(www.plasticpals.com) It's not often that a system gets a launch title with as much clout as Castlevania, but the GameBoy Advance got lucky. In this adventure Nathan Graves fills the role of the vampire hunter when Camilla revives Count Dracula in 1830. It's a race to the finish as Nathan's mentor, Morris Baldwin, is being held somewhere inside the castle and will be sacrificed at the next full moon to restore the vampire to his full power. A rivalry between Morris' son Hugh and Nathan builds as they both scour the castle in an attempt to rescue him.
Created by Koji Horie, Circle of the Moon takes its general game design directly from Symphony of the Night, but incorporates a new game play gimmick called the Dual Soul System. What makes it interesting is that it enhances your standard whip with elemental powers. Using the DSS, you can infuse your whip with the power to petrify enemies (even floating ones) which can then be used as time-limited platforms to reach higher areas.
The DSS uses two types of cards, frustratingly dropped by enemies at random, which are then combined (one type is useless without the other) to form new abilities. These round out the repertoire of dashes, double jumps, slides, and shoulder smashes that can be performed once the necessary equipment has been found. These abilities are effortlessly enacted using the L and R shoulder buttons during a given action (such as crouching, jumping, or dashing), and are often the key to discovering secret areas. By pressing and holding the attack button, you can perform the pinwheel attack from previous games.
Circle of the Moon takes hidden secrets to a whole new level of depravity. At times it feels like almost every single chamber in the massive Castle Dracula contains one or more secret holes in the walls, floors or ceilings that can be slashed open. These will sometimes contain coveted HP or Heart increases, but are usually items or equipment and with so many of these secrets littered throughout the game, the only way to discover them all is to go around the contour of each room slashing like a madman.
The graphics were rightly lauded for being great for a portable game at the time (a GBA launch title no less), but also criticized for its dark colour palette, which proved difficult to see on the system. This isn't the only complaint; the character and enemy sprites animate too stiffly. Despite this, the backgrounds look great and there are some cool spell effects. The music is decent but not quite up to Castlevania standards, with certain tracks taken directly from previous games (such as the rare PC Engine version Rondo of Blood and Bloodlines).
Circle of the Moon was a welcome launch title that, for the most part, lives up to fan expectations. It is, however, an uneven experience exacerbated by the required level grinding due to its extreme difficulty (the second and third installments are cakewalks by comparison). While it is a bit rough around the edges it is superior to its next of kin, Harmony of Dissonance. Though it doesn't really hold a candle to Aria of Sorrow, it is probably worth checking out if you're a die-hard Castlevania fan.
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