Castlevania: Harmony of Despair brings followers of the series back to their roots with 2D stage-based adventuring and a familiar cast of characters. Fanboys and girls everywhere can step into the shoes of their favorite Castlevania character to race through six loot-driven stages. Where this game lacks in the storyline and opportunity for exploration that its predecessors are so known for, it makes up for in excellent multiplayer and excellent replay value.
The most memorable and perhaps most appealing feature of Harmony of Despair is the ability to choose from a plethora of previous Castlevania characters. These characters include Soma Cruz, Alucard, Jonathon Morris and Charlotte. The PSN version of the game also includes Yoko Belnades and Julius Belmont (offered as additional DLC for Xbox players). Other downloadable characters include Richter Belmont, Maria Renard, Simon Belmont and Getsu Fuma. Each of these characters has unique abilities and no one character is levelled up in the same way. For example, Richter and Julius become more powerful through the levelling up of sub-weapons. On the other hand, Alucard and Soma equip various weapons to increase attack power. This allows players to experience the game differently through each of these characters and makes subsequent playthroughs of the levels that much more appealing. Playing the game as Alucard is an entirely different experience than playing as Julius.
The gameplay is straight-forward. Players are given thirty minutes in which they are to race through a given map, killing monsters and collecting as much treasure as possible before coming to the boss. It is like a light version of previous 2D games. Instead of fleshing out maps and sifting through every corner of every room, Harmony of Despair forces players to rush from room to room to boss. At times, this can prove to be a little frustrating especially when trying visit all the areas of the map only to have the clock tick down to zero.
There are six stages in all and the last stage ends with players facing off against the count himself. As a result, Harmony of Despair is a very short game. A game that can be completed in a few hours on a rainy afternoon. Still, Konami makes up for this in the endless quest to find better loot. It feels a bit like end-game MMOs insofar that players run through the same stages over and over again looking for that one ring that will allow them to perform somersaults while snacking on a sandwich and humming the theme to the Simpsons. It sounds tiresome, but somehow Konami makes it work by adding in a little multiplayer fun.
It is important to mention that for a game whose experience relies so heavily on online gameplay there are some glaring flaws with the system. It is extremely difficult to get into an online game. Players will find themselves searching for games, entering them, only to be kicked out before the game even begins. It might be a half hour or more before players are finally able to connect to a game. So please bring along a book or magazine to pass the time between online stages. Once a stage finally starts succesfully there are few, if any, hiccups. Co-operative gameplay allows players to work together to navigate difficult obstacles, fight bosses, and even collect chests that would not be accessible during a single-player session.
There is no plot that bears mentioning. A few of the stages have some small amount of voice-acting and the game does follow the traditional storm Castle Dracula to kill the count, but aside from that it really is just a collection of maps to race through. The graphics are crisp and the character sprites are quite detailed. Each characters has eight different ‘variations’ to choose from – so if two fangirls want to pick Alucard one can be pink and the other black.
The dynamic function of the map also bears mentioning. At the beginning of each stage, the entire map is displayed and the final target pointed out. As characters traverse each stage they are able to zoom out or move the map from side to side to see what comes ahead — all without interrupting gameplay. This keeps gameplay moving, which is important in a race against the clock. The new map system also allows the game to be played when zoomed out so all the map can be displayed and the pathway to the boss is easily discerned.
Overall, the combination of a unique set of characters each with difference abilities to level and the chance to play Castlevania online with all the other fangirls and boys makes this game a must-have for hardcore fans. However, some of the best levels and characters are available only through DLC so be prepared to invest some money in all those little extras to truly experience the game. This game certainly will not be remembered as a paragon of the Castlevania series, but it plays well and it feels like a Castlevania game should.