Reviewing Harmony of Despair has been quite a challenging experience. As fans of the 2D Castlevania games, the idea of a gorgeously high-def sequel packed with the coolest heroes and villains from the past several games sounded like a dream come true. But when it was revealed to be a six-player grindfest that tasks you with entering the same levels over and over again in a near-futile attempt to beat a boss a billion times stronger than you, the interest level understandably dipped.
But after several hours spent in co-op play, it’s fair to say that Despair is actually quite enjoyable in groups, and a concept that once seemed so contrary to the essence of Castlevania turns out to be a welcome shake-up of a series that’s been treading water for years.
Above: Four classic Castlevania heroes tackling two nasty enemies
As we hinted at earlier, the game is built around six massive maps that you (and ideally one or more friends) enter with only basic equipment. The goal is to navigate the immense area until you find and defeat the boss, who’s likely so powerful he’ll annihilate your party on the first outing. But, everything you collect during the trip, from money to be spent in the store to weapons and armor found in treasure chests, is retained for the next attempt. Thus begins the grind – repeatedly re-entering the same levels to gain money for better equipment, more random treasure chests and to see what relatively valuable item drop the boss may have.
There’s another wrinkle – each of the game’s playable characters has specific skills that are bolstered with repeated use, so the more you stick with one character and weapon layout, the stronger you’ll become over time. Longtime Castlevania fans will recognize the heroes and their powers: Soma Cruz steals monsters’ souls and uses them in battle (Dawn of Sorrow); Alucard gains various offensive and defensive spells (Symphony of the Night); Shanoa absorbs glyph magic from certain enemies and can cling to metal objects (Order of Ecclesia); Jonathon has the Vampire Killer whip and can power up the classic Castlevania weapons, such as dagger, cross and axe (Portrait of Ruin); And Charlotte, much like Shanoa, absorbs magic from particular enemies with her spell book (also Portrait of Ruin).
The only downside is the way in which you track each fighter’s progress – the menus aren’t overly helpful, and the game does very little to teach you how to read its various stats and progress meters.
Above: The zoomed-out view lets you see the whole map, plus every enemy, treasure chest and even the boss
The good news is that all the loot you gather is shared among everyone on the map. So if Shanoa opens a chest six floors up, she gets something suited for her while Alucard receives some type of goody as well. Soma Cruz is especially aided by this, as his power grows with each new soul collected, and enemies killed by your friends count towards that total. After a few trips through, you’ll all be sufficiently powered-up, able to tackle the boss and move on to the next map – and likely get your ass handed to you all over again.
Furthermore, playing in groups gives you faster and better access to the full map. Certain levers open doors or douse obtrusive flames that are several rooms away, which leads to a lot of backtracking. With two or three people in tow, one can flip the switch, another can wait by the door and move through, and the third can focus on gathering Water of Life, a special pickup that lets you revive a fallen friend. Players four and five can start clearing the boss area of additional enemies or go scouring for chests. So, with friends, you’re able to access more of the map, gain levels faster and accumulate money at an accelerated rate, plus orchestrate plans to tackle the crushingly tough bosses in record time. Without a doubt, that’s the way the play, but there are still issues that bring it all down.
The glaringly obvious fault of Despair is its single-player experience. Going alone, as previously mentioned, is a slog in the worst kind of way. With no friends to help beat back the monsters, discover alternate paths or collect additional loot, it quickly descends into mind-numbing madness. Oh it’s playable, but it’s about as fun as running through Monster Hunter all by yourself. There’s also the fact that each time you die you have to go through the whole level all over again (no saving progress, no pausing the game), which is expected from a grindy game, but much easier to deal with in groups.
Above: This boss is a huge, huge asshole, demanding multiple fights
Despair also imposes an artificial 30-minute time limit for each trip into a map. Not sure what the purpose of this, as we never once ran up against the clock, but because of this time limit you can’t pause or even look at the Xbox guide menu without the game continuing to run. It’s even more annoying when you’re trying to equip new items mid-mission (only at designated stations, not any time you like by the way), you’re five menus deep and suddenly hear your character being assaulted by enemies that walked right up to you. Doesn’t help that the menus themselves are a confusing mess – “Main Menu” actually takes you the character equip screen, not the game’s Main Menu. Um, clarification next time would be nice.
Above: The mid-view zooms out just enough to see the surrounding rooms
Finally, hitting the Back button brings up a series of pre-set voice prompts, which you can select and yell out to your group. But in the age of headsets and Xbox Live Party, why do we need “Oops!” and “Thank You” commands? This isn’t a 1997 LAN party, it’s 2010 with voice chat. Why is this even a feature?
Some of these complaints are trivial – the voice prompts, for example, don’t actually hurt anything, they’re just weird. But the focus on online multiplayer to the point of outright gutting the solo experience (or even split-screen play) makes this tough to recommend for anyone who doesn’t have two to three Castlevania-starved friends on Xbox Live. On the flip side, if you loved the DS entries, and have some pals who share your passion for Koji Igarashi’s take on the series, there’s still a whole lot of fun to be had.
Would we have preferred a new 2D, HD Castlevania that employed stunning new sprites instead of recycled heroes, villains and environments from the past 13 years? Hell yes. Does that make this game inherently bad for not being what we hoped? Definitely not. Just be aware of what you’re getting yourself into.
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