Castlevania Circle of the Moon (Castlevania Advance Collection) Review

Three things I like about this game, and two I don't

Castlevania Advance Collection

By Paul Hunter

Lately Konami has been bringing back their classic Castlevania games. 2019's Castlevania Anniversary Collection kicked it off with updated versions of the earliest games like Castlevania 1-3 (NES) and Super Castlevania IV (Super NES). Now they're back with the Castlevania Advance Collection, which as the name implies focuses on the Game Boy Advance entries, plus Castlevania: Dracula X (SNES) tossed in as a bonus title.

Instead of reviewing the entire collection in one go, I've decided to give the four games their just deserve by playing them all to completion, one by one, and doing reviews of each. I'll begin with Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, the very first game in the series to release on Game Boy Advance in 2001. So let's venture on in to Dracula's Castle, here are three things I liked about the game...and two I didn't.

Liked: The RPG Elements

Circle of the Moon takes the classic Castlevania action-platforming and adds Metroid-type map exploration and RPG elements. It's an amazing combination but it's the RPG levelling and stat building that really stand out as my favourite feature. In most Metroidvania games, like the recent Metroid Dread and F.I.S.T., you'll need to rely solely on gaining abilities along with sheer determination to overcome the game's largest challenges. Not so with Circle of the Moon.

In this game your character Nathan Graves begins at level 1 but you'll gain levels and become stronger as you kill monsters that inhabit Dracula's vast castle. You've got several key stats that increase with each level, including Strength and Defense that determine your whip's damage and how much damage enemies inflict on you, respectively. You also have Intelligence, which determines how much MP per second Nathan regenerates, and Luck that determines how likely enemies will drop items. And finally you've got your HP and MP, plus your heart counter that affects how many sub-weapon attacks you can do.

Not only is it cool to level up and grow more powerful but it makes backtracking through areas you've previously visited so much quicker since you can slash your way through enemies like butter. It also opens up the possibility of levelling up to defeat particularly hard bosses, and this game has many of them. To further help you out, you can also equip armour and accessories to enhance your stats—and these items are randomly dropped from the demon you defeat. Getting an ultra-powerful item drop is such a rewarding feeling and can be the boost you need to progress in the game. I was hooked on these RPG elements and it made Circle of the Moon totally stand out compared to most Metroidvania games I've played.

Liked: The Dual Set-up System

Damn this combat system is awesome. The Dual Set-up System (DSS) gameplay mechanic consists of 10 "Action" cards and 10 "Attribute" cards that you can permanently acquire from enemy random drops. Each Action card can be paired with an Attribute card to give Nathan up to 100 special abilities total, and there are so many cool combinations.

The first card I acquired was Mercury, which imbues Nathan's Hunting Whip with elements like a fire whip, poison whip or holy whip. Most enemies and bosses have elemental weaknesses so learning how to exploit them is crucial for taking out the tougher foes. Later on I found a bunch more useful cards like Jupiter that regens your health and Venus the offers perks like +25% defense or gain double the number of hearts.

There are also a few end game cards that make bosses—including Dracula—absurdly easy. These include the Saturn card that makes familiars (like a bat, hawk or ghost) follow Nathan and attack enemies, and the Pluto card that lets you throw sub-weapons using MP instead of your hearts (a huge advantage since MP auto-regens!). The most powerful card though has to be the Unicorn, which not only has the ability to heal you repeatedly during boss fights but also can make Nathan entirely invincible. The DSS system is so much fun to experiment with and it's quite unique for the genre.

Liked: The Map Design

The last major highlight for me is the map design, it was well thought out. I like how you begin in essentially the final room of the game but Dracula hurls you deep into the catacombs where your adventure begins. You'll eventually work your way through Dracula's Castle, travelling though cool-looking locations like the tall Abyss Stairwell, the platform-heavy Machine Tower and the Eternal Corridor filled with challenge rooms.

In traditional Castlevania style every area is filled with secrets including breakable walls and spots you'll need to return to once you've acquired new abilities. I really liked how the main path has you naturally return to most locations after you've gained the new powers so there's not a whole lot of unnecessary backtracking to do.

My favourite area of the whole game is the Battle Arena that has you fight through 17 rooms filled with enemies and you can't use your DSS cards. It's the toughest challenge in the entire game, even more than the final confrontation with Dracula. Completing the Battle Arena nets you the second-best armour in the game, plus you have a chance to acquire some supremely powerful DSS cards. It's a really fun post-game challenge!

Didn't Like: The Frustrating RNG

While I've spoken really highly of the DSS system and the nice random drops you'll get from enemies, there is a downside: the atrocious RNG. Some of the more rare items have a 2% or less drop rate and that means potentially fighting the same enemy over and over again, sometimes hundreds of times. It can take hours of grinding to find rare DSS cards or powerful items, but the benefits can be good enough to justify the time. Still, it's absolutely annoying that out of my 12-hour playthrough at least 2-3 hours of that was spent grinding.
I was hooked on the RPG elements and it made Circle of the Moon totally stand out compared to most Metroidvania games I've played.
Thankfully there is an exploit you can tap into to make the RNG grind a little less irritating. The Castlevania Advance Collection includes a Rewind function that let's you backtrack a few seconds to a previous moment and try again. This lets you kill an enemy, wait a second to see if they drop the item you're looking for, and if not you rewind to just before the final blow and try your luck again. I ended up using that trick to obtain the last two rare DSS cards because there's a silver trophy (on PlayStation) for obtaining them all and I just wanted the maddening grind to be over.

Didn't Like: Missed QoL Opportunities

The Castlevania Advance Collection includes a lot of nifty quality of life improvements like the rewind feature, a quick save/quick load menu, and an encyclopedia that contains helpful knowledge on monsters and items (their HP, EXP, drops and weaknesses). But I still wish the game included more modern conveniences like the ability to drop pins on the map like you can in Metroid Dread. Plus, Circle of the Moon features a teleport system, but strangely enough the teleport doors are connected sequentially, so you might need to enter three or four doors just to get to the location you want. You'd think it'd be easy enough for Konami to code in the ability to choose your teleport location.

I also thought switching between DSS cards was needlessly tedious, every single time you go into your menu and manually select your two-card combination. This re-release should have included the ability to choose three or four of your most-used card combos and hotkey them to a cycle-through button. But unfortunately that's not the case so especially in boss battles I found myself constantly going into the menu to switch up my equipped cards. None of these complaints are deal breakers, just it would have been nice to see additional updates to streamline the game experience even further.

The Verdict

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is an exceptional entry in this iconic vampire-slaying franchise and certainly a must play for fans. Considering the entire Castlevania Advance Collection is only $24.99 US, just this game is worth a good chunk of that value alone. I really enjoyed how fresh this game is given the unique RPG elements and the DSS card system. After playing Metroid Dread and F.I.S.T. this year, I have to say that Circle of the Moon holds up nicely compared to both of them. An easy recommend from me!

Final Score: 8.5/10 - Great

Castlevania Circle of the Moon (Castlevania Advance Collection) details

Platform: PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Genre: Action, Metroidvania
Modes: Single-player
ESRB Rating: T (Teen)

A key was provided by the publisher.