Review: Castlevania: Circle of the Moon

-Shawn Trautman

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon was a launch title for the Game Boy Advance in 2001, and aimed to bring the series back to it’s successful 2D roots after the terrible 3D N64 games. Specifically, CotM wanted to emulate the now-classic Playstation entry in the series, Symphony of the Night. In fact, if I had to boil my whole review into one sentence, it would be this: Circle of the Moon wants to be Symphony of the Night so bad it hurts, but never quite gets there.

In many ways, this game is as good or better than so many other Castlevania games. The presentation is beautiful, the gameplay is as quick and twitchy as ever, and the first three quarters of the game are almost perfectly balanced. But, in a colossally stupid design choice, the developers turned the last 4-5 hours of the game into a grind-fest, souring the entire experience for me.

GAMEPLAY - If you’ve played Symphony of the Night (and shame on you if you haven’t), the gameplay in CotM with feel very familiar. This is a 2D, sidescrolling action game in the “metroidvania” style - that is, rather than discrete levels, the action takes place on a large interconnected map, where the more you explore and defeat bosses, you gain items and abilities which allow you to access even more of the map. It is a style of play that I’ve talked a lot about before, and one that is extremely effective and addicting, and this game nails it.

The game retains its old-school feel by having a pretty high difficulty level, and requiring players to really perfect their platforming and combat skills to make it through, especially with the half-dozen or so boss fights. For most of the game, it is difficult, but never unfair, thanks to a very well balanced difficulty curve. You may not beat every boss on the first try, but by the time you reach them, you have all the tools and skills you need to triumph - the rest is up to you. That all changes with the second-to-last boss, about 9-10 hours in. Suddenly, a difficulty spike occurs, making it impossible to continue until you spend the next few hours “grinding.” I was so disgusted by this decision (and I wanted to save space in this review) that I wrote a separate essay on it, which you can read here: While I wouldn’t say the last few hours completely ruined the game for me, it comes damned close.

STORY - Let’s face it - every Castlevania game has the same basic plot. Somehow, Dracula is resurrected/reborn/reinvented and a single person (usually related to the Belmont family in some way) must storm his castle and kill him again. The story is just about as shallow as you can get without being “good guy fights bad guy.” In this case, you play as Nathan Graves, son of parents who died killing Dracula, and mentee of their friend who survived. Dracula’s servants have captured your mentor and plan to use his soul to resurrect Dracula to full power, and it’s up to you to get him back. Again, not particularly innovative, but it’s told reasonably well, and nobody really cares anyway. You play Castlevania games for the tight gameplay and gothic horror aesthetic, not for an engaging narrative.

PRESENTATION - Speaking of that aesthetic, Circle of the Moon is a very pretty game. The backgrounds are incredibly detailed and layered. In many places, as you walk or jump you can see parts of the background shifting, especially with windows. It’s a really nice effect, and you have to appreciate the attention to detail. Similar love was shown to the enemy characters’ sprites. There is a huge amount of variety in the enemies, and they are all detailed and appropriately spooky.

The same cannot be said of the player character, though. The sprite itself lacks the intricate detail of almost every other facet of the game, and the animation is really disappointing. Nathan was only given 2-3 frames of animation for walking or running, and for most other tasks. It makes no sense why so much time and energy was put into enemies or rooms which you might only see once, but the character you will spend the entire game looking at was ignored. It is especially jarring to go from the lush and smoothly animated player character from Symphony of the Night to Circle of the Moon’s jagged and bland sprite.

The music, in true Castlevania fashion, is excellent. There are different tracks for different areas of the castle, and most are really catchy, while maintaining that spooky, horror-movie tone. Some of the tracks repeat more than you might like, but overall, this game maintains the quality of music the series is known for.

CONCLUSION - So, how do you rate a game that you LOVED for nine hours, and then HATED for five more hours? Does the terrible, grindy last chapter completely destroy everything the game did right before that? I’m still trying to figure that out myself, but I can say this: this is an entry in the Castlevania franchise which can be safely missed. It’s great at times, but since it is really just a less-good Symphony of the Night, you’d do better just to play the original and not bother with this flawed handheld version. Castlevania: Circle of the Moon can be found for $5-10 on eBay or grab Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for $9.99 on PSN. 

Verdict: 78% - A little gameplay from Castlevania: Circle of the Moon