Speak to anyone who claims to be a fan of Konami’s Castlevania series and ask them what their favourite entry in the series is, and doubtless each one will give you a different answer.
Some will prefer the purity of the NES originals. Some will cite Symphony of the Night’s genre-defining nature. Some will extol the virtues of the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS titles. Some even have a soft spot for the 3D Nintendo 64 installments in the series.
One title you won’t hear a lot of people cite as their favourite Castlevania, however, is 2010’s Harmony of Despair, a digital-only game that originally released on Microsoft’s Xbox 360 platform — not typically a hotbed of Japanese games — and which subsequently came out on PlayStation 3 a year or so later, featuring a number of enhancements.
It’s a game that wasn’t received all that well on its original release, primarily because it deviated fairly dramatically from the Metroidvania format we’d come to expect from the series by this point. But although this game is far from your typical Castlevania of the era, it remains worth a look, particularly as its age means you can now pick it up pretty damn cheap.
Harmony of Despair features a flimsy plot about a magical grimoire that records the history of Castlevania’s various incarnations along with the heroes and villains who have battled in its ever-changing halls. Said plot is of absolutely no consequence to the game itself, however; it’s little more than a convenient excuse to incorporate visuals, enemies, locales and playable characters from across pretty much the entire history of 2D pre-Lords of Shadow Castlevania.
In other words, more than anything else, Harmony of Despair was originally intended as both a “best of Castlevania” release and a fond farewell to the series’ use of intricately designed 2D maps, beautiful pixel art and rockin’ Michiru Yamane soundtracks. And in that regard, it succeeds admirably.
Harmony of Despair differs from its immediate predecessors on PlayStation, Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS by being divided into discrete levels rather than an “open” world gated by the requirement to have particular abilities or items to progress. Each level provides you with a 30-minute time limit to navigate your way through the level and defeat its boss. Succeed and you get goodies along with the privilege of being able to tackle the next level. Succeed at all the levels and you get to try Hard mode. Fail a level and you have to do it all over again from the beginning.
This is not a game that holds your hand. It is challenging and infuriating right from the outset — and deliberately so. It’s a game designed to encourage and reward replaying of earlier levels — perhaps with different characters — in order to acquire more and more interesting loot which, in turn, will make progressing through subsequent levels more straightforward.
The fact that repetition is baked into the game’s very design is part of the reason why it had a somewhat mediocre reception on its original release. Players were accustomed to Castlevania games involving constant progression forwards: always finding something new, uncovering a new part of the map, fighting a new boss. Here, instead, we found ourselves “grinding” a single level over and over until it was practical to tackle something more challenging.
In some ways, there’s a hint of arcade game DNA in Harmony of Despair’s design. Upon successfully completing a level, you’re given a score based on the enemies you killed, the speed at which you completed the level and whether or not you managed to get through without taking any damage — an extremely difficult feat, particularly when it comes to the bosses. This “score attack” element, when coupled with the potential for loot acquisition, provides further incentive to replay levels — and the fact that each of the game’s playable characters records your best score and time with them separately allows you to make direct comparisons as to which ones you’re best at playing with.
Speaking of the characters, there’s a ton of variety on display, with each handling and playing markedly differently from one another while remaining true to their original appearances in their respective games. Symphony of the Night’s Alucard, for example, has access to techniques such as his double-jump and dhampiric transformation abilities, while Portrait of Ruin’s Charlotte has a much stronger focus on casting magic spells rather than melee combat.
Each character grows in power in different ways, too. Characters such as Soma Cruz and Alucard are heavily gear-dependent, for example, while characters such as Charlotte and Shanoa can absorb spells and abilities from enemies to make themselves stronger.
There’s a lot of variety on display in how the characters play and grow, meaning that any time you get tired of playing as one character in particular, it’s a simple matter to change to another — particularly as, in many cases, the items and gear you pick up with one character can be equipped without incident on another, effectively allowing you to “twink” yourself by playing through a level with your most powerful character for the express purpose of acquiring gear, then giving that gear to one of your weaker characters to bring them up to standard.
The differences between characters become even more interesting when you bring other players into the mix, since this was the first Castlevania specifically designed with multiplayer in mind. Teaming up with one to five other players allows you to either complement one another’s skills with a varied lineup of characters and abilities — or simply recreate that dream you had once where you were surrounded by Alucards of different hues.
Many of the maps have been designed with multiple players in mind, too; often there are multiple routes that can be taken, with one route perhaps offering the potential to open up a shortcut elsewhere in the level, or others requiring cooperation between players to access areas that are unreachable for solo adventurers.
All that said, the game never makes you feel like you’re having an “inferior” experience for playing solo; in fact, it stands up very well as a solo game in its own right, which is fortunate, since its age means that the online facility for the game is… not particularly active these days, to say the least. (In this regard, the later PS3 version is noticeably superior than the Xbox 360 original, since it offers local play for up to four players — not ideal on a single screen, particularly in levels with branching pathways, but certainly a pleasing inclusion.)
It’s a game that will make you feel incredibly satisfying highs when you finally beat a level — and make you want to throw your controller out of the nearest window when you make a stupid mistake that causes a boss to rip you a new one. In other words, it’s a true Castlevania at heart — and an underappreciated title that very much deserves another look through a modern pair of eyes, particularly in a post-Dark Souls world.
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