As with all-but-one of the Castlevania games, the hero is a Belmont, in this case by the name of Juste, the latest in a long and famous line of vampire slayers. Although the language barrier masks the game's no doubt delightful dialogue and storyline, it cannot mask the basic underlying virtues of the Castlevania series. It's a 2D platformer with advanced character development, superb level design and - in this case - it makes inventive use of the GBA's hardware to produce some lovely visual effects, all to the sound of a haunting soundtrack.
Belmont begins by breaching the castle's outer walls, pursued by an enormous metallic beast which wakes in the moon's glow and looms several screens high above our hero, before working his way through darkened corridors and attics, uncovering spellbooks and slaying the undead with his trusty chain whip. As usual the whip's mechanics are incredibly ornate - you can stand still holding the B button and wiggle the chain around in the air with the directional pad to snag power-ups and other bonuses, before it flops believably at the behest of the game's consistent physics.
Defeating your enemies improves your abilities and increases your experience. Levelling up like an RPG character, Juste Belmont learns new skills as he fights - he is able to slide low to the ground after defeating the first boss, and after the second he can perform the platformer's favourite move, the double-jump. Before long Belmont can reach difficult ledges, destroy powerful enemies swiftly and with more grace and finesse, and perform spells combined with weapon attacks to improve his odds of escaping unharmed. One improvement here is the ability to lunge or retreat quickly using the shoulder buttons, which proves incredibly useful in escaping the clutches of quick-witted enemies and penetrating the defences of those with complicated movement patterns.
Dissonance? Can't find any...
The only thing worrying me as I first booted up my import copy of White Night Concerto was the impending squint-fest of a graphics engine, but fortunately I was quickly relieved of that concern. As the game's title screen appeared, reflecting beautifully in the water in front of the castle, the warm glow seemed worlds away from Circle of the Moon. The lighting is beyond acceptable, but far from bright and cutesy. It emphasizes the detail on Belmont and his aggressors' outfits and in the background, and in a lot of places it helps move the game out of the gutter of practically opaque noir and into moonlit horror movie territory.
The graphics are largely unchanged in terms of composition though, with a smattering of Mode 7 here and there, the usual neatly drawn and detailed backgrounds (which haven't aged much since their days on the Super Nintendo at the start of the last decade), and smooth character, background and weapon animations. Konami has perfected the art of Castlevania, and with the correct lighting things should be fine from now on.
So far the game is more than living up to its predecessors, with just the right amount of difficulty to keep you coming back after a frustrating death, and just as Belmont improves, the player also grows more competent in handling his abilities. One thing which I noticed however was that early boss encounters are much easier than their equivalents in previous Castlevania adventures, but if anything this just dragged me in even further, and to call the game 'easy' would be an insult - thanks to the distance between save points it requires a lot more time to attain something tangibly rewarding from a session, and before long White Night Concerto becomes Life-Sapping Black Hole. Although it's perhaps a little early to call it a foregone conclusion, Konami's latest Castlevania does appear to be a delightful addition to the series, more vibrant than its predecessors and not lacking any of the things that made them great.