On paper, Castlevania: Harmony of Despair sounds like a dream. A Castlevania game with six-player co-op, bringing together an all-star cast from the "Metroidvania" style titles, all rendered in glorious high-definition sprites. Sounds perfect, doesn't it? What could go wrong?
A surprising amount, apparently.
Castlevania HD is by no means a bad game, but it is one of the most contradictory, unintuitive and downright confusing XBLA games ever made. Even as I write this introduction, I am struggling to recall how much of the game was fun, and how much was a repetitive, grinding chore. Once I've worked that out, I still won't know if the fun parts were worth the absurdly demanding work that has to be put into it.
Read on for the full of Castlevania: Harmony of Despair, in any case.
Castlevania: Harmony of Despair (Xbox Live Arcade)
Harmony of Despair appears to have no story whatsoever. It's never explained how the six playable characters meet, and the game's six chapters (based on previous Castlevania games) seem to have no relation to each other. Castlevania HD has a very arcade feel to it, and makes no attempt to be cohesive or structured in any way. If you're looking for plot, you won't find it here. If you just want to be dropped into the action with no questions asked, then this game certainly does the trick.
Each chapter has one objective -- kill the boss. As players wend their merry way through sprawling 2D maps full of frustrating enemies, spike traps, and swinging platforms that require adjusted timing due to how sluggish the characters move, they work their way toward a boss room, where they'll fight a classic villain from a previous game. As you may have already noticed, there is a lot of recycling in this game. Enemies, characters, items and even backgrounds are rehashed from previous titles, although the HD lick of paint is welcome.
Make no bones about it, though -- if you play this game in single player, then expect to die ... a LOT. Harmony of Despair is one of the most brutal Castlevania games I've played, and easily the toughest of all the Metroidvania-era games. Unfortunately, however, most of the challenge isn't through well-designed difficulty, but through artificially manufactured retro tactics and ludicrous bosses that scale their difficulty in bizarre and convoluted ways.
The difficulty is all over the place, with some later levels being easier than earlier ones. The Chapter Two boss especially is one of the cheapest fights I've ever had the misfortune of experiencing. The more players there are, the more HP these bosses have, which means that some of the tougher monsters really need two players instead of six in order to be beaten. The game is nigh impossible with one player, and almost as insurmountable with six players. Two to three appears to be the sweet spot, and that makes no sense.
The difficulty can be somewhat combated, but the method in which one does so might turn away some players in and of itself. I am, of course, talking about grinding. Unlike previous Metroidvania games, characters don't level up, but they do get to equip better armor and weapons, and some characters can earn a variety of spells which get stronger the more they're used. Unfortunately, collecting loot isn't as much fun in Castlevania HD as it is in real RPGs, mostly because the loot is thoroughly useless most of the time. Monsters only drop items once in a blue moon, and even when they do, it'll usually be a piece of food that generates about 5% of the player's health. The lobby's shop never seems to update either, so players eventually amass tons of gold with nothing to spend it on.
To its credit, there is some notable stuff that Castlevania HD does right. The six characters are all incredibly varied and their abilities are preserved from the original games they debuted in. For instance, Alucard can change his form, while Soma Cruz can capture monster abilities and Shanoa is able to catapult herself from special hooks. The characters complement each other well, and picking a good combination can get the team through a level quicker. There are a few sections where players can co-operate with simple puzzles, too, reaching treasure chests with rarer items inside.
I also really quite like the map system, whereby the player clicks the right stick to zoom the entire game out and see a whole level. Chapters can even be played this way, although characters are so small it's hardly recommended. It's still a great way to keep track of other players and co-ordinate movements.
Planning ahead before fighting a boss is rewarded in some cases. For instance, the first boss stamps through the floor at one point, dropping players into a pit full of monsters. However, players can enter the pit before the fight, clearing out all the monsters so that when the floor caves in, the boss is left on its own. Quite a few of the levels are designed around making boss fights less frustrating, although even with careful planning, they're still damn hard to beat.
It should be noted that the game is dreadful at providing player feedback. It gives you no direction on how to use each of the characters, and most players will be forced to rely on memory, recalling how each character worked in their original games. Most strategies and abilities in the game are stumbled upon by accident, and the menu system is ridiculously unintuitive as well. As an example, in order to equip your character before a chapter, you have to select "Main Menu." Most reasonable players would assume that Main Menu would back them out of the lobby, but it does not. Little, weird things like that are part and parcel of the confusing and ill-thought-out experience.
Did I mention there's no proper drop-in/drop-out co-op options, either? No way to hop into a friend's game to help them out on the fly? There's none of that, and in a game that already feels archaic and unintuitive, such an option was needed.
You'll be thrilled to know that the game is also very short, especially when compared to previous games in the series. With only six chapters that have a time limit of thirty minutes, there is very little content, and when you consider that so much of the content is recycled from older titles anyway, the brevity of the title paints a very sour picture indeed. Of course, you'll be stuck replaying chapters so many times, either to grind or because you died, that the running time is bumped up, but I'd prefer a game to be long because it was designed well, not because of inflated difficulty.
There's a versus mode thrown in to try and provide some variety, where up to six players can simply beat each other up and collect food items that randomly spawn. While a fun idea in theory, it's little more than a button mashing frenzy that gets very old very quickly. If you happened to grind more than your opponents, it's also an incredibly imbalanced fight that becomes boring whether or not you're on the winning side.
Castlevania: Harmony of Despair looks gorgeous and has some cool ideas, but ultimate it feels like Castlevania Lite -- a stripped down version of a real Castlevania game with none of the depth or clever design. This series has always had difficult games, but the "challenge" in Harmony of Despair feels artificial and lazy. Any game can do what HoD does and call itself a "hardcore" title, and ultimately the kind of fake challenge presented in this title just isn't all that enjoyable.
Don't get me wrong, Harmony of Despair is fun enough and the grinding can become strangely addictive, but this is a shadow of a Castlevania game. The only thing it truly excels at is making one want to play the DS titles again. Hardcore Castlevania fans will get something out of it, but you'll be missing very little if you pass this game up.
Score: 6.0 -- Alright (6s may be slightly above average or simply inoffensive. Fans of the genre should enjoy them a bit, but a fair few will be left unfulfilled.)