Ads are gone. We're using Patreon to raise funds so we can grow. Please pledge support today!
Google+   Facebook button  Twitter button 
3DS | DS | PS3 | PS4 | PSP | VITA | WII | WIIU | X360 | XB1 | All
Castlevania: Harmony of Despair (Xbox 360) artwork

Castlevania: Harmony of Despair (Xbox 360) review


"This game wouldn't defeat me, I told myself, not with its very first stage. For once I was even right. Two hours later, I finally had my victory. Along the way I had memorized attack patterns, grown better at my double jumps and I had found the shortest and safest route from the stage entrance to the boss chamber. With better equipment and an actual plan, I won my first round and progressed to the second stage... where steel traps impaled me, men erupted in plumes of poison and walls of flame threatened to burn me to a crisp. Remember what it used to feel like to play a Castlevania game? The people at Konami clearly do."



If you're like I was, you already know what to expect from Castlevania: Harmony of Despair. There's this huge castle. Its hallways all are inter-connected, from the walkway leading up to the front gate to the clock tower that seems almost to scrape the clouds, to the dank underground passages complete with ooze and fish men. It's all one big environment and as you work through it, you'll gain levels so that your HP and MP increase to the point where you're practically a deity. You'll find new items and abilities, backtrack to familiar locations last seen hours ago and utterly demolish massive beasts that feel like they were ripped straight from your nightmares. You know all of this.

If you're like I was, you're in for a bit of a surprise.

Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is more than a simple repeat of adventures that you've already had, more than a barely fresh coat of paint on a house that no longer needs to be painted. There's some of that, sure. Yet for a variety of reasons, the experience is different this time around.

One of those reasons is the lack of a level-up system. If a boss monster is giving you a hard time, it's easy to make another attempt once you've purchased more powerful weapons and armor, but even then your options are appropriately limited because you can't just level up and render your foes irrelevant. You'll need to get good at the game. In other words, you'll actually need to block enemy projectiles (because an ax to the face finally means something now that health refills are so uncommon and your life meter is so short) and you'll need to worry about actually perfecting your timing as you leap along a series of ledges that fold beneath you. It's bizarre, really. Who would have thought that hunting Dracula could be dangerous?

When I began playing the first stage, such outlandish notions couldn't have been further from my mind. It goes without saying that I died almost immediately. Part of my failure can be blamed on jump controls that feel the slightest bit gimped and part of it can be blamed on the distant camera perspective that I hadn't yet figured out how to change (more on that in a moment), but mostly my ridiculously short-lived first attempt came down to something much less interesting: cockiness. I thought that I was good enough to phone in my performance and I was wrong.

As I watched Alucard bounce along a strip of spikes after missing his leap to the swinging pendulum for the third time, then as I saw his body explode into the familiar geyser of blood that I witnessed only a few times when I played played through Symphony of the Night, I began to realize that I was starting down a difficult road. When I finally reached the boss of the first stage--with barely any life left at all--and he massacred me, I knew that I was going to have to rethink things if I wanted to get anywhere. A trip back to the chapter select screen after a defeat is demoralizing. It's a new dynamic for those who cut their teeth on 32-bit Castlevania and frequent save points, a dynamic that feels closer to the 8-bit era than any new installment in the series has come in years.

I kept playing, though. This game wouldn't defeat me, I told myself, not with its very first stage. For once I was even right. Two hours later, I finally had my victory. Along the way I had memorized attack patterns, grown better at my double jumps and I had found the shortest and safest route from the stage entrance to the boss chamber. With better equipment and an actual plan, I won my first round and progressed to the second stage... where steel traps impaled me, men erupted in plumes of poison and walls of flame threatened to burn me to a crisp. Remember what it used to feel like to play a Castlevania game? The people at Konami clearly do.

Thankfully, Harmony of Despair has more than just difficulty working in its favor. The unusual challenge level might be one of the easiest things to notice and to appreciate--or to despise--but there's so much more to consider. There's the cast of characters, for example. You can play as Alucard, like I did initially, or you may prefer to go with Shanoa, Jonathan, Charlotte or Soma. Each character possesses distinct attributes that returning fans should recognize from recent DS appearances, except now you can't just bulldoze through any challenges that you encounter. The result is that you start to appreciate the differences between those familiar characters. You consider their strengths and weaknesses and that change how you play the game.

Multiple characters could have been a pain in the butt. A lot of the gear that you can find is pretty expensive. Imagine the tedium if you had been forced to buy separate armor and weapons for each character! Fortunately, that isn't necessary. If you purchase a pricey bit of gear such as the Assassin's Cape, you can share it among each of your characters. Another nice touch is that even if you do die on one of your forays into the castle, you at least get to keep any gold and items that you find. Even when you do lose ten minutes of progress because a boss got lucky (just keep telling yourself that), you still gain something from the experience. The next time that you tackle the stage, you'll know right where you want to go and exactly what you want to do when you get there.

It's not like that's ever really a problem anyway, not if you have a decent television. Thanks to a surprisingly cool design decision, it's possible to see the entire area that you're exploring on a single screen, without the need to pause and consult a map. You can switch between several camera zoom settings at the press of your analog stick. Negotiating a series of jumps along swinging pendulums? Going toe-to-toe with a powerful manticore? Zoom things in and play with precision. Backtracking through the castle after grabbing an out-of-the-way treasure chest? Zoom out so that you can get a reminder of just where you need to go. Though the castle stages are definitely put together well with a nice assortment of puzzles to solve along the way, exploration isn't really the goal anymore. This new game works in part because the developers present you with a genuinely formidable environment, then for the first time ever let you play through it with a bunch of other vampire hunters by your side.

Harmony of Despair is a 6-player game. That's how it's meant to be played and you'll appreciate that the minute you finally assemble a crew and give it a shot. Characters spawn all over a stage and everyone races toward the big boss target. Suddenly, hallways full of enemies fall at your feet. You're not struggling to survive now. You're struggling to do the most damage, to open the most treasure chests and maybe to help your fellow hunters out the most. If someone falls in battle, another character can restore his life... or that unfortunate someone can simply return as a skeleton and chuck bones at the remaining enemies. The toughest boss monsters can and will go down in only a moment or two if you have a good group of hunters assembled, but which team member will contribute the most to the effort? Leader boards tell all.

Thanks to its unusual design, Castlevania: Harmony of Despair at times can feel like two very different experiences. There's the first experience, a single-player struggle to survive against a menacing castle and its dangerous residents. That we've seen before, even if things were typically easier. Then there's the second experience, one that feels completely new to the series thanks to the teamwork and sometimes the competition among players. Both of those experiences are worth having, despite drawing such different things from the same dank hallways. The result of that unique marriage of ideas could easily be the Castlevania title that you wind up playing more than any other one that came before it. Play it alone, late at night with the lights out. Play it with five friends from around the world, in the middle of the day with the sun shining and Collective Soul blaring in the background. If you're like I am, you'll want to keep playing for a long time.

Rating: 9/10

honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (August 02, 2010)

Jason Venter founded HonestGamers in 1998, and since then has written hundreds of reviews as the site's editor-in-chief. He also is a prolific freelancer with game reviews, articles and fiction available around the Internet.

More Reviews by Jason Venter
Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney (3DS) artwork
Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney (3DS)

The world of Labyrinthia is well worth visiting, in spite of a few missteps along the way.
Super Toy Cars (Wii U) artwork
Super Toy Cars (Wii U)

The mini-car racer is still a fun concept, but Super Toy Cars is neither refined enough nor interesting enough to justify your time and money.
Shovel Knight (Wii U) artwork
Shovel Knight (Wii U)

An attempt to revive old school sensibilities that works much better than similar efforts often do.

Feedback

If you enjoyed this Castlevania: Harmony of Despair review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!

board icon
zippdementia posted August 02, 2010:

This sounds to me like what Castlevania: Symphony of the Night should have been like. All the production quality but with actual challenge.
board icon
honestgamer posted August 02, 2010:

Symphony of the Night should have been like exactly what it was like, because it was trying to do something completely different and it did it in an exemplary manner. This game is very different and that's good too, because it's trying to do something different and it is doing that something different as well as Symphony of the Night did its something different... if that makes any sense.
board icon
JANUS2 posted August 02, 2010:

Good, timely review. Much better than Eurogamer's effort, which moans about the difficulty for two pages.

I do have a couple of questions:
1. does Morris play and look like he does in Bloodlines?
2. is competitive scoring the focus of multiplayer or is it co-operative teamwork?

As for SOTN, it was great precisely because of the reasons outlined in Jason's intro. Who wants challenge in this sort of game? All I want to do is explore a massive castle while crushing knight armours with an unstoppable hero.
board icon
Ben posted August 02, 2010:

Man, mixed reviews for this game. I think I'd only get it if I had a bunch of other dudes to play with me, co-op style.
board icon
honestgamer posted August 02, 2010:

1. does Morris play and look like he does in Bloodlines?

I didn't actually play as Jonathan Morris. He's the one I didn't touch because I didn't particularly find him memorable in Bloodlines (which I never beat). If the other characters are any indication, though, Konami seems to be doing a really good job of bringing the characters to this game as we remember them.

2. is competitive scoring the focus of multiplayer or is it co-operative teamwork?

When you finish a stage together, it gives each individual member of the team a score. There are leaderboards where you can compare your highest score for a stage with those on your friends list. I had to add a few people just to find someone to play this with, pre-release. I actually ranked pretty well (amazingly).

The cooperative play is pretty decent. I didn't get into that a lot in the review because I was already running much longer than I wanted to and a lot of what I said about the single-player still applies, but as an example... the hallway with fire traps. You can step on a switch to remove some of the fire in a nearby passage, then your friend can head through and step on another, and you can keep trading off to get through the passage together on separate levels. It doesn't lend itself to description, really, but it works and definitely helps the cooperative side of things. There's also a survival mode where everyone competes to be the last one standing.

Really, the game feels very Castlevania-ish but doesn't play much at all like I expected, which is why the angle that I took with the review felt natural for me. Reviews are going to talk about the difficulty--and they should--but I'm not sure why they would rate the game down for being tough, especially since online remedies that in such an interesting manner. I can't wait to see what others think of this game!
board icon
JANUS2 posted August 02, 2010:

It sounds like Harmony of Despair returns to the spirit of the original side-scrollers only with some very modern touches (like online multiplayer). I'm looking forward to playing it.
board icon
Lewis posted August 02, 2010:

This one's massively devisive, eh? I thought it was an absolutely dreadful game which completely misunderstood why the best Castlevania games worked. Yet I can totally see why you loved it.

And I really enjoy that: that we can both approach the game from opposite angles, and come away with enormously contrasting opinions, both of which are valid.

***

"I'm not sure why they would rate the game down for being tough"

For me, at least, much of its difficulty emerged from... I don't want to use the word "cheap", because it's cheap, but I will anyway... cheap design decisions. So in the singleplayer that means NO YOU MAY NOT SAVE OR PASS CHECKPOINTS. And then the multiplayer just becomes easier the more people you have playing, which just defies all logic to me. I like my multiplayer with people I know, generally speaking, rather than strangers. I don't like having to populate my game with five people I don't know just to have any chance of progressing.

For me, its ideology is fundamentally opposed to what I consider good game design. I'm really glad you managed to get more out of the game than me: it just made me angry.
board icon
Lewis posted August 02, 2010:

You know what it is, actually (and in retrospect I wish I'd got this into my review)? Playing the game felt like trying to join in the football match with the big boys. I know that if they'd let me I could probably adapt really quickly, join in, be a decent part of the game. I like football. I'm quite good at it. We'd have fun together, I know it. But the leader of the group just keeps throwing the ball in my face and laughing every time I try to go near the pitch. It's a shame. They look to be having so much fun.

[/terrible analogy]

You must be signed into an HonestGamers user account to leave feedback on this review.

Site Policies & Ethics | Contact | Links

eXTReMe Tracker
© 1998-2014 HonestGamers
None of the material contained within this site may be reproduced in any conceivable fashion without permission from the author(s) of said material. This site is not sponsored or endorsed by Nintendo, Sega, Sony, Microsoft, or any other such party. Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is a registered trademark of its copyright holder. This site makes no claim to Castlevania: Harmony of Despair, its characters, screenshots, artwork, music, or any intellectual property contained within. Opinions expressed on this site do not necessarily represent the opinion of site staff or sponsors. Staff and freelance reviews are typically written based on time spent with a retail review copy or review key for the game that is provided by its publisher.