the way). There are the three NES games; the three original Gameboy games; and then there is the "Dracula X" subseries -- the series containing both the legendary (and yet Japan-only) Rondo of Blood and the game which was released in the West as Symphony of the Night.
If it helps in understanding how important Harmony of Dissonance is to the Castlevania series as a whole, you can basically consider it the third game in the "Dracula X" trilogy. This might not be entirely accurate, but there are certainly more inaccurate ideas in the world. As with Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse and Castlevania Legends, HoD caps off an era by taking the gameplay concepts from the "Dracula X" series and jumping back in time to fill some of the cracks in the Castlevania timeline.
Although I think a few more things probably could have been done, in general I'm impressed with what has been accomplish with this game -- and I'm more confident than ever that Igarashi is the guy who should be heading this series; no one else at Konami seems to really get the heart of Castlevania the way he does. And even if the game does have its flaws, it feels real. It's not hard to tell how much effort went into the game, and how devoted the man is both to the legacy of the series and to its fans. This isn't something you get a whole lot in any form of art or entertainment, seemingly least of all videogames and film. And it's exactly what was missing from Circle of the Moon.
The only problem I see with Igarashi's direction so far is that with his attention to detail, continuity, and defiant old-school principles, Castlevania is potentially in danger of becoming akin to something like King of Fighters in terms of its fanbase. Whereas Castlevania used to be a series anyone could leap in and enjoy, when will it reach the point where a player must do enough research for a dissertation in order to make sufficient sense of what's going on to fully enjoy the series? On a personal level, I applaud and appreciate this kind of depth -- but I know I'm a strange monkey in this respect, and it would be nice if Castlevania were to remain a successful enough series to thrive for a while to come.
Starting off, HoD isn't immediately quite as agreeable as Circle of the Moon. Although HoD obviously has a very nice tone to it, it can be little harder to immediately get into and enjoy than KCEK's last stab at the series. Compared to the warm enthusiasm and joy in CotM's design, HoD feels kind of... cold. After I played for a half an hour or so, however, HoD opens up a lot. At around this point, it became clear to me how much more well-made this game is in general than KCEK's last effort. The control seems quicker and more responsive; the level design is more interesting; and the entire production feels much more Castlevania-ey overall than Circle of the Moon ever managed to be. It seems Igarashi has managed to capture the same slightly uneasy tone -- the crackling, grainy sense of vague dread -- that most of the main entries in the series have had, and which has been absent for quite a while.
Another oddly returning sensation is the cinematic tone that the series had during the original NES trilogy. The first few games in the series were even spattered with spoke holes in all of the title screens and menus, as if to drive home the impression that one was playing through a silent horror movie. And the games had an aesthetic and an atmosphere to match. Although it lacks the spoke holes, HoD seems to bring this general feeling back, albeit in a manner which is difficult for me to precisely quantify.
[Next: Part 2]