Castlevania fans may be the most divided fan base to ever support a long running franchise. The first few Castlevania games were very straight-forward, yet challenging, action adventure titles. In 1997, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night changed everything by taking the old formula, adding in a wealth of RPG elements, and making Dracula's Castle one connected sprawling world. Now there are two sets of fans -- those who love the old style, and those that love the Metroid-like RPGs that came afterwords. And while Koji Igarashi and his team have done a bang up job of keeping the Metroidvania formula fresh since 1997 (with the debatable exception of his 3d outings), declining sales has led Konami to place the main series in the hands of another developer. It appears this decision has allowed for Igarashi and his team to try something new.
Castlevania: Harmony of Despair (XBLA)
Developer: Team IGA
Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is a blend of both old and new styles of Castlevania. It combines the timed stage structure of the old games with the freedom and RPG elements of the newer iterations. The twist is that now players can explore the fabled castle with up to five of their friends. Multiplayer Castlevania is a vision that Igarashi toyed with back in Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin; but now his team has turned this idea into a fully realized Xbox Live Arcade title. Varied character styles and skills systems, an addictive loot grind, and smart co-op design choices make Castlevania: Harmony of Despair one of the best titles released this year. This is also one of the most refreshing changes to the formula the series has seen in over a decade.
The five playable characters in Harmony of Despair are far from sprite swaps. Each character not only fights very differently, but all have unique ways of obtaining and leveling up their skills or spells. While Soma has a chance to obtain souls from each of his felled enemies and bosses, Charlotte must use her magical shield to absorb magical spells from her foes. Shanoa still needs to absorb glyphs from her enemies, while Jonathan and Alucard get their sub weapons and spells from enemy drops. Harmony of Despair is surprisingly successful at maintaining the basic mechanics and feel of each of the character's respective games.
My biggest concern upon hearing about the mulitplayer focus of Harmony of Despair was that the characters would be locked into preset load-outs. The wealth of equipment options was one of the best additions to the post Symphony Era Castlevanias. Well, there is no shortage of loot in this game. The equipment is plentiful, with items both character and gender specific. Most of the memorable items from previous Castlevanias are in this game, including Soma's rocket launcher and Alucard's god-like Crissaegrim. But instead of grinding on the same enemy over and over hoping to get a drop, Harmony of Despair introduces chests that contain randomized loot. Taking inspiration from Diablo 2, the game uses the potential for amazing drops as motivation for repeated play-throughs. And because bosses have the chance to drop the rarest and most sought after weapons and accessories, Harmony of Despair encourages running through a level repeatedly in order to get the boss chest. Boss runs are what make Blizzard's dungeon crawler so addictive, and they have the same effect in this game. Luckily, any chest opened on a map is divided amongst all living player characters. Loot whores rejoice.
It should also be noted that, despite what other reviews are reporting, this game still contains the RPG trappings of the other Metroidvanias. While at a first glance it appears that character stats are only affected by equipment, there are unique leveling mechanics for each of then different characters. For example, the effects of Soma's souls get stronger the more he absorbs. Jonathan and Charlotte's abilities get stronger with use, which has the hidden benefit of also raising their physical attack power. Charlotte's attack is similar, but she needs to keep absorbing spells with her shield to get more powerful. Alucard's spells also get stronger each time he receives a new spell scroll. It is this consistent and persistent growth that keep players attached to their character -- a feeling similarly experienced in the Castlevania games these characters arrived from.
Playing alone is definitely not the optimal way of experiencing Harmony of Despair. Not just because the game is more difficult, but because the levels and bosses are designed around muliplayer. In fact, enemies do scale in difficulty with more players in a game; but what makes the multiplayer so much more enjoyable is the well crafted co-op scenarios. Each stage is huge and contains multiple routes to the stage boss. And while teams will want to split up in order to collect all of the stage's loot chests, there are other more significant reasons a team will need to break up. And most of the reasons revolve around the games well designed boss fights. In one level, two of the players will need orient beams of light at each sides of the map, while the rest of the team tries to lure the stage boss into the cross section of the two beams. In another level, team members will be spread out in order to effective work and trigger an elaborate trap to knock down the stage's gigantic boss. And with the exception of the last level and boss, every stage in Harmony of Despair has these sprawling co-op scenarios for the teams to deal with.
And while it does seem like it would have been cool exploring one giant map with multiple players, the timed stage structure is key in making Castlevania: Harmony of Despair a great co-op game. At first glance, the stage timer seems like an annoyance that hinders players from fully exploring a given level. But it actually ties into one of the smartest design choices in the game. Harmony of Despair handles player death is one of the most creative ways I've seen in a multiplayer setting. First off, 30 minutes is more than enough time to fully explore a level while killing everything, including the bosses. That is, of course, assuming you don't die. When killed in multiplayer, players become the same bone throwing skeletons they've steam-rolled over countless times. And as a skeleton, you become just as frail. Die as a skeleton, and the team loses 2 minutes off the stage timer. Teammates can bring skeletons back to life, but only if they are carrying one of the few precious revival items located on each map. This system encourages teamwork and keeps everyone in the action without having any member waiting for everyone else to beat the level.
It's these multiplayer scenarios and design choices that make Harmony of Despair feel like much more than just a Metroidvania with multiple players. From top to bottom, the changes that were made to the Castlevania formula were towards the goal of making this series enjoyable with friends. And to that end, Koji Igarashi and his team were wholly successful.
I also can't stress enough just how much replayability value is packed into this downloadable game. Getting through all 6 stages on both Normal and Hard Modes with just one of the six characters takes long enough; but like any good multiplayer RPG, it's jealousy that drives multiple play-throughs. Seeing your friends with new weapons and skills tearing through enemies and bosses faster than your character can is that sick effect we all experience in these types of games. Not playing Harmony of Despair tonight? Well, looks like Billy is going to get that sweet sword you've been trying to get all week before you. ARGH! I've finally manage to ween myself off the game until the DLC is released, but I've probably spent more time with Harmony of Despair than I have any game released this year.
Castlevania: Harmony of Despair certainly isn't without its annoyances. In an interview, Igarashi claimed that the aesthetic of this game was an attempt to tap in 32 bit sprite nostalgia. And while I certainly love the look of retro games, I hardly believe this claim. Sure the game looks like 1997's Symphony of the Night -- but so do all the other handheld Castlevanias that have released since then. It's hard to feel nostalgic about assets used in a game that came out 2 years ago. And nearly all of the art in Harmony of Despair is taken from the Castlevania games that appeared on the DS over the past several years. There is even a weird imbalance in the playable character sprites. Soma, who comes from the first DS Castlevania, not only looks far less detailed than the other characters, but he's even a bit smaller. The whole look of the game feels very sloppy. Castlevania deserves better on consoles. But if Konami isn't willing to give this team the time or the money it needs to make a better looking game, then this is what we are stuck with.
But perhaps the biggest problem with this game is a severe lack of explanation combined with an idiotic menu interface. The reason a lot of reviewers are reporting a lack of character growth is simply because there really isn't any visual feedback to indicate as such. The only indicator that a character's abilities are even growing is a tiny green bar viewable only in the menu -- a menu that can only be accessed between levels or at very specific points on the map. There is also stat growth that isn't tracked even in menus. Zero explanation is given as to how or why Jonathan, Charlotte, or Shanoa's weapons naturally get stronger. It's a pretty bone headed design flaw, and one that could have been solved by a simple level up indicator. And not to nitpick, but by far the dumbest menu oddity is that, between missions, the option that allows players to view and equip their character's abilities is called 'Main Menu'. Yeah... 'Main Menu'. If the player spends enough time in the game, these issues soon evaporate; but it's understandable why Harmony of Despair isn't very welcoming to newcomers.
If multiplayer is the sole future for 2d Castlevania, the fans will certainly divide once again. I consider Symphony of the Night one of the finest games ever pressed to disc, and I would never want that style of Castlevania to go away. But I'm in love with this new experience. Konami needs to give Igarasgi a bigger budget, a larger team, and more time to let this vision truly flourish. Add this as a multiplayer mode to a new fully realized Metroid-style single player Castlevania game, and a full priced 2d Castlevania will make a perfect retail package. Harmony of Despair was not the game I wanted when I imagined the 2d return to consoles, but I fell in love anyways. Now I need both types of Castlevania in my life. Get to work Konami.
92 out of 100
Great co-op level design and bosses
Excellent character variety
Addictive loot system
Tons of replayability
Stupid Menu Interface
Game doesn't explain things very well
Visuals could and should be way better
Soma is a midget sprite