The Harmony of Harmony of Dissonance

Wow, that was quick. After only 6-7 hours, I finished Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance. Surprisingly, it took me less time to finish the game from scratch than I invested in a previous, unfinished playtrough. It just shows that the biggest challenge with this game is it’s lack of guidance. In hindsight, writing down where I wanted to go next helped only marginally. The most useful help turned out to be the Let’s Play.

I used the above let’s play by YouTube user newfiebangaa. It’s a solid play-through. The commentary was a bit obnoxious from time to time but generally quite solid. The videos are well produced, which is no surprise considering that newfiebangaa documented over 320 games this way (!!!). The way I used them was to play for a while and to watch the Let’s Play of the parts I already completed afterwards. That way I could tell if I missed something and quickly find out if I was heading in the wrong direction.

But the game turned out to be actually quite well structured and I had almost no difficulties at all. The individual areas unlock in a regular and logical fashion. It’s just never communicated clearly so it’s very easy to get lost due to unnecessary backtracking. One thing the Let’s Play helped me a lot with was the combat. The game has a complex magic special attack system I never bothered to experiment with. To me it always seemed like different variations on smart-bombs that would kill everything on the screen. Newfiebangaa on the other hand was actively searching for a setup that could be used as a secondary attack. He favored the more economical, less destructive spells so he could use them more frequently. This also changed the way I would approach the game.

If there is one thing about Harmony of Dissonance I really liked was the juicy combat. There are very few difficult enemies in the game. Most of them die with just one hit but there are lots of them. This would usually make up for dull and repetitive gameplay. But as already mentioned, every enemy dies in a spectacular fashion. Skeletons burst into piles of bones that come tumbling down with a clattering sound. Other enemies spontaneously self-combust. The combat is not necessarily rewarding because it is deep or challenging. It just feels good to plow through the hordes of zombies and ghosts.

I was reminded of this recent video by indie developer Joakim Sandberg.

What stumped me about this analysis is when he mentioned the importance of enemies, that die with one hit. When creating an action game, a beginning game designer’s first intuition is create enemies, that take a couple of shots to kill. It seems to be a reasonable way to generate a challenge and require players to use strategy – gameplay in short. But you might just end up with a game where each enemy is a tedious bullet sponge. Getting anywhere becomes a chore. Something I noticed even in such simple experiments as my Cybersecurity Emergency Assange.

Of course it depends on the kind of game you want to make. But a more reasonable apporach seems to be to balance the enemies in such a way that they can be defeated while the player is moving through the level. From time to time, there can be an individual, more tougher enemy to introduce a break, intentionally slow the player down or simply add variation. If you think about games in this way, enemies become not a challenge but a tool to create rhythm and establish a seamless flow of action.

I feel this is where I think Harmony of Dissonance excels in. The fact that you can slide using the shoulder buttons right from the start of the game enables players to move very swiftly through the game. The juicy enemy death animations are the kicker. In it’s best moments, the game becomes a pleasant, fluid joyride celebrated by a confetti of bones, blood and burning particles.

I already started the next game in the series, Aria of Sorrow. It seems to build upon the values established by the predecessor. I will keep notes as I continue. Stay tuned!

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

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The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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