The Castlevania series has long been a favourite with gamers, with its classic 2D landscape filled with lavish interiors, unique bosses and the customary end fight with the big man himself (no not God, Dracula!). Although it can be accused of being a somewhat stale experience these days, from the outset with Harmony of Despair it’s clear Konami were looking to shake up things up. After all, you can’t get much more removed from the usual solitary experience than to re-frame it within a multiplayer one and while Harmony of Despair can be played solo, the game actively encourages co-operative play.
Comprising of six chapters, each with a boss to defeat at the end, gone is the languid, take-your-time approach which certainly won’t cut any ice here. Now a strict, thirty minute time limit is imposed on each chapter, so even when the player is rummaging through the item menu, the clock is mercilessly ticking away and forcing things along.
With no levelling up mechanic to aid the player, the focus is entirely on the procurement of loot and aiming to improve the weapons, items and magic abilities of whatever character you choose. This can be a major grind to begin with, as the spoils the player acquires are purely random. Thankfully when multiple items start to become a nuisance, the ability to sell them at the in-game shop means they won`t be lumbered with them for long.
Graphically Harmony of Despair isn’t much to shout about, with a distinctly low-resolution appearance and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if it was revealed that the assets were culled directly from the various Nintendo DS titles. By way of small compensation, there is an excellent selection of Guitar tracks to accompany the on-screen action and these will doubtless cause many to nudge up the dial on their amps as they battle their way through the chapters, throwing up the devil horns in-between bouts of demon slaying.
There are five different characters to choose from all corners of the Castlevania lineage. Most players will be drawn towards series stalwarts such as Alucard or Jonathon, but different areas in chapters are full of handy short-cuts that will favour things like Shanoa’s ability to grapple onto points, whereas another character is required to hoof halfway across the map.
With this in mind, the player will start to see the wisdom in the approach that series producer, Koji Igarashi, has adopted for Harmony of Despair. The pared back focus on action, which forces players to work together via Xbox Live, is an interesting concept but the change in direction brings about one or two issues. Depending on how a group is made up, it’s not unusual to find a player who is incredibly powerful going full steam ahead and wiping out a boss single-handedly while others have barely got to grips with their surroundings (let alone found the path towards said boss encounter). Once each level is completed a hard mode is unlocked to provide a stiffer challenge, and some will enjoy the thrill of having someone “complete�? the game for them, but ultimately this sort of experience feels hollow and deeply unsatisfying since a brief play session might not actually accomplishing anything, bar raising the amount of coin in your purse. Thankfully there is a lot of fun to be had in the combined search for new and unique items, feeding into that primordial lust to collect better loot.
What really stands out as a great addition to the franchise is the unique manner in which the player can see exactly where to go. With a speedy click-in of the right stick, the entire chapter layout is displayed and, if the players wishes, the game can be played entirely from this viewpoint (doubtless doing their eyesight an irreparable amount of damage in the process). Such an elegant way of displaying the map without pausing the action will hopefully be retained in future Castlevania releases.
Even though it’s failed to generate a great deal of excitement, Castlevania Harmony of Despair can be a lot of fun with the right group of friends over Xbox Live. For the asking price it does seem a bit light on content and ultimately leaves you with the feeling that this will be used as little more than a gateway to DLC. This is even more apparent since with a bit more thought, variety, and (above all) care, it could have produced something really special.