Since 1986, gamers have been obsessed with the exploits of the vampire hunting Belmont clan. There have been over 30 games in the Castlevania series, although not much has changed. 3D excursions aside, the series has utilized the same mix of difficult platforming and combat, both of which rely on some trial-and-error and level memorization. With few exceptions, the series has always stuck to its guns (or rather, whips), refusing to adapt to the casual push; one of the reasons fans have held the series in the highest regard. It’s because of this that the release of Castlevania: Harmony of Despair, a “traditional” Xbox Live Arcade installment of the series, has almost overshadowed the upcoming Hideo Kojima reboot. It’s obvious that much of the excitement was woefully misplaced.
At first, it would appear as though the game is a classic Castlevania adventure. The visuals certainly look to be right in line with Symphony of the Night, albeit scaled up to the HD generation, and the $15 price point would lead many to believe that Konami had prepared a fairly elaborate game for the Xbox Live Arcade. Instead, Harmony of Despair is like a secondary mode to a full game that doesn’t exist.
Players are thrown into large levels filled with Castlevania enemies and asked to fight until they reach the boss, all the while being conscious of a timer ticking down. You have 30-minutes to loot treasure and defeat the boss before you are sent back to the main menu of that stage. There is no story, just six big levels full of enemies and capped with bosses that, when faced alone, are nearly impossible to defeat. There are quite a few secrets to uncover, alternate pathways, and treasures that require solid coordination among multiple players to loot, but six levels is a joke.
The inclusion of multiplayer is a key departure for Harmony of Despair. Up to six players don the roles of five previous Castlevania protagonists – Soma Cruz, Alucard, Jonathan Morris, Charlotte Aulin, and Shanoa – leaving two people to use the same character (until unlocking a sixth or buying future DLC). Surely Konami could have pulled Nathan Graves (Circle of the Moon) or Juste Belmont (Harmony of Dissonance) out of retirement. Regardless, each character is suitably unique, with Morris able to learn martial arts attacks, Shanoa’s use of Magnes, Soma’s absorbtion of souls, etc.
Banding together to take on Dracula’s minions brings a new dimension to the series while retaing the classic elements of exploration. It’s best to pretend that playing solo isn’t an option. Some bosses are nigh-impossible to defeat alone. For example: Puppet Master moves about the stage to put puppets in iron maidens. Fail to stop him and your character takes the place of the puppet, and likely dies in the process. Obviously, it’s best to have multiple players, each stationed at iron maidens, since there are situations when traversing the stage in time isn’t feasible.
There is no leveling system, as there was in Symphony of the Night and other recent entries. Instead, gear takes precedence, which offers bonuses such as higher attack-values and resistances, and esoteric abilities, such as becoming invisible. Sub-weapons, including thrown axes, grenades, and homing paper airplanes are the only items that gain levels with persistent use. The emphasis on gear and grinding has a dual-effect. On one hand, there are plenty of collectibles for gear junkies who don’t mind scouring levels repeatedly in hopes of finding rarities. On the other hand, players looking for a straightforward adventure are likely to be burdened by the need for repetition.
Consumables, including potions and food, are a sore spot, since they need to be equipped before they can be used. Your equipment can only be adjusted from specific points in each stage, and poorly designed inventory screens make the process of equipping and using items needlessly frustrating – especially for an item that might only replenish 1/8th of the character’s health. Other elements of the game aren’t well explained, and require the player to fail over and over again instead of including a basic tutorial.
The entire game can be completed in under an hour with an organized team, although a Hard difficulty will test the skills of the most devoted fans. Beyond that, there is nothing to keep players’ interests past an initial run. Downloadable content is expected, but there is hardly enough in the original package to be considered a full game. Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is a lackluster outing that fails to uphold the reputation of the series, but has no qualms about cashing in on the name.