As soon as Castlevania: Harmony of Despair (HD) was announced, I knew I would be purchasing it, regardless of the price. Now, some of you may point to that statement and call my objectivity in reviewing the game into question. Allow me to reassure you that I will be completely objective by asking you to keep in mind the heartache caused by the crushing of a man’s hopes and dreams.
Thankfully, the matter of purchasing Castlevania: HD never came up. Konami graciously provided early review codes to various reviewers on Thursday, and we were one of the lucky few.
Before starting this review, let me make it perfectly clear that my hopes and dreams are still intact. Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is everything I had hoped for, and more. Aside from Order of Ecclesia, I’ve played all of the Castlevania titles that contributed characters and more to Harmony of Despair. With the familiar character design, musical style, gameplay, level design, enemy design, etc., Harmony of Despair fits right in with its predecessors, and carries on the proud legacy of Symphony of the Night.
What sets Harmony of Despair apart, however, is its ability to interact with players around the world via Xbox Live. Before we get to the multi-player modes, I want to talk about the built-in Xbox Live leaderboards function. For each permutation (mode, difficulty, level, etc), there is a separate leaderboard. These leaderboards can be filtered three ways: Friends, My Score, and Overall. Friends compares your score to your Xbox Live friends scores only. My Score compares your score to all scores for that permutation. Overall lists all scores for that permutation whether you have logged a score or not. This may not seem like anything special, as there are quite a few XBLA games with leaderboards. The truly special function of the leaderboards is the ability to download saved gameplay videos from other players. I was having a bit of trouble with Chapter 5, and the saved gameplay video I was able to download from the leaderboards helped me get around a tight spot.
I tried my hardest to transfer my gameplay videos from my Xbox 360 to my PC for this review, but I was unable to find a way to do so.
The true draw for most players, however, will be the multi-player modes. With my day-job and our appearance on Central Valley Buzz taking up most of my Friday, and our One Love for Chi blogathon taking up all of my Saturday (and part of my Sunday), I was unable to experience any of the multi-player modes, so my ability to review them is dreadfully limited. The co-op mode allows up to six players to tackle each of the six chapters together, either by means of a quick-match (matchmaking, essentially), or an Xbox Live party. The second multi-player mode, Survival, pits up to six players against each other in a battle royale where the last man (or woman) standing is victorious over his (or her) peers. Both modes sound highly entertaining, and I can’t wait to try them out.
The game consists of six levels, called chapters. Some of these chapters take longer than the others (I’m looking at you, Chapter 3), but all of them have a 30 minute time limit in place (I finished Chapter 3 with 51 seconds to spare). There are no checkpoints in these levels. If you die, you exit to the menu where your items, kills, and loot are calculated and added to your totals. You can then choose to start the level again from scratch. This can be very frustrating at times, especially when the path to the level boss is ridiculously long and fraught with danger, but it does increase the challenge and the feeling of accomplishment that accompanies a victory. It also increases the number of times I have to take a break to prevent smashing my controller. Each level can be beaten in single-player mode, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It may be more difficult in single-player mode, but it is far from impossible. There are certain areas of the levels, however, that are impossible to access or reach without multi-player assistance, since the levels are identical in both single-player and multi-player modes. I’m sure that defeating each level is much easier with assistance, as well.
The map system is new to the Castlevania series, with three zoom levels. Each level starts fully zoomed out, showing you the entire level, which is extremely useful when trying to plan out your progress through a map. Pushing in the right joystick brings you in to the second zoom level, which shows a good portion of the space around you, allowing you to see what’s coming up ahead more easily. Pushing in the right joystick again brings you to the final zoom level, which is where most gameplay occurs. This final zoom level is about what you’d expect, showing you the immediate surroundings in more detail.
The graphics are in the same vein as previous 2D sidescrolling Castlevania titles. It reminds me most of Portrait of Ruin (as I mentioned, I have not played Order of Ecclesia, so I can’t say if it looks anything like that). I loved the look of Portrait of Ruin, so I love the look of Harmony of Despair. The music is everything you’d expect from Castlevania. I want to stick the soundtrack on my iPhone and listen to it on my way to and from work, it’s that damn good. The gameplay reminds me of Portrait of Ruin as well, minus the dual character feature of that game (which is obviously available in multi-player modes).
I do have a few complaints about the game, however.
My one major complaint about the multi-player modes is that a local co-op mode was excluded, which is something I have found in far too many games lately. I enjoy playing games with my wife, but more often than not, we find ourselves unable to play online split-screen co-op. I can understand why it was left out in this game, due to the map zoom function mentioned earlier in the review, but I’m still disappointed.
My major complaint regarding gameplay is movement speed. Even without the 30 minute time limit lending a sense of urgency to the gameplay, the character movement speed is slower than I would like. Chapter 3, which has long horizontal stretches, gets kind of boring if you find yourself having to go back and forth across the map. There are also fewer character development options compared to previous games. Character leveling is done away with, restricting character upgrades solely to equipment purchased or equipment scavenged/looted.
My final complaint is character balance. I played as Jonathan Morris, from Portrait of Ruin, inheritor of the Vampire Killer whip made famous by the Belmont family. There are functions the whip provides that I find invaluable. Unfortunately, the whip can not be swapped for other weapons, and the attack power of the whip remains low throughout the game. I started a new game as Alucard after finishing with Jonathan, and noticed that by the end of the third level, my attacks were doing four times the damage that Jonathan’s attacks were doing in the endgame. If you’re going to play Survival mode against other players, make sure you play as a fully equipped Alucard, and not as Jonathan Morris. Playing as Alucard is like playing on God mode. Playing as Jonathan is like playing on God-this-is-more-difficult-than-getting-my-wife-to-admit-she-is-wrong-about-anything-which-is-really-god-damn-hard…mode. That being said, when I look at the leaderboards, and I see myself in the Top 5-10 on later levels as Jonathan Morris, while 99% of the rest of them are Alucard, it gives me a huge rush of pride knowing that I scored so well with so difficult a character.
Like every game, Castlevania: Harmony of Despair has its faults. The true test of a great game is whether or not those faults mar the experience as a whole. In this case, the faults are minor enough to be easily ignored, and the game can still be enjoyed immensely in spite of them.
This is Castlevania. I can give it no higher praise than that.
Castlevania: Harmony of Despair hits Xbox Live Arcade Marketplace on Wednesday, August 4th at the low price of 1200 MSP. DLC may be available in the future, depending on sales. I want more Castlevania. Buy this game so I can have DLC.
-[insert MANKIND ILL NEEDS A SAVIOR SUCH AS YOU! here]