by Justin Snyder
reviewed on X360
Pick your poison
Castlevania: Harmony of Despair rests in an interesting place. There is absolutely no story whatsoever, meaning that hardcore fans of the franchise will need look elsewhere for a story involving the Belmonts. If you are looking for an enjoyable 2D platformer however, there is a lot to like. Many a fan will be happy to find a game in the style of the original that includes some of their favorite characters and a highly entertaining co-op mode that sets the game apart from its peers.
Starting a game, there are five characters to choose from, with Konami promising more as DLC in the future. You can take on Dracula and his horde of evil minions as Soma Cruz, Alucard, Jonathan Morris, Shanoa, or Charlotte Aulin. Each character has unique attacks and special abilities, though some share certain weapons types. There are advantages and disadvantages to each, but it won’t take long to find the right character that fits your play style. After a few failed attempts, I found myself settling in quite nicely with Shanoa and her very useful fireball ability.
Each stage starts off with a view of the whole map, which then zooms in on the character. A nice touch is the ability to switch between three different levels of zoom. You can focus in on your character and his/her immediate area, get a general look at their surroundings, or take in all of (or most of) the map to get your bearings.
This isn’t the kind of game where you can take a long rest to observe your surroundings and strategize., You will be playing with a sense of urgency matched by very few other games. Each level is set to a thirty minute time limit. The quicker you finish the level, the higher the time bonus is for that level’s score and the faster you will rise on the leaderboards. While I can understand the addition of the time limit as a way to achieve an arcade feel, it just doesn’t feel like it fits in a Castlevania title.
There is a wide variety of enemies in the game, each designed to keep you on your toes. Some are present throughout the entire game while others are unique to a particular stage. Each boss too is unique, posing a different kind of challenge for each chapter. When you find yourself fighting a giant monster the size of the entire map, you just know you are up for a challenge.
Casually mentioning that Castlevania: Harmony of Despair features an up-to-six-player co-op mode doesn’t really do it any justice. It would be more appropriate saying that it requires one. The game is mercilessly difficult playing on your own. The stages are huge and crawling with enemies that make it neigh on impossible to get to the end boss with enough health to actually put up a fight.
The most notable feature in co-op mode over single-player is something called Skeleton Form, along with the ability to revive your teammates. If you die while in a co-op game, a tombstone will appear where you’ve died. You can continue fighting as a skeleton while any teammate can revive you with a Water of Life potion found in blue chests throughout every level. You are definitely going to need the help of at least one other friend to get through to the end of the game but even five are no mere luxury. And that’s just on normal difficulty. I haven’t worked up the courage to try hard mode for fear of destroying my controller, 360 or TV set.
Castlevania: Harmony of Despair can be a fun single-player experience, but only in small doses. It really feels like it is difficult just for the sake of being difficult as opposed to offering the kind of challenge that is satisfying when beaten.
Adding to the game’s high difficulty factor is the lack of a real in-game menu. The start menu offers access to the manual, game options, achievements, leaderboards and downloadable content. In most cases, pulling up the menu in the middle of a game will pause it, but accessing Harmony of Despair’s doesn’t even slow it down. While this makes sense for online co-op, it really doesn’t for single-player making it difficult to access your character’s inventory, change equipment, and manage skills. The only place where these actions can be done safely is at specific points within each level where Grimoires are found.
The experience-based leveling system found in the previous games has sadly been removed. Your skills with individual weapons and spells do slowly improve but not fast enough. You will have to rely on finding weapons and armor to beef up your character.
The game has its problems may be a little too bland and too difficult to play on your own for very long. Yet there is still a lot of fun to be had with the co-op mode which is guaranteed to be a riot playing with your friends. It is, however, a little odd to see the game launch with five rather than six different characters. With six, a full party could at least have the opportunity to consist of all different characters.
2D platformers are becoming increasingly rare these days and it is nice to play a new one that has well designed levels, varied enemies, and great bosses.
Lots of fun playing co-op with five of your friends