Version tested: GameBoy Advance
Dracula's interior designer.
Not a job to be taken lightly, I imagine. Therefore I wonder why, if we're taking the Castlevania series at face value, Dracula ends up with such wildly bizarre abodes. Is it simply the case that Dracula can't help himself and has a nibble on each designer before they finish their grand vision? Or is it perhaps that Dracula, as an immortal symbol of pure evil, is stark raving bonkers and makes nothing but lunatic requests?
"What I would like," Dracula would start with a coquettish grin, "Is for my dining room to be really high in the sky, probably in that huge unsupportable spire. And I'd like the only way to get there to be through a ruined chapel. Oh! And I'd like to make sure I could only get there if I was so hungry I was prepared to put some extra effort into my jumps."
Imagined situation or not, fighting winged skeletons on the way to your grub is probably a better step to good health than inviting quack nutritionist Gillian McKeith round to poke through your poo. Yes, I imagine that Dracula's average home having hundreds of rooms and only being navigable by forcing you to do more jumping than a night spent playing Dance Dance Revolution is how Dracula keeps his svelte figure.
That and his diet consisting mostly of blood.
Unless you rushed out to buy them on release day, the chances are that you've missed the titles reissued in Konami's first GBA double pack - Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance, and Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow. Either due to a criminally low print run or that it's obviously far more important for your local videogame emporium to have a full second hand DVD section over GBA titles, they haven't been seen on the shelves since, ooh, their day of release. So it's a victory for common sense that not only has Konami seen fit to reissue games that people want to buy (rather than just complaining about the second-hand market, or something) but it has bundled them on one cart in a tip-top extra value pack.
For devotees of the series, these titles mark the return of Koji Igarashi to the helm as producer, the man responsible for reinventing the series in its current action exploration format in the PS title 'Symphony of the Night'. In what could be considered homage to the Metroid series, you explore complex castles with your progress marshaled by the requirement that you find skills or items in order to reach new sections. A double-jump, perhaps, to get out of a ruined chapel into the dining hall.
Unlike Metroid, however, a RPG-lite leveling system is in place and in Harmony of Dissonance rather than the player controlling a butch woman in space armour, they control an incredibly fey, white-skinned dandy.
Set 50 years after the NES Castlevania II, Harmony of Dissonance stars Simon Belmont's grandson, Juste Belmont. Perhaps the black sheep of the family, Juste's fashion style can only be described as 'Lawrence Lewellyn-Bowen, if he was a vampire'. Indeed, true to his look, one of the side quests on offer in Harmony of Dissonance is to decorate one of the rooms within the castle with found furniture. I'm deadly serious.
Despite not being one of the most tightly designed Castlevanias, with a sprawling pair of interlinked castles decorated in a screamingly absurd fashion, it's easily the most fun to control. Juste has the benefit of a dash move that allow him to perform quick strikes against enemies through abuse of the L and R buttons, and can make the occasionally longwinded navigation of the castle lightning fast.
The game's difficulty however takes a hit from a save system that allows you to save almost anywhere and reload the game with full health and mana at the last save point. The mana is used in a combination of the Castlevania series' traditional secondary weapons (axes, holy water, etc.) with elemental spellbooks to create 'smart bombs' that can be easily abused to make the boss encounters criminally unchallenging. If you resist this temptation, the feeling of control makes Harmony of Dissonance a joy to play. The game just flows.
Of course, if you thought Juste was bad, Aria of Sorrow's Soma Cruz takes the fairy cake, metrosexually spectacular in what appears to be a fur-lined dressing gown, walking like he's doing the locomotion. The only possible sign of normality is that unlike the Belmonts, he isn't toting a whip. Probably a good thing considering he's a Japanese high school exchange student in the year 2035. However, Soma at least has a wide variety of blades at his disposal, including my personal favourite, a speedy combat knife I've taken to calling 'stabby'.
Aria of Sorrow is the tightest refinement of this 'Metroidvania' style yet seen. Better, in fact, than its DS sequel, Dawn of Sorrow. Despite the lack of that oh-so-helpful map on the second screen, this game is worth a 9 on its own, featuring a beautifully designed castle with interesting (if admittedly often incongruous) backgrounds and a variety of monsters that are visually improved over Harmony of Dissonance. The monsters' souls can be captured to perform special moves and more, a system sadly underutilized, though it does foster a 'gotta-catch-em-all' mentality. The only downside is the Soma's inability to dash forward and the game's relative brevity and ease.
Indeed, taken as separate entities it's the games shortness and lack of challenge that are their ultimate undoing, with neither clocking in anywhere near even 10 hours for anyone with working thumbs. However, as a pair, they offer far more pleasure than you could expect for the money, and are the perfect kind of games to while away an evening with, time you'd only spend watching 'Changing Rooms' or something. You've got more common sense than that. Now if only Dracula did...
9 / 10