2010’s Summer of Arcade rolls on with the first XBLA-original Castlevania game yet - Harmony of Despair. CV: HD’s most noteworthy accomplishment is being the first online ’Vania yet. It also brings with it a widescreen format for gameplay, multiple playable characters, including Soma Cruz from Aria/Dawn of Sorrow, Shanoa from Order of Ecclesia, Jonathan Morris and Charlotte Aulin from Portrait of Ruin, and the legendary Alucard from SoTN. Each character also comes complete with eight color choices in case two players want to play the same character online.
Castlevania’s first online adventure allows you and five other players to either fight each other to be the last man standing, or go through the entire game with five other players and find areas and solve puzzles that you simply can’t access in the single player adventure. It’s also handy to defeat bosses that you struggle with in the single player adventure. The gist of it is this - your group is dropped off at various points in the map - some may be near the usual entrance, while others can start on the complete opposite end of the castle. You can go through any of the six castles featured in the game, and CV: HD encourages group play by optimizing the castles’ layout for it, and rewarding everyone with goodies from treasure chests. If one person finds a chest with 500 gold pieces in it, everyone will reap that same reward - making upgrading your gear, which is absolutely essential to survival, easier for everybody in your party.
While it is fun to go through levels with friends, it does suck that there aren’t any checkpoints. If you die at any time, you have to go through the entire level again. A lack of checkpoints hasn’t been a problem in recent ‘Vania games, so it’s disappointing to see it as one now. Also, while you can start a stage in any one of a variety of areas, inevitably, you’ll be at the same starting point a lot - resulting in a lot of repetition. The Xbox Live setup is also a bit wonky, as the game can sometimes freeze when you’re searching for a match.
While online play is largely well-executed and certainly the main draw of CV: HD, it’s disappointing to see how badly the ball was dropped on the single player mode given that this has been a single player series for decades. There are so many things working against you that it ends up being far more frustrating than it is fun. CV: HD also allows you to play the game at multiple zoom levels - one close-up, one medium range, and one that is zoomed so far out that you can basically see the entire map at once. The first two zoom levels are useable, although the farther out you zoom, the harder it is to see items and figure out precision jumps. The largest zoom is absolutely impossible to play with and is only useful for checking on your online partners and the castle layout, which are the main points of the zooming feature in the first place. The new setup shows you the castle layout very quickly and effectively replaces the only color-coded maps used in past games. That’s all fine theoretically, but making the full map only viewable during play means you can only use them in a cleared out room unless you want to risk taking needless damage, and the new timer means that you can only view it very quickly.
It makes sense because of the real-time clock you’re fighting against, but is still a bit clunky. Each chapter only gives you 30 minutes of real time to beat the boss, and if you die at the boss, you have to restart the entire stage. Also, the clock never stops. While this is common practice for all online games, I can’t recall it being in a single player game in a long time. Pausing the single-player game doesn’t do anything but pause the action on-screen, so if you have to go make a meal, answer a call, or go to the bathroom, you might as well just take your time and accept defeat because that timer will keep ticking away. It completely kills the single-player exploration of previous “Metroidvania” entries, so if you want to explore the castles, you‘d better head online to do it. The only remotely good thing I can say about this is at least you get to keep whatever gold you’ve accumulated in a play session, but I can’t believe all the ways the game’s core design works against the player. The lack of checkpoints is especially baffling since each chapter has numerous areas you can use to assign equipment and heal up in - why not make these save points as well?
While I do take issue with how broken some of the core gameplay mechanics are, at least the controls are solid. They’re not the best the series has seen, but part of that blame can be placed on the 360’s d-pad. When you’re using the left stick, the movement controls are fantastic. Combat controls are smooth and responsive, however, jumping is a little looser than I’d like. Sometimes there seems to be a slight delay, and when you’re trying to avoid hitting spikes that will take 10% of your health in one shot, you really can’t afford to miss a platform because of unresponsive controls.
With “HD” in its name, you’d expect this to be the best-looking Castlevania game ever by leaps and bounds. Well, it isn’t. Instead of looking crystal-clear like the graphics in HD-optimized games like BlazBlue, we‘re treated to recycled assets from past games, with the most recent being on DS hardware. The end result is a pixilated set of character art, which really hit hard for the first time during the close-up of the chapter 2 boss, the Puppet Master, that opens the stage and you’re just staring at this ugly mess of pixels that would seem more at home in a SNES game viewed on an HDTV than a new 2010 release. The backgrounds look nice, but aren’t markedly better than even the DS entries. It really saddens me to see how badly the ball was dropped here, because even Earthworm Jim HD - a remake of a ‘94 game, had smoother-looking graphics than this. I can’t believe that Konami couldn’t redraw the sprites for the first XBLA-only release in the series. The only thing remotely “HD” about the visual presentation is the widescreen formatting. As a result, they should have found a WS subtitle for the game - something like Wail of Sadness would fit perfectly.
The audio is similarly recycled, with sound effects coming straight from the old games (however, they are fantastic to begin with and didn‘t really need changing), and the music being a blend of remixed stuff and some new tunes as well. Unfortunately, none of it really sticks with you later, so they clearly didn‘t go with the best music in the series. Given that the series has been known to have some of gaming’s best music, including the first GBA installment having one of the best soundtracks ever, this is also disappointing.
In the end, Castlevania: Harmony of Despair winds up being greater than the sum of its parts. Despite having many flaws, it still winds up being an enjoyable experience online. On a technical level, it disappoints with regards to its graphics, but largely delivers when it comes to its controls and music. If you’re a series newcomer, or want to buy this to experience another single player trek through the world of Castlevania, you can safely skip this, but if you want it for the online component, give it a shot. It’s a blast to go through levels with friends, and even more rewarding to share the feeling of accomplishment you get from finally vanquishing a boss that has sent you all to your graves many times over.