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Castlevania: Harmony of Despair Review

It’s easy to categorize the titles of this years Summer of Arcade on XBLA.

Hydro Thunder: Retro/ Throwback
Limbo: Platformer with artistic intentions.
Tomb Raider: Once glamorous franchise relaunch on a minor scale
Monday Night Combat: Team Fortress with a gleefully dystopian sentiment.
Castlevania: Harmony of Despair: High Def 2-D Boss Rush

I’d like to say that Castlevania: HoD (CHD) somehow transcends the mere trappings of being a boss rush, where the game requires a player to find and kill a boss within 30 minutes. It doesn’t, and if anything, it regresses the ideas the series has advanced in its Metroidvania era to a pre 1994 era of gaming. There are no save spots, menus can only be accessed in set locations, there are limited item spots, players don’t level up, it goes on and on. Maybe that’s the beauty of the game…the developers knew that the game they were making was not modern or user friendly. There is no shallow end to ease new players into the waters here, its sink or swim. The game has no tutorial, no manual, it’s impossible for a new player to discern the very distinct differences between the playable characters from the onset, and it only gets more complicated as time goes on. 2008’s revamp of Bionic Commando had a bigger health bar and a tutorial; CHD seems to scoff at the idea of updating old games for modern audiences. Even with all of these headaches, I very much admire their deliberate approach and refusal to bow to a lower common denominator.

Sadly, also missing from CHD is some of the other elements of the games in the Castlevania series post Symphony of the Night that which helped to reinvent the CV franchise (if you haven't played SOTN its on both XBLA and PSN, it's one of the 15 best games ever). The level design has been uncomplicated and streamlined, downsizing from a massive world within a castle to a maze within a mansion. The route from the start point to the boss is about as complicated as a map on the kids menu at a pancake house. The backgrounds feel like retreads, the settings carry little weight, and the puzzles are almost non-existent. The playable characters all have special abilities, but you’ll be hard pressed to figure out what any of these abilities do in the game exactly. Alucard has a wolf and mist form… they help with defense a bit if used wisely, but that’s about it. I get the feeling that at one point  the 6 levels of the game may have all been part of one connected over world but were ultimately chopped up for this XBLA title. Maybe then these forms/abilities would have made sense or served some constant purpose, but right now, they seem like undercooked additions. Great games like SOTN or Super Metroid are just as much about a great adventure as they are about all of the little things done right. Small bits are here in CHD, but they don’t add up like they should.  

What is likely the best feature within CHD is completely unexpected and almost wholly unadvertised.  It’s an honest to goodness, 2-d platform multiplayer game. 2009’s New Super Mario Bros Wii allowed 4 players to exist at once in a Mario world. That innovation was huge and people are still playing it to this day (to date, in 2010 NSMBW has outsold Mario Galaxy 2). At its core, it is still a Mario game, which and I say this lovingly, is rather basic in terms of gameplay. It’s a left to right adventure with jumps. These Metroidvania games are multi-leveled, have weapons, items, RPG elements, multi-hit enemies and so much more. On the video game to mankind evolution comparison, Mario would be Homo-erectus while Alucard would be Neil Armstrong. Yet...for all of it’s flaws in design and uneven enjoyment...CHD absolutely nails online multiplayer.  

The online link of one central character per screen allows players to explore the level without having to have the other players tag along to fit into the action. This is a seemingly simple concept we are used to after multiplayer sandbox worlds like Red Dead Redemption or GTA, but it’s never been done for 2-D games. Some sections are easier when two players team up to solve a puzzle, but most of the time, the game can play either way. The game knows it is co-op, but it doesn’t force the co-op on the player. It’s an important distinction… because it allows the players to work to the common goal of the team without necessarily having to work with the other players to do so.

Yes, we have this on 3-d systems, but as the whole evolution of online gaming came after the death of 2-d platforming, its kind of amazing that Konami got it right on the first pass.
A good example is the treasure chest /item drops, if one player gets a weapon or gold, that gold/weapon (or one of equivalent value for another character) is simultaneously given to all other players in the session. While the game differentiates between a player who kills 100 creatures in a session and another who kills only 1, Konami wisely sidestepped the item hoarder syndrome by differentiating combat and exploration.

CHD is almost a paradox; it’s delightfully retro while being smartly progressive. The game does so many things right in execution and set up it makes it easy to overlook the problems of the gameplay. Players coming in looking for a HD version of Symphony of the Night will be sorely disappointed, as will players who are not hardcore fans of old-school (which is synonymous with difficult) 2-D platforming. There is a nexus point where the sweet spot of fans of speed runs, 1985-1992 Castlevania admirers, and 2-d hack and slash zealots overlap. For those who fall into this zone, CHD is a great experience and well worth the money. For all other gamers, this is a curious genre piece that doesn’t seem to fit into any one category in particular and will likely need bit of setup.

The author is also the host of this website’s podcast, Digital High. You can listen to him espouse his views weekly there, or follow him @ineverlovedyou3 on twitter.



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