Ken Burns’ Civil War series is showing on PBS this week, two episodes every night. I watched another chapter a few moments ago, but I just don’t have the patience to stick around for the second one. It’s interesting stuff, but this miniseries has perhaps the most soporific presentation I’ve ever seen. Must escape before I lapse into a coma. Sorry, Grant.
Onto other things.
Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance has a very nice tone to it. It’s… a little harder to immediately get into and enjoy than was Circle of the Moon. It’s not as instantly agreeable, and it feels kind of… cold. But now that I’ve played a little bit, it’s opened up a lot and it’s become clear how much more well-made this game is in general than KCEK’s last effort. The control is much tighter. The level design is more interesting. And the entire thing is much more Castlevania-ey than CotM ever managed to be. It’s got that same slightly… uneasy tone that most of the main chapters have had, and which I’ve not felt for quite a while. All of the edges of the screen are crammed full of minute and curious gothic detail.
The game also has a constant sense of forward motion that was lacking in CotM. It feels like I’m going somewhere when I’m playing — like there’s a goal — rather than like I’m just puttering around randomly in an adventure game world. CotM was fun, but that was about it. A fun, Metroid-style platformer with Castlevania trimmings. HoD feels like Castlevania. You know how that map popped up between levels in the first game? You know how in level three you could see the final tower in the background as a goal? It always felt like you were making progress. And that sensation is back.
What’s more, and what is interesting — something I’ve not felt for a very long time with this series is that… old movie sensation. The first few games in the series were spattered with spoke holes in all of the title screens and menus, as if you were playing through a silent horror movie. And the games had an aesthetic and an atmosphere to match. HoD seems to bring this general feeling back. It’s not just going through the motions, it’s doing its best to do things right. Igarashi seems to really understand the heart of the series, in a way that KCEK just can’t handle.
As for the music: you’ve heard how awful it’s supposed to be. This is both entirely true and false.
To be sure, compared to what KCEK achieved with CotM just a year ago, the sound quality is a obviously lacking. A few months ago I spent an hour, one night, simply lying in bed and listening to the Catacombs theme from Circle of the Moon in a pair of headphones. Much of the music in CotM was borrowed and remixed from other games (mostly Bloodlines and Dracula’s Curse), but the music quality was higher than anything I’d heard on a handheld system before. And indeed, it was some of the best Castlevania music I’d ever heard. What’s more, the original compositions were absolutely perfect and memorable additions to the growing roster of Castlevania anthems.
This comparison is, I think, the greatest factor which initially makes the music in Hod so very startling, and for a while even a little grating. Although it might be interesting on its own right, the music is not of the same almost unreasonably high standard set both by CotM and by Castlevania in general. This just doesn’t sound like what you inevitably going to expect. Beyond its mere quality, the composition is also a bit odd.
That said, it’s not as bad as people say, and it has its own odd personality. Try to picture Darkstalkers music played on an NES. Now mix in the occasional motive from Simon’s Quest, and top it off with a few tunes from the original Gameboy games. That’s the HoD score, in a nutshell. It sounds like NES music, basically. But like Castlevania music. Only… a more recent kind of Castlevania music, played on an NES. It’s atmospheric and sprawling. As opposed to NES Castlevania music, which is more melodic and clever. Got it?
The thing is, the music here manages to set its own sort of retro tone. If you’ve played the NES games and the original Gameboy trilogy, I think it’s a lot easier to appreciate what’s been done. Try to take the music as a low-fi experiment, rather than a result of ROM budgeting. On its own level, especially in contrast to the high-budget presentation of every other aspect of the game, the music has its own interesting tone going on. If anything, I think it helps just a bit in adding to the “grainy” emotional texture of the game that I was getting at before. If there’s anything that Castlevania needs in order to retain its unsettling ambiance, it’s a certain offputting creakyness — and the music in HoD seems to do a very good job in maintaining this sensation.
Controversial? Certainly. But I think the music succeeds in its own strange way. Perhaps I’m being too forgiving, but I dig.
All of the other sound effects are great, though (further adding to the perplexing aural quality of the game). Something that strikes me: there’s a strange, startled “nAnI?!” whenever Juste is poisoned or cursed. I’m not sure if this is supposed to be Juste’s own squeak — as it doesn’t sound like the same voice who does all of the item crash screaming and the hopping grunts and so forth — or if it’s intended to come out of the monsters which are whapping him. I suppose the latter wouldn’t make much sense, so I suppose it’s kind of amusing to see a Belmont (especially as arrogant a one as Juste) lose his cool when things don’t go as he plans.
The control, again, is so much better and tighter and more… full-seeming than in CotM. Don’t get me wrong; I loved how Nathan felt in that game. But the control was generally pretty loose, and while Nathan always did exactly what he was told to, he didn’t seem to have much… substance to him. The entire game had that weird sort of a sensation for me, so it’s not just the control. But there was no heft. What flexibility he had felt both kind of messy and strangely contrived. Why did he suddenly get certain abilities when he did, for instance? Why was being able to push crates a special power? What the heck is that “rocket jump” special move? Where does it come from? Whenever I learned a new move with him, it felt more like it had merely been arbitrarily unlocked for me so as to allow me to progress.
Juste, in contrast, starts off feeling much more… rigid than Nathan. His dash ability is indescribably helpful, and it’s neat that he’s able to swing his whip around as in Super Castlevania IV. But he’s less of a jumping bean, he doesn’t start with a slide move, he initially can’t automatically twirl his whip as Nathan could. He’s certainly animated a hell of a lot better than Nathan, and his sprite is larger and more visible — but he’s… well, he feels more like a Belmont than a random platforming character with a whip. Just as floaty ol’ Nathan was great for soaring aimlessly around the open structures in his game, Juste has a much more satisfying kind of focus to him. What he loses in out-and-out freedom he gains in precision and, frankly, respectability.
Nothing seems to be wasted on Juste, and nothing seems to be arbitrary. His starting abilities make sense, and (at least so far) every time I’ve gotten a new one it’s been a pretty logical (and balanced) addition. Plus, if you’re missing a particular move from nearly any other Castlevania game — it’s apparently in here somewhere. Now that I’ve got a slide move and can automatically spin my whip around as Nathan did (although I could manually approximate this effect before), I feel like I’ve earned the abilities and like they’re natural extensions to what I started off with. They’re not just there.
I also like how carefully Igarashi has been to make clear the time period in which the game takes place, and exactly who the characters are in relation to the universe we know so far — from the box to the instructions to the game itself, there’s no mystery at all. It’s stated right out that fifty years have passed since Simon’s Quest and that Juste is Simon Belmont’s grandson. It says what he’s doing, what the relation of this task is to the previous game (chronologically speaking), and how uncommonly gifted he is even for a Belmont. And in the (commendably well-made) instructions, it quickly mentions that his magical abilities come from the Fernandez (Belnades) family.
I’m only about two hours in, but — as you’ve likely gathered — my impression is good so far. The game feels — again — more like a true Castlevania game than any I’ve played in a while. And there are elements I’ve seen from a bunch of other Castlevanias, here. The refereces are particularly heavy to the first two Gameboy games, to the NES trilogy, to the Dracula X series (which makes sense, seeing as how HoD can sort of be considered the third game in that subseries), to Bloodlines, even to CotM and Super Castlevania IV. And heck, the N64 games are even referenced slightly (what with the Fernandez name).
I think a few more things probably could have been done with the game, but in general I’m impressed up to this point. And I’m more confident than ever that Igarashi is the guy who should be heading this series; no one else at Konami seems to really get it the way he does. And even if the game does have its flaws, it feels real. It’s not hard to tell how much effort went into the game, and how devoted the man is both to the legacy of the series and to its fans. This isn’t something you get a whole lot in any form of art or entertainment, seemingly least of all videogames and film. And it’s exactly what was missing from Circle of the Moon. He’s got my trust for the future.
A short note: Is Ayami Kojima (Igarashi’s chosen artist since Symphony of the Night) of any relation to Hideo? They both work at Konami, after all.