This reviewer’s personal experience with the Castlevania series is strictly limited. I’ve played Castlevania on the NES occasionally, and I’ve also beaten Simon’s Quest a few times. But that’s pretty much it. Then a friend offered up Aria of Sorrow, and my interest in the series immediately piqued. The only – trivial – complaint to be leveled at Aria of Sorrow is that there was no whip for Soma. An impressive Whip Sword existed, but it just wasn’t the same. There was also the Vampire Killer available if you played the game as Julius, but attraction was reduced because you couldn’t customize him as you could with Soma. Despite the lack of whip, the RPG elements added to the game were certainly enjoyable. And, seeing as Circle of the Moon was a precursor to Aria of Sorrow, it is, in part, to thank for the current state of the series.
Circle of the Moon opens in Dracula’s castle where a young woman named Carmilla is in the process of resurrecting the nefarious Count. Upon Dracula’s return, the elderly vampire hunter Morris Baldwin bursts into the game with his son, Hugh Baldwin, and Nathan Graves, his apprentice. The revived Count then proceeds to takes Morris hostage and destroys the floor directly beneath Hugh and Nathan. Subsequently they both fall an insanely great distance – and miraculously survive. Hugh exclaims that he will now go and save his captive father, and he flees. Thus, your journey through Dracula’s castle as a lone Nathan begins.
Now the first thing you may notice about the story is the key omission of one of the characteristic elements of the Castlevania series: a Belmont. While not really a worthy point for complaint, it is still somewhat surprising. That said, Circle of the Moon’s story is fairly simple with a few twists and turns thrown in for good measure. You progress through Dracula’s castle in a loosely linear basis. While there’ll always be various paths to follow, all but one will end with something that blocks your progress. The remaining path will, of course, end with a boss. The rewards received after each boss battle are special abilities, which allow you to move beyond whatever it is currently standing in your way. These special abilities range from a Double Jump and a Tackle that destroys large blocks to the Roc Wing. Basically, you travel from boss to boss while traversing the extensive map of Dracula’s castle. After or before bosses, there may be some story exposition. Hugh will sometimes appear and whine about how he’s ?the man’ and that he should be the one to save his father, not you – all fairly simple narrative stuff. There are a few plot holes, like how you ever managed to get to the room in the game’s opening scene when it’s located in the heart of the castle. However, if such a ?gaping’ continuity slip actually deters you from playing the game, it would perhaps be better for society in general if you remained in your room for?well, for ever.
The gameplay in Circle of the Moon is pretty good. Nathan is initially armed with the Vampire Killer whip, and he has access to this weapon for the entire game. Indeed, it grows stronger as you defeat enemies and gain more experience. Nathan has four primary stats: strength, defense, intelligence, and luck, all of which increase as he levels up. You can also equip a piece of body armor and something on each arm to further alter those stats. Certain enemies drop these items as well as others that restore health, cure curses, etc. Throughout the game, you are given opportunities to pick up one of the many classic Castlevania sub-weapons such as the dagger, holy water, and the axe. These weapons use up hearts, which you collect by – say it with me – killing enemies. Okay, okay, you can also break candles to get them too. And there are items that refill the hearts as well. The number of hearts you can carry increases along with your progressing experience level.
But perhaps the primary focus of the gameplay lies in the Dual Setup System (DSS). There are 20 DSS cards: 10 action cards and 10 attribute cards. You can pair one action card with one attribute card to yield a particular effect. Combining different cards provides a wide range of customization options from ice whips to poison clouds to summoned monsters. Nathan has a Magic Points meter and the DSS effects duly apply drain to this meter. The MP meter increases with level-ups and replenishes itself naturally, though there are items that will accelerate the process. You obtain the individual DSS cards by – one more time now – killing enemies.
One particularly enjoyable gameplay experience is to be found through the special abilities. Adding a Double Jump to any game makes it better in my opinion. The Tackle and Roc Wing are extremely cool as well. For the uninitiated, the Roc Wing gives Nathan a similar ability to the space jump in classic side-scrolling Metroid titles. In other words, you never have to touch the ground again, if you choose not to. The Roc Wing is perhaps a smidge cooler than Metroid’s space jump, but a little harder to work with in practical application. Instead of increasing your height a little with each jump, the Roc Wing propels you straight up as though shot from a cannon. However, as previously stated, you can do this indefinitely. Players can amuse themselves for hours simply by Roc Winging everywhere. I know I do. But, then again, I am ?very easily’ amused.
It’s not all Zero-G fun, though; there are several critical issues to be found within Circle of the Moon. Nathan’s initial special ability is the Dash, and double tapping either right or left on the directional pad will activate it. This aspect of the control proves a little tedious. Nathan moves extremely slowly when not dashing, so basically you’ll want to dash all the time. Whenever you change directions, however, you’ll need to reactivate the dash ability. Often you will likely double tap poorly and Nathan will simply stutter step, at which point you’ll get royally reamed by whatever enemy you’re trying to escape from. Though Nathan rarely dies because of this awkward control glitch, it still remains a major gameplay annoyance.
Another issue is the lack of a store. Nathan does not appear to have a storage limit and, during the course of running back and forth across previously visited castle areas, he’ll collect a considerable amount of low-level armor. The opportunity to sell this gathered equipment and purchase, say, high-level healing items that can otherwise only be obtained through luck from killing enemies would have been a decent addition.
The final criticism lies with the DSS system itself. As mentioned earlier, you collect DSS cards from killing enemies; however, only certain enemies drop these cards. Therefore, how is one to know where to attain particular cards? In Aria of Sorrow, you knew that every enemy, except for the very last bosses, dropped souls. It just seems a little less intuitive here. Also, card combination effects are unknown until you activate the two chosen cards and watch what happens. For many of the abilities, the results are fairly self-explanatory, though – activate the two cards – use your whip – it’s on fire – ah, this combo adds the fire element to your whip! Some, however, are not so readily apparent.
Circle of the Moon’s musical score is extremely enjoyable. Dracula’s castle is divided into several zones and each one has its own theme. The zonal themes aren’t particularly elaborate and only last a minute or so before looping through. Most of them, however, are good, solid, and attractive riffs. After turning the game off, you’ll likely still hear them playing in your head – but not in that annoying pop song way.
After beating the game, you can restart as a new character called the magician. You are otherwise a vampire killer. The magician has much higher intelligence and thus better MP recharge rates. And, while the game doesn’t encourage much replay value other than this new character, there are some incentives for building up your existing character’s levels. There is an area in the castle called the Battle Arena. Here, you must pass through many rooms filled with enemies. There are no save points and you can’t use DSS abilities, either. Therefore, you either need to be at an extremely high level to make it through successfully, or you need to be well equipped with potions and other healing items. Both of these approaches will increase the amount of time you invest in the game. It’s not compulsory to travel through the Battle Arena, but you are duly rewarded with a high-level item if you succeed.
Overall, Circle of the Moon is an immensely entertaining game. For those gamers who crave classic side-scrolling action it provides a more than adequate fix. The sporadic control hiccups aren’t distracting enough to detract from the playing experience, and the RPG elements add much to the classic adventure series. Circle of the Moon certainly helps the Castlevania series further along a great road that has thus far culminated in another solid game: Aria of Sorrow. Hopefully, we have not yet witnessed the end of the world’s battle against the inhumanly resilient Count Dracula.