Remember the old side-scrolling, 2D Castlevania games? Now, remember when they got updated with Symphony of the Night for the Playstation and the numerous DS entries? Well, get ready for the ultimate homage.
“While not a masterpiece, Harmony of Despair is still a very good game.”
Seriously, this entire game is an homage to various 2D Castlevania games such as Symphony of the Night. You can play as favorites like Alucard, Soma Cruz, and Jonathan Morris. Sadly, no Belmonts seem to be available, but Konami has promised to release new content (and characters!) in the future. Seriously, though…where the hell are all the freakin’ Belmonts? I mean, no Simon, no Richter, not even Juste or Trevor. I demand Richter and Simon, at least!
Anyway, that childish gripe aside, let’s get started on the graphics. As a retro homage, the graphics are spot-on. The sprites are detailed and the levels are lovingly crafted, complete with artistic backgrounds. Sometimes things seem a little cluttered, but even so, it’s easy to revel in the beautiful visuals. Character animations are also fluid and realistic.
As for the story, there really isn’t one. You’re just kicking ass and taking names, and that’s totally fine with me. Sorry for those of you used to the narrative of games like Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow. But story isn’t the point of this game, so you can’t really mark them down for it.
And now the meat of the game: the gameplay. In true Igarashi form, the difficulty’s like a pendulum of sorts. One second it’s easy, and the next you’re slaughtered by a ridiculously powerful boss. And it wouldn’t be so bad, but some of the bosses require knowledge of a previous game (or trial-and-error) to beat. For example, the Puppet Master can almost instantly kill you without even touching you. Want to know why? You should’ve played Portrait of Ruin. This rewards fans of the games, but can frustrate the hell out of newcomers.
Another gripe is the character imbalance. Some characters (like Alucard) are incredibly effective in combat due to all the awesome equipment and special abilities they can get, while others (like Charlotte) have pitifully weak attacks and limited equipment, making them much harder to play. I understand the need for variation, but when some characters are overpowered and others are underpowered, it makes it very difficult to find reasons to explore the lesser ones to the fullest, particularly in multiplayer. We’ll cross that bridge later. Also, only one character (Shanoa) can access hard-to-reach places. Why Alucard can’t turn into a bat, or Jonathan Morris use the Vampire Killer whip to latch onto things? It’s frustrating to have a dynamic that only a single character can take advantage of.
However, the game’s got plenty of positive qualities as well, which I feel more than make up for its drawbacks. Even single player is a rewarding experience, and each character can gain a plethora of special abilities (though I hope more customization for existing characters will be added with downloadable content along with the entirely new characters). More importantly, the levels are massive, and everything’s constantly happening at once. In fact, you can view the game in one of three views; standard close-up, a mid-distance area view, and the whole level at once. That means that the first level’s boss can shoot at you all the way across the castle and the third level’s giant boss can tear through the entire level. That latter experience was particularly thrilling. The ability to zoom allows you to check what’s going on in other rooms, plan your routes, and even coordinate with other players.
Speaking of which…multiplayer. This is where the “Harmony” comes from in the game’s title. If you manage to get a good (or even competent) team of up to five other players together, it’s a load of fun, with each player getting treasure when a single chest is opened and multiple players taking the same or different paths through the level. Indeed, some areas can only be reached through teamwork, making multiplayer an excellent idea. Plus, if a teammate dies, you can resurrect them with the appropriate item, so it’s not the end of the world. This makes trekking through levels and fighting ultra-powerful bosses much less daunting. And a whole lot more fun.
Normally, the sound isn’t really a big deal in games, but it’s worth mentioning here: Konami did a good job of it. I really love the themes and the Castlevania feel of it all. Then again, I’ve always loved the scores from Castlevania games; Symphony of the Night‘s ending song is still one of my favorites.
While not a masterpiece, Harmony of Despair is still a very good game, and incredibly addicting. For all its flaws, it’s definitely worth picking up and playing, and I for one will be looking forward to future content.