Castlevania: Harmony of Despair
Release Date: 08/04/2010
Following a number of classic vampire-whipping titles, Castlevania certainly went through a bit of a lull. In an attempt to go 3-D, the Nintendo 64 entries did the series no favors, the U.S. long missed out on a raw, true-to-form Rondo of Blood and offshoots like the motion blurry Game Boy titles and above average SEGA Genesis entry didn’t help the Belmont-infused license out too much. But, then, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night happened. It hit the Playstation and breathed life back into the ailing, Metroid-style action-adventure title and nearly every single Castlevania title to follow grabbed its concepts from this landmark 2-D title. Fast forward thirteen years later and the new Xbox LIVE Arcade entry Harmony of Despair is still dancing to this same tune. While leads to a number of concepts may come across as archaic, Harmony of Despair still hits the bullseye, providing tight and challenging gameplay, a breadth of characters that require various gameplay approaches and a number of nods to fans of the series.
Still using the original storyline as its crutch, for what has to be the billionth time, Lord Dracula’s Castlevania has materialized and it is then up to vampire hunters to ensure it goes away in order to avoid impending doom on the world. There is seriously little more to the story than that, but given Harmony of Despair’s “all-star” setup, most players will be able slide the story aside to just enjoy what they’ve been given. Similar to a fan nod such as The King of Fighters ’98 where the developer says, “screw the story, here is the gameplay and a ton of content,” Castlevania HD tosses Alucard, Soma, Morris, Charlotte and Shanoa into the same universe and tasks players to pick one, team up with up to five other players online and kick large amounts of monster ass. While any sort of experience and leveling system has been plucked out from the title, each character has an assortment of weapons, armor, spells, martial arts moves, items and more to utilize to progressively become stronger and a number of these items are exclusive to certain characters. As players storm through six chapters to Dracula’s inner sanctum (with a hard mode that unlocks after clearing them the first time), players will receive better items the further they progress, which sort of recreates the grind of bashing beasties for EXP.
Players can also jump online and compete against each other in a survival mode, but outside of this variation, Harmony of Despair boils down to playing the title by yourself or without others online. Of course, going online beefs up the enemies to create an even playing field, but there is virtually no varation to be had in the title. Even so, if you liked what any Castlevania since Symphony of the Night has provided, you should still be very interested as the title gives you six large environments and challenging bosses, two difficulty modes, five characters to tackle the game with and more items you can shake a stick at. To sum it up, it’s more of something you already love.
The controls will feel second-nature to anyone that has played any title these characters have appeared in, with just a couple of modifications. Clicking the right stick changes the camera zoom on the playfield so players can concentrate on what they are doing or zooming out to view almost the entire environment. Items are now mapped to a combination of the left and right triggers and the right trigger acts as a universal action button. All of it executes just as players command, leading to some tight platforming action, but there are a hiccups in the scheme, such as a few difficulties pinpointing diagonal attacks thanks to the 360’s analog stick and d-pad and since the triggers need to be almost entirely depressed to register, players in the heat of battle may have a snag or two getting items out or executing actions in a pinch. Overall, though, the controls hold up extremely well and each character controls just like in their original appearance.
Taking the game online and using the team mechanic, Harmony of Despair meets the action and adventure elements at the half-way point, still giving players plenty to explore, but keeping them in line with a 30-minute time limit per chapter. Depending on your strength and the difficulty level and chapter, players can still explore the entire map and get all of the items between 10-20 minutes, so quickfire players can just sit down for about 15 minutes and still get a full Castlevania experience. Fans of the series will no doubt be hooked to the action, meaning tackling all six chapters back-to-back or seeking new items can take up hours of a player’s time. No matter whether or not you are a fan of Castlevania, the concept remains simple to understand: Players start at one of a variety of map checkpoints and work together (or alone) to reach the boss and kill it. That’s classic gaming 101, right there. With the new format, though, a few things might annoy players at first – such as only being able to change equipment or take potions by accessing a book checkpoint or only being able to carry a set amount of spells or items at one time – but these facets only aim to make players work more as a team.
Even though players progressively get stronger, Harmony of Despair isn’t shy about overwhelming the player, throwing them to wolves early on in the title. This may be to encourage usage of the multiplayer, but, it’s not going to be a surprise some gamers may consider the title to be unfair, especially in the very unforgiving hard mode. The second chapter’s Puppet Master boss gave my online friend and I a load of trouble on hard until were somehow able to round up a party of four to eliminate the puppets he would place into the iron maidens located around the stage. This activates a spell that switches the place of the puppet with a player character and on hard, the iron maiden traps do more than 300 HP of damage, which, at that point in player progress, kills anyone in just one hit. Factors such as this do highlight the fact hermit gamers aren’t going to get nearly as much mileage out of the title and for these people, the $15 value might not add up for them.
Overall, though, players will get everything they expect out of a Castlevania title here. For people who don’t know what that is, that translates into one hell of an action-adventure experience, challenging gameplay that leads to satisfaction upon completion and tight, classic 2-D gameplay. For those familiar with the experience, though, they’ll also get a ton of nods to the other titles, including spells and items pulled straight from the characters’ respective titles of origin. It’s simplistic in nature, seeing as a player such as Alucard will be doing a lot of slashing and jumping, but the exploration, co-op puzzle solving to reach more treasures, and robust item customization really pile a lot on top of this plate.
Not only does the gameplay remain largely untouched, but the game’s presentation also remains mostly the same. This will no doubt delight most gamers, but put a few off that are used to silky smooth 3-D models, but Harmony of Despair seemingly pulls most of the characters, enemies, boss characters and items straight out of their source titles. Of course, the definition is a lot more crisp thanks to the power of the Xbox 360, but, still these visuals are presented in their pixel-perfect glory. The pixelation is obvious on a few of the items, but the animated 2-D nature of the visuals pop vivid characters from the TV and each of the environments (also pulled from other titles) varies quite a bit and gives players a lot of detail to look at. There are a few stiff animations in the lot, but, overall, each model has a handful of interesting animations based on a variety of conditions and there are a number of times players can interact with the environment, such as players kicking up paper while walking on stacks of books or being able to look at the scrolling sky on the edge of chapter one. The approach to the visuals may look dated, but the results are still satisfying and fully represent the 2-D world of gaming.
Furthermore, a lot of sound is pulled from a variety of titles, but still sounds just as satisfying as ever, accompanied by the quality of music the series is known for. The voice acting is fairly hit or miss among the variety of characters, but the sound effects are suitable for each instance and there is a number of creepy effects to go hand-in-hand with the environments. Grouping everything together, the presentation really works for the title and provides an air of familiarity fans of the series will associate with. While there could be some room for improvement in a few areas resulting from the borrowed nature of the game’s elements, top-notch presentation has been a staple of the series, even in its earliest years, and this concept spills over into this latest entry.
When you boil it down, players will get hours of multplayer platforming for $15, which is a good deal, considering the title works as a “Castlevania Jr.” in its scope, with the promise of expansions through possible downloadable content. The series has garnered quite the following over the years, so this is a title that will no doubt get some attention from that sect of gamers, but if you like your gaming classic and challenging, you can’t go wrong with the title. You’ll get some quirks and limited options in the way you play the game (and some annoying menu navigation, such as having to disband an entire game play party just to add a new person to the mix), but while Harmony of Despair looks shallow on the surface, it packs plenty of depth if you are willing to put some hours into it.
Control and Gameplay: CLASSIC
Appeal Factor: CLASSIC
FINAL SCORE: GREAT GAME
Short Attention Span Summary
Castlevania: Harmony of Despair takes the open-ended exploration of Castlevania and compacts it into an enjoyable multiplayer, action-based experience. Even though a lot of material in this package is dated and borrowed, it brings in an “all-star” mentality that combines characters, items, enemies, environments and more from a variety of Castlevania titles and molds it into a single concept. Despite a number of minor snags in control and presentation and the fact the actual gameplay doesn’t feature a ton of variety, Castlevania HD hits all of the highpoints a game in the series needs to. The gameplay is tight, challenging 2-D done right and the fact players have a number of items to discover between five different characters with different game play styles should have those hooked by the premise tied to the game for some time. It may be “too classic” for some, but this title hits a lot of elements missing from the XBLA port of Symphony of the Night and any fan of the series shouldn’t pass this one up.