Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance is the entry in the GBA Castlevania trilogy that's out in third place. Even people who don't like Circle of the Moon for the reason that "it's not in Iga's timeline" still like CotM better than HoD. I came into this game expecting another somewhat hollow and uninspired Igarashi helmed Castlevania. I was surprisingly wrong.
If you've been around the Castlevania series for a while, you're pretty familiar with the recycled sprites and the fact that there are maybe one or two new enemies each game. Harmony of Dissonance actually goes out of its way to bring in new enemies. I was surprised at the constant stream of them, and it gave me a drive to continue that I hadn't felt with an Igarashi game for a long time. The game is much darker in tone as well, with the enemy designs intentionally being more... horror-esque. Another step up in this game is the backgrounds. They're intricate and very detailed which leads the castle to feel like it really does have unique areas.
The background designs are very well done.
While the graphics are inspired, the music is kind of weird. Where CotM had a surprisingly lush soundtrack with some pretty high quality samples, HoD could be mistaken for an NES game with some added sound channels. Take a listen:
The music that is here is good, but it seems like a hugely missed opportunity. It's really hard to overlook the fact that this is just a gross misuse of the hardware. If this were a different series then I think it would be possible to overlook, but Castlevania has always been noted for its music. To have such a great and intense soundtrack rendered in such a way detracts from it when so much more was possible. Hell, maybe it could've been overlooked if CotM hadn't bettered it a year before..
Harmony of Dissonance's plot is actually somewhat interesting. Our Belmont this time is Juste, Simon's (from the original Castlevania) grandson. Juste is... weird. This was actually Igarashi's first crack at creating a Belmont. Excluding remakes, Igarashi's eight full-fledged Castlevania games only featured a Belmont as the main playable character three times. That's sort of weird. I mean... do you like Castlevania? Ayami Kojima's art works well for some characters, but as far as Juste is concerned it's a weird look.
Juste's friend Maxim decided to gather up the remains of Dracula (much like Simon's Quest) to destroy them, but ended up being possessed by Dracula. The castle has two layers, one reflecting Maxim's "good" personality, and the other his "evil" personality, influenced by Dracula. You have to move between the different layers in order to navigate the entire castle. This is sort of a drag on the game.
A cool new enemy, this one jumps out of a mirror
You don't actually learn that you're going between the two layers until about 3/4ths of the way through the game. Then you're given a map for each layer and one map that shows your overall progress by different colors. The castle layout is identical for each layer, though the backgrounds and obstacles will differ. If this game were on the DS, then the layers would be a different story. Some kind of map annotation like in The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass would've been transformative for this game. Unfortunately, you'll be left to wander through the castles seemingly endlessly trying to find exactly what to trigger to progress.
If the way forward were more obvious, this would be a very short game. It almost seems as though the game is laid out this way just to pad the length. The castle is not large and it doesn't take a huge amount of time to traverse. Similarly, the difficulty is not very high. Save rooms are relatively sparse until you get the whole castle mapped out, which can make early explorations challenging. This is not real difficulty though, this is difficulty by circumstance.
Harmony of Dissonance is a really mixed bag. It's a step above other Igarashi produced Castlevanias and it's a mile behind others. It's not a bad game, but it's not a good game. It's not quite a great game... it just is. Everything adds together to become average.
The Score: 7.5/10