Castlevania: Harmony of Despair Review

By Scott Alan Marriott - Posted Aug 02, 2010

Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is not the 2D sequel to Symphony of the Night that Castlevania fans have been clamoring for, but it is a fresh approach to a series that has been remarkably predictable since the PlayStation's pitch-perfect Symphony of the Night. However, if you're planning on purchasing the game solely for its single-player content, you're probably going to be disappointed.

The Pros
  • Entertaining co-op action for up to six players
  • Deep character customization through equipment, magic, and skill acquisitions
  • Challenging, fast-paced gameplay
  • Six playable protagonists from previous Castlevania games
The Cons
  • Pixelated visual style goes for a retro feel instead of a modern take
  • Some may lament the lack of continues or extra lives
  • No story elements or leveling from earlier titles

First things first: Harmony of Despair is not a follow-up to Symphony of the Night on Xbox Live Arcade. Not even close. There's no storyline. You don't earn experience points to gain levels. There are six separate castle layouts instead of one, and everything is fully revealed from the start, so there's little exploration or sense of wonder while making your way through the various rooms. You're also now working against a 30-minute clock instead of taking it slow and steady. Harmony of Despair's focus is not on the single-player adventure, but rather on cooperative play with up to six sword-swinging, whip-wielding, glyph-gathering protagonists from previous Castlevania games.

Castlevania: Harmony of Despair

Driving You Batty

The goal in each of the game's six stages is to vanquish the castle's boss creature before time expires. If you die or time runs out, the game ends, and it's back to square (or room) one. Solo players will have a particularly challenging time the first few runs through a level, as you'll kill a good portion of the enemies, activate all the necessary switches to access the boss area, invariably die during the climactic fight, and have to do it all over again. Yet your trips are not wasted, since you are continuously collecting money to purchase helpful goods (such as health potions or a new weapon), opening chests to receive attribute-enhancing items, and noticing new things or secrets that you might have overlooked before. It's punishing and addictive at the same time.

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Hunting Party

The online only co-op mode is structured the same way as the single-player game, and your characters will retain all acquired items and money when moving back and forth between modes. While the layouts for all six levels are identical in both the single-player and co-op modes, the monsters in co-op mode scale in difficulty depending on the number of players on your team. Another distinctive feature in co-op play is the ability to revive fallen teammates with the "water of life," found in blue chests. In the single-player mode, blue chests simply offer a random item.

Other co-op features include the following: using a health potion gives everyone in the vicinity a boost, and if one person opens a chest, everyone receives a random item as if they opened it themselves. If you die in the single-player mode, the level ends, but in co-op, the victim turns into a skeleton that can walk around and even inflict minor damage by flinging bones. It's certainly more interesting than waiting around for someone to revive you, although your team will incur significant time penalties if you keep dying and reviving as a skeleton.

Unsurprisingly, levels are much easier with friends. Multiple players can cover more ground, since each character is placed at different starting points within the castle. In single-player, of course, you have to do all the work yourself. The single-player mode also involves a lot of grinding to overcome your weak starting equipment. Yet if your heart skips a beat whenever you find a distinctive new weapon, piece of armor, or spell, then the loot system will be one of the game's biggest selling points. There are also the added incentives of beating your previous score, moving up the leaderboards, posting video replays of your best runs, and seeing how your character fares in the competitive "survival" mode against rival players.



Back to Basics

To support the six-player simultaneous action, the game's presentation makes some sacrifices. The entire castle layout can be viewed on a single screen, making everything tiny as if you were staring at a Castlevania-equivalent of an ant farm. You will alternate from this view and two levels of zoom by clicking down on the right analog stick. The closest viewpoint is where you'll spend the most time while playing, but it's not without its drawbacks. You can almost count the pixels on each character, and the animation isn't nearly as fluid as it could be on the system. Think of Harmony of Despair's look as a retro-style throwback than a modern-day reboot.

While the game's design may have changed, the play mechanics have remained essentially the same. You'll still slash at candlesticks and chandeliers, scale heights by perfecting the double jump, slay creatures such as zombies, mermen, and bone skeletons, and outfit your hero with offbeat equipment like fedoras or ponchos. Each of the game's six levels borrows elements from previous Castlevanias, and you'll encounter 45 monster types in total, not including the six bosses. There are also multiple routes to your destination, and the castles are filled with levers, traps, portals, and other mysterious contraptions to keep things interesting even after you've figured out the most direct path to the boss.

Castlevania: Harmony of Despair

Fangtastic Fun

What looks on the surface to be a significantly scaled-down version of Castlevania is actually quite deep. By stripping away nearly all of the downtime associated with inventory management, map viewing, and stat monitoring, the developers have kept the action moving at a brisk clip. Yet the diversity in equipment, spells, weapons, and character-specific techniques is what keeps you coming back, as you'll never know what's lurking within a particular treasure chest. Completing all six levels also unlocks a "hard" setting that truly lives up to its billing, enhancing the replay value even further. Harmony of Despair's break from tradition will not appeal to everyone, but if you like your castle-climbing and boss-battling mixed in with a dash of Diablo, this multiplayer offshoot is a definite (crypt) keeper.