Castlevania: Circle of the Moon ReviewJoe Shaffer
In 2001, we learned that Konami had decided not to abandon the Metroid-style structure showcased in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Announced as a launch title for the then-upcoming Game Boy Advance, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon promised to carry the 'Metroidvania' torch and potentially usher in a new era for Castlevania.
Circle of the Moon doesn't precisely follow in the footsteps of its older brother. It tries to, though, and it nearly succeeds. Mainly, what stifles its attempt is its unbalanced difficulty. Right from the get-go, armored warriors and massive beasts pummel the unholy crap out of you, forcing you to backtrack to the nearest save point often.
Your main recourse is to beef up through incessant level grinding. Doing so can be neat at first, as the stat increases gained through leveling noticeably impact your performance. The only downside is that grinding in this game is not particularly entertaining, mostly because of the types of enemies you have to kill. A fair number of the game's high-experience foes require countless hits to kill and expert dodging. The only alternative is to take on weaker beasts that grant little experience upon defeat. Regardless of which of these activities you commit to, grinding in Circle of the Moon is the absolute pits.
You might find as you advance through the campaign that levels alone don't cut the mustard in some cases. If you truly wish to prepare for an ugly war with the citizens of Dracula's castle, you'll have to commit to tedious item farming in addition to grinding. What's that you say? You'll just purchase the items you need? Ha! Konami decided to do away with the merchant in this installment. If you want any items, especially restorative potions (which are a must), you'll have to kill, baby kill. Need a new piece of armor? You'll have to murder for it. Do you desire more potions? Massacre the right enemies for an entire afternoon and ye shall receive. Honestly, even though the end result is ultimately satisfying, the act of constantly having to grind or farm is exhausting. What's worse is it doesn't add anything to the game, except that it gives the campaign illusory longevity.
If there's anything worth committing to repetitive slaughter for, it's the game's cards. The card system is Circle of the Moon's standout feature. By destroying certain villains, you can obtain various cards that bestow a wide range of benefits, from temporary stat increases to special auras to new weaponry. In many ways, the effects they the cards bestow are life savers. For instance, fighting a few of the bosses with just the piddly whip is pretty much suicide. However, if you combine the Mars card with the Unicorn card, your less-than-capable whip morphs into a badass holy sword. Are you having troubles with projectiles or floating foes? Then combine Jupiter with Manticore and you'll exude toxic gas, perfect for dropping surrounding foes and stymieing stray bullets.
Half of the fun I had with Circle of the Moon involved experimenting with different card combos, which makes nabbing new cards all the more exciting. More so, I enjoyed seeing the results of the multifarious combinations. For instance, I'll never forget combining Uranus (no jokes, please), the card associated with summoning, with several of the monster cards. Though the MP cost was ludicrous, it was still nice to occasionally have a griffin or a sea serpent appear and wipe out an entire corridor full of monsters.
Although the game may sound like a clunky, grind-heavy mess with a cool card system, there are a few very rewarding perks. For starters, the overall world design is fantastic. It's convoluted enough that you aren't always running along an apparent rail, and there's plenty of backtracking and bonus rooms to check out. Unlike Symphony of the Night, some of the areas hearken back to the Castlevania of old by providing locales ripe with platformer challenges. For instance, the clock tower features an intricate system of gears, pendulums, spikes, and (gulp) flying Medusa heads. Yes, it's likely you'll lose your footing, plummet often, swear each time, and probably wipe a nostalgic tear from your eye after you surmount the obstacles.
There's one feature, though, that I always relish in a good Castlevania game, and that's the game's boss line up. This title may not sport as hefty of a number of rogues as its descendants do, but it does feature some of the nastiest. For instance, if you cruise the chapel area long enough, you'll run afoul of Adramelech, an immense goat-headed demon imprisoned within a wall. Another brutal battle pits you against not one, but two dragon zombies. Seriously, what could be more Castlevania than a pair of face-crushing, undead dragons? Of course, you can't forget about Death. This time, Dracula's right-hand man dons a brightly colored voodoo-like get up that only the toughest hombre would wear. However, it's what he's hiding under his robe that counts. Score enough hits and this reaper will transform, revealing himself to be a hybrid turtle-mantis with great bony scythes for arms.
Truly, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is a respectable addition to the franchise. My only real complaint is that it's a bit "grindy," but if you're able to stomach repeated whipping like you've got Devo's hit song on an endless loop, then you should enjoy Circle of the Moon. Just don't expect it to fully measure up to its predecessor.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.