Have you ever sat down after playing a good session of any Gameboy Advance Castlevania title, and thought to yourself ”Man, this would be awesome with five friends….”? Apparently someone did because Konami released Castlevania: Harmony of Despair. While it doesn’t play exactly like a “Metroidvania” title that is so popular on the handhelds, it really is a multiplayer variant and plays well with others (pun intended).
I will go ahead and start with this statement; if you are a fan of the 2D Castlevania games, after you finish reading this just buy it. There is absolutely no reason for a fan of the series NOT to buy it.
With that said, let’s dig in, shall we? The first thing to notice is that the selection of characters is vast, and spans a good portion of the series. You have all “walks of life,” from Belmonts to Alucard, to my new favorite character, Shanoa. Each character has a very different approach to combat, equipment, and treasure. For example, Julius Belmont can not equip any weapons, but can collect the usual sub-weapons throughout the game such as Axes and the like. Using your sub-weapon levels it up, which in turn levels up your main weapon.
Another example would be Alucard, who can buy, find and equip weapons, and his special skill would be his summon spirits. Not only is combat and equipment different amongst the characters, but some can scale the massive levels in a different manner. The Belmonts can swing from hooks with their whip, and Shanoa can use her magic to shoot herself from those same points. It creates a very interesting decision to make when choosing who to play as.
The levels themselves are essentially smaller incarnations of the Castlevania castle layouts. You have to find your way through the castle to get to a boss, which is the focal point of the level, and only have so long to do it in. Along the way, you will come across enemies (*GASP*) that get more difficult from chapter to chapter, as well as treasure of varying degrees. You might find some gold, a weapon, a piece of armor, or a Water of Life. The latter, will always come in handy when playing with a friend because the Water of Life will bring your friend back to life.
The graphical-style is of special note to fans of the series because it isn’t coated in a pretty layer of HD paint. Oh, no, instead, it’s pixelated beauty will make your retro-heart cry in happiness. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a great looking game, but it looks like stretched Gameboy Advance graphics.
The multiplayer aspect of the game, which is pretty much what the game is built for, shines with great use of “stand on this switch so I can get that treasure chest for us” tactics, and yes, even the person standing on the switch will benefit as each chest opened scores an item or money for both (or all) players involved in the game. The game is also very difficult to tackle on your own. While it can be done, you can tell this was made for more than one friend to be tagging along. That’s a great way for the game to be developed, because every level is built with the mind-set of “you need a friend to maximize your experience here.”
Playing with a friend/friends also opens up the ability to do a Dual-Crush attack. By hitting the R2 trigger when next to a player, you can do a VERY powerful attack. While it drains mana, it’s very much worth it when it deals far more damage than you both combined during the amount of time the attack is going on.
The camera takes some initial set-up to get the way you like it. Since you don’t have to have your partner in view at all times, you can click the right analog stick to zoom out. In the options, you can set varying levels of zoom to your personal preference. Once you get it set, it works great, but it’s a little confusing in the beginning.
The crux of that is when you go to play alone. While it is still enjoyable, seeing that treasure chest JUST out of reach is saddening. And the bosses are pretty wicked; challenging them by yourself is a task. Playing with others is just more fun, and let’s you cover more ground than by yourself. And when you die, you can run around as a skeleton throwing bones at enemies until a partner revives you. The single-player experience, though, suffers because it’s such a good multiplayer game, but you can’t fault it much for that. Would you rather have a really good single player game, and a poor multiplayer experience, or a decent single player game and an excellent multiplayer experience? Because by upping the game for the solo adventurist, you break what the foundation of the game is built for.
Two modes are available to play; Co-op and Survival. The former is by far the meat and potatoes of the game, while Survival locks you and your opponents into a room to fight out your differences. I had no enjoyment in the Survival, but only played with one person, and I’m sure that little room gets hectic the more people you add.
The PSN version gives you a free map pack, and two DLC characters, but even more are available to purchase on the store. So you get a little more content than the XBLA version. The trophies are pretty brutal, but something to keep in mind for completionists. It’s hard to see why this game got such mediocre reception on XBLA, because as a multiplayer Castlevania, it shines far better than it sounds on paper. And I recommend everyone buy it, simply to show Konami that a side-scrolling Castlevania CAN sell on XBLA/PSN. With that, Konami, I want to end this review saying, “I want more.”
Pros: great multiplayer experience, lots of puzzles, exploration, tons of character options and variations
Cons: single player experience lacking