Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is a metroidvania style 2D platformer and the first in the Game Boy Advance trilogy of Castlevania games. That means this is basically a part one of three reviews. For those who are unaware, the metroidvania style was made popular mostly by Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. It basically has to do with exploring a large world, getting items and gaining levels to power up, and using new items and abilities to further access the world. Circle of the Moon takes a bit of a darker approach to the style of Symphony of the Night. In Circle of the Moon, the basic premise is that you, an apprentice to a vampire hunter, and your master are attacked and get separated. Your main goal is to find and help your master fight the attacker. So you do this by jumping and whipping your way through monsters in the unknown territory. Along the way you’ll level up, get some new abilities, and get magical cards. Your abilities help you gain access to new areas, the leveling up makes you stronger, and the cards are used in a system that changes your attack. At the cost of magic, you can activate your cards to give you different types of attacks or weapons along with special enhancements, as long as you have the ability active. You collect the cards from defeated foes. The trick is, there are two lines of cards which are action and attribute. Action cards determine action the magic will take, such as being a weapon, a buff, or a summon. The attribute cards determine the type of the spell, such as what element the weapon will be, what stat will be buffed, or what monster will be summoned. These are the key to making this game unique.
The control can seem stiff at times, but it’s rather standard for Castlevania games. You can walk, jump, and whip. Walking is your main speed, though you learn to run later on. Jumps are slightly controllable when in midair, but not enough to correct a large mistake, so jump carefully. The whipping can only be done directly in front of you, though you can stand, duck, or jump at the same time to get a better aim. You may also hold down the whip button and your whip will automatically swing around in circles in front of you. It severely reduces the damage, but makes getting hits in much easier. With the stiff controls comes the need for precision. You can’t just jump in and expect to outmaneuver everyone. You need to play tactically and skillfully. Be careful and precise. However, because you can level up from killing enemies, there’s also the solution to grind up your level and become stronger to overcome tough battles rather than honing your skills. Don’t be fooled, though. You’ll still need to play decently or not even leveling up can save you from your fate.
It’s a very interesting game, but there are a few small issues with it. One is that it’s a bit on the challenging side. Honing skills is one thing, but some enemies and enemy groups can do tons of damage and take a lot of abuse. Unless you have a lot of skill or very good cards, which drop at random, then you will most likely need to grind a few times to proceed in the game. There are also save rooms in this game, which means if you make progress and die before finding a save room, you’ll lose your progress. This can be very frustrating, but it does have a place for punishing the player and giving some weight to dying. Another small thing I noticed was that many areas will throw a lot of the same enemy at you rather than having a variety. It seems like it’s to train the player for later encounters with the enemies, but most all areas get filled with predominantly the same few types of enemies. The biggest issue is perhaps the way the cards work. The system isn’t really explained well in the game, and though you can figure most of it out on your own, some of it leaves you completely in the dark. A few of the card combinations require an input command in order to work, but the game never tells you what the input command is. This is a huge problem because unless you randomly hit the right sequence of buttons while those cards are selected and active, you’ll probably never figure it out. I had to look online to figure this out. Plus, you get the cards at random AND they only reveal what they do AFTER you’ve used them once. So unless you stumble across the command, you’ll get no help, and the few combinations you can make might be fewer if you’re unable to crack the code. It’s an interesting system, but it needs some work.
In comparison to the other games of the GBA trilogy, this one was personally my least favorite. The darker style didn’t really appeal to me. The controls were the stiffest of the bunch. The need to grind was rather annoying as I had to do it multiple times without having new areas to explore in the meantime. Also, the enemies in older areas get replaced with tougher ones as you progress, which is cool but it makes grinding really hard if you have been coasting on luck for a while. There’s also no gear to get in this game. Both Symphony of the Night before it and the two GBA game after it had gear you could equip, so it’s strange that Circle of the Moon lacks this feature. It puts more emphasis on skill and strategic card combos, but it comes at the cost of exploration and variety. There are less things to find when exploring, so there’s less incentive to do so, and you can’t customize your character with new weapons or equipment to beef up some stats as you see fit.
Still, Circle of the Moon is a fun metroidvania game, and a nice first attempt for a handheld one in the genre. There’s a good amount of challenge, some alright exploration, and it’s a good length game. If you’re into Castlevania or metroidvania style games, it’s definitely worth throwing 15-20 bucks at. Stay tuned for part two on Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance.