Of all the games in Microsoft’s Xbox Live “Summer of Arcade” promotion, Castlevania: Harmony of Despair might just be the one that was most anticipated. Harmony of Despair is the first original downloadable game in the series, and the promise of cooperative action combined with gameplay that appeared to be similar to the excellent DS games seemed like a dream come true. Unfortunately, in designing a Castlevania game for six players, the developers at Konami took out many of the elements that made Symphony of the Night and the DS installments so wonderful, like RPG mechanics, addictive and time-consuming castle exploration, and single-player fun.
Unlike other games in the series, Castlevania: Harmony of Despair doesn’t have a story mode, or any plot at all. There are six playable characters from previous Castlevania titles, each bringing his or her own unique set of abilities to the game. Almost all of the characters are from recent titles, with the exception of old-timer Alucard, and each level and boss fight also includes elements from previous titles. In short, it’s a big mash-up of a handful of Castlevania games, which is great fan service, but makes the game feel lacking in terms of its own identity.
Harmony of Despair consists of six separate levels, which feels like a throwback to older (and much more difficult) Castlevania games. Each level has a thirty-minute time limit, and the player or players must defeat the boss within each area before moving on to the next. Actually, saying “player” in the singular is kind of pointless, because Harmony of Despair is in no way designed to be played alone. The difficulty doesn’t properly scale to the single-player experience, meaning that solo excursions are almost guaranteed to end in frustration and failure. The good news is that players can keep gold and items earned upon death, but with the leveling system completely gone, even trying to grind doesn’t accomplish very much. Spells and weapons become more powerful the more they are used, but doing this is so time-consuming that it requires playing the same levels over and over again.
With six half-hour levels, it’s easy to clock Harmony of Despair at about three hours, but unless you stumble upon one of the game’s ultra-powerful and rare weapons or find yourself with some well-equipped teammates, you’ll find yourself stuck on the same boss fights over and over again. Yes, Harmony of Despair is very, very hard. However, the difficulty isn’t presented in a challenging way; instead, it’s completely forced, making Harmony of Despair feel more like a relic of the past than a new game. Even though I’ve played and beaten almost every Castlevania title since Symphony of the Night, I couldn’t get past the first level on my own in Harmony of Despair, and even with a second player, we were unable to get past the second boss (who is stupidly, annoyingly difficult). It wasn’t until we managed to find another reviewer on Xbox Live who had already beaten the game (and stumbled upon one of its super weapons) that we were able to get through the rest of Harmony of Despair, and that just seems wrong. Simply scaling the difficulty for a one or two-player experience would have made a huge difference in this title.
Adding to the frustration of the gameplay is the fact that the menu system is completely unintuitive. Players can shop outside of levels, but need to go into “Main Menu” to equip new items, which is confusing, because that’s not typically what Main Menu means. Setting up a party is needlessly complicated by the lack of drop in/drop out co-op, and there’s no split-screen cooperative play either. Since there’s no narrative, Harmony of Despair drops players into the game without any explanation, and you need to read “How to Play” to figure out exactly that. The basic controls are still the same as any other Castlevania game, but there are unfamiliar gameplay mechanics that won’t make any sense unless you read what I suppose is meant to be a tutorial.
Despite the game’s shortcomings, though, the bare elements of Castlevania are still there, and there’s something wonderfully comforting about seeing those familiar enemies while exploring a massive castle. Even though each level is a completely separate area, the six maps are overwhelmingly huge, with a lot of ground to cover—too bad the game’s time limit adds a needless sense of urgency. The environments and sprites are presented in beautiful high definition for the first time, and as always, the score and sound effects really heighten the experience. Even with all of the negatives overshadowing the game, Castlevania’s gameplay is still fun at its core; unfortunately, that only lasts for a limited time due to the design flaws of Harmony of Despair.
With the right group, Harmony of Despair might deliver a few hours of entertainment for the most hardcore of fans, but the first few attempts to play through the game will probably bring nothing but frustration for the majority of gamers. Unlike Symphony of the Night and the DS games, which I would recommend to anyone, it’s hard to imagine that non-Castlevania fans will get any enjoyment out of Harmony of Despair. Beating the game on Normal difficulty unlocks Hard mode, which masochists will probably get a kick out of attempting, and a last-man-standing Survival Mode does very little to add to the replay value. Castlevania: Harmony of Despair isn’t a terrible game, but it is disappointing. While it’s nice to be able to play through a Castlevania game with a friend or five for the first time, that alone can’t carry one of the more lackluster titles in the series’ recent history.