Review by Charismachine

Reviewed: 04/16/12

Warning: Castlevania "HD" will suck you in for all the wrong reasons.

About me: I am a current college student going to school to learn about game design, so that I can learn to use my knowledge in making games better than what you're currently used to playing.

Castlevania Harmony of Despair is a 2D action/platformer released by Konami of Japan in August of 2010. I have personally spent well over one hundred hours not including a save file that was corrupted so I believe I have a very strong opinion about the views I hold toward this game to be taken into consideration.

If you are new to Castlevania HD, prepare for a long haul as the game will leave you with little to no preparation detailing on what your ultimate goal is, as there is no story involved within the game, nor any explanation on how to improve your skills to better prepare you for the mission that lies ahead of you. Your best bet is learn how to advance in the game from a friend. The biggest issue here is that they won't really know exactly how to improve either as everything is learned by what they have experienced without any proof of how any of that actually occurred.

Here's the basics of what I've learned, there are five characters available from the vanilla version of Castlevania Harmony of Despair. All of these playable characters are stars from their collective Castlevania games of the past. You can choose from these five characters to make a total team of six, which is exactly where the first problem (pre DLC) arrives. At least one of the characters on your team are going to end up being a mirror character, you can pretend all you want that it's going to be the doppelganger from the much superior Symphony of the Night, but more than likely it's going to be a different colored Soma. However, if you purchased the game for the Playstation Network, the game comes with seven, along with the option to play the game split screen with four players in co-op. The Xbox Live version of the game is limited to solo play only. All of these characters can become stronger as you find and collect different weapons randomly dropped from enemies or within certain treasure chests scattered across the large maps within the game. Every stage has a boss that must defeat in order to obtain the contents of his coveted gold treasure chest. Roughly 95% of the time you will receive something useless, such as a food item that you could have easily purchased in the useless shop, but that rare moment when you finally get that item that you've been grinding for roughly four hours, then you're finally ready to actually move on with the game. This is where another glaring flaw takes form. Most of the rare items in the game that are useful (read: necessary to beat the game) have less than a 5% drop rate provided you even complete the level. If you've ever played the much superior Final Fantasy Tactics, before you even attempt to hit anyone with your physical weapon/spell/arrow/grimace etc. the game will give you the exact number of the chance you had to successfully damage your opponent, if it was ever 5% or less you wouldn't even bother.

You see, there are six to eleven levels depending on how much you were willing to pay for the game, and to add laziness, or depth, or frustration, there are two selectable difficulties. Easy or "Playable", and "The only way you're going to get the items necessary to be able to play online without getting kicked from the lobby" or I guess they prefer to call it Hard.

The game has multiple ways to play, there is story mode (normal run through) or the mainly useless/enjoy-less survival mode (multiplayer deathmatch)There are multiple ways of playing the story mode as well. You can attempt to take on all of the challenges by yourself or you can create/join a lobby of up to six players online. When looking for a lobby online, the game will "make an attempt" to find a lobby for you, if it can not provide a lobby for you within about seven seconds or so, the game will give up. It's as though the game has already given up on you before you've even started. This will not be a one time occurrence, this will happen several times throughout your quest to take down Dracula, or Ryokoutsodoku...suki... the new final boss of the game if you decided to plunk down the $3.00 all the way up to the $19.00 on top of the game's already steep price tag of $15.00.

Another decision made was to add a thirty minute timer to each level. If you're in single player mode when you die, you have to restart the level over with a fresh new timer. However, in online play after your death you become a skeleton. The only way to revive a skeleton is to provide him with Water of Life, a rare item that will only appear in a handful of blue chests located around the level. If a living player fails to revive the skeleton before it easily dies again, three minutes will be subtracted from the total. Keep in mind there are six players to a team with a MAXIMUM thirty minute time limit. A major thing to note is that living players start with 300 health, while skeletons only have 100, so you better move if someone dies. It's enough of an issue that there's usually less Waters found throughout the level than there are team members, but if a player collects a water when they already have one then it will vanish. This will often lead to frustration as six players are locked in a room with no way to revive their fallen comrades that are now only helping to diminish the timer.

This is a basic rundown of each character from the game.
- Soma - A multiple melee weapon (usually sword) wielder from the DS game Aria and Dawn of Sorrow who has a very interesting secret about his past. Soma will advance in levels by killing enemies to absorb there souls at random up to a total of nine levels. Soma may then use these souls to aid him in battle and the souls will get stronger the more times you absorb them from the enemies of each unique type. Occasionally if you're lucky enough and fall within the less than 5% you will receive the soul from the boss instead of an item that may or may not have been useful to aid in your quest. Soma is well known for being an extremely fast attacker an is considered beyond overpowered and unbalanced compared to the other selectable characters thanks to actually being far superior to his DS counterpart.

- Alucard - A ridiculously watered down version of the multiple melee weapon and shield user from the far superior game Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Alucard can wield many of the weapons that make Soma so famous but will be discarded in favor of Soma for lacking the ability to use souls. Instead Alucard will find his old spells from his past game but has forgotten how to use them properly. Each spell grows stronger as you find more copies of them in treasure chests for a total of nine levels.

- Shanoa - Poor... poor.. Shanoa.... what have they done to you? You were easily the most powerful character in a Castlevania game to date, but now have been cast aside in favor of a poor attempt to balance the game. Shanoa is the great bullet witch from Order of Ecclesia who lost her memory and her conscience as she easily put an end to Dracula and find her own soul along the way, but this... this is not her. Shanoa learns her powers by holding up on the control stick to reveal her sexy glyph absorbing tattoo on her back. She will use this ability to absorb glyphs from one of two enemies. One of them will only use one of the attacks at random, and once the glyph is absorbed, you can't absorb another one from the same enemy. Unlike the other two characters Shanoa doesn't level up her abilities by finding more copies of each spell, although this would have made up for butchering her entirely, Konami had more sadistic plans for her in mind. Each time you use one of her spells you will be awarded xp, the game does not tell you this, but it does give you an indication in the form of xp bars. Each successful hit in normal mode is worth 1xp, and on hard is worth 4xp. To completely max out each ability to the coveted level nine you need to acquire a total of 99,999 xp, luckily the shop does sell one useful item: The Master Ring. You can equip up to two of these master rings to raise the multiplier by 2x and 3x respectively, but it is still a tedious grind. Many players have discovered an exploit to leveling up faster using the games otherwise completely useless Survival Mode,

- Jonathan - The main star of Portrait of Ruin. If you've played that game and tried to select Jonathan here, you may notice something incredibly odd: Jonathan has this horrible mental condition that involves him forgetting how to put his whip down. Jonathan can only use the Vampire Killer whip as this version, and he can't even use it effectively. Like Alucard, Jonathan will find his sub-weapons hidden throughout random treasure chests but like Shanoa you're going to spend days of non-enjoyment leveling them up to the point where Jonathan can at least fool himself into thinking he's a contender.

- Charlotte - Charlotte is a witch who might as well be a duck. Sure she floats and she's made of wood, but she will never be able to defeat evil without the help of the mob. Charlotte is known as the non-love interest in Portrait of Ruin alongside Jonathan, she suffers the same fate of being completely watered down, and then watered down even further thanks to a patch because fans discovered a way to make her contend with Soma. Charlotte is armed with a book and a rapid mp consuming ability to learn certain spells from monsters after few to many attempts. Each spell can be learned a total of (surprise) nine times for maximum ability. Some of these abilities can only be learned from boss characters and can take a bit of frustration to obtain. And the ability she lost that I mentioned earlier? Charlotte is the only character in the game with the awesome ability to be able to heal the entire team, before the patch there was a way to equip an item that used health instead of mp to use magic, and Charlotte (along with the team) would gain more health back than the initial investment, making her invincible. After the patch took effect, the healing spell had a higher cost and healed for less, sealing her fate to once again becoming a jobber to the rest of the crew.

Each character has a determined amount of Health, magic, and other stats that can help them in their quests. Including the Luck stat, which has proven to be the most controversial topic in the history of any game I've ever played. Luck is intended to determine how easily you can obtain rare items, but just like the rest of the game, it's all completely left to speculation leading to some of the worst debates in gaming history and proving the driving force behind the horrible design in the game. Never before have I ever played a video game before that involved so many different theories and superstitions that add up to what is ultimately poor design.

- Visuals - Poor
Strange for a game that has made such a big statement about being known as "HD" is comprised of a collection of sprite rips from past games, two of them being from the 8-bit era. With that aside they get the job done as well as you would expect and play off to 2D castlevania's strengths, but the lack of a video filter is completely inexcusable the game can be viewed from 4 different camera settings. Full map shows off all of the objectives of the map in it's entirety of is completely unplayable in this method. Actual view is a 1:1 pixel ratio and the remaining two are zooming in 2x and 3x respectively. It doesn't exactly work though, as playing the game on a standard television set can prove to be straining on the eyes in anything but 3x and HDtvs will point out the glaring flaws in pixelation.

- Sound - Amazing
This is where the game truly shines, Konami may have skipped out on the budget for the visual department but they made up for it in spades with the audio. The new rock arranges of the old songs of games past were beautiful done and I'd like to see more games take this kind of approach in future games. Another great aspect is the voice overs. Konami did a really good thing here, and they realized that not everyone that owns a console has a headset, so they included a voice menu system. By the press of a button a circle will appear that houses a few phrases that your character can say, and depending on the character you chose, your character will speak based on the command you gave them. The characters will also speak during certain times when certain requirements are met, for example, when playing as Shanoa during a tough final guard battle, after a few hits in she will say "Wow, talk about tough." Go ahead and pat yourselves on the back Konami, the rest of your game may be needlessly frustrating, but you guys really pulled through here.

- Gameplay - seemingly non-existent
This is the really sad part of the review. This game had the potential to be a marvel in the Ccastlevania repertoire. Instead we have glitches, abysmal grinding, and design that promotes hatred within the gaming community when you get from a lobby because you weren't lucky enough or didn't farm hard enough to obtain a weapon by chance to help you further complete the quests, and a roster that is horribly unbalanced to favor one person to the point where it's not uncommon to see this one guy with six different palette swaps even after six more characters were released as DLC, bringing the total roster to 11. Note that these characters cost between $2.00 to $3.00 per character and many don't even deviate from Jonathan, a current existing character available from the original purchase of the game. It's frustrating to find a decent lobby online before succumbing to the relentless difficulty of the game or getting kicked if you don't meet the standard equipment requirements to advance. Be prepared to play the same later level hundreds of times to get nowhere. The only satisfaction will come when the game finally takes pity on you and gives you that weapon you deserved 4 hours ago, as the beginning levels of the game don't drop anything useful, therefore, not worth playing.

What could have made the game better?

Better survival mode:
In survival mode, you can unite with a friend (technically) against Gergoth, the boss of the first level. This mode is usually used as an exploit to level up sub weapons, but it would have been nice if you could have picked a boss other than Gergoth. It could not only have added variety, but also allowed you to practice against the much harder bosses you would encounter in the game. I personally wish this mode wouldn't have been included at all as it was obviously an afterthought, which then again allowed it to be exploited, which brings me to...

Better leveling system for sub-weapons:
They should have made it worth a lot more xp to kill an enemy with a sub-weapon instead of the frustrating mess we ended up with: Hitting a slow walking ugly beyond human comprehension monster for hours on end. Why did we do it? Because if we didn't we got kicked out of lobbies.

Better/more drops:
Killing a boss in hard mode is frustrating and difficult, but it's necessary if you want to be a contender, but going through all of that sweat that may have taken you twenty minutes to accomplish only to net you a cape that you already have the maximum number of that you can't even sell at the useless shop or a food item is a mean joke played on us by Konami. It's unacceptable in the worst form. The gold chest should have had much better drops or even better, drop at least 3 different things.

Removal of the timer:
I understand that there was supposed to be an arcade feel to the game, but not like this. Causing contention between players because someone who was lacking skill decided to go with the rest of the prepared group ends up getting killed multiple times running down the timer as a skeleton is not good game design.

Water of Life:
These should not have existed. In fact, Skeleton form should not have existed, when you die you should have just gone back to the start, unless...

Retro difficulty:
I understand gamers want a challenge, but there's a huge difference between challenging and just plain horribly frustrating. Konami revisits its old school roots of making hard difficulty reminiscent of it's NES days. Normally this is great, but Battletoads didn't sell well for a reason; forcing heavy difficulty in a game that promotes teamwork does not work. Hard difficulty should exist, but it should have existed in between normal and Retro. That does NOT mean that Retro would have it's own set of items to obtain, just a harder difficulty for those extremists.

Balanced Characters:
A team of Somas actually has a name, they're known as The Power Rangers. 'nuff said.

Less Useless Shop:

If you purchase the game and all of the DLCs, your total will come to exactly $50.00, which is more than most full priced games, with only a fraction of the content. I've made the solid choice to never pick up the game again unless Konami decides to fix it through a patch and actually make it good. This is in my opinion the first real blemish of the Castlevania name since the days of the Nintendo 64, and it's really sad too because this game had a LOT of amazing ideas, it just had a very poor way of executing it, and it should have been destined for greatness. Instead it was just a cheap cash in for Konami.... and I fell for it. I did not, however, purchase any of the DLC characters, except for Fuma cause he was the cheapest non-whip user available for purchase.

Strongly recommended to avoid, but the Soundtrack to the game is definitely worth looking into.

Rating:   1.5 - Bad

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

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