Monday, August 9, 2010

Castlevania: Harmony of Despair Review


 Loot is in chests. Everyone loves loot.Castlevania has always been one of my gaming soft spots. Not only did it introduce me to insanely asinine enemies and heinous staircases, but it presented an addictive atmosphere riddled with mythological monsters, magic, and absolutely rockin’ music. When I heard Harmony of Despair was going to combine all my favorite Castlevania heroes under a six-player multiplayer banner, I calmly excused myself, promptly stepped through an alternate dimensional portal, levied my hands and channeled a nuclear laser blast at the nearest mountain while screaming in unadulterated joy.


This Castlevania is purely dedicated to bringing you a multiplayer experience. Remember that. There may be a “single player” option available at the main menu, but it may as well not be present at all. You see, even when playing alone you’ll be wafting through the same maps; the very ones that are built around having multiple people with you. Of course the game is still playable alone, but there are many sections you’ll never access unless you have a partner or two with you. Some traps and shortcuts can only be stopped or accessed, say, if someone is standing on a button that stops a wall of flame. That means certain treasures simply can’t be obtained by your lonesome. It’s off-putting but what’s even worse is the scant amount of monsters available for slaying. Being alone, it’s almost embarrassingly easy as you traverse a seemingly vacant stronghold full of enemies with fluff for health. Konami also uses mostly the same monsters for the whole game, only introducing a few new ones each level. With the encyclopedia of monsters Konami has at their disposal, I find it upsetting there wasn’t more.   


 This is the fully zoomed out view of the first castle. You can also play in this view.
 

Being a Castlevania veteran, I writhe in the chaos the series throws at me. Usually I’m frustrated by bosses, but each death just fuels my ambition for another crack at it. Harmony of Despair’s bosses are all taken from previous iterations, which is fine, but they’re severely dumbed down. For instance, Gergoth is from Dawn of Sorrow and is the very first boss you’ll face. It’s cool to see him firing a mega-beam at you from across the whole map, but he’s slower than a tortoise in a pool of molasses. If you have any experience in the Castlevania universe, you should have no issues fighting any bosses unless you take the fight online, the way Konami wanted you to. In that case, the more people you have the more a boss will scale, usually becoming a hit-point sponge that’s actually dangerous and will kill you.


Speaking of death, dying in multiplayer renders you a fighting skeleton unless a friend comes over with a water of life to revive you. It’s funny to witness a friend turning into the utterly useless pile-o-bones, that is, until they die again and take time off the clock. Oh yes, I should mention that each of the six levels in the game have a 30 minute limit. If the boss isn’t beaten by the time it hits nil then the level will restart entirely. Also note that once a level is started, the timer cannot be stopped, making even pausing the game futile.   


 When dealing with demon armor suits it's always best to bring friends. Always.


I’m not a fan of time-limits and having one here doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Still, dying isn’t really that big of a concern. Upon death you still retain all the items and skills you might have obtained during the stage. It also helps that the levels aren’t exactly lengthy. They can’t be with a time-limit, but this allows for some trial and error gameplay without severe repercussions. This definitely eases the pain a bit, but the sting is brought right back to the forefront when dealing with the game’s system.

 
 Brauner will paint your portrait... of RUIN!
It’s complicated, but each character plays very differently. For instance, Jonathan utilizes the classic Castlevania items that can be found throughout the castles but can only level them up through repeated use. Shanoa gains magical abilities through glyphs that can only be absorbed from very specific enemies at very specific times. Charlotte must absorb magical spells and abilities that are fired at her in order to garner their abilities. It all sounds great, but none of this is explained by the game. Unless you’ve played the previous games and know what you’re doing, there’s no possible way to understand what you need to do to become stronger. This is unacceptable by any standard, especially for new players attempting to understand the game. Imagine the disappointment I felt when I finished the game without seeing a single upgrade for Shanoa’s two basic weapons. Isn’t this a Castlevania game?


It pains me even more to say that the menu system is beyond archaic. Healing isn’t easy in this game. Actually, you can’t heal unless you find random food littered around the castle or manage to find your way to a book pedestal (otherwise you can’t even access the menu). It’s actually easier to die and have a teammate revive you than it is to heal any other way. Even reviving is easier said than done. Each teammate can only hold a single water of life, but nowhere does it state this. So someone could be cruising around the castle opening all the revive chests only to find out they can only use one. How does it get worse? You can’t give items to other players either. But instead of fixing any of this, Konami decided to put in several pre-set prompts like “Thank you.” The last time I checked we’ve had voice capability for some time now and the chances of anyone wanting to play with a foreigner are slim. It begs to ask why this feature is even there.


 Good ole' Castlevania platforming at work.
With all these abhorring decisions it would seem contradictory to say that there’s actually some good buried within. Upon opening a chest, everyone in the game will receive an item, making each play session somewhat rewarding. Being centrally multiplayer focused, this was a smart move but loot tends to be somewhat repetitive meaning that if you want upgrades and different weapons, you’ll have to constantly replay the level; in other words, it’s the standard RPG grind affair. Thankfully, this game contains several of the most bad-ass remixed Castlevania tunes to help you through the grind. Seriously, they’re amazing.


Despite the omission of a comprehensive single-player experience, the classic Castlevania gameplay is still very much present. Running around the different castles with several friends can be unquestionably fun as is discovering new abilities and items. Unfortunately, if you’re not a Castlevania veteran, much of what Harmony of Despair offers will be alien to you. Its lack of personality and rough features make it very difficult to recommend to anyone who isn’t already a Castlevania junkie. It’s a wonderful idea for one of the most iconic franchises in gaming history, but it could have been so much more.


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