Castlevania Harmony of Despair Xbox Live Arcade Review
Castlevania Harmony of Despair is Konami's test the waters game to see if the download only online games market can be successful and given how well it's sold already I guess the answer is yes. Castlevania Harmony of Despair is a side scrolling action platform with some mild RPG stat and collecting elements. The game serves as something of a best of Castlevania in that it reuses character and enemy and sprites from various other games in the series such as, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow and Castlevania Rondo of Blood to name a few. Unlike most other recent entries in the series Harmony of Despair ditches the emphasis on story and instead points it to the online multiplayer.
The base game features six playable characters by default, with another six characters later added by download content. The initial six being Soma, Alucard, Jonathan Morris, Shanoa, and Charlotte, with the DLC characters being Julius, Yoko, Richter, Maria, Simon, and Getsu Fuma. The characters are divided up into four categories of playstyles. First the balanced sword and magic users Soma and Alucard. Second the magic users Charlotte, Yoko, Maria and debatably Shanoa, since she also has some powerful weapons. Thirdly the whip users, or as I like to call them Belmonts, Jonathan, Julius, Richter, and Simon. Finally with Fuma being a unique mix of close range sword combat, and long range projectile attacks. The base game features six stages, with the DLC adding a additional five stages. Usually on a good run stages take between 3 to 10 minutes to complete and there are two difficulty modes; normal and hard. Although you could breeze through normal by yourself by the time you get to hard soloing becomes out of the question. This is where the multiplayer aspect comes in. Up to six people can team up to complete any of the stages in the game using any combination of characters they so choose. If multiple people choose the same character, Soma for instance, which often happens, the Somas will be colored differently to help players better tell them apart.
Despite the game the game borrowing its assets from other games in the Castlevania series, all of which had at least a decent story there is almost none to speak of in Harmony of Despair. There is no explanation ever given as to why these characters separated by sometimes hundreds of years all coexist in the same castle, and what outside of a mutual enthusiasm in vanquishing Dracula brought them all together. There are a few small pieces of dialogue, some minor boss quips from Dracula or Richter for example, and short soundbites acomany phrases from the game's communication system. It would be nice if there were at least a intro and ending cut scenes, but it's clear that the emphasis was on the multiplayer.
Stages are filled with a plethora of monsters, such as, mermen, minotaurs, zombies, witches, medusa heads, axe armors, skeletons, succubuses, flying demons, and peeping eyes to name a few. Most enemies can be dispatched with one or two hits but the challenge comes more from the sheer number of enemies and how quickly they move, then by how difficult they are to kill. Levels also have quite a few platforming environmental hazards to overcome such as spikes or guillotines. Although essentially the goal of each stage is to simply get to the boss and defeat them, you'll want to saver the trip through due to the levels being so detailed and filled with whimsy. The boss fights themselves are probably the most memorable and appealing feature of the game. Each one has different attack patterns and strategies to beat them that will require memorization in order to persevere on hard mode. It's very rewarding to finally beat a stage by yourself that you used to need a large group to finish before. When you first begin, your character will have hardly any weapons, armor, or spells to speak of. New items can be acquired by defeating enemies, or opening treasure chests that come in four varieties, red, green, purple, and gold. Gold chests drops the rarest items, and can only be acquired by defeating the stage's boss. The camera system can be jarring at first, with it being too zoomed out from the action, but by clicking the right analog stick, the camera zooms in on the player, or can be zoomed out even farther, displaying the entire map at once. Luckily there's a menu option to change your default camera setting.
The conyrols aren't too complicated, but can be a bit confussing when using magic or sub weapons. The analoge stick or the digital pad moves your character. The A button is jump, pressing it twice in quick sccession will perform a double jump. X and Y are both attack, if you're using Soma, Alucard or Shanoa you can map different weapons to each button, as long as it isn't a two handed weapon like an axe. Holding the left trigger will ready the item your currently carrying, and then pressing the right trigger will use it. The left bumper is backdash, the right bumper's funtion is dependant of what character you're playing as, most have it as a block or dodge, but Soma has it as a magic toggle and Shanoa uses it to reach magnet jump points. The B button is used for magic and sub weapons and has different funtions depending on what direction you push while pressing it. They are as fallows; just pressing B while not moving, B and Up, B and Down, and B while moving Forward in either direction.
Now I'll proceed to describe the game's initial six stages and five download content stages so that you'll have a better idea what they're like. The first stage is the castle interior, the boss being Gergoth. The second stage has a nice variety of backgrounds including dungeons, toy rooms and a snowy outdoor area, the initially difficult boss is the Puppet Master. Stage 3 appears to take place in a red cave, and has a lot of platform jumping, the boss is the giant Menace. Besides using your normal weapons or magic you can also hit the boss with a giant hammer but unfortunately takes two hits and must be reloaded between them. Stage 4 appears to be set in the castle library, and there are several paintings that act as teleporters between different areas of the map, vampire painter Brauner is the boss. Stage 5 is a clock tower, a stable of Castlevania games. It is loaded with hazards which make it difficult to navigate, Death is the boss. Stage 6 is I think supposed to be Dracula's inner sanctum, that's the only way I can think of to describe it. There are guards as well as treasure rooms, all of which loaded with enemies. The boss is of course is Dracula who has three forms.
The remaining stages are all download content and each can be purchased separately. Stage 7 takes place in the exteror and intor of an Egyptian pyramid. Falling boulders guard the path inside the pyramid, which can be really annoying to dodge. The stage can be pretty difficult to navigate by yourself given the large number of switches, hazards, and tough enimeslike the boss, Ashtarte. Stage 8 is set in a gloomy cave that is partially flooded, there are branching paths. The boss is the mound of bodies known as Legion, whose actually pretty fun to fight. Stage 9 oddly appears to be the castle entrance, there is some difficult platforming and tough enemies to navigate through before reaching the very hard boss Beelzebub. Stage 10 and 11, both use sprites of and are based on NES games. Because of the use of these older sprites, enemies in the stages are a lot smaller, also some people complain about the bright but limited color palette hurting their eyes after a while. Stage 10 is a run through of Castlevania 1 including condensed versions of all the levels as well and all the bosses. Dracula is of courseat the end, and he has two forms. Stage 11 is based off Getsu Fuma, which was only released in Japan for the NES, enemies like to rush in to attack a lot on this stage making dodging very important. The level has three sub bosses that can be defeated in any order before fighting the main boss, Ryukotsuki, who has three forms.
To make things simpler, I like stages 1,2,6,8,10, and 11, and I don't like stages 3,4,5,7, and 9. My favorite stage is 2, and my least favorite stage is 4.
The music of the game is largely remixes of classic Castlevania tunes. Some might prefer more new music, but I say if it ain't broke don't fix it. The music was great back then and is still great now. Sound effects aren't that prevalent but when used are quite effective, like some death screams for example.
In the online mode, you can select cooperative or survival mode, both support six players. Both can be played with your region only or globally. Despite lag it's always a better idea to search for games globally, since sometimes even games in your own country won't show up otherwise. When you create a room you have to wait for at least one other player to join before starting or you can wait for a full group six total players. Then the host can finalize the team and pick the level. The problem is that if one player doesn't have a level unlocked, then the entire party can't play it until they beat the necessary levels to unlock it. Also if one player hasn't bought a download content level, then no one in the group can play it. The only way around this is to disband the team and create another game without the person that didn't have the level in it. After a stage is cleared in victory or defeat, the group is returned to the lobby where the leader can now choose the same or different level. If a player left or there are still openings in the team, the host can search for more players in between rounds before finalizing the team again and starting the next level. I also have to say I find the music that plays during the online menus loud and obnoxious. It really emphasizes the tedium of the process. It's often hard to find a match you can join in the game due to a problems with the host's connection. It's also difficult to find a group that is willing to play one of the less desirable levels such as 4,8, or any level on normal difficulty. Lag is rather frequent especially in a full group. It seems as though you can't beat five stages without at least one person disconnecting accidentally. Oddly connections to people in Japan seem to be more stable than to those in Europe, Canada or even the midwest of America. Regardless of who you're playing with, I recommend smaller groups with a total of three or four people for more stable connection, and manageable difficulty.
Survival mode is pretty much death match or player versus player. It is wildly unbalanced though since there's no parameter to fix what gear people could bring into the game. Oddly there's only two stages in survival mode and normal in stage 1 and hard stage 1, which adds Gergoth into the fray. I'm surprised it didn't at least add all of the first six stages. Survival mode is mainly popular because of its ease of leveling up spells or sub weapons, often referred to as survival grinding. To grid players take turns killing Gergoth to more quickly gain experience points and increase their base stats.
The fun in the game seems to be dependent on how good your at it, the better you do more, the more fun you'll have. it's very satisfying to dispatch the enemies in the game, especially with a with whip user when you're not getting hit and you feel like your invincible. The boss fights are great, and really emphasize teamwork in the multiplayer. Perhaps my favorite thing about the game though is how differently each character plays from one another. With the exception of the multiple whip users each character has completely different play styles, as well as strategies to take on bosses.
The biggest flaw I would say is the ridiculous tedium of leveling up sub weapons and spells, which can take between four and 12 hours per character. I suppose This wouldn't be too much of a hassle if you only chose to play as one character, but then you'd be missing out on a lot of aspects of the game. Also ridiculous is how long it takes to get a rare item in the game to drop from a boss that only has six items they can give you. Sometimes you might have to the defeat a boss only a few times they get the item you're looking for, but other times it might take as many as 150 attempts before finally achieving success. I'll also object to the lack of local co op. Given how little of the 360s power that this game uses there's no reason why the game can't have split screen co-op or at very least system link co-op. And of course there is the problem with the constant disconnections in multiplayer when in large groups
Castlevania Harmony of Despair is a really fun game with satisfying combat, and it also offers a lot of replay value to a dedicated players who won't stop in their quest to get the best items. However the low detailed 2D sprites and tough early learning curve could make the game unappealing to less seasoned players. Even though I find it to be as fun as a 9/10, I feel as though I must give it a 8/10 for the average non Castlevania fan player.
In the next section I'll explore the different play styles, as well as strengths and weaknesses of different playable characters in the game in my own informative tier list
Soma is by far the most powerful and diverse character, which makes him of course the best. Not only can he use most of Alucard's weapons and has some exclusives of his own, but he can also use the souls of defeated enemies and gain their attacks making him ridiculously powerful. Soma must defeat an enemy for a chance to acquire its soul, and then gain a magic ability from it. Soma has six slots to map his soul powers to, one for passive souls that don't use mp and ussaly increse his stats, one maped to RB that toggles powers and sheilds, and four mapped to the B button that are more offenceive projectile attacks, sometimes refered to as bullet souls. Because of the wide and diverse amout of soul abilities Soma can be played many different ways, and it often seems like he can do anything. Once you have a decent amount of souls and some good weapons Soma will be the easiest character to play as.
Alucard plays like a dumbed down Soma. Alucard can acquire spells from the defeating certain enemies, but can also acquire them from treasure chests. Alucard has five spells, two of which are pretty much the same as each other,[Summon Spirt and Tetra Spirt] one which is useless [Dark Metamophosis] and two spells that are pretty good [Soul Steal and Hellfire]. The main thing that sets him apart from Soma is that he has a few exclusive swords and the use of shields. Some of these swords are quite powerful and have unique special attacks such as Daybreak. He can also temporarily turn into a wolf to slide and has a mist form in order to block. Alucard is a good starting character, because he does everything pretty well, but is not exceptional, that is until you acquire his best weapons like the Muramasa or Yasutsuna.
Shanoa used to be a near bottom tier but thanks to download content is now very diverse, highly powerful character. To gain spells Shanoa must wait until certain enemies cast the spell using a glyph, then by holding up she can absorb it and gain it's ability. Her lightning spell Fulgur has incredible reach and homing ability. Globus is as a all around screen killer. Acerbatus can do pretty good damage, and Lumunatio has holy damage making them both useful. While her remaining spells have their place but aren't particularly great. Shanoa can also grab on to suspended jump pads called magnet points to use as short cuts on the levels. She also has regular weapons that don't require mp, like Lapiste, Pneuma or Dextro and Sinestro Custos , she acquires these from boss chests. It takes a while to find and upgrade the weapons and spells of Shanoa, but once you do, she is a force to be reckoned with.
Yoko seems like a simple character at first, only having three spells, and doing modest damage. But when fully leveled up Yoko's Holy Lightning and Holy Flame attacks do massive damage, and they of course do holy damage which almost every enemy in the game is susceptible to, meaning yet even more damage. This given with her healing ability which was added by the Philosopher's Stone in stage 9 makes Yoko a walking tank. You can solo almost anything with her.
Note that all whip users have access to the fallowing sub weapons once acquired by any character: Cross, Holy Water, Dagger, Axe, Bible, Javelin, Retro Knife, Retro Axe, Retro Fire Bomb,[Holy water] and Retro Boomerang. [Cross]New sub weapons can be acquired by defeating enemies, buying them in the store or from boss chests.
Richter Belmont does the most damage of all whip users. Like most he has some exclusive martial arts which are close range melee attacks, most useful of which is probably the Tackle. It not only does a lot of damage but also has invisibility frames making it useful as a dodge. He seems to move faster and more acrobatic compared to the other whip users. But really though what sets him apart from the others is personal preference, you should just buy whatever whip user you think looks the best, if you don't like Jonathan.
Julius Belmont is unique amongst the other whip users as he can whip in eight directions including, diagonally up and down either left or right, and even straight up and down. With whipping straight up being the most useful. He is comparable in damage to Richter and he has the greatest whip length of any whip user, although oddly not as far as Soma with his nebula whip weapon. Stranger still for some reason Julius can use the ricochet rock ,where as Richter and Simon cannot. Julius can also use magnet points like Shanoa, but it is far more difficult for him. He also has martial arts which I haven't tried that much. The main detriment to playing Julius is that he run very slowly, even with speed increasing boots. Julius is a solid, though not flashy character choice.
Jonathan Morris was of course the first whip user in the game before all the download content was released. The highlight of his martial arts is the extremely large range and massive damage of his uppercut attack. The main unique thing about Jonathan is his access a variety of sub weapons, some of which are exclusive to him. You have comical ones like the paper airplane, specialized use like the grenade, variants of other weapons like the boomerang as well as more useful ones like that kunai or shuriken or even the boss killing wrecking ball. However with the download content the effectiveness of most of these Jonathan exclusive weapons has diminished greatly to the point of wondering if they are even necessary to use at all really. Most people tend not to like Jonathan due to his appearance of that of a young pretty boy. Me, I just don't like that his whip has the shortest reach of any character. Still beside his slow movement speed, using Jonathan won't really put you at too much of a disadvantage, at least compared to the other whip users.
Simon's whip is almost as long as Julius when fully leveled up, although it starts out as the shortest. Simon also does more damage with his whip then anyone except Richter. He can jump higher than other whip users and he is shorter so is less likely to get hit by attacks. I guess this makes him a balanced character, but it also means that he's also not especially notable. One unique feature is that you can launch a fire ball from his whip by doing a forward attack motion similar to a hadoken from Street Fighter. Unfortunately Simon doesn't have any martial arts so you'll really have to rely on his sub weapons. Playing as Simon is a bit of a challenge, and should really only be done to show off just how good you are at the game.
Getsu Fuma is a fairly fun character to play as. He carries a sword and upon leveling up throws several rows of fireballs from it. However curiously most enemies on his own stage 11 are immune to this attack. His throwing stars and war drum attack do a lot of damage and are applicable in most situations. Hexplosives is almost useless. Fuma's limited range makes him difficult to play as, especially if you run out of mp, but he does do pretty good damage. He is also the only character who can attack just by jumping, and his short height, like Simon, can make it easier to dodge attacks.Maria is the worst character mainly because of the crazy hitting ranges of her spells. The dragon spell Qing Long is pretty good but it costs a lot to cast. The birds Zhu Que seem useful but hits prove to be unreliable on moving targets. People rave about the holy damage of her Hymn ability where she sings a song, but it locks your feet in place for 10 seconds leading you wide open for attack. So it's risky to use and very situational. At first her cat attack Bai Hu seems useless, however due to the low cost of the attack and the high damage output it's actually pretty good once maxed. She can also use the Philosopher's Stone in stage 9 to gain a heal spell like Yoko, and due to her short size enemies have trouble hitting her like Fuma and Simon. She also can block damage in half by using her tortoise shell ability, which you'll have to rely on if you use Hymn a lot. She also has one martial art that is similar to an upper cut attack. Buying Maria still seems like kind of a waste of money since everything feels harder then it need to be, due to her limited abilities, and is therefore a lot less fun to play when compared to the other characters.