If it feels like you've played Castlevania: Harmony of Despair before, then you're not alone. From the eerily familiar name to the hodgepodge of recognizable characters, there's a sense that you've been there and done that. Even the game's graphics and sound are reminiscent of recent installments. But don't let your eyes deceive you, because Konami has taken Castlevania in an entirely new direction.
At its core, Harmony of Despair is the combination of a classic 2D Castlevania game and a Diablo-style dungeon crawler. This is a six player game that rewards you for grinding through levels multiple times, picking up loot, earning more money and taking down bosses with your friends. If you're coming to this new Xbox Live Arcade game looking for a traditional single-player Castlevania adventure, then you need to look elsewhere. What we're left with is an interesting experiment that mostly works.
The obvious change comes in the way of multiplayer, something you don't normally equate with the Castlevania brand. This is a huge change that impacts the way the developers tackled everything from level designs, to weapons, to the many large bosses found in the game. While you can still beat each of the game's levels by yourself, the game is really set up so that six players can work together to purge the world of evil.
Instead of giving us a large world to open up and explore, Harmony of Despair features six bite-sized chapters. These six chapters feature a large map to explore, tons of treasure chests to track down and a multi-part boss fight at the end. But don't feel like you have time to leisurely explore these labyrinthine levels, because you're always under the thumb of the time limit. Because these levels are so large, players will find themselves returning to the chapters over and over again looking for rare loot.
Right from the start you have the choice of five familiar characters -- Alucard (Symphony of the Night), Soma Cruz (Aria of Sorrow), Shanoa (Order of Ecclesia), Jonathan Morris and Charlotte Aulin (both from Portrait of Ruin). These different characters use different weapons, have different fighting styles and use different special items. It's a lot of fun going through levels you've already memorized with brand new characters; you'll find that each of these fighters has a purpose.
I was impressed by the diversity of each chapter. Not only are the backgrounds wildly different from one level to the next, but they also play out in surprising ways. In one level you'll be in an underground cavern dealing with a boss that is literally half the size of the entire map. While in the very next chapter you are using paintings to teleport your way through a gigantic mansion. The game only becomes more impressive with each passing level.
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