Platforms: XBLA (reviewed)... may reach PSN depending on Xbox 360 sales
Developer: Konami Digital Entertainment
Publisher: Xbox Live Arcade
The Castlevania franchise arguably peaked with Symphony of the Night. Its blend of exploration, wicked awesome music and pixel perfect platforming captured the imagination of players and critics everywhere- but where can you go from there? Each successive iteration has felt like a rehash or a gimmick... but like any long-running TV show, Castlevania has an ace up its sleeve for the low moments. A 'best of' episode.
Harmony of Despair is essentially an amalgam of every character, trap and level from several previous Castlevania titles. Each of the six sprawling stages represents a single game or series theme, with a selection of familiar enemies, backgrounds and hazards compressed into the one castle. A massive boss awaits somewhere within the labyrinthine mess- and in an interesting twist, the game shows you where it is at the very beginning of each level. Using three zoom modes, you can view each stage in its entirety... and rather than blind exploration, Harmony of Despair challenges you and five friends to chart the best route to the boss and kill it within an ever-decreasing time limit. Naturally you'll have to deal with tricky traps, perilous jumps and deadly adversaries along the way.
After blindly hacking and slashing through the rooms only to be confronted by dead ends and humiliating beatdowns, you'll start to realise that each level is an intricate clockwork mechanism. Rather than a disparate selection of self-contained rooms, each stage needs to be viewed and tackled as a single enormous puzzle- and working out the most efficient route to each boss is a brainteaser that rivals the likes of Braid and Limbo. The multiplayer focus really comes into its own here, with smart gamers teaming up to access cooperative shortcuts and secrets that you simply can't reach by yourself.
Note: This concept has already been explored by PLATFORMANCE: Castle Pain (the winner of last week's XBLIG roundup)- and for a meagre 80MSP, I'd urge you to give it a go. As proof of concept, if nothing else.
So far so good... but here comes the caveat. Harmony of Despair is hard as nails and frequently extremely cheap. You'll die a lot, and even though multiplayer deaths can be reversed by canny teammates with handy potions, the relatively small number of levels is offset by continually having to start all over again. There are no checkpoints and no quicksaves, so if you fail, it's right back to the start. This is part and parcel of the new multiplayer-centric gameplay, but it certainly won't be top everyone's taste. To sweeten the deal, every gold goin, item and piece of gear you collect will be saved even after an unsuccessful foray, allowing you to equip and improve your characters. It's an addictive mechanic that rewards your otherwise thankless grinding.
Six classic characters are at your disposal, including Jonathan Morris, Alucard (natch) and Shanoa. Each have different abilities and fighting styles that make for (with Alucard able to equip shields to block attacks and Shanoa capable of stealing enemy magic to add to her arsenal). Each character feels unique- but Harmony of Despair does an abjectly poor job of telling you exactly how to use them. You'll need plenty of experimentation or some detailed faqs in order to make the most of the roster.
As I mentioned earlier, each character has a including jump kicks, evades and unique personal flourishes... but I was genuinely surprised by the sluggish movement speed and jumping animations. Your character ambles along as if he's drunkenly wading through thick treacle- and combat feels extremely unresponsive (especially for melee-centric characters). Considering the furious attacks that even basic enemies will subject you to, the clunky inputs stop you from chaining jumps, attacks and spells together effectively. Plus, it takes ages to get anywhere.
The same multiplayer-centric focus that makes Harmony of Despair an absolute blast when teamed up with likeminded gamers unfortunately turns the singleplayer a bit of a slog. To put it mildly. Tackling even the simplest level solo requires a huge amount of trials, plenty of errors and many many deaths until you discover the path of least resistance- and it's bound to lead to frustration sooner or later. The fact that loot, money and gear stays with you after successive failures provides a good reason to bash your head against each level a few times. As a fan of RPG loot grinders and puzzle-platformers I actually adored the singleplayer exploration... but even I had to stick on a DVD on my laptop after a couple of hours just to stop myself going completely insane. Discovering how each level works and finding a clever path to the boss is just as rewarding solo as it is with friends- but many gamers simply won't appreciate the low reward to frustration ratio. Oh, and I'd recommend a magic-user for a solo run. Keep the foe at a distance.
Presentation-wise, Harmony of Despair is stylishly mediocre. The artwork is authentic and tips the wink to Castlevania's 8-bit heritage, but there's occasionally a little screen tearing and plenty of low-res recycled sprites that will disappoint longtime fans. The equipment menus and shopping GUI is finnicky and overly complicated, and the fact that you can equip all six characters individually leads to a fair amount of menu hero. Then again, you probably won't mind... because we can always rely on Castlevania to profoundly rock out. The soundtrack is an epic mashup of haunting overtones and raunchy thrashing guitar- with melodies and riffs that will stick with you for hours after laying down the controller. Crank up the volume and throw up the horns!
- Enjoyable cooperative exploration of intricate levels
- Stuffed with the best characters, enemies and obstacles of the series
- Addictive persistent character upgrades
- Grinding repetition can soon lead to frustration
- Later levels almost impossible in singleplayer
- Sluggish, unresponsive movement and jumping
The Short Version: The persistent RPG-style inventory and six-player cooperative focus are bold new additions to the Castlevania formula... but by relying on multiplayer, recycled assets and grindy gameplay, Harmony of Despair delivers a "best of" footnote to the franchise rather than a new chapter. Those who truly get it will enjoy many hours of frenetic, cerebral platforming- but it's a genuinely niche experience that's bound to split opinion right down the middle. I heartily recommend putting in some serious demo time before dropping the hefty 1200 points.