When I booted up Castlevania: Harmony of the Despair for the first time, I had no idea what to expect. The only things I knew about the title were that you could zoom out the camera and that there was multiplayer for up to six people. Both of these ideas excited me, though mostly I was just eager to dive into Dracula’s castle and start “Metroidvania”-ing my way through hordes of evil undead. Imagine my surprise when after playing through the first two chapters I discovered that there was very little “Metroid” in this Castlevania experience.
When I say this, I’m mostly referring to the ability-progression system that’s been in place in almost all of the 2D Castlevania games released since Symphony of the Night so many years ago. No longer would I be earning abilities as I progressed through the game that would help traverse areas that were closed off to me earlier. Instead, Harmony of Despair is divided into six distinct chapters, with no ability progression necessary to make it through any of them. In fact, aside from earning better equipment, spells, and the like, there really isn’t much progression to speak of in Harmony of Despair. There also isn’t any experience system in place, and you never earn so much as a double-jump (well, you start off with one, but where’s the fun in that?).
At this point, it’s pretty obvious that this was not the Castlevania experience that I had been craving. Sure, all of the iconic characters, locations, monsters, and weapons were in place, but the gameplay just never matched up to what I thought a Castlevania title should be. There wasn’t even any good platforming like in the earlier titles. The deeper I delved, the more I realized that this was a loot whoring game first and foremost. In order to snag myself some of the more powerful weapons, I was going to be playing through these chapters over and over again, until I could do everything in my sleep. It’s really too bad that this is the case.
Even in spite of my historical love of scouring repetitive areas ad nauseam to get myself the best armor set or that elusive Pearl weapon, I just couldn’t find the same joy in place in Harmony of Despair. The loot drops only came from the chests that were always placed in the same locations. Furthermore, though there were different different classes of chests that supposedly contained different item types; none of this was made very clear as I just always ended up getting the same freaking pendants or short swords no matter how many times I reloaded a level.
The visuals in the game are certainly a mixed bag. While I appreciate the full-screen, real-time map, it was hardly ever all that useful, as I just found myself memorizing the layout of each level and barely ever needing to zoom out to reorient myself. On top of that, the zoomed-in visuals sort of become a pixelated mess. While it’s easier to play this way, the characters and enemies just look a little too much like their GBA forbears than seems appropriate for a Castlevania game with the subtitle acronym “HD.” The audio design was somewhat better, though I’m mainly referring to the music, which sounds suitably metal-tastic. Unfortunately, there really aren’t a whole lot of tracks to choose from, and I quickly found myself getting bored of listening to the same three or four that I liked initially.
There are six total characters to choose from in the game, though I think that other Castlevania fans might have more of an affinity for them than I do. While Soma starred in my favorite game in the series, I was never all that fond of him, and everyone else besides Alucard just kind of falls flat for me. Shanoa is obviously the most powerful of the bunch (as the leaderboards can attest to), but that’s not really what I’m looking for. Ultimately, I played through the game as Soma just because I likee his varied weapons and Soul Abilities. I really wish that some more classic characters were in the title, though i suppose the devs would have had a hard time differentiating them from each other.
The highlight of the game for me was the actual exploration of each level, and learning how to get through it faster and faster while snagging more and more of the chests. I just wish that there was a more tangible reward system in place. Some of the purple chests are quite tricky to nab, but often reward you with useless junk that you’ll just end up selling regardless. It all felt a little more pointless than I wanted to see out of the game.
I have a hard time describing the singleplayer portion of this game as anything other than lackluster. There were isolated instances of fun, but mostly I just felt like I was going through the motions, or getting needlessly annoyed. I wish that this game felt more like the modern Castlevanias that I know and love just with a greater emphasis on loot and multiplayer. I suppose that might have been harder to develop than the game we got, but the game we got just isn’t all that good anyway.
It may become obvious to you when playing through the singleplayer portion of the game, but there are a handful of co-op elements littered through each level. Sadly, these mainly take the form of switch based shortcuts that allow players to help each other progress through the levels faster. There are a few chests here and there that can only be opened with other players on your side, but for the most part, these co-op “puzzles” require little to no thought, and achieve even less.
The game’s co-op mode did make some of the boss fights more entertaining, such as Chapter 3’s Menace fight. In this fight, some players could go to the top of the arena and activate a giant bone hammer that would slam down into the monstrous Titan, leveling him pretty quickly. Again though, these elements just felt too sporadic, and weren’t always all that useful. Since there just weren’t very many interesting mechanics in place during the singleplayer campaign, I would have loved to have seen some better implementation of these co-op ideas.
By far the most interesting new aspect to the game (and one that I’m not sure that many players utilize) is the ability to save replays of your playthroughs and upload them to the game’s leaderboards. This is not a new idea, but it does work really well for a game like this where there are often a few key tricks that allow players to get through the levels more efficiently. I really enjoyed watching some very talented players cruise through the harder levels, though it was upsetting that pretty much everyone with a high score uses Shanoa. Still, developing the in-game community in this way was a pretty excellent move on Konami’s part and I applaud them for it.
In the end, Castlevania: Harmony of Despair, though mostly focused on multiplayer, just isn’t fun enough to be all that memorable, even with five other friends on your side. I really wanted this experience to live up to the high standards set by previous entries in the franchise, especially because recent Castlevania games have felt a little too similar to one another, and this game at least had a unique hook. I appreciate that Konami was trying to do something new with the franchise, I just don’t think that this first attempt was all that successful.
Developer: Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo
Genre: Platformer, Action-Adventure, Action
Release: August 4, 2010
Available On: Xbox Live Marketplace
Castlevania - Loved It
Castlevania Symphony of the Night - Loved it
Castlevania - Aria of Sorrow - Loved it
Castlevania Storylines - Kill them with fire
Loot whoring - Love it