If it feels like you've played Castlevania: Harmony of Despair before, you're not alone. From the eerily familiar name to the hodgepodge of recognizable characters, there's a sense that you've been there and done that. Even the game's graphics and sound are reminiscent of recent installments. But don't let your eyes deceive you, because Konami is taking Castlevania in an entirely new direction.
At its core, Harmony of Despair is the combination of a classic 2D Castlevania game and a Diablo-style dungeon crawler. This is a six player game that rewards players for grinding through levels multiple times, picking up loot, earning more money and taking down bosses with friends. Don't come to this new Xbox Live Arcade game looking for a traditional single-player Castlevania adventure. What we're left with is an interesting experiment that mostly works.
The obvious change comes with multiplayer, something not normally equated with the Castlevania brand. This is a huge change that affects the way the developers tackled everything from level designs, to weapons to the many large bosses. While gamers can still beat each of the game's levels as a solo player, the game is really set up so that six players can work together to rid each chapter of evil.
Instead of a large world to open up and explore, Harmony of Despair features six bite-sized chapters. These six chapters feature a large map to navigate, tons of treasure chests to track down and a multi-part boss fight at the end. But don't feel like there's time to leisurely explore these labyrinthine levels, because players are always under the thumb of the time limit. Because these levels are so large, players will find themselves returning to the chapters over and over again looking for rare loot.
Right from the start gamers have the choice of five familiar characters: Alucard (Symphony of the Night), Soma Cruz (Aria of Sorrow), Shanoa (Order of Ecclesia), Jonathan Morris and Charlotte Aulin (both from Portrait of Ruin). Each character uses different weapons, has different fighting styles and uses different special items. It's a lot of fun going through levels already played through with brand new characters; players will find that each of these fighters has a purpose.
I was impressed by the diversity of each chapter. Not only are the backgrounds wildly different from one level to the next, they also play out in surprising ways. In one level gamers are in an underground cavern fighting a boss that is literally half the size of the entire map. In the next chapter, players use paintings to teleport their way through a gigantic mansion. The game becomes only more impressive with each passing level.
Castlevania has always been one of those games in which players are asked to keep switching between the in-game map and the action. In Harmony of Despair, Konami has managed to incorporate this into the actual gameplay. At any time in the game, players can fill their widescreen TVs with the entire map while still hacking and slashing their way to the boss. Of course, players won't want to do this for long, because unless they have a 200 inch television, they're never going to be able to see their teeny tiny character. Thankfully, there's a happy medium between the map view and the traditional close up. Gamers can zoom out to see only a few screens at once, which allows them to better navigate their way through these challenging mazes.
Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is a multiplayer game first and a single-player game second. This is a daring twist on a tried and true franchise, one that may split a lot of gamers. The good news is that this experiment mostly works, even if it comes at the expense of a proper single-player mode.
This product was submitted by the publisher for review. As a rule, Defunct Games does not review games we spent money on. However, that does not always apply to classic/retro games. This specific product, however, came straight from a PR guy for the purposes of being reviewed!