For the first time in Castlevania history, the focus of the game revolves entirely around multiplayer. Although dedicated fans of the series will appreciate this new $15 XBLA title, a few key gameplay elements get lost in translation, which could wind up frustrating new comers to the series.
The game will feel immediately familiar to those who experienced the DS and GBA games after the PSOne smash hit, Symphony of the Night. Harmony of Despair, however, cannot be considered a brand new game. Instead, this game is Frankenstein’d together from all the key elements of previous Castlevanias, combining visuals and gameplay elements into one bigger demon hunting experience.
Besides the heavy emphasis on co-op, two major gameplay differences really separate Despair from any other Castlevania: how your character levels up, and the map system.
Normally, the more enemies you kill, the higher your experience will grow, similar to any RPG. Basically, if you grind and kill a lot of baddies, your attacks and defense will become stronger, prepping you to take on increasingly difficult stages and bosses. Despair technically has a leveling up system, but it has nothing to do with how many minions you destroy. Instead, the player will collect items and gold which can be used to buy better equipment, acting like leveling up stat-enhancers which are also carried between stages and shared between all you characters. Simply put, the first time you play the opening level, plan on getting smoked. After you play each stage with a trial by death learning technique, you will figure out how to navigate through the maze-like map while collecting more gold to buy better weapons and armor. Unfortunately, there is no option to trade or donate items to your XBL Friends, eliminating any chance of helping newbies.
The second biggest change is the mapping system. Players of the series are used to pressing the start button, or looking at the top screen with the DS titles, to see the map and to plot a navigation course. Despair does away with this system by giving the player the ability to zoom in and out of the map in real time. With a few clicks of the analog stick, the player can zoom from the typical close-up view point to seeing the entire map all at once – which is actually the coolest feature about this game. This removes the need for a pause menu map and also allows the player to survey the location of the boss and teammates. It is a welcomed feature and something that any Castlevania fan needs to experience as it will change the way how you play. At the very least, download the demo version of this game just to experience how the map function is handed. Can you image how this feature would have affected other games like classic Zelda or Metroid?
Despair is also split up by individual stages as opposed to playing through one giant castle. The goal of each stage is to take down the boss within a 30-minute time frame. Unfortunately, one of the game’s biggest flaws is the lack of a pause feature. While this is understandable during multiplayer sessions, there is no excuse for not having a pause feature during a single player outing. I didn’t realize how many bathroom breaks I take while I game, and trying to find a neutral location where you can safely put the controller down without taking damage might be hard in a pinch. Even pressing the Xbox guide button keeps the countdown timer going.
There is no doubt that this game was based around co-op play. So much so that playing through single player is almost impossible – frustrating at the very least. Each stage has level design features that encourage help from a friend. For example, stepping on a switch to douse a flame so your buddy can walk through, or hitting a switch to knock down a boss or open a new path. Without the help from online friends, the solo gamer is forced to always take the longer and more difficult path to reach the end boss. And it goes without saying, but taking down a boss is much harder without a buddy or two at your side. And no, there is no option to play with AI bots.
Death is also handled in a unique way and constantly makes the game entertaining even if a co-op buddy takes too much damage. If one of your co-op buddies perishes, they will be resurrected as a skeleton with limited abilities – they basically can only jump and use the standard bone throwing attack. A surviving character can revive a dead character with the Water Of Life item, but each stage might only have a couple hidden in chests spread throughout each stage (which often require co-op help to collect). Since each stage can be rather large, meeting up with a dead comrade can also be a challenge. But if a skeleton character dies again, then the timer starts to countdown faster, bringing a new balance and excitement to the game. The menu screen also says “that if certain conditions are met” you can perform a co-op attack with a partner for increased damage, but again, never specifies what these conditions are.
Further developing the Frankstein’ing aspect of the game, the player has the option to choose from many different playable characters throughout the Castlevania lineage. Each character also has strengths and weaknesses, which brings a surprisingly high amount of balance to the game. Alucard has some pretty strong close range attacks but lacks in the magic department. Charlotte can learn new spells by blocking enemy magic attacks with her magic shield. Jonathan Morris can learn new martial arts skills and relies on subweapons (which supposedly get stronger the more you use them but the game never indicates this). Shanoa can steal magic spells from enemies and uses her magnet powers to reach hard to get to places. And Soma Cruz can absorb the souls of defeated enemies and is a master with all sorts of weaponry. When playing 6 player co-op, the team would benefit from having a mix of characters, but everyone can play as Alucard, for example, because each character has multiple types of color palettes to choose from.
The only way I was able to write the paragraph above is because I played through just about every Castlevania game. Without prior knowledge of the series, newcomers would be completing lost as the game lacks any sort of tutorial and/or instructional manual. There is the typical “how to play” option that all XBLA games have, but it lacks even simplest of details. The game never explains why Shanoa can never change weapons or which enemies emit steal-able magic. The history behind Jonathan Morris and the vampire killer whip is never explained. The game never demonstrates how and why Charlotte can absorb magic. Hell, the game doesn’t even tell you that you only have 30 minutes to find and defeat the boss without a pause option. Leaving the player in the dark is one of the biggest flaws with this game; more explanation is definitely needed.
Every location and sprite in the game has basically been taken from a previous Castlevania title. Keeping the pixel art style alive, the game’s visual presentation will definitely play a strong note on the nostalgia chord. However, these pixels were basically upscaled to fit more accurately on high definition displays as opposed to being made from the ground up for high def. While everything looks decent and is still perfectly acceptable, especially considering this is an XBLA game, it could have benefited from a reworking – taking existing art and forcing it into a high res format doesn’t look as nice when high def was planned initially. The audio quality is also in a similar boat; the soundtrack is not bad, as it is filled with rocking guitar riffs, but it tends to wear down the player since the same tune will continuously loop for the entire 30 minutes of each stage. Although there are only a few voice quips for each playable character, they are acted well and contain a high level of clarity.
Castlevania fans have been requesting a co-op experience for quite a while. Yes, there were some multiplayer modes in a couple of the DS titles, but they can probably be considered more of a mini game or an afterthought at best. Harmony of Despair was created for fans of this long time and critically acclaimed series. However, newcomers will feel frustrated due to the lack of direction and instruction and solo players will only become annoyed with the overly challenging difficulty. Is Despair an enjoyable game? Yes, but it’s not the definitive co-op Castlevania game that fans were hoping for. This is a great example of “all the kinks will be ironed out in a sequel,” game design motif. DLC has also been planned but nothing regarding new levels or characters have been announced just yet.
Not As Good As: Symphony of the Night or the Soma Cruz Castlevanias
Also Try: 3D Dot Game Heroes
Wait For It: A sequel or additional DLC
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