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News of a brand new multiplayer Castlevania was greeted with excitement from fans of the series when it was announced a few short months ago, and with good reason. The franchise has always impressed with its addictive platform/RPG gameplay, seductive storytelling and intricately designed locations, and, on paper, a six player version certainly seemed like a great way to breathe new life into a franchise that has been going strong for more than a couple of decades.
However, as more and more details emerged about Konami's latest project, the tide of optimism began to even out, with some critics enthusiastic about the new look map system, while others showed concern about the potential lack of single player depth. Unfortunately, Harmony Of Despair is as flawed as it is fun, with both single player and multiplayer suffering from a number of irritations, ranging from a lack of narrative when playing solo to an unbalanced difficulty spike in co-op mode.
All seems well upon first loading the game - in fact, when greeted with the option to select from former Castlevania stalwarts Soma Cruz, Jonathan Morris, Alucard, Shanoa and Charlotte Aulin, each with individual powers and abilities, the game appears to have enough depth and variety to allow for multiple replays and experimentation, which is always a good thing. After picking your character it's time to jump into the first level, which has a familiar look and feel to it - a theme that you'll need to get used to throughout the game. Picking and choosing the right hero or heroine is essential in single player, as certain characters will struggle in certain levels and against certain bosses, with the likes of Alucard handy when able to get up close and personal with an enemy, but not the greatest against bosses that demand more long ranged attacks.
The new map system is on show from the off, with three levels of zoom to choose from by clicking the right analogue stick. Of the three, only two can genuinely be used to see what's going on, with the zoomed out camera only really useful in multiplayer to view your comrades or to double check where the boss is on a certain level. The mid-level zoom is quite a handy tool, as it prevents players wasting their time entering a room that might not need to be entered, or to correctly plan your route and scout out enemies. Despite its usefulness, it's hard to recommend playing a whole level this way, as you will struggle to see what's going on around you, e.g. the whereabouts of traps and smaller enemies. The traditional up-close view, however, exposes the game's graphics a little. The backdrops, which are borrowed from games such as Portrait Of Ruin and Aria Of Sorrow, look fantastic and worthy of the HD tag, but the playable characters and enemies on the other hand, look as though they've been lifted straight out of their respective games thanks to some sluggish animations and grainy, digitised graphics.
Another thing you'll notice instantly is the timer in the top right hand side of the screen, which gives players precisely 30 minutes to find their way through a level and beat the boss. Gone is any attempt to craft a narrative into the game, instead it's simply a rush to slay the boss and find as much loot as you can. As disappointing as a lack of story is, it’s made worse by the fact that a lot of what you do throughout the level is akin to grinding, with financial gain a must to afford the decent weapons and armour, because the chests scattered throughout the levels yield very few genuine rewards. The levelling-up system, which has always been extremely well implemented throughout the series, has also been scaled back, with secondary spells and attacks benefiting from continued use, but that's it.
The use of the 30 minute timer does have its plus points though, especially when still figuring out the ins and outs of a level, and it becomes a genuine and thrilling race against the clock to try and find everything, as well as having a go against the boss and trying to suss out their attacks and weak spots. Of course, if you die, which you will quite frequently, it's back to square one, but once you know the route it shouldn't take too long to reach the end again. Some bosses, especially the second boss, are quite cheap and it is quite hard to stomach losing to him the fourth or fifth time and having to go back to the beginning once again (especially considering how easy the boss on the next level is).
Timers and a lack of story suggests that single player was a slight afterthought when developing the game, and so it's fair to assume that the multiplayer is where the game will shine. This is half true, as once again there are a few niggles that prevent the experience from reaching its potential. There are multiple chests and secret areas that can be accessed with the help of cohorts, but, as mentioned previously, they fail to reward the players sufficiently. Also, as opposed to co-op games such as LittleBigPlanet, the secret parts of the levels aren't conveniently located, leading to some players waiting around for a partner to trawl through the level in order to pull a lever that will see the bored onlooker 'benefit' from the goods. There aren't enough co-op puzzles in the levels either, so the majority of the time players will simply travel the routes they are used to and make their way to the boss, whose difficulty has risen in conjunction with the amount of players on-screen.
The increased difficulty doesn't seem to take into account players' levels either, so tackling an area with five novices and one pro will hinder the team's progress. Add to this the fact that you don't know how strong the players you are teamed with will be and you have a potentially frustrating experience on your hands. For this reason, Harmony Of Despair is best played with friends, which is when it becomes a much less stressful endeavour. There's also a multiplayer battle mode to tackle, which hardly reaches the heights of Smash Brothers thanks to some hideously mismatched pairings; although it does allow for weaker players to see what they should be aspiring to in terms of abilities.
Castlevania: Harmony Of Despair isn't the game one feels it could have been. It seems scaled back and overly geared to multiplayer, despite being flawed in its new focal area. Having only six levels, which are all recycled and lesser versions of their sources, seems rather stingy, and a lack of narrative means that it won't necessarily appeal to long time fans eager to explore and discover new parts to the mythology. However, for the most part it still retains the classic Castlevania gameplay. Combine this with the fact that there are a generous number of characters to choose from (although why there aren't six is beyond me), each with a diverse set of strengths and weaknesses, and there is still fun to be had. It's best downloaded with friends, but better yet, download Symphony Of The Night instead or check out one of the DS incarnations.
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