Castlevania: Harmony of Despair Review

Developer: Konami / Publisher: Konami / ESRB: Teen (Blood and Gore, Fantasy Violence, Mild Language, Mild Suggestive Themes) / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $15.00

Good evening. And welcome to another episode of the Video Game Review. I’m your host with the ghost, Chris Lockey. Xbox LIVE goes undead with Castlevania: Harmony of Despair, this year’s Summer of Arcade sensation from Konami. With a focus on cooperative gameplay, Castlevania HD is somewhat of a departure for the franchise of a thousand fiends. Will it emerge from the shadows of its successors? Stay tuned as we storm the gates of Dracula’s famed Devil Castle.

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Story

The song remains the same in Harmony of Despair. Time and space have collided as five legendary Castlevania heroes converge upon Dracula’s infamous living castle. There isn’t much of a narrative at work in Castlevania HD. Perhaps “Castlevania All-Stars” is a more appropriate title for this souped-up amalgam of classic CV characters and settings. In this respect, the game relies on Castlevania’s rich tradition and the virtual celebrity of its most famed protagonists.

The cast they’ve assembled is worthy of fan-boy favor, including Jonathan Morris and Charlotte Aulin from Portrait of Ruin, Shanoa of the Order of Ecclesia, Soma Cruz from the Sorrow series, and Symphony of the Night’s prodigal son Alucard. These six luminaries will join forces to crush a collection of Castlevania’s most iconic beasties and bosses as they carve their way to the big bad Count himself.

Story? Who needs one when you’ve got two decades of history to fall back on… right?

Gameplay

This incarnation of Dracula’s castle features up to six players controlling five characters over six levels of classic 2D action-adventure platforming. You must avoid deadly obstacles, slay otherworldly horrors, and penetrate the innermost sanctums to defeat each boss in under 30 minutes (essentially a beefed-up version of “Boss Rush” style gameplay). Konami has jettisoned the more recent level-up, experience point mechanics in favor of an inventory-based advancement. The idea is to keep playing and playing. And playing.

The key thing here — and something I instantly rebelled against — is that Castlevania HD exists first as a multiplayer game, with single-player taking a backseat to the cooperative or competitive experience of Xbox LIVE. As a result, the single-player game is at times frustratingly difficult; and with a full party of six the multiplayer becomes ridiculously easy.

As a Castlevania enthusiast, I’m turned off by the fact that I can’t enjoy a horror-themed action adventure game all by my lonesome. And to top it off, you can’t pause the game. Ever. The single-player game is obviously an afterthought that deserved more TLC in development.

Graphics & Sound

Visually, Harmony of Despair is perfectly at home on Xbox LIVE Arcade. It’s a pixelated recreation of the art styles from the various Nintendo DS titles over the past few years. All of your favorite icons and enemies are presented in glorious high definition while maintaining the classic art direction Castlevania fans have come to know and love.

Castlevania HD’s hallmark is the ability to zoom in or out from a traditional view to a full scale vista of each level in its entirety. Frenzied, full party multiplayer sessions would be nigh impossible without this feature, which is also helpful for the single-player as you navigate your way through Dracula’s circuitous castle. Unfortunately, this ability to see the entire map obliterates the mystique of the unknown and significantly diminishes the game’s gothic horror element.

And while the castle and its crusaders are depicted in all their shiny HD glory, the game’s menu and inventory screens feel dirt cheap and underdeveloped. It’s a stigma that haunts too many XBLA titles and, quite frankly, Castlevania should have done better by its fans.

The game’s sound, on the other hand, is impeccable as always. Castlevania is traditionally exalted for its searing goth-rock scores and Harmony of Despair satisfies all expectations on this front.

Bottom Line

Behind the camera gimmicks and mass market appeal is a game that will satisfy fans of classic action-adventure gaming. Although I’ve got my own preconceptions about what a Castlevania game should be, the more I play Harmony of Despair the more I enjoy what sets it apart from the rest of the franchise. But that doesn’t forgive its shortcomings. The half-baked single player game really sours the experience. And the all-star cast of characters and enemies, while classic, fails to provide anything new. (Even the boss battles are rehashed). The game feels smaller than any other Castlevania to date. And while rumors of supplemental DLC abound, the standard issue is just a little too standard for such an innovative powerhouse franchise. Personally, I’m looking forward to the next resurrection.

7/10

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