Castlevania as a series has had an interesting predicament. Most of the 3D versions since the Nintendo 64 era and onwards seem to have been tragically doomed to be less than stellar. The Metroid-style exploration games in the series from Symphony of The Night (1997) to the more recent Order of Ecclesia (2008) for a little over a decade have garnered a cult following. Keep in mind, that Symphony of The Night didn’t have a “successor” until 2001 on the Game Boy Advance with Castlevania: Circle of the Moon. That says something about a series that has been hit with a schism over 2D versus 3D.
At E3 this year, Konami and Microsoft had announced for the Summer of Live event Castlevania: Harmony of Despair would be coming out to the Xbox 360 on August 4th, 2010. The game boasted epic levels for you to raid through with up to 5 friends and an epic cross-over of characters. The character roster has Alucard (Symphony of the Night), Soma Cruz (Aria of Sorrow), Jonathan Morris and Charlotte Aulin (Portrait of Ruin), and Shanoa (Order of Ecclesia). Konami also stated that the game will have support in the future for new characters and maps, as well. From what it sounded like, it was a promising game already. At the cost of 1,200 Microsoft Points ($15), it didn’t sound like a bad deal at all.
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Yesterday (8/4/2010) for me was probably one of the longest Castlevania binges I have ever had in a long while. Keep in mind, the last game in the “Metroid-vania” (slang for Metroid-style Castlevania) series I had played was Portrait of Ruin. I had played that to 100% completion before I had sold it and my entire portable gaming collection for college tuition in 2008. I was in a party with 5 other friends from 7:30am – 2:30pm just trying to complete the game. I will start off this review with a warning – Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is a VERY multiplayer centric game, play nice with your fellow players or recruit friends to play with you. With that out of the way, let’s get into the review!
The game is portrayed in 2D much like the respective Castlevania games it pays tribute to. The “HD” polish comes more in the way of the game’s backgrounds. Those and some magic attacks are rendered in HD with 2D sprites all over animating the game. Some of the enemies, items, and weapons veteran players will remember from their respective games. A few of the levels are directly taken from some of the older games directly too. Unfortunately, those hoping for an epic story of good and evil will be disappointed as there is no story in Harmony of Despair. The game is paced out like a “Boss Rush” time attack mode in previous Castlevania games. There are a total of 6 maps with a timer ticking at 30 minutes a map. I’ll explain map penalties later on. The game is DLC enabled so there are potential future characters and maps that maybe be available to download/purchase later.
The characters are something else. Castlevania fans, be prepared to be disappointed for this bombshell: The characters are NOT like what you remember them in any form or fashion. They have been condensed down to basic template and some special skills differing them from other characters. I say some skills because due to the nature of the game being so small in data size, the characters don’t have all of their skill sets. To illustrate, let me dissect Alucard for you:
Alucard has a short range due to his limitations with swords and shields.
He is limited on shapeshifting… He can only turn into mist-form only for a brief second.
There is no relic to upgrade duration or add the poison-gas-cloud ability.
He has wolf-form but only as a “sweep” attack and bat-form is missing.
Only 4 of his spells are in this game and CANNOT be performed with the “Street Fighter” key combinations.
Spells in question are Summon Spirit, Tetra Spirit, Dark Metamorphasis, and Soul Steal.
Spells are assigned to the following commands: Y, Up+Y, Left/Right+Y, Down+Y
Spells are leveled up from picking up extra copies of scrolls.
Leveled up spells also slightly boost Alucard’s stats
Alucard has no familiars.
Alucard cannot use sub-weapons (axe, holy water, cross, stopwatch, etc)
From these changes, Alucard is terribly fragile and weak versus some of his other vampire-hunter companions. Each character has their own nuances and leveling them is a different story for each character. Alucard has to pick up multiple copies of his spells to raise his stats and increase the strength of his spells. Some other characters like Jonathan luck out and just have to kill enemies with their skills just to level up. This makes it a bit of a chore to level up a character to be somewhat decent or able to take on enemies. Respectively, each character has their own pieces of gear that they can use while other characters cannot. On the other hand some of the other characters have become extremely overpowered. In my opinion, Konami could have done a better job balancing things out. Also character control is slightly clumsy due to these controls.
Another sticking point about character controls is that unlike past Metroid-vania games, you cannot access your inventory in real time. You have to stop at a checkpoint tome to adjust gear/add healing items. Got a new sword or piece of gear? You can’t equip it and lay down the beatings, you have to find a tome. Are you dying with 5HP to your name but a stack of High Potions are in your inventory? You’d best hope your friends cleared out the monsters before the checkpoint or you’re a dead vampire-hunter. To make matters worse, you are still vulnerable to attacks at the tome. If a cloaked Imp followed you and you’re near death, you can get killed trying to find/bind that potion you were searching for. Restorative item use is a odd story, you have to bind the item to your character before you use them. After the healing item is bound, you have to hold the left trigger to bring up a dialogue box stating what item you have that will have a confirmation dialogue saying “Press right trigger to use”. A tip I will share with you all is if you do use Potions, High Potions, and Super Potions, let your team know and have them gather around you as they do have a radius that can heal them as well as yourself.
Items and loot, for the most part, still work like they did in previous games. Much like previous games, some weapons do have special abilities. The sword Agni’s Flame, for example, detonates an explosive wave from the player who has it equipped when they input the command down, down-forward, forward+attack. Other weapons have very similar commands as well, so try them out and see what they do! Treasure chests are quite interesting as they work a little differently. On opening a chest, every player benefits as they will get a random item that is appropriate to their character. This is good as a explorative team will knock out as many chests as possible and help everyone with getting items. Blue chests are a different story. In single player, they just give out your standard treasure. In multiplayer, they contain a Water of Life vial which helps revive a downed teammate. As the past Castlevanias have done, you are able to go shopping for items and sell off your items as well. The odd thing about selling items is that there are some items that do not allow the player to sell them. An example is the Moonstone which I have 4 copies of, but I can’t sell them. Thankfully there is no inventory limit, so I am not quite as upset. As with some items, the rare ones are hard to find and the easier ones either drop plentifully or can be bought at the store.
Game play is the bulk of this game. The maps are huge. A game will usually start with a notice of where the boss is with a “Target” notice plastered close to them and the map zoomed out. Some monsters also do not stay still or have limited attacks. Gergoth is a good example as its death-ray attack can shoot through walls of the castle. The game gives you 3 levels of map-zoom… From “real size”, 2x, 3x, they indicate how big/limited your viewing range is. “Real” is the semi-standard view of your character and the majority of the room you are currently in. The 2x setting gives you about a 9 block view of your room and the rooms around you; while the 3x view gives you the entire map. In the 2x and 3x settings, you also get to view where your teammates are and how much HP they have as an indicator. In the real setting, you just see a character portrait and their respective HP/MP meters as well as if they are carrying a recovery item, Water of Life, or if they are dead. The magnification levels are controlled with a tap on the right analog stick and the player is able to shift their view to a limited degree by pushing the analog nub to a respective direction. There is one caveat with the “real size” magnification being that if your teammates are away from you, you see a moving portrait of their character. This can be a pain in sections that require a clear view to make jumps on to platforms. The game does not provide a half way solution of smaller proximity icons in the options. Instead you either have the option of on or off.
I will say that this game HIGHLY encourages cooperation and can’t stress that enough. Anti-social players be damned, you’ll have to learn how to talk with your teammates for coordination. Coordination is also very important for one big thing, Dual Crashes. A concept seen back in Portrait of Ruin, this allows 2 player characters to team up for a super attack that will consume 50MP. They all range in their usefulness from a distance bullet attack or a proximity range killer magic attack. Coordination with your fellow spell casters is very essential as they are capable of limited healing and distance attacks with spells. Coordination is also required in some portions of maps to open switches to allow your teammates to go through areas safely. Bosses even more so because the more players you have in a game (up to 6 total players), the larger amount of HP they will have as well as more varied tactics. The maps also seem to be heavily centric on multiplayer even though they can be completed as a single player game. Map 3 is seriously guilty of this as the boss is a towering monster and equipped with a few thousand HP. This boss is close to impossible for your melee characters and a very tedious one to beat with spell casters. A good communicative team will also be watching the clock, because if times runs out, it’s game over.
Dying in multiplayer games puts players in a unique predicament. The player becomes a skeleton with a halo (with 100 HP) and a tombstone around where they die. When the player dies, they lose time for completing the map and return to the tombstone where they came from. The undead player can only be saved by Water of Life. Skeleton players are also ineligible for items in treasure chest and any food items you consumed that gave you stat boosts in the level are negated. The stat boosts don’t return even after a player has used a Water of Life on you. The time penalty is very costly for dying as a skeleton at 1 death removing about 1 minute and 30 seconds of time. This is made even harder as the skeleton’s limited attack range with a bone is very short and also the undead player is completely unable to crouch. This makes bosses like Dracula in his third form a very cheap and powerful boss as some of his ranged attacks require you to crouch to avoid them. A full party with 5 skeletons can whittle away your time quickly if enemies and bosses get multiple kills on undead players. The skeleton predicament does have a limitation as 1 party member must be alive to clear a stage. If all party members die and become skeletons, it’s game over too. Of course, death is just death in single player which is a bit of a given. I do feel some of the bosses could definitely benefit from rebalancing as some of them tend to lead parties to quick and inescapable deaths, but that’s my personal opinion.
The game has some fun achievements and the fact that if you play with good friends, the replay value is very high. Add that on beating the game on “Normal” mode (which feels like hard mode), you get a Hard Mode option to replay the game with more savage enemies and better loot. The store also ends up stocking a few more items as well in hard mode. Despite some of the flaws this game has, I still like it. With a possibility of more maps and zones to raid on top of potentially more characters, it could still remain really fun later on. The price (1,200 points) for how short the game is I feel is on the fair side, rather than it being a deal for a game that lasted about 5-7 hours on an initial play through.
This game sadly falls on the “Love It or Hate It” category as Castlevania fans will no-doubt love it and other potential fans may be on the other side of the fence. I will personally recommend it for any die-hard Castlevania fans as they will love the challenge of storming castles and maps with up to 5 friends as well as raiding treasure chests for awesome gear. Casual players I would recommend trying out the demo before playing as that will let you know how to spend your points. Anti-social players who’d rather play alone may find the game a little frustrating but do-able alone, although they may find that they will not have enough time or people to reach all the treasure chests in a castle/zone. The game also does not allow for local multiplayer (i.e. 1 xbox, multiple players).
[Castlevania was purchased on Xbox Live for 1,200 points. Total time played on the game is close to 13 hours with a majority spent on Alucard. Thanks goes out to my friends who played with me most of the time of the review and helped me beat the game on normal difficulty. E3 teaser trailer from the Konami YouTube channel. Screenshots provided from Microsoft’s Xbox press kit page.]