Last year, Harmony of Dissonance presented to me an interesting dilema. Although certainly a far better Castlevania game than KCE Kobe's Circle of the Moon (from the system launch in 2001), Harmony is free of the sheer mindless glee of its non-canonical predecessor.
For the Castlevania purist, Harmony is a heady experience. And it certainly is more well thought-out than Kobe's game. It's just that it's not as much empty fun. It has to be appreciated for a different set of reasons from Kobe's game.
Each of the two games has something that the other lacks.
No such complexity here -- at least, not overtly. Aria of Sorrow is both a good Castlevania game (coming as it does from series producer Koji Igarashi) and a fun game on its own right. I daresay, and do say, and am in the process of daring to say, that this is by far one of the most enjoyable, well-designed games in the Castlevania series.
One should note also that Aria of Sorrow is the first Castlevania since Symphony of the Night to be an original, distinct game unto itself. By this fact, Aria happens to be the first major Castlevania chapter since the Dracula X days. It's worth seeing just so as to experience how different (if familiar) it is.
Now that we've suffered through the requisite adulation, this is the point where we hit that covert complexity which I alluded to above. (With some things, it seems that we can never win entirely.) As before, the only quality this game lacks is something you'll find in each of its Gameboy Advance predecessors:
An interesting soundtrack.
This game contains the only Castlevania score that I can honestly say I'm not going to remember. Hell. I don't even remember it now, as I write this review. I know that a couple of the later tunes aren't all that bad. Did they, however make any real impression on me? Do they make any serious headway when I consciously try to press them into my skull? Most largely, no. There's just not much there to impress.
Since it's more interesting than mere adulation, this is the subject upon which I intend to fixate, in my typical manner -- with your permission, dear reader.
I am not about to say that Michiru Yamane's music is poor, exactly. Again: there are even a few pieces which I would deign to label snazzy. Rather, the problem is that, as a whole, the soundtrack is... thoroughly adequate.
Adequate does not intrigue. It suffices. It takes up space.
I can think of a couple of explanations for this; the discrepancy between the Aria score and what you might style the scores of before. One is that, although Yamane has been with Konami for somewhere in the range of two decades (dating all the way back to the original Twinbee), perhaps she's a little out-of-practice in chip composition.
It does take a different set of musical muscles -- indeed, a unique talent -- to write under the voicing and space limitations of, say, a SNES or a Genesis. To contrast: in today's console games, with their 44100-mhz audio streams and their redbook encoding, there are no particular boundaries. This fact has both its positive and its negative aspects, creatively speaking.
It's the difference between a string quartet and a full orchestral work. As I believe most professional composers will concur, each is a uniquely difficult form to master. If memory serves me, Shostakovich held off even an attempt at a string quartet until rather late in his career. He just wasn't sure enough of his skill, even after several major symphonies.
Similarly, maybe it's just been too long since Yamane has tackled cartridge work. That might be perfectly understandable, if so. Nobody's perfect.
The other possibility -- which I feel might be more on-target -- is the fact that seemingly no one got Soshiro Hokkai's original soundtrack to Harmony of Dissonance. While it may just be speculation on my part, it seems probable to me that Igarashi asked Yamane to dial things down a bit; to make this soundtrack as normal as possible, so as to avoid a repeat of the public outcry he experienced eight months earlier.
Whatever the case, it really is a shame; the more I listen, the more I become convinced that Harmony has one of the most ingenious, affecting scores in the series. I suppose that I shouldn't be surprised at Igarashi's caution, however (if indeed that is the explanation). While the game's reception was generally positive -- it won a number of "Game of the Month" awards; EGM pops to mind -- Harmony wasn't met with the greatest deal of understanding. Not as such, anyway.
In retrospect -- now that I've played the hell out of Aria of Sorrow -- it's a lot easier to see what Igarashi was (and is) up to.
[Next: It's even easier to see on page two.]