It's not exactly a dirty secret — or actually a secret at all — but the last few portable Castlevania games have run on a potent blend of tested gameplay, amazing music, 8-bit nostalgia, remixed music, and most importantly, recycled sprites. This reached its nadir in Portrait of Ruin, where the boss-rush bonus dungeon included every single boss from Dawn of Sorrow right in a row, followed up by the Doppleganger. It was an amazing testament to absolutely shameless reuse of assets, and your reward for completing it was the Greatest Five team-up attack ... which recycled five more sprites.
On some level, you almost have to salute Konami for its ingenuity in finding new ways to creatively use old work. The games don't usually suffer for it, and Order of Ecclesia has a fair number of original sprites, but it really was pretty blatant. The more you know about Castlevania, the more obvious it becomes.
Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is the ultimate in sprite recycling for fun and profit. It doesn't have any real plot; instead, it uses a blend of bosses, characters, monsters and obstacles from the GBA and DS Castlevanias to create a four-player adventure game.
It's not exactly a "Metroidvania" in the classic sense. Instead, it's got a sort of classic arcade feel to it with very slight action-RPG elements. You can still find items hidden inside the walls or get new armor off of defeated enemies, but the only way to equip new gear is to return to a sort of "save point" on the map and use what you find there.
At E3, three of the five playable characters were available. Shanoa, from 2008's Order of Ecclesia, has access to several of her glyph powers as well as her magnet ability, which lets her rapidly progress through several parts of the castle by grappling onto preexisting metal points. Alucard, using his old Symphony of the Night look, can assume his bat and mist forms to fly and pass through narrow spaces, giving him a slower but more flexible navigation ability. Finally, Jonathan Morris, one of the stars of 2007's Portrait of Ruin, doesn't have any special travel abilities and comes the closest of any playable character to the classic Belmont style; he can jump, double-jump, slide, and wield the Vampire Killer whip. Soma Cruz and Charlotte Aulin will be playable in the final version but weren't available in the E3 build.
Each player is set down in a large, multi-room castle, fighting classic enemies in a sprite-based environment. You can scale the size of the map back to a more personal view or pan it all the way out to the point where all four characters are barely recognizable. Your goal is to avoid the traps, climb the platforms, defeat any monsters that get in your way, and take out the area's boss.
The big change, however, is that the area is one continuous zone rather than a series of connected but independent rooms, as per the Castlevania tradition. The E3 build had all the characters either cooperating with or coordinating against one another to reach a large area where Golgoth, the giant two-legged zombie plasma cannon thing from Dawn of Sorrow, was waiting for them.
Golgoth, however, could track a player for a surprisingly long distance and open fire, resulting in a giant white beam of light that went straight through walls and floors, almost to the edge of the map. If you actually get to his room and fight him, the same strategies apply, and he even has the gimmick from Dawn where the floor drops out from underneath you at a certain point in the fight.
Harmony of Despair looks like, plays like, and thus generally is a weird sort of tossed Castlevania salad, with a number of dissonant elements from the sprite-based games tossed together in a haphazard, chaotic way. So little of the final game was actually on display at E3 that it's impossible to say what we're looking at here; it's either going to be a thrifty but entertaining platformer that revels in the series' history and allows you the chance to "accidentally" knock your friends into beds of spikes, or a blatant example of shovelware that fans of the franchise are going to pretend never happened. Personally, I'm hoping for the former.
More articles about Castlevania: Harmony of Despair