VIDEO GAMES: John Reviews “Castlevania: Harmony of Despair” by Konami for XBox Live Arcade

Ahh, Castlevania.  One of the only two areas of popular culture where it’s cool for a guy to wield a whip (the other, of course,  being Indiana Jones.) When I downloaded Castlevania: Harmony of Despair as part of Xbox Live’s Summer of Arcade promotion, I was expecting a game experience something like the genre’s most popular entry, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.  While the graphics and core play controls are roughly the same as that 1997 classic, and Alucard is still one of the main characters, C:HD is an extremely different game from SotN. Gone is the story-driven, nonlinear, exploration-based single-player structure of the old days.  Instead, C:HD is an interesting mash-up of the last five big 2-D Castlevania games, and combines gameplay elements from all of them plus Gauntlet, Diablo, and (I shudder to even say its name) World of Warcraft. Do all of those elements work together? 18 hours of gameplay later, I can say that it’s certainly interesting enough to dig its hooks into me and keep me from playing several other of my recent downloads.  How do they do it? Read on!

First, an explanation of the basic gameplay experience.  Single-player mode (what most Castlevania fans are accustomed to) consists of six levels, each comprised of 20-30 rooms and capped with a large boss battle.  Each level features a 30 minute time limit, which pretty much forces the player to play through a level many times.  Treasure chests are sprinkled throughout, containing anything from life-restoring food to valuable items to standard currency.  Boss fights are suitably exciting, usually spilling out of the main room into other areas of the level and sporting a difficulty that ranges from challenging to downright sadistic.  Players can choose to complete each level as any of the five main characters from 1997-and-later Castlevania games, with the promise of new characters being available for download at a later date (for an additional charge, of course.)  The “secret sauce” of C:HD is both its most compelling and most aggravating alteration to the classic Castlevania formula: Random loot drops.  The only way for your character to get stronger is by finding better and better items (standard EXP-based progression is noticeably absent,) and the best items only have a 1-4% chance of appearing in a given treasure chest (sometimes only in one chest per level!)  So you try again, and again, and again, and again to get that rare weapon that only has a 2% drop chance in one chest in the last level on Hard difficulty, tearing your hair out in the process.

Thankfully, C:HD features an excellent cooperative multiplayer mode that helps mitigate the punishing difficulty of the harder levels.  Teams of up to 6 can tackle any of the dungeons together on any difficulty, and there are chances for dead players to be revived by their teammates.  In order to avoid what would have been truly brutal infighting, the developers of C:HD wiseley arranged for each player in the group to receive an item whenever any player opens a treasure chest.  This encourages cooperation rather than competition, and helps to foster goodwill among players on Xbox Live (a true rarity on that service!) Taking a cue from LittleBigPlanet, each level features areas that are only accessible by two or more players working together, and getting the contents of those purple treasure chests is certainly rewarding.  Most importantly, this mode allows for more powerful and experienced players to assist struggling players with completing the more difficult levels, and encourages a “pay it forward” mode of play that is unexpected and refreshing.

C:HD may do some great things with 2-D multiplayer online cooperative platformers, but its faults all but overshadow its successes.  Since many of these faults do not require explanation, I will simply list them:

  1. There is no way to pause the game, even in single-player mode
  2. Inventory items can only be accessed at specific locations within each level, and action does not stop when your character is managing his/her inventory.
  3. The game offers no instructions regarding each character’s unique abilities or methods of progression.
  4. There is NO story, not even a text dump at the beginning or end.
  5. While the selection of characters offers a broad range of Castlevania elements, the members of the Belmont family (the stars of the first 5 Castlevania games as well as several later games) are noticeably absent. Instead, non-Belmont Jonathan Morris is the wielder of the classic Vampire Killer whip.
  6. All of the graphical assets are pulled from earlier Castlevania games released for the Gameboy Advance, Nintendo DS, or Sony PS1, with little to no alteration.

While external resources such as GameFAQs.com have picked up much of the slack left by the developers, the lack of documentation and consideration for the single-player experience is frustrating to the point of appearing unprofessional.  Even Braid, a game created by a  single-person development company, was able to create a compelling story for a 2-D platformer using nothing more than a few text dumps and an in-game final story sequence.  Heck, Konami could’ve held a contest asking its readers to submit fan fiction featuring its 5 most recent protagonists and published the winner’s results without paying them!  This lack of basic consideration for single-player experience smacks of rushed work, and I really wish Konami had taken a few extra weeks to make C:HD as compelling in single-player mode as it is in multiplayer mode.  At 400 MS points ($5) it would be a great buy, at 800 ($10) it would be acceptable, but at its current asking price of 1200 ($15) it’s a bit of a rip-off.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go play level 6 about 20 more times and hope I get that loot drop I’ve been waiting for…

UPDATE: The shackles have been broken! A mere three hours of gameplay later, I have reached my saturation point with C:HD. I didn’t even get that rare item drop, either.  Have fun, kids! I’m gonna go play Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: The Game!

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4 Responses

  1. Don’t like this Castlevania…

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