In Search of Lost Metroidvania

I have started playing Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance. Again. This is the 3rd time that I started this game now. You might remember how I posted about the game in November 2008. Even though the game is supposedly relatively short, I have never managed to play it trough. Here is what happened.

  • 2008 Attempt – Over 8 hours into the game, I was distracted by other activities and stopped playing the game for a couple of weeks. When I returned, I was completely unable to remember what to do next. A significant portion of the castle was accessible but I couldn’t remember where to go next. I wandered around for an hour or so before deciding to abandon this playtrough and start from scratch.

  • 2010 Attempt – I started a new attempt last year. This time I was prepared. I printed out a map of the castle and used a pen to mark down where I have been already. Also I wrote down all the areas that I can’t access yet because I lack some key upgrades. This time I played the game for 3 hours and 20 minutes. I realized quickly that the necessity of having the map and a pen ready adds some significant burden on playing the game. It contributed to the fact that I got distracted again. Also, it wasn’t really effective. The map didn’t really help me with figuring out my current goal. It documented where I have been but not where I needed to go next.

  • 2011 Attempt – This time I keep the documentation to a minimum. I will write down the major powerups I picked up and the bosses I defeated on my iPhone. This way I can use a walktrough to figure out where to go next. Besides this, I will also write down in which direction I wanted to go next after each play session. I’m using a let’s play as a reference. Also, I ordered the official strategy duide. I’m dedicated to finish this sucker.

My struggle with the game is a good example of the weaknesses with the Metroidvania structure. It’s a philosophy that relies heavily on the dynamic exploration of a world. Special precautions need to be take to make sure the players don’t get lost. A series that does a good job is Metroid. I played all of the parts on the Game Boy Advance and never had any such problems. Each section of the world looks different and there is a good balance between linear tunnels and crossings so even if you get lost, there are never too many wrong turns you can take anyway. There is some attempt at visual diversity in Harmony of Dissonance but due to repetitive level design, each hallway ends up looking the same. Even worse, there are a lot of branches and forks so getting lost is almost guaranteed. Strangely, there is also no tool to help you find your bearings – like a boss compass for example. The fact that you switch between two almost identically looking castles just adds insult to injury.

Anthony Burch touches on a related topic in his Rev Rant on Metroidvanias.

He points out that Metroidvanias force a hardcore completionist, cartographer mindset onto players. Player who aren’t patient enough will fail. In the same vain, once you lose track of your goals once, there is no way to ease yourself back into the game. It’s either everything or nothing.

Perhaps this is why Metroidvanias are so popular among the core crowd. In order to get trough Harmony of Dissonance, I guess I need to channel my inner gamer. Let’s do this.

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.

One response to “In Search of Lost Metroidvania”

  1. Shepard

    Harmony of Backtracking. Seriously, even playing it blown up on an emulator, good luck finding the tiny section of wall that isn’t filled in to re-explore it.

    Your instincts are right though. Unless you can really just marathon the game over 2-3 days, you won’t be able to remember where to go!


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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