Castlevania is a series of many faces. The franchise debut was one of the first true frustrating platformers, Simon’s Quest hosted one of the first platformer/adventure hybrids, and Symphony of the Night coined the term “Metroid-vania”: a theme the series has been running with for quite some time.
But Harmony of Despair, Konami’s newest offering, isn’t quite like anything they’ve offered before. Think of it as Platformer Phantasy Star Online. Does Konami pull off this unconventional genre combination? Read on to find out.
When you first boot up the game, Harmony of Despair greets you with two options: single player and multiplayer. Immediately, I’d recommend jumping into the first level on your own, and getting a feel for the game before joining an online party (plus you’ll nab some sweet loot to bring online). The premise of all six massive levels (called “chapters”) is simple – you have thirty minutes to traverse each map and slay the boss.
If you press in the right analog stick, you can either zoom into a classic Castlevania view, a wider view, or a completely zoomed out playable view of the entire level in all its glory. The full view makes traversing the castle pretty easy, as you should be able to see exactly where you need to go.
The first thing you’ll probably notice mechanics-wise is that there’s no “experience” to gain: your characters increase their statistics through items and spells they collect during their travels. All five selectable characters share an item pool (thank goodness), so it’s rather easy to level up one character, and spread the wealth. Overall, the lack of an experience system makes things pretty simple, but you’ll run into problems when creating games, which I’ll explain later.
One thing you should know before you jump into the meat of the game is that the balance of difficulty in Harmony of Despair is fairly complex. In fact, most of the time, its works against you. Similar to most dungeon crawlers, the game does factor other players into the difficulty level, but due to the mechanics of a few of the boss fights, you’re going to want all six maximum players to hop in, because every bit counts.
You’d think that if you elected for the single player option the game would be much easier, but sadly that’s not really the case. Due to the aforementioned boss mechanics, a few of the levels would be near impossible to complete without a ton of experience with past Castlevania games.
Consider this a warning: newcomers will have an extremely hard time, which is a definite concern in an online public game, because one player’s inexperience can ruin an entire dungeon run. As you can imagine, Alucard is one of the best characters in the game, as is Shanoa, so a pro series fan will have no trouble cycling through the characters and figuring that out in an afternoon.
However, new players may elect to tough it out with a weaker character, like Charlotte, and give up fairly quickly. As previously mentioned, outside of the first boss, the remaining five level guardians each have a special “trick” to them - meaning if you’re playing with random people online without a mic, your group is going to get decimated. The entire nature of this setup is primed to breed an elitist attitude and community, because players won’t want to commit thirty minutes at a time to carry undergeared players. Of course, this idea may appeal to all the hardcore gamers out there who have been pining for a tough Castlevania.
There’s also a lot wrong with the netcode. Since there are no experience levels, you have no idea how geared your teammates are. Second, you cannot join a game in progress, or see what chapter they are going to attempt until you get into the game. Unless there’s a patch in the works, I can only recommend you play with friends. Now, if you were able to drop in on a game, create a game with a minimum gear requirement, or see exactly what chapter a lobby intends on playing, the online component would be a completely different story.
Despite these issues, once you find your center, the game is a blast. You’ll find yourself working together left and right not only to defeat powerful enemies, but solve basic puzzles as well. Shanoa’s power is particularly useful in team games, as she’s able to latch onto various hooks to launch herself into new areas, and hit switches that create shortcuts for the rest of the team. Boss fights are also incredibly intense, compounded by the fact that there are five other adventurers slashing away like madmen at various weakpoints, discovering new tactics on the fly.
At its core, Harmony of Despair is a great hardcore platformer. As long as you don’t mind grinding a bit for items and replaying some of the same levels over again, you’ll feel right at home hacking and slashing at the various denizens of Dracula’s castle.
Harmony of Despair is as close to Diablo as you’re going to get with a platformer – and that’s excellent news for fans of either title.
2D Castlevania games never looked this good, especially when you're zoomed out all the way - the HD sheen really shows. Sadly, some enemy models are re-used, but the levels themselves look great.
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The gameplay is about what you'd expect from a Castlevania title, albeit a bit dumbed down when it comes to equipment options and character movesets for all but two of the characters. Speaking of the characters, they're fairly unbalanced: expect to see lots of Shonoas and Alucards online.
The game's sound effects are borrowed from past Castlevania games - there isn't much of a surprise here.
It's a shame there are only six thirty minute chapters (and no drop in or couch coop), but if you can round up a group of friends online, the whole experience will be unmatched.
Harmony of Despair has a heap of issues, but any hardcore fans of Castlevania owe it to themselves to buy this game with a group of friends.