When Konami announced they were bringing a new 2D Castlevania game to Xbox Live Arcade as part of the services’ Summer of Arcade, many gamers got pumped. It had been a long time since console gamers have had a chance to step into the shoes of the Belmont family. Little did we know that Konami had something entirely different in store for us. Harmony of Despair may look like every other 2D Dracula-hunting entry in the series, but what is here is an entirely new take on the series. Focusing more on grinding, replaying and gathering friends together this latest outing definitely sets itself apart from the rest of the franchise.
The concept is simple; you choose one of several characters and are dropped into a decent-sized castle to defeat the boss. There are no continues or checkpoints and you have a time limit in which to complete the level. The idea here is that you will learn each castle intricately and be able to scale it in record time, hence the addition of online leaderboards. When going it solo the only hope of survival is grinding. Akin to games such as Dead Rising and Demon’s Souls you will have to play the same level over and over to earn more gold and items. This may sound tedious but it also gives you a sense of accomplishment when your new weapon deals out ten times the damage as your starting one.
Of course seeing as the game supports it; it is no surprise that co-op play is definitely the way to go. In fact if you intend to play the game entirely by yourself I cannot recommend picking it up. It is just designed to be experienced with a group of friends that are willing to work together. Once you get a good group and learn how everything works, it is definitely one of the most enjoyable experiences on the service. One of the biggest reasons for this is a lack of explanation. Every character has special moves but the game never bothers to explain any of it to you.
With six characters and six castles to conquer there is quite a bit here to keep you occupied, if you like repetition that is. Everything in the game requires trial and error learning and plenty of grinding to find more loot. There is no traditional level-up system in the game. Again if you are playing with friends this won’t bother you too much as HoD is built to be played this way. A thirty minute session of boss battling, trying to better your kill score, collect more loot and beat your previous time. This is not a game for anyone who loves exploration or taking their time. Each level forces you to get in, find a way to the boss, and get out as quickly as you can.
Going it solo also eliminates some of the more in-depth designs of the game. For instance each level is built with several areas that can be accessed by character abilities. Seeing as the game never teaches you how to do any of them, it will take playing each level numerous times before you discover all the secrets and special areas. Watching replays on the leaderboards helps a bit, but discovering them on your own is definitely satisfying. It can also be a pain trying to find five other players willing to dedicate their time to traversing the levels. Most players are out to hurry through the levels thus making exploration a non factor.
Visually the game looks like any other Castlevania 2D title we have seen in the past few years. The sprite-based look definitely stands out in high-definition. The ability to zoom the camera all the way out to view the entire map while still playing is a cool touch, but not something you will be doing all that often. It is mostly used to keep track of your co-op buddies or to view where you might need to go next. The fact that the game cannot be paused or put on hold in any fashion keeps things moving fast, and the frame rate never misses a beat. Enemy designs are ripped out of classic Castlevania games and the sounds are reminiscent of the glory days of the series as well.
Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is an interesting take on the classic formula that focuses more on teamwork and time management as opposed to exploration and leveling-up. The single player game is all but useless here unless you love repeating the same things over and over again, but when you get a solid group of players together for a six-man castle romp, things really open up. For $15 it is hard to recommend this game to anyone not planning on teaming up with their buddies, but if you have a group of Castlevania hardcores that are willing to accept the changes to the formula, there is a ton of fun to be had.
Review copy provided by publisher.