The heroes of a handful of 2D Castlevania games come together to tackle old foes in a new way in Castlevania: Harmony of Despair. Can the normally solitary, exploratory experience of recent "Metroidvania" games make the double-jump leap to multiplayer?
Castlevania: Harmony of Despair borrows five vampire-slaying heroes—Alucard, Shanoa, Soma Cruz, Jonathan Morris, and Charlotte Aulin—from multiple side-scrolling Castlevania adventure games, each with their unique abilities intact, letting them run freely through six remixed and recycled castle maps. Players can go it alone or join a team of six to tackle Dracula's henchmen while also competing against the clock.
Each massive pastiched 2D maze is filled with familiar beasts, loaded with hidden secrets, and ends with a big bad boss monster. This Frankenstein-like work, pieced together from Game Boy Advance, PlayStation and Nintendo DS games, is a curious departure for the series' longtime creator Koji Igarashi. Can he pull off a multiplayer Castlevania game?
It's Fun To Gang Up On Gergoth: Castlevania: Harmony of Despair plays best when done so with a group of up to six vampire slayers. The normally slow pace of trudging through each castle becomes a sprint in multiplayer, with players rushing for treasure—don't worry, it's all liberally shared with the group—and ultimately delivering a serious beatdown to end of level bosses. Even if a team member dies, they can continue to play as a skeleton, tossing bones until a friend restores them to fleshy form with a power up. Playing as a group will also grant access to secret passageways and treasure chests otherwise unavailable when played solo. Want to hunt loot with your friends in 10 minutes or less? Castlevania HD's multiplayer co-op is the way to go.
Slow Grind Vs. Reward: Unfortunately, Harmony of Despair's system of rewarding the player with newer, more powerful gear and abilities is not as enthralling as it should be. There's not enough variety in the armor, weapons, spells and accessories you'll acquire to make replaying the same six environments feel worthwhile, nor does the game's shopping and selling mechanic offer enough value to revisit. Later game items just don't feel progressively powerful enough to excite. Since there's no real experience system—players can improve spells by using them more often, however—there's not much motivation to do anything besides open chests and haul ass to the big boss.
Terrible Interface: This Castlevania, devoid of instruction manual and lacking in a helpful "help" menu, does its player no favors. Managing (and understanding) your equipment can be confusing, thanks to Harmony of Despair's clunky, cryptic interface. More frustrating can be its online matchmaking system, which is not friendly to players looking for custom game types. If you want to solely quick match or only want to play with friends, great. Everything in between that is a chore.
There's a brilliant idea behind Castlevania: Harmony of Despair, but its execution is disappointingly lacking. I was, at one point, hoping that it could be justifiably compared to a 2D Demon's Souls, since its explore, die, repeat cycle initially seemed to have borrowed from that online role-playing game. Castlevania: Harmony of Despair does not, unfortunately, engross and reward as that game does. While getting together with a bunch of other Alucards, Shanoas and Charlottes and whipping your way through six different castles can be fun, the feeling of advancement, the lure of acquiring some fancy new items quickly dissipates into boredom.
Harmony of Despair doesn't offer the single-player enjoyment of designer Koji Igarashi's other deeper 2D games, like Symphony of the Night or Order of Ecclesia, but does represent an interesting experiment. It tests the lure of loot, but doesn't dole it out fast enough or with enough diversity to make replaying it again and again feel worth the time.
Castlevania: Harmony of Despair was developed and published by Konami for Xbox Live Arcade on August 3. Retails for 1200 Microsoft Points ($15 USD). A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played all game types in both single and multiplayer modes.
Confused by our reviews? Read our review FAQ.