Game Review: 'Castlevania: Harmony of Despair'

My love for Castlevania, particularly the post Symphony of the Night titles, is well documented.  The near perfect blend of challenging platforming mixed with fairly meaty RPG elements and free-roaming exploration just works.  Any attempt to bring the series into the third dimension has been mediocre at best (a pattern the upcoming Lords of Shadow may break), with critical acclaim returning once the gameplay is brought back down to its two-dimensional roots.  With the release of Castlevania: Harmony of Despair, two new elements are being brought in to the mix: high definition and multiplayer.  Can a series whose best entries are reliant on deliberately old-school trappings properly integrate these new aspects?  Find out the answer after the break!

The first thing that got me perfectly giddy about Harmony of Despair (keeping the trend of subtitles that spell out the platform) is the prospect of 2D Castlevania in full 1080P HD.  Booting up the title reveals a far stranger truth: that the game recycles art elements from titles past, particularly from the Nintendo DS library.  While the artwork from these games is beautiful in its own right, it is most certainly not high definition.  In fact, the game doesn’t truly become “HD” until you zoom the map out, wherein the level will be shown to you in all of its glory.  However, aside from offering a full view of the level for strategic planning, this level of zoom borders on useless, as your character becomes a miniscule speck on the screen so small that it requires a sizable flag to help you track its movement.  My 40-inch television may not be the biggest screen in the world, but on it the game’s character sprites could be measured in fractions of an inch, far too small to be playable.  Even the midrange level of zoom proved to be pulled too far back to be useful, leaving the most zoomed-in level the only truly playable one. 

The second new addition to the franchise is the moderately intriguing prospect of multiplayer from a series that is known exclusively on the strength of its single-player experience.  Players choose from 5 different series veterans, ranging from Soma Cruz (Aria of Sorrow) to Shanoa (Order of Ecclesia) to fan-favorite Alucard (Symphony of the Night), each with their own distinct abilities.  From there, you choose a level and race against time (there’s a half-hour countdown clock) to defeat the boss.  While certainly intriguing in concept, the massive scale of the levels and the differing character abilities somehow didn’t feel right to me in the few rounds that I played.  Maybe it was the inherent strangeness of seeing a group of characters hacking away at one of Castlevania’s trademark huge bosses, but I never felt like I was truly doing anything substantial: the once-sprawling castle is reduced into bite-sized chunks, taking with it any sense of epic scale or purpose.

In fact, that’s the major issue that arises when making an epic title like Castlevania into a multiplayer romp: in order for it to be the latter, you have to strip away all of the things that made you love the original.  Once you reduce the environments to smaller levels (with 30 minute timers, no less), strip away the robust RPG-style leveling, and leave narrative completely out of the equation, you’re left with nothing more than a gussied-up platformer using Castlevania sprites.  It would be as if Yes or Rush decided to release an album of 1-minute punk songs.  I truly love low-commitment platformers, and a truly, deeply love Castlevania, but I cannot say that I love the two of them together.