If it feels like you've played Castlevania: Harmony of Despair before, then you're not alone. From the eerily familiar name to the hodgepodge of recognizable characters, there's a sense that you've been there and done that. Even the game's graphics and sound are reminiscent of recent installments. But don't let your eyes deceive you, because Konami has taken Castlevania in an entirely new direction.
At its core, Harmony of Despair is the combination of a classic 2D Castlevania game and a Diablo-style dungeon crawler. This is a six player game that rewards you for grinding through levels multiple times, picking up loot, earning more money and taking down bosses with your friends. If you're coming to this new Xbox Live Arcade game looking for a traditional single-player Castlevania adventure, then you need to look elsewhere. What we're left with is an interesting experiment that mostly works.
The obvious change comes in the way of multiplayer, something you don't normally equate with the Castlevania brand. This is a huge change that impacts the way the developers tackled everything from level designs, to weapons, to the many large bosses found in the game. While you can still beat each of the game's levels by yourself, the game is really set up so that six players can work together to purge the world of evil.
Instead of giving us a large world to open up and explore, Harmony of Despair features six bite-sized chapters. These six chapters feature a large map to explore, tons of treasure chests to track down and a multi-part boss fight at the end. But don't feel like you have time to leisurely explore these labyrinthine levels, because you're always under the thumb of the time limit. Because these levels are so large, players will find themselves returning to the chapters over and over again looking for rare loot.
Right from the start you have the choice of five familiar characters -- Alucard (Symphony of the Night), Soma Cruz (Aria of Sorrow), Shanoa (Order of Ecclesia), Jonathan Morris and Charlotte Aulin (both from Portrait of Ruin). These different characters use different weapons, have different fighting styles and use different special items. It's a lot of fun going through levels you've already memorized with brand new characters; you'll find that each of these fighters has a purpose.
I was impressed by the diversity of each chapter. Not only are the backgrounds wildly different from one level to the next, but they also play out in surprising ways. In one level you'll be in an underground cavern dealing with a boss that is literally half the size of the entire map. While in the very next chapter you are using paintings to teleport your way through a gigantic mansion. The game only becomes more impressive with each passing level.Castlevania has always been one of those games where players are asked to keep switching between the in-game map and the action. In Harmony of Despair, Konami has managed to incorporate this into the actual gameplay. At any time in the game, players can fill their widescreen TVs with the entire maps while still hacking and slashing their way to the boss. Of course, you won't want to do this for long, because unless you have a 200 inch television, you're never going to be able to see your teeny tiny character. Thankfully there's a happy medium between the map view and the traditional close up. You can zoom out to see only a few screens at once, which allows you to better navigate your way through these challenging mazes.
These different camera angles also help you keep track of the other players in your room. Since you have to work together, it's incredibly handy to be able to pinpoint a specific player at a moment's notice. This is especially true if one of your team mates gets killed. Instead of becoming a bored spectator, killed players will be able to wander the map as a skeleton. Although you can throw bones at enemies, you aren't much use until somebody finds you and resurrects your body.
The multiplayer is the game's biggest pro and con. On one hand, having six players makes this game feel significantly different from the rest of the recent Castlevania adventures. I also like the dungeon crawler influence; it's an inspired gameplay decision. On the other hand, I'm not sure playing Castlevania with a bunch of other people is as much fun in practice as it is in theory. The levels are cool, but I prefer the exploration angle found in most games in the franchise. Plus, it's not always the easiest thing to get six people to work together against a common foe.
It's also frustrating that the game doesn't scale the difficulty depending on how many players you have. Much like Lost Planet 2 and Monster Hunter Tri, Harmony of Despair expects you to have a bunch of friends with you. Playing the game solo is a special kind of frustration I don't wish on anybody. Don't get me wrong, it's still doable, but there are plenty of bosses and treasure chests that are specifically designed with six players in mind.
In what I suspect will be a controversial decision, Konami has ditched the RPG-style experience system. Instead of leveling up, you are earning more money and finding rare items. Your armor and weapons is the key to this game, which I found a little disappointing. There were times when I would come up with little to no worthwhile loot, at least adding some numbers in the experience column would have given me some satisfaction.
While the goals and structure in Harmony of Despair may be different, the look and gameplay remains largely untouched. Konami stayed true to the game's sprite-based style, giving us the highest res versions of characters and enemies we've come to love. One could argue that this game doesn't look much different from the recent Nintendo DS installments, but that would be to completely miss the point. This entire game is built around embracing the look and style of the recent Castlevania games; it would have been foolish for them to re-imagine these famous characters and backgrounds. The whole thing is about fan service, and anybody who loves this franchise will instantly recognize most of the elements in this XBLA release.
On top of the game's six levels, the best of the best can test their mettle the Hard difficulty. If you think the single-player game is challenging on normal, wait until you have a fraction of the time and harder enemies. There's also a Survival Mode, which is an online battle to see who the last man (or woman) standing is. Between replaying levels and trying to earn all of the best equipment for the favorite character, players will definitely get their money's worth with Castlevania: Harmony of Despair.
Konami takes an interesting idea and makes it work. While it might disappoint some gamers looking for a more traditional Castlevania outing, those open to a new experience will have a lot of fun. If you're looking for a quick and simple multiplayer dungeon crawler that combines the best elements of Castlevania into one $15 package, then this is the game for you. Everybody looking for a great single-player adventure game should look elsewhere.