Review by Vamphaery

"A fun experimental twist on the classic Castlevania formula, with some irksome hindrances."

Disclaimer: As always, this review is only one person's opinion, and all reviews are subjective. The review that matters most is your own.

INTRODUCTION:

Harmony of Despair is an interesting and fun experiment. It combines classic Castlevania gameplay from many of the series' most popular games (from multiple platforms) with shorter, faster level design intended to be navigated by multiple players cooperatively within 30 minute time limits. No, this isn't a standard Castlevania game that you can spend 40+ hours exploring a single castle in, or even one of the more recent Castlevenia games that you can travel from area to area in. The levels are short, meant to be completed within 30 minutes, and while challenging, are not particularly puzzle-oriented or daunting given enough playthroughs. If you're still interested after knowing this (which you already would if you've followed the game at all,) then read on. Because this experiment ends up being surprisingly fun and addictive, even for those of us who haven't played a Castlevania game in a while.

GAMEPLAY: 7/10 (GameFAQs defines 7/10 as "Good. A few problems, but worth the time to play.")

Harmony of Despair (henceforth abbreviated "HD" as in the Games Library) is classic Castlevania through and through in terms of the action you should expect. You can choose from several playable characters from throughout the series' history. You can jump, double jump, kick-slide, melee, cast spells, and do everything else you would expect from a Castlevania game as you navigate spike traps, swinging pendulums, rotating gears, and other familiar challenges from Castlevania's past. Levels are hodgepodges of the series' distinctive areas. Rather than distinctive "levels," though, they often feel more like the game is saying to you, "Here's a caricature of a particular Castlevania level 'brand.' Enjoy!" Still, that's likely only due to their brevity, and they get the job done, providing sufficient challenge and variation to keep you entertained and interested for the long haul.

And that haul is quite long indeed, because of how you progress the game's playable characters. You don't gain XP, but rather each character has their own means of becoming progressively more powerful each time they play through levels. Some simply find and equip better and better items or weapons. Others magically steal spells from enemies to learn them, and then increase their strength by doing so again and again... and again. As you may imagine, this does become tedious and repetitive eventually. By the 50th time you play a level as Charlotte Aulin in an attempt to level up just one of her spells that can only be found while battling a level's final boss - which you can only do once per individual enemy before having to move on to another or replaying the level - you may want to pull your hair out. Nevertheless, seeing your abilities and items become progressively more powerful as you grind for hours is definitely gratifying, and enables you to progress through the game's more and more challenging levels. Upon completing the game's sixth and final stage, you unlock Hard Mode, which promises more powerful items and equipment. Needless to say, this is a game you can (and will have to) play for a very long time if you want to max out any of your characters, let alone all of them. Fortunately, it's fun and fairly quick to grind in Castlevenia HD, especially when you have one or more friends along for the run.

There are one or two problems which detract from what is otherwise an incredibly fun, if at times tedious, gameplay experience. There is no ability to pause the game. While this makes sense for co-op games, this holds true in the single player mode as well (which is a separate mode with its own menu selection,) and since co-op isn't drop in/drop out (you have to form a team before starting a stage in co-op,) this omission makes little sense. Single player is a solitary experience, and sometimes things happen which require you to pause the game. For a single player mode that has a 30 minute time limit to omit a pause option seems an odd choice at best.

Opening chests seems to incur a bit of a delay. You have to stand in or run through the chest sprite for a certain amount of time (about three quarters of a second) before pressing the right trigger to open it becomes possible. When you're in the thick of fighting off all manner of demonic creatures firing various forms of projectile attacks at you or threatening to turn you to stone, being able to immediately and intuitively open a chest would be nice.

There are hidden items in levels which can be acquired, giving you a point bonus upon their completion. While this is a fun touch, most of these are time-consuming and tricky to obtain, yet confer no real advantage from a gameplay point of view. Acquiring, for example, the "crown" by playing the correct notes on the piano in level 2, seems as if it will give you a new piece of head equipment. Instead, it merely gives you more points once you beat the level. Saving the time to do that and instead trying to beat the level as quickly as possible would probably have been of greater benefit to your score anyway, though. It just seems somewhat baffling and irksome to me.

Lastly, and most critically, this is a game which expects you to grind for hours using differing methods for each character and based upon character stats with important meanings... yet explains almost none of this to you. The game includes a "How to Play" menu option which describes very briefly the various ways characters can power themselves up. It does not, however, explain how to do so, or what the game's multiple character stats and resistance icons mean, or do. It will take some trial and error or Internet investigation to figure out how each character acquires and levels up their abilities. Not to mention the base stats. Never played an RPG of any kind before? Don't know what "INT" stands for? Well, you're out of luck then unless you ask someone, because not only will you not know what it stands for, but you also won't know that that particular stat is critical to how much damage your spells dole out. Then there are the resistance icons (hammers, pitchforks, eyes, etc.) which stand for how much resistance you have to different types of damage (blunt, holy, poison, etc.) The game doesn't even begin to address these... anywhere.

I know that this is a Castlevania game, and that it's trying to be "traditional" and "old school." But this is 2010, and this is a digitally distributed game. Some even marginally more robust documentation would have been greatly appreciated, and would have reduced the initial tedium of the game by a great deal.

All of these are ultimately not insurmountable problems, though, and they do not in the final analysis reduce how much fun or how addictive the game is once you've got it all figured out. You just have to be willing to put in the time to do so.

GRAPHICS: 8/10 (GameFAQs defines 8/10 as "Great. Fun to play. Some minor, but no major flaws.")

This is a beautiful, 2D, sprite-based game. How I've missed pixel art like this. For years I have said I wished developers would still make games that looked like this, and the developers of HD have done a great job of doing just that. There are some minor blemishes. Characters can appear a bit more pixelated than I would have liked, particularly for being so small on screen to begin with, and some art lifted directly from earlier games hasn't held up as well as the rest. Higher resolution sprites with more detail and smoother animation would have been appreciated to be sure, but overall, this is a great-looking example of how pixel-art can still be viable today.

MULTIPLAYER: 8/10 (GameFAQs defines 8/10 as "Great. Fun to play. Some minor, but no major flaws.")

This game is designed for co-op play. There are rooms and chests which are inaccessible unless at least two players cooperate to access them. Point (and item drop probability) rewards for completing levels under certain time limits and without taking any damage lend themselves to having human companions along with you. And traversing rooms filled with previously daunting enemies only to see them get annihilated by you and one or more friends' attacks within seconds is truly satisfying. All six of the game's levels (on both Normal and unlockable Hard difficulties) are available for co-op play, however you will be limited to playing the levels that every member of your party has reached. So if one of your party members is only up to level 4, then that's as far as you'll be able to get in co-op until you help them beat it.

Survival Mode seems to be an attempt at some sort of "2D deathmatch" game. It's not exactly boring, but it lacks the visceral and competitive feeling that it seems intended to provoke. You win by doing the most damage to your human opponents, rather than by killing them. So you can attack someone repeatedly, and they you, only for a time limit to end your fun before anyone dies. Like the rest of the game, it's an interesting experiment, but for me was nowhere near as fun or worthwhile as the game's actual levels. This mode will likely be fun for those who want to show off their maxed our characters, however, and should give the game some longevity for those still playing it after that many hours of grinding. As such it is a welcome, if somewhat underwhelming, inclusion.

AUDIO: 7/10 (GameFAQs defines 7/10 as "Good. A few problems, but worth the time to play.")

Like the gameplay and visuals, this is classic Castlevania through and through. Music is a combination of pipe organ infused electric guitar riffs and MIDI keyboard jams of a decidedly creepy mood. It will depend upon taste as to whether you enjoy hearing these songs over and over again. I personally liked them.

All of the playable characters, as well as many of the game's enemies and bosses, have their own voice work. It's simple but effective, and appreciated. In an added touch, there is a radial menu accessible with the select button which allows one-line dialogue with other players such as, "Thanks," or "Oops." What each playable character says when using these is a bit different, so it's fun to hear what they'll say. Enemy and player attacks also sound sufficiently satisfying and powerful.

There are a couple of boss battles which include repeated, identical, droning laughter after each and every attack. If boss battles weren't so long, that wouldn't be a nuisance, but as is, this can grate on the nerves after a while. Still, it's better than nothing, and makes it seem like the bosses are taunting you as you struggle to survive and defeat them.

CONCLUSION/OVERALL SCORE: 7/10 (GameFAQs defines 7/10 as "Good. A few problems, but worth the time to play.")

In my opinion and in my experience, Castlevania HD is an incredibly fun, addictive, and engrossing game. With multiple characters to learn and master, challenging levels, and great co-op action, it's about as much fun as one could possible expect from a digitally distributed Castlevania game on XBLA. Whether that's enough for you to ignore the inherent repetitiveness, tedium, and lack of documentation, will depend upon how much you enjoy the core gameplay and the eventual rewards patience yields. For me, it's enough, despite the frustration. For others, it may not be.

Here's hoping that support for this game will result in a more robust, fully fledged, 2D Castlevania release some time in the not too distant future.


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 08/17/10

Game Release: Castlevania: Harmony of Despair (US, 08/04/10)


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