Castlevania is a series that in its 24 year existence has seen nearly every reasonable iteration. There have been platformers, fighters, puzzle games, and third-person adventurers. At this point, it’s a series that sees as much success because of its brand name as it does the quality of its actual gameplay because the Castlevania series carries a mythology and mystique to it, rivaled only by marquees like Final Fantasy and Resident Evil. In that regard, the Xbox Live Arcade release, Castlevania: Harmony of Despair, is something of a tangent for the series.
Harmony of Despair is barely recognizable as a Castlevania game. Rather than being like the 2-D platformers that the series has created in recent years (and that it’s graphically similar to) the game is a generic party-themed, puzzle adventure platformer. You could just as easily slap the title Gauntlet or Vampire Hunter on the digital cover art and come away with the same feeling. Aside from some recognizable enemies and the names of protagonists (who are nearly interchangeable—but more about that later), Harmony of Despair is completely lacking in addressing the mythology of Castlevania.
In Harmony of Despair, you play as one of six previous Castlevania protagonists and attempt to work your way through increasingly large maze-like castles. You wander room to room in an effort to stumble across massive boss-type substances. There are various levers and switches that you have to find in order to move forward and further your journey into the perpetual onslaught of zombies, skeletons, and other somewhat recognizable Castlevania enemies.
The gameplay is fairly basic. Unfortunately, there are no tutorials, button layouts, or explanations to suggest what exactly you’re supposed to be doing. So despite the fact that you jump, stab, magic, and run around like you do in all other Castlevania platformers, the game feels convoluted and obtuse. Matters are worsened by the wildly confusing camera system. Because each level is a maze-like castle, you’re given various camera angles in order to find your way through the maze. A few of these angles, however, are so wide that seeing your character and the action around him is impossible.
Pre-setting camera angles (which can be scrolled through in real time) is a must, even if many of the settings are completely unusable.
The other gameplay failing is the lack of in-level save points. Harmony of Despair’s six levels are all fairly large and are filled with an endless supply of bad guys for your to hack your way through. Needless to say, staying alive is difficult, especially when health packets are so difficult to come by. As such, you end up replaying levels over and over again in an effort to accumulate money and equipment.
Of the six playable characters, none are particularly unique. Each has their primary attack as well as a magic attack. But weapons can be shared between characters, making their uniqueness basically zero. Characters don’t level up, and changing their attributes comes only with the purchase or finding of new equipment, which happens through general RPG grinding and failing to complete the expansive dungeons.
Harmony of Despair’s biggest innovation is the advent of multiplayer; up to six players are able to play at a time. While multiplayer is a nice addition and certainly makes the game more manageable, it takes away significantly from the idea that this is a Castlevania game. “What a terrible night for a curse” is far less menacing if you’re walking around with five fiercely armed friends.
In the end, Harmony of Despair is a pretty mundane puzzle platformer that, were it not for its namesake would be relegated to the virtual shelves. Instead, the game’s surname and blue blood lineage will probably produce at least one more comparable sequel and possibly even a string of ever expansive Castlevania multiplayer games.