Our Castlevania: Symphony of the Night Game Club is winding to a close, but there are plenty of other post-Symphony Metroidvanias worth playing! Okay, "plenty" might be a tad strong, but there's definitely more than one.
Following the success of Castlevia: Symphony of the Night, Konami shifted from the more traditional platforming format to the Metroidvania-style that we had come to know and love on the PlayStation (well, most of us). Between 2001 and 2008, Konami released six more Metroidvanias, culminating with Order of Ecclesia on the Nintendo DS in 2008. There were also releases on the PlayStation 2 and mobile, but we mostly try to ignore those.
By 2010, Konami had shifted their resources to the reboot Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, and Koji Igarashi's vision of Castlevania was no more. But thankfully, the Nintendo 3DS can play Nintendo DS games, and old GBA carts aren't too hard to find, so the handheld Metroidvanias won't be lost to history anytime soon. If you're interested in following on from Symphony of the Night, here are the games to check out.
Castlevania: Circle of the Moon
The Premise: A Vampire Hunter named Nathan Graves journeys to Dracula's Castle in the 19th century and finds a cult in the process of reviving Dracula. Like John Morris in Castlevania Bloodlines, Graves isn't a Belmont, but he still wields what looks like the fabled Vampire Killer whip. Circle of the Moon was ultimately judged apocryphal by Igarashi and removed from the Castlevania timeline.
Worth Playing?: A lot of Castlevania fans swear by Circle of the Moon. I am not one of them. It's an interesting and ambitious attempt to bring the Metroidvania subgenre to the Game Boy Advance, which was brand new when Circle of the Moon launched, but it hasn't held up that well. The castle in particular feels almost too big, if that makes sense, which makes exploring it a chore given the slow pace with which Nathan moves.
Your mileage will vary with the DSS system, which is Circle of the Moon's main gameplay gimmick. Pairing magic cards to create effects is an interesting idea, and it's better balanced than what you'll in Harmony of Dissonance, but there's a bit too much trial-and-error involved. Actually, "your mileage will vary" can be used to describe the entirety of Circle of the Moon. It's not a bad game by any means, but compared to what follows, it feels primitive.
Verdict: Probably not.
Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance
The Premise: After fans complained about Circle of Moon, Konami rushed to develop Harmony of Dissonance, which was reportedly finished in under a year. Unlike Symphony of the Night and Circle of the Moon though, this one stars an actual Belmont. Harmony of Dissonance also introduces the optionto pair magic with sub-weapons for some of the most broken abilities in series history.
Worth Playing?: Harmony of Dissonance remains controversial in the Castlevania community. Almost everyone agrees, however, that its soundtrack is awful. It's so bad, in fact, that it might actually be the worst in the series. It seems that in their rush to push huge sprites and other effects in Harmony of Dissonance, the developers forgot to leave enough memory for the music. What's there is tinny, boring, and worst of all, repetitive. Among Castlevania fans, this amounts to a mortal sin.
Putting aside the woeful soundtrack, Harmony of Dissonance is really easy thanks to the overpowered summons and magic spells. Try mating wind with the cross, for example, and you will effectively have an unbreakable barrier that will last across multiple screens. Familiars can likewise kill almost everything in one or two shots. Granted, it's kind of fun to wipe the floor with the denizens of Dracula's Castle, but it ultimately makes Harmony of Dissonance seem a little simplistic. It was an interesting technical achievement for its time, but unless you're a completionist, it's probably not worth seeking out. At least not right away.
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow
The Premise: Aria of Sorrow takes the Castlevania formula and adds an interesting twist. Instead of being set in the distant past, it fast-forwards all the way to 2035, putting it after the Belmont clan's climactic battle with Dracula in 1999. It stars Soma Cruz, an exchange student who is accidentally pulled into Dracula's Castle, where he eventually learns that he has an interesting secret. Aria of Sorrow introduces the notion of equippable souls that grant various powers.
Worth Playing?: Aria of Sorrow fixes many of the issues found in Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance, including the soundtrack. It's still pretty easy, but it isn't quite the cakewalk that is Harmony of Dissonance. It also retains many of the strengths of the previous game, such as the excellent graphics, which do much to push the capabilitiese of the Game Boy Advance.
Soma Cruz himself is an interesting mix of Belmont and Alucard. He doesn't wield a whip, instead focusing on swords, knives, and spears, allowing Konami to revisit Symphony of the Night's gameplay style without bringing back Alucard yet again. It should also be noted that Aria of Sorrow is probably the most lore heavy entry in the series after Symphony of the Night, making it one of the keystones of the Castlevania timeline. If you play one Castlevania on the GBA, play this one.
Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow
The Premise:: A sequel to Aria of Sorrow, as signified by the "Sorrow" at the end of the title. Soma Cruz, Yoko Belnades, and Julius Belmont return to battle a cult attempting to resurrect Dracula (always with the cults). As the first Castlevania game on the Nintendo DS, it's a marked step up from Aria of Sorrow, as good as that game looked on the Nintendo DS. It also introduces the sort of superfluous touchscreen elements that were a virtual requirement for DS games circa 2005. The Tactical Soul system from Aria of Sorrow returns here.
Worth Playing?: Though its strong anime aesthetics might be a little off-putting to some, Dawn of Sorrow is still a solid improvement graphically from Aria of Sorrow. The sprites are more detailed, the special effects are more interesting, and everything animates better. And there are anime cutscenes, too! Dawn of Sorrow arguably has better production values than Symphony of the Night.
That's not to say that it's perfect by any means. The Magic Seal system, in which players must draw increasingly complex patterns after defeating a boss, is a more annoying variant of the typical QTE. It's also a little disappointing that Dawn of Sorrow cops to having Soma explore a copy of Dracula's Castle rather than introducing a new and interesting setting of its own. But it's still a Metroidvania, and Dawn of Sorrow arguably represents one of the form's peaks. It's also quite easy to find at your local GameStop or elsewhere, making it all the more enticing as a pickup.
Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin
The Premise: A somewhat half-baked Metroidvania for the Nintendo DS. Following the success of Dawn of Sorrow, Konami wanted more, and Igarashi dutifully obeyed. Portrait of Ruin attempts to correct a number of the complaints about the previous games by introducing multiple settings as well as a second protagonist, Charlotte, who can be switched in at will.
Worth Revisiting?: By Portrait of Ruin, it was clear that the Metroidvania variant of Castlevania was starting to run out of steam a bit. The idea of having Johnathan Morris go into portraits to explore Egypt and the like was a novel idea, not as fully fleshed out as it could have been. Once they start repeating toward the end of the game, it becomes clear that portraits are only half an idea.
For Castlevania fans, the most enjoyable element of Portrait of Ruin might be what it adds to the lore. One of the game's major obstacles is the Vampire Killer itself, which is matched to the Belmonts and will drain the life force of anyone else who uses it. Hence, Morris spends much of the game trying to find out how to use the Vampire Killer at full power without dying as a result. Not enough, perhaps, to warrant tracking down Portrait of Ruin, but interesting nevertheless if you're a diehard Castlevania fan.
Verdict: Probably not.
Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia
The Premise: The last of the Metroid-style Castlevania games, but potentially more interesting. In addition to having a true female protagonist, it has stronger RPG elements than usual thanks to its Glyphs, which can be equipped to open up special abilities and spells. It's also more adventurous than either Portrait of Ruin or Dawn of Sorrow, finally stepping out from behind the walls of Dracula's Castle and into the wide world.
Worth Revisiting?: Order of Ecclesia certainly has its detractors, but it's fondly remembered by many in the Castlevania community for its willingness to step beyond the confines of the tried and true formula and try something new. It has the best production values of any of the handheld game in the series, and its story—which posits a post-Belmont world in which various organizations are trying to find a solution to Dracula that doesn't involve a whip—isn't too shabby either.
Most of the criticism is directed at Order of Ecclesia's challenge, which is markedly higher than that of previous games in the series. The protagonist Shanoa is a proverbial glass cannon, able to take only a few hits from bosses before dying, even if she's at a sufficiently high level. As such, it's not the sort of game you can just brute force. Identifying weaknesses and equipping the right Glyphs is an important part of the game. Most of that nuance was lost on general audiences, who quickly gave up when the going got tough, which is a shame because Order of Ecclesia was a nice step forward the series. It's perhaps not the finale people were hoping for—a true Battle of 1999 game would have been nice—but it's nevertheless an interesting swan song for a decade-long period in the franchise's history. With luck, Konami will one day deign to revisit it.