One of my favourite consoles ever is the GBA, as I have been constantly travelling throughout my life and it was probably my best companion until the DS came around. Even its set of launch titles was impressively strong, which happened to include Castlevania: Circle of the Moon. Strangely enough though, Koji Igarashi was not fond of this instalment and went so far as to remove it from the official timeline. That is quite the harsh tone towards it, but despite not being exactly great, it should definitely not be forgotten.
A mix of the old and the new
Set in the year 1830 inside an Austrian Castle, Camilla has just revived Dracula once again from his demise. Off to stop him, is the vampire hunter Morris Baldwin, bringing along with him his son Hugh and the other apprentice Nathan Graves. As the three get ready to take down the duo, Vlad destroys the floor beneath Nathan and Hugh, causing them to fall down to the underground of this chateau. Both give chase to save their master, but Morris’s son seems peculiarly reluctant to cooperate on such a grand task.
There is not much else to this tale, with the exception of the rivalry between the young slayers in training which does not take up much space either. It can honestly be summarised with Hugh feeling neglected by his father due to Nathan bearing the Hunter’s Whip and being the playable protagonist. Despite providing a decent setup for upcoming events, the story is not a focus and at best a small extra. Luckily, you do not need much of an excuse to kill the count who is going to throw the world into chaos.
Circle of the Moon can best be described as putting one of the heroes from the linear entries of the series into a metroidvania. This incarnation starts out with only a couple of abilities, with sliding and jumping being for dodging attacks and traversing through the castle. Meanwhile, he can swing his whip in a horizontal manner or spin it at a standstill if the B button is held down. The latter works great for dealing chip damage and easier defence against most minor projectiles, with the former being more efficient for defeating enemies since it causes more harm at a longer distance.
While you will walk extremely slowly at first, it is not long until you gather the skill to run, which is also used for making you leap further. With that being said, despite that there are upgrades that can be implemented for both exploration and combat such as double- and wall hops, there are some that are heavily context-sensitive. These are the power to push wooden boxes, break stone blocks, and turn hazardous water pure. It is a strange and rather uncreative way of forcing you to investigate certain parts of this chateau, to the point that they might as well have been keys.
Fortunately, Nathan has more up his sleeves for taking care of the monsters of the night. As a standard return of the series, he can collect hearts from destroyed candles and opponents, which functions as ammo for his sub-weapons. These must also be picked up from eliminated lights and are all useful in their own way while being balanced in how much they cost to use and the damage they deal. Ranging between the axe flying in an arc, the dagger which is thrown horizontally, holy water that burns the ground, a stopwatch for slowing anyone down, and the trusty boomerang that can do continuous harm if aimed properly. These are activated like before by hitting the up- and attack buttons, and you can only carry one at a time so choose wisely for the situations ahead.
New to this entry and what defines this hunter’s strength, is the Dual Set-up System or DSS for short. While exploring this castle, you can find cards from fallen foes or specific candles and these come in two forms; action and attribute. There are in total ten of them in each category and you just need one of a sort to be able to use it continuously. Combining one of each kind is where the idea kicks in as you then will create magical effects that you can activate and deactivate by pushing L, as long as you have the MP for it.
I adore this mechanic since it encourages searching out and experimenting with these cards. There are multiple unique effects to witness, and it all depends on what you have acquired. You might have one with ice, familiars, or even new weapons, making for numerous imaginative unknown powers to try out. It says something when the fire spirits are the least exciting summons to acquire, despite being worthwhile. There can only be one combo utilised at a time, but due to areas being either themed for a prefered type or letting you find your favoured playstyle, you will not have to pause too many times for changing up your setup.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems with this concept that come from the rest of the game’s design. To begin with, the enemies, while they are sufficiently dangerous and finely implemented in this chateau, they have an incredibly rare rate of dropping any items. In other words; you have to grind tremendously. Not just for cards, but other trinkets like potions and equipment to take along, as they can mainly be found from killed opponents. Because of this, you are forced to revisit rooms merely to make them respawn and hope you will get what you want, which becomes tedious.
Despite that you only have the torso and each wrist to put equipment on, it becomes aggravating with no shops or elixirs that heal more than an eighth of your health. At least the creatures to fight are diverse enough to be memorable, but there is some recolouring, like the fire demons coming also in ice and stone versions. Additionally, I will give credit that you can discover extensions for your health, mana, and heart counters, though you will still need to level up for gaining higher stats in strength, defence, intelligence, and luck by defeating foes. This also takes time, and while skills can get you a step further, you will be having an unforgiving climb due to the sheer quantity to deal with. Combine this with fiends that can throw weapons outside of the screen, and frustrations will be had.
The bosses can also be a testament to this, but they are extremely uneven. Either they are easy to beat thanks to clear patterns or throw a lot of attacks that are able to do a huge amount of damage towards you. This is not even executed with a good curve, as some encounters can be brutally difficult and those right after could be a downright joke in comparison. If nothing else, the invincibility frame after each hit gives a breather, though it barely helps when you do not heal after these battles. Save points are placed in every area of this mansion, which is lenient enough to make you appreciate them while simultaneously not starving you when you need a break. However, there can still be adversaries between the conquered rooms and these salvation places where you also regain health, which is annoying.
While the combat can be all over the place, actually exploring the castle is a great time for finding secrets and upgrades. It does not excuse the lousy loot drop, but the new scenery and the varied opponents to fight like the electric skeletons flinging bolts or the aggressive harpies shooting feathers, keep you on your toes by making both aspects unique and testing you in playing smart. Yet, there are only five warp points in total, which is terribly few and forces a ton of backtracking. Why could not the save rooms also have this function?
I do applaud how the monsters are designed with Nathan’s stiff movements in mind and placed within this claustrophobic environment to give decent challenges. Additionally, because of the different types of evildoers, you are also encouraged to experiment with the cards you have, which is a nice touch. Nevertheless, the paper pictures could have been more diverse in their uses and not just for battles. The reason I say this, is that the developers tried something with the ice and stone abilities that could make foes into platforms, but these segments are restricted and only for short occasions. Clearly, there were more potentials for these trinkets that did not get executed.
After the five hours it took to beat Circle of the Moon, I can say that it is an interesting mix of its linear style with metroidvania. Unfortunately, it has uneven difficulty and too much grinding for levels and random loot. Even its structure is off, as there is a very few selections of potions and equipment located around within this castle too. I wonder if this was done with every single item, it would have been more exhilarating to search every nook and cranny due to being more fitting to this genre, instead of simply attacking the same enemy in one place multiple times in the hope for something.
My negative comments can sound severe though, and I do wish to emphasise that the exploration, combat, and concept of the cards are entertaining in their own right. I just believe these should have been the focus and avoid shoehorning in other ideas that cause tedium, such as levelling up and rare items. Not to mention, fixing the challenge so you would be better suited against opponents and get a solid, progressive curve. At the very least, the Advance Collection lets you see what each demon has to offer upon defeat thanks to its encyclopedia, making the journey an adequate one.
Gameplay Score: 6/10
Realism with some imagination
If there were any aspect it would have been easy to see that this instalment came from the same team behind Legacy of Darkness, it is in its presentation. Going for a grim look, Circle of the Moon feels distinct with more emphasis on huge caverns, dark clockworks, and traditional enemies. The last part is the highlight, as there are plenty of diverse and creative creatures here, such as imps, werebears, and fox archers. The few bosses are also lovely ginormous sights to behold, causing you to feel insignificant in comparison.
Some monsters are victims of recolouring though, especially with the armoured soldiers and devils, but there is enough variety to not make this a bother. Additionally, the portraits to depict who is talking are also impressive, making this a stunning launch title. However, everyone’s animation is lacklustre, with all having only a couple of frames of movement. Even Nathan is obviously unfinished, with mere three frames for running, which is a shame when his sprite work is excellent.
The realistic environments are memorable too, like the catacombs and waterworks, but it feels like you are exploring a functional cathedral rather than an actual evil establishment. Some rooms can simply look like normal hallways and nothing else, which is a tragedy. More imaginative layouts and especially furniture would have helped make each zone more distinguishable and less empty. Granted, there are some outstanding backgrounds, such as the huge outdoor area, though they can only do so much for a castle that should be incarnated by chaos.
What I have nothing but praise for is the wonderful music. Both old and new pieces were added for giving different atmospheres through the diverse amount of styles the gothic genre contains. Introducing the adventure with a choir singing Kyrie Eleison in a foreboding and echoed manner before moving over to a melody featuring a violin playing fast and varied notes to emphasise action as you start your hunt, is probably my favourite example of this. By also being connected within similar yet distinct tones, it makes the transitions smooth and appropriate.
Regrettably, the amount of compositions is actually an issue as they are reused in other parts of this chateau, making it hard for one place to stand out. It is still a great soundtrack, just not one used efficiently. Thankfully the rest of the audio is solid, from the swing of your whips to the screams of the fallen monsters. I also wish to commend how the villains vanish in unique ways, such as evaporating or catching fire, which is an admirable touch. Overall, it is still what you expect from this series, just not as beautiful as it could have been.
Presentation Score: 7/10
From jack of all trades to master of one
After you have beaten the game once, you will be able to unlock different playstyles onwards, which is a brilliant idea. You start off first with magician mode where you begin with all cards and high magical stats, with strength, defence, and health being reduced. After that, you can unlock three other classes to go through the campaign as, providing plenty of replay value by making you change up your strategy severely! While the mentioned problems are still present, the short length of the playthrough makes it easy to revisit. There is also the optional battle arena where you will take on plenty of enemies, but it is an aspect you might want to check once and never again as the reward is helpful, but not needed. A decent distraction for testing your skills at best.
Extra Score: 7.5/10
Circle of the Moon brings you elements from both the linear and metroidvania forms of Castlevania, and manages to stand on its own with its neat concept. It does stumble with its designs due to forced grinding, unbalanced difficulty, and lack of details in the presentation. However, the card mechanic is enjoyable, exploration is fun and beneficial, combat is engaging, and there is a clever take on replay value. Alongside the nice visuals and a strong soundtrack that favours quality over quantity, you get an alright entry in the series that definitely feels like a part of it. This is basically a diet version; It provides what you love about this franchise, though you might notice something is missing.