Castlevania has always been one of those games where players are asked to keep switching between the in-game map and the action. In Harmony of Despair, Konami has managed to incorporate this into the actual gameplay. At any time in the game, players can fill their widescreen TVs with the entire maps while still hacking and slashing their way to the boss. Of course, you won't want to do this for long, because unless you have a 200 inch television, you're never going to be able to see your teeny tiny character. Thankfully there's a happy medium between the map view and the traditional close up. You can zoom out to see only a few screens at once, which allows you to better navigate your way through these challenging mazes.
These different camera angles also help you keep track of the other players in your room. Since you have to work together, it's incredibly handy to be able to pinpoint a specific player at a moment's notice. This is especially true if one of your team mates gets killed. Instead of becoming a bored spectator, killed players will be able to wander the map as a skeleton. Although you can throw bones at enemies, you aren't much use until somebody finds you and resurrects your body.
The multiplayer is the game's biggest pro and con. On one hand, having six players makes this game feel significantly different from the rest of the recent Castlevania adventures. I also like the dungeon crawler influence; it's an inspired gameplay decision. On the other hand, I'm not sure playing Castlevania with a bunch of other people is as much fun in practice as it is in theory. The levels are cool, but I prefer the exploration angle found in most games in the franchise. Plus, it's not always the easiest thing to get six people to work together against a common foe.
It's also frustrating that the game doesn't scale the difficulty depending on how many players you have. Much like Lost Planet 2 and Monster Hunter Tri, Harmony of Despair expects you to have a bunch of friends with you. Playing the game solo is a special kind of frustration I don't wish on anybody. Don't get me wrong, it's still doable, but there are plenty of bosses and treasure chests that are specifically designed with six players in mind.
In what I suspect will be a controversial decision, Konami has ditched the RPG-style experience system. Instead of leveling up, you are earning more money and finding rare items. Your armor and weapons is the key to this game, which I found a little disappointing. There were times when I would come up with little to no worthwhile loot, at least adding some numbers in the experience column would have given me some satisfaction.
While the goals and structure in Harmony of Despair may be different, the look and gameplay remains largely untouched. Konami stayed true to the game's sprite-based style, giving us the highest res versions of characters and enemies we've come to love. One could argue that this game doesn't look much different from the recent Nintendo DS installments, but that would be to completely miss the point. This entire game is built around embracing the look and style of the recent Castlevania games; it would have been foolish for them to re-imagine these famous characters and backgrounds. The whole thing is about fan service, and anybody who loves this franchise will instantly recognize most of the elements in this XBLA release.
On top of the game's six levels, the best of the best can test their mettle the Hard difficulty. If you think the single-player game is challenging on normal, wait until you have a fraction of the time and harder enemies. There's also a Survival Mode, which is an online battle to see who the last man (or woman) standing is. Between replaying levels and trying to earn all of the best equipment for the favorite character, players will definitely get their money's worth with Castlevania: Harmony of Despair.
Konami takes an interesting idea and makes it work. While it might disappoint some gamers looking for a more traditional Castlevania outing, those open to a new experience will have a lot of fun. If you're looking for a quick and simple multiplayer dungeon crawler that combines the best elements of Castlevania into one $15 package, then this is the game for you. Everybody looking for a great single-player adventure game should look elsewhere.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is a multiplayer game first and a single-player game second. This is a daring twist on a tried and true franchise, one that may split a lot of gamers. The good news is that this experiment mostly works, even if it comes at the expense of a proper single-player mode.
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