Castlevania: Harmony of Despair Xbox 360 Review

August 9, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews & Features, Xbox 360, Xbox

Publisher – Konami – Developer – Konami – Genre – Action Adventure – Players – 1-6 – Age Rating – 12+ – Other console/handheld formats – N/A

Similarly to the recent Mega Man games, Castlevania: Harmony of Despair’s visuals have retro charm, which will appeal to series fans. Characters are all from past entries in the franchise and the musical pieces are remixed versions of those from other games. Fan service is more or less permeating throughout the game, but actually playing it will reveal that Koji Igarashi and his team have conjured up something that merges the past of Castlevania with something that is very much the present of gaming, that being online co-op play.

So with Castlevania: Harmony of Despair, Castlevania is the latest victim of the co-op pandemic that is inflicting the industry these days, leaving it as a flawed experience when played in single player. Konami’s series has always been predominantly a game built for solo play and few of its fans have desired for it to be anything more than this.

The game is still recognizable as a Castlevania title. So you still journey through the titular castle, hacking up monsters, finding treasure and solving puzzles, though the addition of a half hour time limit to do all this is somewhat at odds with the exploration facet of the series, putting an unfamiliar pressure on fans who were previously accustomed to taking time to uncover all of Castlevania’s secrets.

It’s not as bad as it could have been, though, as you’re able to zoom out to see the level layout, easing navigation through the complex stages. Half an hour is a reasonable enough limit too, although many fans will be disappointed that they aren’t able to always explore the stages at their leisure.

This may be the first stage boss, but it doesn't stop the nasty creature from killing you a lot when you're playing on your own.

Others will find a lot of replay value in trying to better their time and scores to climb the online leaderboards and with just 6 stages on offer, such betterment, the hard mode and the lure of finding all the items will keep many people coming back to the game, even once they’ve vanquished Dracula.

There are some omissions too: the RPG elements introduced in Symphony of the Night have been stripped back, so you no longer gain exp from defeating enemies, resulting in eventual level ascension. Instead, some of the characters magical proficiency can be increased by liberal use of spells, whilst most other stat increases just come about by purchasing or finding more proficient weapons and armour, of which can only be equipped at certain points within stages and not even prior to beginning a level, which, whilst a bit of an odd design choice, is merely a niggle and far from being a big issue.

Worse than this is the lack of checkpoints, there’s nothing more frustrating than reaching a boss, only to die and in the process possibly losing 25 minutes or so of progress, and it’s this that makes it such an unwelcome game for solo play, though the fact that you retain all your gold and items obtained in the stage after you die or you run out of time is welcome and means even failure often gives you a fairly good sense of progression, giving you the chance to purchase and equip sharper weapons and more robust armour for subsequent attempts.

Castlevania: Harmony of Despair features five playable characters, all of which hail from previous games in the series; it’s almost like some sort of Castlevania celebration party. So we halve Alucard from Symphony of the Night, Jonathon Morris and Charlotte Aulin from Portrait of Ruin, Shanoa from Order of Eclessia and Soma Cruz from Aria of Sorrow. Some long time fans will be disappointed that there isn’t any characters from the series’ earliest days, though there’s a chance that this will be remedied with future DLC.

Each of the characters brings with them their respective abilities, which grants a diverse range of styles to the game and there’s sure to be a character to suit the taste of just about anyone. Soma can capture monster souls to summon them, whilst Alucard can shift form and both characters can utilize all weapons, whilst the two female characters of Charlotte Aulin and Shanoa strengths lie primarily in their use of magic and so on. There are some optional areas that only certain characters can get to, allowing you to obtain treasure or discover areas that allow you to open shortcuts up for others.

Whether fans like it or not Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is designed around online co-op and it actually functions better than one might imagine it would. It’s compatible with up to 6 players and playing it at full capacity is actually a bit messy, particularly if all 6 players opt to stick together, though unless you’re facing off against a boss it’s not often a co-op game where sticking together is encouraged and splitting up to find all the treasure is an effective method of getting through a level quickly, but true co-op is rarely required. Sometimes you may come across a puzzle that requires more than one player, but largely you’re not punished severely for going off and doing your own thing.

The stages may currently be few in number, but they're well designed and mastering all their layout to find all the secrets or to achieve a good time will take multiple runs.

Opening treasure chests in multiplayer will get everyone an item (unless it’s a water of life) which prevents the greedy people from looting entire levels from top to bottom and leaving everyone else with nothing in their pockets. Dying on the other hand will leave a player in skeleton form, but by using water of life on their gravestone, other players can bring them back from the dead which alleviates the problem of the lack of checkpoints of the single player experience. Two players standing within close approximation to one another can perform a dual crush, a powerful attack that can be a key tactic in taking down some of the bosses.

With survival, there’s a competitive mode too, of which sees you taking on other players to be the last man standing, but this is weak and wholly unsatisfying as the game simply doesn’t have a strong enough combat system to accommodate a mode designed solely around fighting each other.

Rounding out the online options is a replay system, which allows you to save replays of your runs through stages or download and watch those of others, which is useful if you’re planning a speed-run through a level and want to see how the top players achieved such a seemingly impossible time and such, or are just looking for some useful tactics to employ against bosses.

Some Castlevania fans will be cynical of Castlevania: Harmony of Despair’s multiplayer focus, but if they keep an open mind and give it some time, they might actually find that it brings an interesting and enjoyable new twist to the series. Not every fan is going to like what’s been done to their beloved Castlevania formula, though, particularly those who are looking for nothing more than a traditional single player entry in the series.

Few will be able to argue, however, that this is the freshest that the conventional Castlevania framework has felt in years, and perhaps there’s even enough changes here for some that previously weren’t fans of the series to come away impressed with this reworking of Konami’s franchise.