Akumajou Dracula Series: Castlevania: Byakuya no Concerto /
Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance (GBA) (2002)
Review by Faididi and Co.
Twice as big, but not necessarily twice as fun
Juste Belmond is the grandson of Simon Belmond, but events throw him into a scuffle with Lord Dracula's evil forces before the usual one hundred years have passed. Told by his best pal that a mutual female friend has been taken away to a mysterious castle in the wilderness, our hero charges into the place and starts massacring everything. There's also something about Juste having a taste for interior decoration (we're talking about a guy whose name already sounds like a perfume line), but the story doesn't elaborate more on that. Except for a somewhat lenient new mood for Death, there is nothing remarkable at all about the characters or the simple plot.
Konami's Castlevania: Byakuya no Concerto (Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance) is the second GBA installment in the series, coming after Circle of the Moon. Although its main hero has the family name of Belmond once more, this action adventure plays much like the same, having Juste roam through a maze-like castle, fighting a bunch of weirdo monsters, and collecting armor and accessories that boost stats.
Of course, this follow-up shows off features of its own. First, Juste begins with an upgraded version of Alucard's lateral dashing maneuver. It helps him move forward as well as backward unusually quickly, making even his standard attacks more versatile. Next, the magical attacks now incorporate the series' old subweapons (the dagger, the throwing axe, the holy water, the boomerang-like cross, and so forth). Instead of mixing together magic cards like Nathan does in Circle of the Moon, Juste uses permanent spell books to create more powerful blasts from these subweapons. Then, this game puts back in a shop system and hides a second castle that mirrors the first, as though to recapture some of the glory of Gekka no Nocturne (Symphony of the Night). How this second castle is presented deserves some praise, because it involves a clever illusion that hits you in the face like a brick once the mystery is revealed (roughly a quarter of the way into the game).
Unfortunately, Byakuya no Concerto still pales deeply in comparison to Gekka no Nocturne, and it doesn't even outdo Circle of the Moon in every respect. One reason why is the continuing lack of unique items with secret powers. While both Juste and Nathan are limited to a whip as their one single primary weapon, Nathan's dozens of magic cards at least offer several interesting combination effects and tactical choices. By contrast, all Juste gets are a measly five spell books. Worse yet, these books' effects depend upon the subweapons, only one of which may be carried at a time. The spell books would've been more useful had the subweapons been permanent tools that stay within Juste's inventory, allowing our hero to switch between them at any time (like the setup in Castlevania 2 and Castlevania Legends). Why this isn't the case sucks.
The gravest flaw, though, is the weak level design. Byakuya no Concerto's expansive world size may be matched by very few other action adventures on the GBA, but doubling the gameplay length by copying the castle means little when that castle consists of long, drab corridors that take huge amounts of time to traverse. Think of the same inconvenient warp point locations in Circle of the Moon, except here Juste needs to suffer through twice the amount of repetitive terrain. This is a far cry from the compact and detail-concentrated level design of Gekka no Nocturne, whose castles are actually fun to explore and never demand as much tiresome backtracking.
On a final gameplay-related note, what's with the interior decoration? There's a room in Byakuya no Concerto which Juste can pimp up with assorted furnishings, but doing so has absolutely no point, other than to reinforce Konami's success in creating a hero who is even more amazingly androgynous than Alucard.
Controls: Above Average
Juste's dashing maneuver is integrated well into the rest of the responsive controls. Toggling on and off the spell books' effects requires calling up the subscreen each time, but at least the subscreen is neatly organized.
Not counting the bland terrain layouts, the visual effects are impressive. The characters are very smoothly animated, while the backgrounds are richly textured. More importantly, the colors are appreciably brighter and better contrasted than the almost debilitatingly dark hues in Circle of the Moon.
Audio: Above Average
Unlike the previous installment, Byakuya no Concerto contains brand-new music, instead of reusing old tunes. Although this score isn't very inspired or catchy, the audio work is no longer afflicted with the tinniness heard in Circle of the Moon. The vocal effects all remain in their original Japanese, too, which is good news for those who hate to see any adulteration of Juste and the other dudes' ultra-husky voices.
Just like Circle of the Moon before it, Castlevania: Byakuya no Concerto is an action adventure whose relative mediocrity feels ever more painful after the true classic that is Gekka no Nocturne. Doubling the size of a game's world isn't a great idea when its level design is so unspectacular, and scaling back the magic equipment system doesn't help. Those disappointed by Circle of the Moon likely won't be impressed by Byakuya no Concerto, no matter how amazing Juste's interior decorating talents are.