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Castlevania: Harmony of Despair
It's nice to see the Castlevania series trying something new after so many years of successful-yet-similar hits, but this one isn't the masterpiece you might have been expecting
- Amazing 2D pixel graphics and artwork, main characters feel like they were lifted straight out of their respective games, co-op play can be surprisingly fun, but only under the right circumstances
- Solo play is soul-crushingly difficult, six-player teamwork gets too easy, an incredibly steep difficulty curve, unbalanced bosses, severe repetition, overall confusing design
Konami's iconic whip-slinging side-scroller sees a retro-inspired series throwback in this multiplayer Xbox Live Arcade iteration, but sadly falls victim to unbalanced gameplay, a steep difficulty curve, and some confusing design choices.
Looking back, I'm not really sure what I expected from Castlevania: Harmony of Despair. Online multiplayer has been uncharted territory for the series so far, especially since the "Metroidvania" gameplay is so well ingrained as a single-player device. However, if there is a magic formula for integrating online play into the classic Konami series, Harmony of Despair isn't it.
Unlike the rest of Xbox Live's "Summer of Arcade" lineup, Castlevania: HD doesn't really feel like a complete game, even if you ignore the fact that it takes little more than a few hours to beat the six levels that are offered here. Unlike most Castlevania titles, HD has no story and no character development whatsoever. There's no central plot guiding your actions, no tutorials to be found, and very little voice acting or hilariously heavy-handed dialogue. At the start, you're given only a whip (or sword), a huge, confusing map, and a ticking clock.
Each of the six levels is a mash-up of rooms from numerous other Castlevania titles, with tons of classic enemies filling the corridors of each map. Throughout the game, you'll have the option of choosing from five Castlevania series protagonists -- Jonathan Morris, Soma Cruz, Alucard, Shanoa, or Charlotte Aulin -- each with their own abilities tailored to represent the way they played in their respective games. At face value, everything in Harmony of Despair is crafted with extensive detail in the series' trademark 2D pixel artwork, and when first taking in the full scope of all the fine details, it's incredibly impressive.
But over the course of my time with it, Castlevania HD's flaws became more and more pronounced. While it looks and sounds like Castlevania on the surface, the entire experience is crippled by odd design choices and poorly implemented features that are very un-Castlevania-like.
For example, in most Castlevania games, character progression is based on experience, which you gain from slaying any creature you come across. Moreover, it's a basic RPG element that's been a series staple. Not only does it constantly reward you for re-treading previously covered ground, but it gives the player the consistent feeling of becoming more powerful with every step. Harmony of Despair throws the first curve ball by eliminating this feature altogether -- you can only raise your character's stats by collecting weapons, armour, and other loot from the treasure chests scattered across every map.
This is incredibly frustrating. When you first start playing Castlevania HD, you'll collect a lot of the same weak loot over and over again, which makes the single-player game a nightmare. It takes at least a few repetitions of the first two maps to get a decent armoury built up, and the in-game shop offers little help beyond a quick way to fill your pockets by selling piles of useless junk. When you join up with some friends, the loot gets a little bit better (everybody gets something regardless of who's opening the treasure chests), but you'll fall right back into a painful grind-fest the minute you go back to adventuring alone.
Unless you know the Castlevania series like the back of your hand, gaining new abilities isn't much easier. In fact, I had completely forgotten that Charlotte could absorb and learn enemy magic with her spiritual shield until I saw one of my teammates doing it -- and that's because the game made no effort to remind me. In this sense, Castlevania HD seems like it's built for people who have memorised the previous games' instructions booklets, which meant that the newcomers on my teams had no idea how to collect Shanoa's Glyphs, or how to strengthen Alucard's "Summon Spirit" ability.
All of these problems are capped off by the six levels, each of which are punctuated by boss fights that are ridiculously tough alone, yet disappointingly easy with even a moderately powered-up team. Enemies do get stronger with more characters on the map, but the overall change is so minor it's almost insignificant. Every one of the six "chapters" in the game is a labyrinth, made up of multiple rooms with secret compartments and dead ends. Navigating each map isn't a huge problem if you have a competent team voice chatting directions to each other, although you will have to make multiple trips through each section in order to plot a route that makes the best use of your time.
By myself, it took about ten to twelve hours to get through the game, due in equal parts to the soul crushing difficulty curve and constantly running out of time to scour the different levels. Repetition set in early on, and each area wound up feeling like an absolute chore to get through, even when I eventually figured out the best path to take. Perhaps the only times I actually enjoyed the maze-like levels were when I hooked up with overpowered teams that could blast through entire sections with the precision and speed of a black ops unit.
But even the six-player fun doesn't last very long, as the lethargic solo-play turns into a sugar-high series of beat-downs that barely last more than an hour. It's frustrating that there's so little balance to Castlevania HD -- it's either way too hard or way too easy, and once you've bested Death and Dracula, there's no reason to go back. Even the free-for-all versus mode feels tacked on and shallow, and if you played it once, you've seen everything that it has to offer.
If this played anything like a normal Castlevania game, I'd be much happier with the straightforward approach. Don't get me wrong -- it's nice to see the Castlevania series trying something new after so many years of successful-yet-similar hits, but this one isn't the masterpiece you might have been expecting. Harmony of Despair is a beautiful achievement, but the poor gameplay and frustrating design is a huge stain on an otherwise colourful canvas.
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