Fearless Vampire Killers
After Symphony of the Night breathed new life into the Castlevania franchise by imbuing the time-honoured platformers with motivating action-RPG elements, Konami's vampire hunter saga continues on Nintendo's GBA without losing much in quality.
First of all, it's a two game cartridge. Two high class 2D action adventures for the price of one - as a gamer you can't really argue with that. While both games feature similar gameplay, each offers particularities that make it a worthy game in its own right. As either Juste Belmont (Harmony of Dissonance) or Soma Cruz (Aria of Sorrow) players start exploring Dracula's castle in the Castlevania series' well-established sidescrolling view, but are at almost complete liberty which way to turn and what to explore.
Armed with a variety of whips (Juste) and blade weapons (Soma), the vampire hunters jump, slash, whip and slide their way through the extensive castle's rooms, battling fiends for XP and picking up power-ups and additional equipment to better their stats.
Graphics are nice, detailed and atmospheric. While Juste Belmont emits a blue glow that makes it easy to locate him on the GBA's screen, Soma benefits from slightly lighter surroundings and his trademark white coat to make him distinguishable. Animation is smooth and the boss battles feature amazingly large and detailed enemy sprites which sometimes make impressive use of Mode 7 effects. Overall the game is programmed well enough to be completely devoid of slow-downs. Music and sound FX are above average and clear.
The RPG elements are motivating - it's fun to delve deeper and deeper into the castle, uncovering new surroundings and uncovering artifacts which in addition to the characters' leveling up make them even stronger.
While Juste Belmont employs impressive battle magic by enchanting his secondary weapons with elemental spellbooks found within the castle, Soma absorbs the souls of defeated enemies to utilize their special abilities, further boost his stats or gain permanent power-ups.
While Harmony of Dissonance allows players to save their progress at any time, meaning they return to the last save room after their untimely death but don't lose any XP or items found, Aria of Sorrow makes it possible to pick up a game in the very same room players decide to take a break.
The sometimes corny cutscenes and bishonen-inspired manga art used to depict the characters are a matter of taste. Die-hard gamers may also find the games not challenging enough in spite of their sheer scale - while many boss battles require a strategy and movement pattern observation to prevail, experienced players will be able to beat many of the larger fiends at first try.
Exploring the massive castles is fun but the obstacles in players' paths are a far cry from original brainteasers like for example the Zelda series offers. Can't reach that ledge? The key to impediments like these is most likely exploring another part of the castle until one unceremoniously stumbles across an item granting a new ability, not a puzzle involving the creative use of said skill.
The Bottom Line
Well playable, good-looking and motivating 2D action adventures for those who think platformers don't offer enough and RPGs offer too much complexity. While playing the games casually is entirely possible, once one gets sucked into the gothic anime world it's hard to put them down.