When Castlevania Symphony of the Night debuted in 1997, it was hailed as one of the best Playstation games out there and one of the best 2D side scrollers of all time. It changed the series by giving you a more Metroid style game. Something that was actually quite appreciated at the time for a series that seemed to be getting a little stale. Unfortunately it's the only Metroidvania we've ever seen on a console. With 3D becoming important no Castlevania dared to do the sidescroller thing again. All those Metroidvania (or Castleroid, if you prefer) type games went to the GBA. So with Harmony of Despair it's actually quite surprising that a console game is doing Castlevania in the Metroid style (most of the console games are 3D). Harmony of Despair isn't quite the game you think it is, however. It's very different.
There's not much story to Harmony of Despair. All the game does is pit you in several different maps, usually with a target that's clearly defined that you have to go to and slay. You can one of several different heroes from previous 2D outings. There's Alucard (Symphony of the Night) Soma (Aria of Sorrow, Dawn of Sorrow), Shanoa (Order of Ecclesia), Johnathan Morris (Portrait of Ruin) as well as Charlotte (also from Portrait of Ruin). Each of them play very similar to how they do in the actual games. For example, Alucard has his transformations and spells while Shanoa can absorb glyphs, etc.
The object in each map is to find the target and eliminate it. It seems simple enough, but the game actually is set up that each castle map is flooded with enemies and treasures. And it's tempting to explore as you would one of those 2D Castlevania games, but you've actually got a time limit of 30 minutes. That doesn't mean you can't explore. It just means that you have to mind your time. It shouldn't take you 30 minutes to find your target and eliminate it. On the other hand, if you want to find all the goodies that'll take a decent chunk of time. Luckily, Harmony of Despair actually has multiplayer. And several people can hop on at once and explore the layout of each level together, farming for items and killing enemies. It's strangely addictive and there are even moments when you'll need to team up with others to find treasures. Granted, you'll all start at different areas of the Castle, but it's not hard to meet up and if you play your cards right you'll be able to help others get to your location. You can zoom the map in and out (enough to view the whole Castle or your immediate location). Once you begin playing Harmony of Despair with friends, it's hard to imagine playing the game any other way.
There are some small nitpicks with Harmony of Despair. In the first place, the game got rid of the level up element found within most of the 2D games from Symphony of the Night onward. This isn't too bad, but it means that the only means of getting stronger is to farm the levels and find weapons and items that will potentially help you out. Likewise, everything is in real time. There's no pausing (because it's going to be primarily an online affair--buddies can play together on XBOXLive) but you also can't just equip an item any time you want. You'll have to find a book and open a special menu to do it. The clock NEVER stops ticking so make your decisions fast.
Lastly, for those who aren't that experienced with Castlevania, it's going to be a hard experience. Harmony of Despair isn't afraid to really punish players. Even expert Castlevania fans will find Harmony of Despair to be quite a challenge from time to time.
As far as level design goes, however, each Castle just feels as though they pulled a ton of different pieces from each of the 2D games. Some portions of the castle feel as though you've stepped into Dawn of Sorrow while others might feel like you've stepped into Portrait of Ruin. Each o the "targets" in each level are also from previous titles and they pretty much act in the same fashion. In some ways this seems a little lazy. Some halls and corridors just look like they didn't try to do anything new or original with them. The design can feel lazy from time to time as a result. On the other hand, it's really just a fun game to play.
The soundtrack is comprised of mixed tunes from previous outings. This is nothing new for a Castlevania game to do. And the remixes sound well, given a more rock and roll kind of beat rather than the typical orchestral soundtracks you may be used to hearing from some games. If there's one thing Castlevania Harmony of Despair definitely does right, it's give you that feeling that you are, indeed, playing an arcade game. It's fast paced, ridiculously populated and a tough challenge. If you're unfamiliar with Castlevania, you're apt to die several times. Even with the help of friends.
Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is far from being the best Castlevania in the series. It's not exactly the traditional Castlevania standard set by Symphony of the Night, but it's most certainly a well constructed game for what you're getting. Players will find that this is a tough challenge but a fun experience nevertheless. If you're a die-hard Castlevania fan, particularly of Symphony of the Night as well as the GBA and DS outings, this is worth your time.
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About the reviewer
Sean A. Rhodes (Sean_Rhodes)
I'm a more analytical person. I believe that the purpose of the review is not for me to give you my opinion but for me to give you an analysis and help you decide if you want to get it. If you reading … more
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