People trust too much. I love Xbox Live and I know it will continue on future Microsoft consoles, but some day (as with the original Xbox) the 360 will lose online support. Where does that leave us with games like Castlevania: Harmony of despair? A game that is so steeped in nostalgia, yet infused with entertaining new co-op mechanics that can only be enjoyed online. C:HD is a great game through and through, but some day in the future the lack of split-screen will make this game virtually unplayable and this saddens me deeply. That, and let’s be honest, you can’t high–five your buddies online can you?
The game takes the Smash Bros. premise of throwing a bunch of characters from the series together to make up the character roster. You get Soma from Aria and Dawn of sorrow, Shanoa from Order of Ecclesia, Charlotte and Jonathan from Portrait of Ruin and, of course, the mighty Alucard from Symphony of the Night. The main game revolves around, what is effectively the boss rush mode from previous games in the series. You can see the whole castle from the get go, and are shown the boss you must eliminate and are told to go get ’em within the allotted time. There is no real plot behind the whole affair as such, but to be honest it really isn’t necessary. The game is designed to be an action packed fangasm and, in this respect, it delivers.
It’s certainly a shame that the character roster doesn’t stretch as far back as to include the older Castlevania protagonists (Richter Belmont FTW), but personal preferences aside, the list is well balanced and each character requires a different play-style. Alucard and Soma wield the largest arsenal of weaponry, with Alucard retaining his attack evading mist form from SoTN. Charlotte and Shanoa are the magic wielders, absorbing projectile and glyph based spells respectively, and Jonathan works as the standard Belmont character with the whip and sub-weapons. Each character doesn’t level up as such, but has a large variety of equipment, spells and weapons that can be found. It certainly keeps a sense of progression going throughout and it gives the game an added depth.
The design aspect of C:HD is probably one of the strongest around, with the enemy design being solid as always. The level design is also excellent, effortlessly incorporating the new co-op aesthetics, whilst also providing multiple paths. The camera controls can take a while to get used to, but being able to zoom out and see the entire level allows you to plan your route and tactics and shows just how intricate some of the level design is. It does help keep the inevitable multiple play-throughs fresh, but with only six levels, the stages do become somewhat tiresome after a while. It’s also nice to see the challenge ramping up quite quickly over the levels, to the point where this may be the hardest Castlevania yet! It’s just a shame that the difficulty only feels balanced when you join in with a full team of six. Playing solo becomes a near impossible challenge sadly, and will no doubt lead to frustration.
As painful as it is trying to get through the game on your own, getting together with others can also be a problem. It can take a while to search for a game, and when you finally get the list of games it doesn’t say whether there are any private slots or not. It becomes frustrating when private slots prevent you joining a game, and you are immediately booted back to the main menu as a result, and must start the search process from scratch. It isn’t game breaking as such, but it does somewhat mar the enjoyment of the otherwise excellent co-op mode. If you feel like flexing your competitive muscles at any time you can always try the survival versus mode. It offers a decent distraction, but the lack of skill based matchmaking and the small arenas prevent it from being a particularly balanced or addictive competitive field. For all the complaints I’ve levelled at C:HD, when it all comes down to it the game retains everything about the old Castlevania games that we know and love. The main aspect that cripples the game in comparison to its predecessors is the lack of split-screen and system link options. It really does just feel like a missed opportunity. Ever since my review for Transformers: WFC I’ve found myself ranting about the lack of split-screen focus in gaming, but it is an ideology I will continue to champion as long as multiplayer games are still being foolishly made as online only.
While we’re on the topic of where C:HD sits within the Castlevania franchise, it must be said that it’s on a graphical par with previous titles. This is largely because the exact same sprites have been in use in the Castlevania games for the past thirteen years. It’s a double edged sword as, whilst the sprites retain the same charm they always have, the visuals are starting to show their age and are nowhere near the HD level that the game’s title so proudly displays. The music and SFX are similar to how they’ve always been, but the returning themes seemed to sit well with the returning cast of characters in the game. All the characters have had some new voice clips made for them, and whilst they won’t be to everyone’s taste, they aren’t repeated enough to become too annoying.
So now we come to the big question. Is it worth your hard earned cash? It depends how dedicated a follower of the series you are, as I’m sure the hardcore fans will buy this anyway regardless of what I say. I would certainly recommend the game, especially if you have some buddies playing it, but with only six levels and a hefty 1200 MS point cost it might not be as good value as it seems. You can always try the demo if you are unsure, but I personally felt an 800 point price tag may have been more reasonable.
Konami have decided with C:HD not to fix what isn’t broken, so anyone who has loved previous games in the series will fit right in. The game isn’t pushing the limits of the franchise as such, but the new multiplayer focus is satisfying and good fun. This is where the advanced warning comes as, this is a game that should only be purchased if you know that you’re friends will be doing the same. For all the things I love about C:HD it is very little fun on your own.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.
Old-school side-scrolling gameplay hits the spot, Multiple characters are all unique and keep things fresh, Levels have multiple solutions and paths, A good challenge, Great Co-op gameplay
Difficulty doesn't scale based on number of players in a team, Some bosses have cheap attacks, No split-screen or LAN, Lack of levels means they can become stale
Castlevania: Harmony of despair brings back the classic Castlevania gameplay you know and love and fuses it with an exciting co-operative focus. Sadly a lack of levels and no split-screen play prevent it from being the classic it deserves to be