Castlevania has been a series with enough ups and downs for a rollercoaster. The series became a classic on the SNES, released a truly stellar game with Symphony of the Night back on the PSOne only to follow it up with some mediocre offerings for the rest of the generation. However, with the recent success of the Castlevania titles on the DS it appeared that the vampire hunting series was back and better than ever. The newest game in the series, Harmony of Darkness, is being released as part of the Xbox Live Summer of Arcade program and appears to be Konami's attempt to bring this side-scrolling success to consoles. Unfortunately, Harmony of Darkness manages to be more frustrating than fun and will likely take its place with some of the other low points in vampire slaying history.
Harmony of Despair doesn't care much about story, basically throwing you into the fire right away without much of an explanation of what's going on. Sure, there is a one or two paragraph write up of what is going on, but that isn't fleshed out throughout the game. The story isn't really missed, as you probably aren't buying an arcade game for its quality story.
Instead of a full story tied together by a trip through a single castle, the latest Castlevania title spreads the game out over six chapters. Each of these chapters is a environment which revolves around reaching a target (the boss) and killing it. Other than that slight change, the gameplay is classic retro hack n' slash, mixing platforming sections with brief (and violent) encounters with zombies, skeletons, giant ent-like things and much more. Although they aren't terribly deep (combat is mapped to two buttons), the core game mechanics function pretty well (with some occasional hiccups) and create the foundation for what could have been a fun game.
Unfortunately, the wheels sort of fall off from there. Before every level starts, you get an fully zoomed out look at the level you'll be playing through. You can also zoom out to get this view at any point in time to get your bearings on exactly where you are in relation to your target. Unfortunately, zooming out doesn't help you all that much, as the levels are a dizzying array of levers, blocked passages, and dead ends. As a result, chapters are often times an aggravating exercise in trial and error as you go down one passageway after another, hoping to find the correct series of tunnels, switches, and levers to bring you to the chapter's boss. This is made more frustrating by the fact that at times it isn't possible to tell what a given lever operates, resulting in a level state which isn't easily dealt with down the road.
This level design certainly isn't helped by the fact that the platforming can at times be a little wonky, as jumps which should be easy become inexplicably impossible. Trouble platforming makes it even more difficult to reach particular parts of the level, furthering the frustration that is already brewing from reaching constant dead ends. On the bright side, the open level design combined with relatively large levels allows for a lot of exploration, as even dead ends will lead to new items in the form of scrolls, magic, or items.
The ability to explore the castle is all well and good in theory, however it is hampered by the fact that every level is a timed affair. For some reason Konami decided it was a good idea to limit your time on a level to 30 minutes, after which point you fail. After playing through any chapter once or twice, the clock doesn't really become a factor, as you should be able to reach the boss in under 10 minutes. Nonetheless, the presence of a time limit does inhibit any desire to go explore that the game engenders as there is always the thought that something could go wrong and you will fail on time.
Perhaps the worst part about the countdown clock is that it only stops if you go into your settings. Otherwise, if you just pause the game, bring up the guide, or go into one of the inventory management screens it will keep running. Seriously Konami? Do you think that we don't have lives outside of this game? Do you think we will never need to take phone calls or get hungry mid level?
Even worse than this the continually running time is that not only the clock, but everything else in the game keeps running when you pause the game as well. Although this may not seem to be a big deal, the fact is that you can be attacked and die while the game is paused. Yes you read that correctly, you can pause the game, run to take a phone call, come back and and find your character dead with a big old "failed" on the screen. I can understand making that choice in multiplayer, but in single player it just screams unnecessary excess difficulty
All of these flaws would create some frustration, however, they are made unbearable by one simple fact: there is no in-level save system. Much like Eminem, you have one shot and one opportunity to beat each chapter or you have to restart it all over again (okay, maybe those weren't his exact words). This isn't much of a problem going through the meat of the level, as the enemies in Harmony of Despair are varied but not terribly difficult. Where it does become a problem is in the boss battles Konami decided to make absurdly hard.
Now, I'm all for difficulty, Ninja Gaiden was one of my favorite games on the original Xbox. However, this isn't difficulty, it is pure frustration. For perspective, even the first boss took me at least 5 or 6 tries to beat, and I could only do so after upgrading my weaponry. If I were terrible at videogames and an isolated incident this would be understandable, although irritating. However, other reviewers that I spoke to felt the exact same way. The difficulty of the boss battles means that you will be failing a lot, and after every failed attempt you have the slog through the same 10 minutes of platforming and fighting that you have done multiple times before just to face the same boss again, with you likely to die, again. Usually the only way to correct this is to play each level a lot to collect gold and level up your character in order to take down the boss. Needless to say boredom from repetition and anger at continually failing set in pretty quickly.
Instead of save points you have books, which are locations where you can swap out defensive and offensive gear as well as change your magical spells. There is actually a decent amount of gear that you can buy in the shop and change onto your characters, although often times there isn't much of a balancing act going on. More often than not there is a "best" piece of armor for any part of your body. You do need to do some deciding when choosing what healing item to bring with you.
You are only allowed to bring one item so it will often be a decision between whether you want to restore your HP or MP on the fly. This combines with the question of whether to take more of a weaker item or less of a stronger item when deciding which item to equip. Sure, the question of which item to bring along adds some depth into the process of outfitting your character. However, the fact remains that the item system just feels like an arbitrary way to limit your access to healing items. Konami could just have implemented an inventory system which you could access on the fly and it would have worked just as well.
As you play through the game's six chapters you will have the option of choosing from one of five characters from Castlevania's past. These choices are not merely cosmetic though, as each of the characters will have unique weaponry and their own magic as well. You can of course upgrade each character as you see fit, although beware, gold transfers between characters but items do not. The addition of different characters is nice, although it isn't enough to warrant replaying the game just to get the experience with a different character.
On the technical side of things, the game obviously looks very retro. That being said, the graphics certainly aren't terrible for the feel that Konami was going for. They are no technical achievement, but they don't detract from the experience. The enemy models also have a nice feel to them once you zoom in and they show a good amount variety. I also really enjoyed the music, of which there is actually a substantial amount. What's more, after you beat a level, you can go through the menu and choose the specific music that you want both throughout the level and during the boss fight.
On the multiplayer side of things you have two options: co-op and survival mode. Co-Op allows you to play through the same chapters that you would in single player, although this time get to do so with up to six people. Despite the fact that the levels are the same, co-op is more just more fun than single player. Not only can you solve puzzles together and reach places that it would be difficult to do solo, but you can also combine together to pull off powerful attacks and explore the entirety of the level with comparative ease.
Players start in different location and everyone shares the loot from the chests, making it much easier to rack up items and see everything that the levels have to offer. Ultimately though, co-op suffers from the same sort of frustration that solo play does, as you will reach bosses only to fail and have to start all over. That being said, when you aren't failing in co-op the game is fun and engaging to play with multiple people.
Also available is a survival mode, where you and your friends can compete against each other in adversarial combat. The levels for this are modelled after the story level. However, the game inexplicably shows you the whole level and then limits you to one small area of it. On the bright side, with 4 or 5 people you can create a solid amount of mayhem, although with fewer than that it is just sort of a boring and underwhelming experience.
The game also features a leaderboard system so that you compare your scores (which are calculated by a combination of kills, gold, time, and some other bonuses) against others as a way to create some longevity. There is also a full monster and item compendium which you can fill up if you are the type to do so. Other than that though there isn't a substantial amount to do after you've completed the six chapters.
Overall, Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is a game which had potential to deliver an enjoyable retro experience but was brought down by some game design decisions which can only be described as incomprehensible. The lack of an in-level save system combined with unnecessarily difficult bosses, presence of a timer which counts down, and levels in which navigation is based on trial and error make the game a frustrating exercise in repetition rather than a fun and challenging take on a classic series. Unless you are a huge fan of the series, incredibly skilled at boss battles, or immune to boredom and enjoy playing the same portion of level over and over game, it is probably best to stay away from Castlevania: Harmony of Despair and instead spend your Summer of Arcade playing a different title. Fortunately, fans of the series have Lords of Shadow to look forward to this fall.
[Castlevania: Harmony of Despair]-1200MSP