"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 stageówith barely any life left at allóand 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 appreciateóor to despiseóbut 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.
Staff review by Jason Venter (August 02, 2010)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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!