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Castlevania: Harmony of Despair (Xbox 360) artwork

Castlevania: Harmony of Despair (Xbox 360) review

"Once the casual players have left and only the hardcore remain, will the game become little more than an item hunt with six Alucards all using the lightning-quick and very deadly Yasutsuna blade? Only time will tell."

Every Castlevania has its iconic hero, a lone warrior whose duty it is to follow in an ancient tradition of vampire killers. Simon Belmont. John Morris. Richter Belmont. Alucard. Each one of these heroes has made the solitary journey through the horrors of Castle Dracula, fighting valiantly through the Clock Tower, the underground dungeon, the Marble Corridors and Royal Chapel before climbing the stairs to the Countís throne room. It is here that each of these lone individuals fulfils their destiny, banishing Dracula to another hundred years of slumber.

Harmony of Despair dares to disrupt this tradition, abandoning the ďlone hero on a solitary journeyĒ in favour of something much different. Although it does feature a singleplayer mode, Harmony of Despair is very much an online multiplayer experience. No longer must you tread through the corridors of Castle Dracula on your own. Now up to six characters may band together and make their way across maps that have been carefully designed for cooperative play. Castlevania traditionalists may find the very thought reprehensible, but actually it isnít such a daft idea. By placing the focus almost solely on the multiplayer experience, Harmony of Despair taps into two of the most primal human emotions, the desire to work together to solve problems and the desire to show off.

While itís possible to beat each of the six chapters without any assistance, the thrill to be had from conquering these stages as part of a six-person team leaves the singleplayer mode feeling rather empty. Each chapter has been constructed in a way that encourages, demands and rewards cooperation. In one stage a treasure chest is hidden behind a column of fire that can be controlled by a switch in another part of the level. Someone will need to locate and stand on this switch while a more adventurous player hunts down the loot. Items gleaned from these chests are then shared out amongst the party, so working together to track them all down benefits everyone. Organising this cooperative problem-solving is easier if youíre able to use a microphone headset, but each player can call on an in-game phrase bank thatís often sufficient. Itís amazing how satisfying a simple ďGOOD WORKĒ or ďTHANKSĒ can feel when all youíve done is switch a lever so that an ally can pass through a locked door.

Other opportunities for teamwork are more elaborate. Death shows his face in one chapter, drifting freely about the map as he torments individual players by unleashing a flurry of scythes in their direction. Eagle-eyed adventurers will no doubt notice the two spotlights positioned on either side of the map. Itís possible for two characters to manoeuvre these piercing lights so that the beams cross over each other. If a courageous player can trick Death into passing through the point at which the beams intersect then heíll promptly retreat to a room high up in his castle.

Instead of exploring one sprawling castle, Harmony of Despair divides the adventure up into six chapters, each of which takes place on a new map with a single boss. Critics may lambast Harmony of Despair as a patchwork of recycled ideas from Portrait of Ruin, Order of Ecclesia, Dawn of Sorrow and Aria of Sorrow, but actually the borrowed parts come together for diverse and imaginative stages that retain a sense of familiarity. Deathís castle flaunts the classic Clock Tower design, with colossal grinding cogs and moving gears positioned over deadly spike traps. Be prepared to engage in some nostalgic Castlevania action as you double jump from cog to cog while fending off Medusa Heads. These age-old Castlevania staples are combined with newer ideas introduced by the DS titles. The walls of the fourth chapterís castle are adorned with mysterious paintings that warp you to different parts of the map, while the third chapter features a massive central area, the purpose of which becomes painfully apparent the second you touch the boss.

Although Harmony of Despair is clearly influenced by Symphony of the Night, the emphasis on exploration has been toned down in favour of a much leaner style of play. There are secrets to hunt down and puzzles to solve, but stages move at a much quicker pace, almost closer to classic Castlevania side-scrollers than modern ďMetroidvaniasĒ. In order to accommodate this shift in focus, the game includes a number of features that are new to the Castlevania series. Each stage is subject to a thirty-minute time limit, although most groups will either succeed or fail long before these minutes elapse. Thereís also function that allows you to view the map at three different magnifications, switching between them on the fly. Because the whole map is visible from the beginning of the stage, this function enables you to ďzoom outĒ and move quickly across the map without having to pause. This is handy for hunting out unopened chests or for simply catching up with the rest of the group when most enemies have been killed.

There are six characters in total: Soma Cruz, Charlotte, Jonathan Morris, Shanoa and Alucard. Aside from Alucard, all are borrowed from various DS titles so itís unlikely that any of the names will set pulses racing. The lack of star names (or even a Belmont) isnít actually that disappointing because the characters are unique and interesting in their own right. Thereís bound to be one that suits every type of player and even the less popular characters have their merits. Charlotte has the potential to be the most valuable member of a team with her healing spell, while Jonathan Morris will appeal to nostalgic fans who love cracking the vampire killer against the skulls of their enemies. Thereís no experience system to improve these characters, but itís possible to level up sub-weapons and spells through continued use. Obtaining better equipment from bosses or treasure chests is the only way to improve your characterís stats. It makes improvement a much more random process, but fighting Dracula in the hope of getting Simonís Chest Plate is much more thrilling than grinding for experience by stampeding through a corridor of zombies for the umpteenth time.

Much has been made of Harmony of Despairís difficulty. Itís true that when you begin the game youíll probably find it fractionally harder than the original Castlevania, which is to say that itís bloody tough. Those whose first experience of Castlevania was with Symphony of the Night are certainly in for shock. You canít jump carelessly and absorb damage Ė youíll need to time your jumps and judge your attacks carefully, which means backdashing to avoid flying bones and ducking to dodge axes. Some critics have called for checkpoints or save rooms, but this just isnít feasible. How can you fit checkpoints into small maps that are designed for multiplayer use? Itís not as if Harmony of Despair contains no lifelines at all; there are points in every stage where you can change your equipment or equip potions, while death in the multiplayer mode means that you carry on as a skeleton until youíre revived or the whole party falls. Harmony of Despair demands care, forcing you to dodge and evade attacks and work to level up sub-weapons and locate new items. Multiplayer fast-tracks the process, but itís not like itís impossible to succeed in singleplayer.

This is an adventure that rewards those who put the effort in to build a formidable character, either in single or multiplayer. Once youíve built an imposing vampire killer you can then show off online. Survive Dracula without taking a hit, forge ahead to beat those enemies that everyone finds annoying, reach the harder-to-find treasure chests... Itís good to work together, but itís even better to show off your skills at a game that is hard to master.

Unfortunately, this point leads onto one of the main issues I have with the game. The structure of the online mode is severely flawed. You join a party by randomly clicking on the name of a host, which means that you have no idea how powerful they are or what level they want to attempt. Those who want to play the first chapter on normal difficulty might find themselves in the same party as someone who has completed chapter six on hard mode. Itís likely that the guy who has beaten the game on hard will quit straight away, but assume he doesnít. Assume his character is unstoppable, a particular problem with Alucard, who can shred enemies in second once heís equipped with a certain weapon. How is this fun for the newcomer? It would have made much more sense for Konami to include an online mode that pairs characters with similar stats, or at least to display the chapter that is to be played before players join the party.

Iíve invested about thirty hours into Harmony of Despair, which should be a fairly telling indicator of how engrossing this title is. It completely redefines Castlevania in a way that breathes life into the series. Itís not about the lone hero anymore, itís about a team of vampire killers working cooperatively to solve puzzles, supporting each other against trickier foes and showing off their new sword or sub-weapon. My only reservation concerns the longevity of the experience. Once the casual players have left and only the hardcore remain, will the game become little more than an item hunt with six Alucards all using the lightning-quick and very deadly Yasutsuna blade? Only time will tell. For now Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is a fantastic, invigorating reinterpretation of the series that drags it into the online age. Hopefully, it will prove as influential as Symphony of the Night, even though it isnít quite as refined.


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Featured community review by JANUS2 (August 14, 2010)

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