Notice that I've so far avoided the obvious by not mentioning the graphics. I might as well say it for posterity, though: the visuals in Harmony of Dissonance are quite frankly some of the most impressive stuff out there on the Gameboy Advance. All of the edges of the screen are crammed full of minute and curious Gothic detail, the character and monster sprites are large and well-animated, and there are some pretty creative uses of the system's various display modes and built-in rotation and scaling effects. Even the long, flat corridors are beautifully-rendered. Then there is the returning talent of Ayami Kojima on character design. Although Juste's appearance is similar enough to that of Alucard in Symphony of the Night to perplex me a bit (a puzzle solved only by reading into Juste's character with the aid of some other traits and facts offered in the game and manual), I can't get over the feeling that Kojima should have been contributing to the series from the beginning. Her art is as perfect a compliment to the series as Yuzo Koshiro's music is to Streets of Rage, and I hope she hangs on for whatever Igarashi does with Castlevania in the future.
Speaking of Koshiro, as for the music in this game: by now you've probably read or heard how awful it's supposed to be. This is both entirely true and false.
To be sure, compared to the feats KCEK managed to achieve in CotM just a year ago, the sound quality is obviously lacking. One night not long ago, I spent an hour simply lying in bed, staring into the darkness, listening to the Catacombs theme from Circle of the Moon through a pair of headphones. Much of the music in CotM was borrowed and remixed from other games (mostly Bloodlines and Dracula's Curse), but the music quality was higher than anything I'd heard on a handheld system before. And indeed, it was, is some of the best Castlevania music I've ever heard. What's more, whatever original compositions there are, seem perfect and memorable additions to the growing roster of Baroque-rock Castlevania anthems.
The natural comparison to CotM is, I think, the greatest factor which initially makes the music in HoD so very startling, and for a while even a little grating. Although it might be interesting on its own right, this music is not of the same almost unreasonably high standard set by CotM and by Castlevania in general. It just doesn't sound like what you inevitably are going to expect, and as a result it isn't difficult to feel a little disappointed. Beyond the mere quality of sound, the composition is also a bit odd.
That said, the music in Harmony of Dissonance isn't as bad as people say. While it might not knock anyone's socks off, it has its own odd personality. Try, if you can, to picture Darkstalkers music played through the sound chip of an NES. Now mix in the occasional motif from Simon's Quest, and top it off with a few well-chosen tunes from the original Gameboy games. That's the HoD score, in a nutshell. It sounds basically like a more recent kind of Castlevania music, as played on an NES. That is to say, it's atmospheric and sprawling -- as opposed to NES Castlevania music, which is more melodic and clever. Got it?
The thing is, the music here manages to set its own sort of retro tone. If you've played the NES games and the original Gameboy trilogy, I think it's a lot easier to appreciate what's been done; to take the music as a low-fi experiment, rather than a result of ROM budgeting. On its own level, especially in the way it contrasts the high-budget presentation of every other aspect of the game, the music has its own interesting vibe going on. If anything, I think it helps just a bit in adding to the "grainy" emotional texture of the game that I was getting at before. If there's anything that Castlevania needs in order to retain its unsettling ambiance, it's a certain offputting creakyness -- and the music in HoD seems to do a very good (if perhaps unintentional) job of maintaining this sensation.
Controversial? Certainly. But I think the music succeeds in its own strange way. Perhaps I'm being too forgiving, but I dig. I admit completely that it's a shame Igarashi didn't feel like making room for a few more high-quality samples, but the result is still interesting and enjoyable in its way -- so it isn't a total loss.
All of the other sound effects are great, though (further adding to the perplexing aural quality of the game). Something that strikes me: there's a strange, startled "nAnI?! " whenever Juste is poisoned or cursed. I'm not sure if this is supposed to be Juste's own squeak -- as it doesn't sound like the same voice that does all of the other screaming and grunting in the game -- an odd touch of humor, although it isn't alone.
The control in HoD, again, is much tighter and more generally satisfying than in CotM. Now, I actually rather loved how Nathan felt in that game -- but the control was much looser than often seemed appropriate, and while Nathan always did exactly what he was told to, he didn't seem to have much... substance to him. The entire game gave me that sort of a sensation, so it's not just the control. But there was no heft to the character. What flexibility he had felt both kind of messy and strangely contrived. Why did he suddenly get certain abilities when he did, for instance? Why was being able to push crates a special power? What the heck is that "rocket jump" special move? Where does it come from? (Juste has a similar move, but it's integrated far better, and doesn't seem quite as loopy in execution.) Whenever I learned a new move in CotM, it felt more like it had merely been arbitrarily unlocked for me, so as to allow me to progress.
Juste, in contrast, starts off feeling much more... rigid than Nathan. His dash ability is indispensable, and it's neat that he's able to swing his whip around as in Super Castlevania IV. But he's less of a jumping bean, he doesn't start with a slide move, he can't automatically twirl his whip as Nathan could. He's certainly animated a hell of a lot better than Nathan, and his sprite is larger and more visible -- but he's... well, he feels more like a Belmont than a random platforming character with a whip. Just as floaty old Nathan was great for soaring aimlessly around the open structures in his game, Juste has a much more satisfying kind of focus to him. What he loses in out-and-out freedom of movement he gains in precision and, frankly, respectability.
There's just more to Juste. Nothing seems to be wasted on him, and nothing seems to be arbitrary. His starting abilities make sense, and every time he gets a new one it's a pretty logical (and balanced) addition. Plus, if you're missing a particular favourite move from nearly any other Castlevania game -- it's probably in here somewhere. Once you get a slide move and can automatically spin your whip around as Nathan did (although you could always manually approximate this effect before), you'll feel like you've earned the abilities and like they're natural extensions to what you started off with. They're not merely there.
This lack of arbitrariness extends beyond just the control, though. There is also a constant sense of forward motion in this game that was lacking in Circle of the Moon. I felt much more like I was going somewhere throughout the game -- like there was an obvious goal -- rather than that I was just puttering around randomly in an adventure game world. CotM is fun, but that's about it; a fun, Metroid-style platformer with Castlevania trimmings. HoD feels like Castlevania. For those who have been with the series for a while, you know how that map popped up between levels in the first game? You know how in level three you could see the final tower in the background as a goal? It always felt like you were making progress. That sensation is back.
[Next: Part 3]