As a franchise, Castlevania has always had its strongest showing in the 2-D realm. While the upcoming Lords of Shadow holds a lot of potential, whenever people start talking about the series, it is the older titles, such as Symphony of the Night and Rondo of Blood or the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS titles that garner all the praise. It is those latter titles that form the basis for the look, if not the feel, of Castlevania: Harmony of Despair.
Debuting on Xbox Live Arcade this week as part of Microsoft's "Summer of Arcade," Harmony of Despair is the first wholly original, 2-D iteration of the series to appear on one of the current-generation consoles. Reusing art assets from the most recent DS releases, Harmony of Despair preserves a look that is distinctly Castlevania, but the gameplay is something of a divergence from the series standard, which makes for an uneven experience.
Rather than present the player with a traditional adventure, Harmony of Despair offers up a time trial challenge. Instead of exploring, the goal is to defeat the boss as quickly as possible. Points are awarded for speed as well as for a perfect run. Avoid getting hit, and you get a bonus.
Each stage uses the theme and the boss from one of the previous games. The whole stage is visible from the outset, with no hidden areas. Instead of a map, the game simply offers three levels of zoom. When fully zoomed out, the entire stage is visible on a 1920x1080 screen. Assuming you're playing on a large HDTV (and have great vision), it is entirely possible to play the game in this view. Mere mortals, and those with smaller monitors, will likely prefer one of the zoomed-in views.
In order to keep the experience fresh, Harmony of Despair offers up five different playable characters: Alucard, Charlotte Aulin, Jonathan Morris, Shanoa and Soma Cruz. Each character keeps his or her core abilities from previous titles, so swapping from one to another does change how you approach the game. Unfortunately, the characters aren't all evenly balanced, which makes for an uneven challenge. For example, playing as Shanoa with her magic jump and default fire attack is easier than trying to complete each level as Jonathan with the standard whip.
Pulling from Symphony of the Night, the developers behind Harmony of Despair made item collection a key component of the game. Instead of leveling up your character directly, you improve his or her stats by finding or buying different items, weapons and armor. Whenever you die, you keep what you've collected, so the only real penalty for death is a lower score. Keep attacking a level, and you'll eventually end up with upgraded weapons and armor, resulting in a better life expectancy as well as dealing more damage.
Special items, such as the traditional knife, ax and boomerang, as well as magic spells, all draw from a constantly replenishing magic points pool. The more you use a special item or a spell, the more proficient you get with it and the stronger it gets. This encourages players to use their abilities as well as change things up. As an example, Shanoa's fire spell works well against most enemies, but if you come up against a critter with fire resistance, you'll want to have another weapon in your arsenal.
Unlike prior Castlevania titles, picking up an item does not mean you can immediately use it. In order to equip an item, you must trek to a book pedestal on the stage. This essentially forces players to decide what type of run they're going to make before starting a level. If you're going for items, then time doesn't really matter and it's no skin off your back if you want to backtrack and try swapping out a new piece of equipment. If you're going for a speed run, though, what you pick up doesn't really matter. Even if you just snagged the "awesome sword of awesomeness," it's not worth running down the clock just to swap it out. That can wait until the next run.
One design decision that makes absolutely no sense, though, is the requirement that you must be in a level in order to manage your active equipment. You can buy and sell items in the main menu, but there is no way to swap equipment without starting a game. If you're going for time, you don't want the delay of getting ready (the clock counts down while you're managing equipment), so this leads to a rather cumbersome workaround of starting a level, getting equipped, and then saving and quitting so you can restart with the equipment you want and a full 30 minutes on the timer.
Another big problem with the game is the lack of explanation for the in-game stat icons. For gamers who know the DS games, what's here is going to be familiar, and they'll be off and running in no time. For gamers who missed out or simply haven't played in a while, trying to decipher the icons and their effects is going to be a bit of a guessing game. Players should not have to turn to third-party sources in order to figure out how to play a game.
On the flip side, one thing that Harmony of Despair absolutely nails is the leaderboard and replay system. When you beat a level, you have the option of saving a replay of your playthrough. When you do well enough to score on the leaderboards, the replay is uploaded and made available to everyone. This means that if you're having trouble fighting a specific boss monster, there's no need to panic. Just hit up the leaderboards and see how the top players are doing it. For the leaderboard fanatics, this also means you can see exactly what your competition is doing and work on figuring out how to best their times. It is a subtle, yet highly effective, way of turning the leaderboard experience from a passive display into an active competition.
Finally, there is the multiplayer. Playing through Harmony of Despair as a solo player is a straightforward race against the clock, but once you hit up multiplayer, it is obvious where the bulk of the development effort was concentrated. Supporting up to six players at once, the maps are designed to allow groups of players to progress through each map faster as well as reach areas that are inaccessible by solo vampire hunters. Because of the way the game handles the display, multiplayer is online only. There's no split-screen action here.
Playing cooperatively, everyone in a party shares in the loot; when one player opens a chest, everyone gets the reward. Dying in co-op means rebirth as a skeleton. You can still fight Dracula's minions (albeit in a limited way) in skeleton form, and so long as at least one party member stays alive, the game doesn't end. If you have the right item on hand, you can even restore a fallen comrade to his fleshy form. For those who prefer competition, survival mode offers a last-man-standing challenge.
Ultimately, Harmony of Despair is an interesting take on multiplayer gaming, but it isn't really Castlevania in anything other than name only. Take away the recycled sprites, and you're left with an average title at best. If competitive speed runs are your thing, then Harmony of Despair should be right up your alley, but for those waiting for the next great 2-D Castlevania game, you're just going to have to keep waiting.
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