Castlevania Advance Collection Review: Buy This Now
The Castlevania Advance Collection brings four of the best games in one of the best series ever back to players in a solid package. While these games aren’t all perfect, anyone who loves a good Metroidvania is doing themselves a disservice if they don’t check them out. Being able to play them on your TV, or on a handheld you can see, makes a huge difference.
Circle of the Moon: One Foot In The Past
When Castlevania: Circle of the Moon was released alongside the Game Boy Advance back in 2001, it immediately stood out. We just didn’t tend to see action games with this much depth on handheld systems at the time. It set a precedent for future handheld titles mimicking the role-playing elements of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. A precedent that would continue until the series reached the 3DS more than twelve years later.
You play as Nathan Graves, a young man whose parents once helped banish Dracula. When the big man returns, Nathan, along with his parents’ friend and that friend’s son go to stop him. It doesn’t go well, and Nathan ends up alone, fighting to save his master from the Dark Lord.
Of the three Game Boy Advance Castlevania titles, Circle of the Moon feels the most like a classic Castlevania game. At the time it released, people focused on the ways it was more like Symphony of the Night because they were still new. When looking at it alongside these other titles, it stands out more for the ways it hadn’t changed. For example, your mobility options are still pretty limited. The more methodical gait of earlier titles in the series may feel familiar or strange depending on what Castlevania titles you’ve previously played.
Being Able To See A Game Helps
A unique card system allows you to customize your abilities and provides variety. Of all the titles here, this one features the greatest difficulty spike, growing significantly more difficult around the halfway point. You can always grind a bit if needed, though.
The biggest problem Circle of the Moon had at release was how dark it is. Most players wouldn’t expect Dracula’s castle to be an inviting place, but the darkness of the environments, combined with the original version of the Game Boy Advance not having a backlight, made it a difficult game to see for many players. Thankfully, that’s not an issue on modern systems, allowing Circle of the Moon’s wonderful art design to finally shine. With a fantastic soundtrack as well, Circle of the Moon has a wonderful aesthetic.
Harmony of Dissonance: An Imperfect Reaction
In many ways, Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance is a reaction to the criticism Circle of the Moon faced at release. This can be a positive thing at times, solving some issues and providing a unique feeling. It also creates a game that feels a bit off, however, and while still good, it’s the weakest of the Game Boy Advance trilogy.
No one called Harmony of Dissonance too dark. The team at Konami learned from their prior outing and set out to make a game you could see on that dark GBA screen. Their solutions aren’t particularly elegant, though. Your character, Juste Belmont, has a blue glow around him at all times. It did the job back in 2002, but today, on a screen no longer needing it, it looks silly. The entire castle has a lot more color as well, but that part somewhat works. A bit more of that gothic vibe the series is known for would have been nice. Still, Harmony of Dissonance’s version of Dracula’s castle features some utterly insane art design. At times psychedelic and even leaning harder than normal into horror, it mostly works.
Doesn’t Always Find The Right Balance
There’s no more issue with mobility either. While the story of Harmony of Dissonance more fully embraces the series’ legacy, putting you back in the shoes of a Belmont going after Dracula, the gameplay leans even harder towards Symphony of the Night. You not only have the ability to back dash, common in newer games in the series, but you can also even forward dash now. Juste moves fluidly and is a joy to control. His whip feels more mobile than Nathan’s ever did. At times it feels like you have a few too many options, but they do open up new gameplay opportunities. Getting down the right timing to dash in for a quick attack before dashing back out is very satisfying.
Harmony of Dissonance also features some awesome bosses who are very cool to play as. Your magic is so overpowered, though, that they’re rarely difficult. The hardest parts of the game come when you’re ganged up on, not from any individual enemy. Harmony also features one of the series’ worst castle designs. It looks great, but moving around it is a problem. There are tons of dead ends, with only minor rewards that don’t make them feel worth exploring. There’s also a ton of backtracking through vast sections of the castle. If you’re exploring things in-depth on your first trip through, these sections can feel like a waste of time.
Aria of Sorrow: One Of The Best Games Ever Made
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow finds the right balance. I’ll be upfront in saying that this is one of my favorite games of all time, a title that has stuck with me since I first played it in 2003. Its story strikes a balance between including elements of the series’ past such as the Belmont clan while also doing something new with a protagonist like Soma who isn’t one of them. It features stunning art direction, which finds the right balance of color without looking garish when removed from the GBA. Its gameplay has been tightened up with just the right balance of mobility.
The biggest change in Aria of Sorrow is the tactical soul system. This allows you to gather souls from your fallen enemies, giving you new powers and abilities. It’s definitely cool and provides a lot of great tools for different scenarios. New abilities like being able to walk on water after obtaining the right spirit provide great depth to the game’s castle design.
Striking The Right Balance
This version of Dracula’s castle feels right too. There’s a lot to explore, but doing so usually feels worth it. A dead-end is likely to at least give you something cool for checking it out. Meanwhile, the amount of backtracking is minimized with the game’s fast travel striking a balance between not being everywhere but also letting you get at least generally in the area you want.
Souls aren’t the only part of combat that has changed. Instead of fighting with a whip by default, Soma prefers daggers and swords. Over the course of your adventure, you’ll find many options, including hammers, lances, even guns, and yes, whips as well. This variety feels great, and while the whips ended up being one of my favorites still, I’d frequently switch back and forth for different foes.
Aria of Sorrow also features the most unique bosses in this trilogy with some really original foes. While it can certainly be challenging, it strikes a nice balance of pushing the player without overwhelming them. It just feels like, after two good to very good games, the team behind these games finally found the right balance in almost every department. This is a near-perfect game.
Dracula X: A Strange Inclusion
The odd duck in this collection is pretty clearly Castlevania: Dracula X. Despite this being called the Advance Collection, this isn’t a GBA game. Dracula X is the SNES version of Castlevania: Rondo of Blood. Loosely. While Rondo of Blood is still remembered as possibly the best classic Castlevania title, the SNES wasn’t capable of running it. Instead, we got a ground up remake, loosely based on that title.
The comparison isn’t kind, but that isn’t to say Dracula X is a bad game. It may not have the series’ best level design, but it still plays well, building on the base of games like Super Castlevania IV. For a SNES game, it looks great and has an excellent soundtrack. It also features strange difficulty spikes and bosses, which aren’t particularly memorable.
On its own merits, Dracula X is a solid Castlevania title, albeit not one of the series’ best. It mainly suffers in comparison to Rondo of Blood, where it doesn’t really stack up in any way. There’s still fun to be had, though. The decision to include this version of the game in the Advance Collection is strange but likely mostly has to do with it being left out of earlier collections. PS4 players will be able to check out Rondo of Blood in Castlevania Requiem. Fans on other systems will have to settle for this for now.
A Lazy Collection
I feel like I say this with every collection which comes out nowadays, but I really wish Konami had taken the time to give these games the collection they deserve. Don’t get me wrong, they all play great. I noticed no issues with emulation, and each has the feel I remember from all those years ago. Basic emulation features like save states, rewind, and even replays are here, and they’re much appreciated. You don’t have to use them if you don’t want to, of course, but they can be a cool way to test out new moves in new situations without having to reload your save should things go wrong.
There was a time though, when a collection like this would feature museum-style extras designed to put these games in the right context. Interviews with creators, making of documents, retrospectives looking at their places in history and the influence they’ve had. There’s nothing like that in the Advance Collection. You get some artwork scans, including a few new pieces of design art which are cool. There’s no context though, no notes or information about them. Things like the manuals and covers are scanned, but even these are lazily done. Dracula X’s US cover and manual are missing. Aria of Sorrow’s manual is either scanned or cut slightly off-angle. There’s little here you can’t find on Google.
You do have an option to listen to the game’s soundtracks, but even these are weak. Switching between games stops whatever you’re listening to, so you can’t even freely move around this section. You do have the option to create a playlist with music from the various games, which is a great option. Going back to the menu will end whatever is playing, though, as will the Switch going to sleep. Make sure to touch your controller every so often if you want to keep listening. Why couldn’t you let your playlist play while you check out these games? One would assume because that would have required work that no one wanted to bother with.
If you’re at all a fan of Metroidvanias and haven’t played most of these games, there’s no reason to wait. Not every game here is perfect, but they’re all at least good. Circle of the Moon provides the best mix between the old and new style of Castlevania, while Aria of Sorrow is an absolute triumph that holds up beautifully even after all these years. Harmony of Dissonance has more flaws but is still mostly an excellent play, and even Dracula X is a very solid title. I would have loved to see more work done to provide a total package here, but few collections have ever provided a better set of titles.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: Switch (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One, PC; Publisher: Konami; Developer: Konami; Players: 1; Released: September 23rd, 2021; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Castlevania Advance Collection provided by the publisher.