Castlevania: Harmony of Despair Review
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On 08/06/2010 at 10:53 AM by Stanton Daries
A potentially great game destroyed by a complete lack of usability and focus on excessive grinding.
For those who like grinding games and being confused.
Playing Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is a lot like what I imagine living with an alcoholic stepfather would be like. You find yourself in a situation with no guidance or information on what to do besides the general desire not to screw up and every time you think you have figured out the correct way to behave, you find yourself beaten for thinking you can do better and being “uppity”. By description, an up-to-six player co-op game where you can choose from the A team of the Castlevania universe, Harmony of Despair sounded like it could have been one of the best Xbox Live Arcade games to grace the system. Sadly, this is not the case, and what’s worse is that the game in itself is not a bad experience.
Did the contradiction in the previous paragraph confuse you? Get used to that feeling if you decide to play Harmony of Despair. This game has to be the most confusing, contradictory and unintuitive games I have ever played in my life, and this is coming from someone who has enjoyed imported, non-translated Japanese RPGs. Even after researching online exactly what I had to do to advance my character, I found myself asking if it was worth the hours of play I was going to have to devote to grinding away in Sisyphus-like fashion.
Harmony of Despair is a multiplayer Castlevania title that drops players into a mini-castle which constitutes a stage. At the beginning of each stage your single objective is made clear as the map zooms over the stage boss, a classic villain from previous installments, and the word ‘Target’ flashes several times. After delivering that insightful piece of information, the game promptly goes out to buy some more beer as players are forced to stumble their way through 2D maps full of spikes, moving platforms, and spiteful enemies.
As players progress through the level, they will come upon the same kinds of challenges they faced in any of the post-Symphony of the Night Castlevania titles. The exception is that most of the exploration is removed, as players can zoom all the way out at any point to get a good view of the whole castle. After players begin the level, they are given no further guidance on how to play or enjoy the game, or how in fact they will eventually conquer the frightening boss at the end of the level.
Due to the fact that this game has no story, I decided to make one up as I was playing; basically, a magical genie lost a bet to a leprechaun. There is no explanation of how the five characters, all from different times found themselves fighting together in six stages, all inspired by previous games as well. This certainly lives up the arcade standard of yesteryear but at least some backstory would be welcome.
If you have played the other Castlevania games you won’t likely be surprised by anything in the game, as there doesn’t seem to be a single unique element in there. All the seeded frustrations are compounded by the fact that the characters seem to have a delay between your thumb and them moving. Once they do realize you are in fact sending a command, they reach the speed equivalent of a sloth.
Harmony of Despair is one of the toughest titles in the Castlevania franchise, especially in single player, but I can’t help feeling that it is an artificial challenge. It isn’t a well-crafted challenge or difficult puzzle that delays you, but instead you are faced with enemies whose challenge scales in unpredictable leaps. This is compounded by the player set-up; if you don’t have enough players or the players in the game have selected the wrong character, certain puzzles are insurmountable. Even more frustrating are the overpowered bosses. The second boss in the game, Puppet Master from Dawn of Sorrow, has the potential to kill in as little as one move. After investing sometimes close to a half an hour to reach said boss and having each person in your party be killed one at a time in a single hit is a bit frustrating to say the least. Making matters worse, is that the bosses get more hit points based on the number of players, meaning that sometimes you can’t even hope to win if you happen to have more than one other friend online.
As I came to play more, I realized the answer to winning the game is through the age old method of grinding. Characters do not level up in the game, but they can collect defensive items through chests scattered around the level, while each character’s particular attack spells/skills gain more damage based on some specific criteria. This criteria varies from character to character, and like the rest of the game none of this is explained or even made apparent. Going through the effort of getting chest is not as rewarding as hoped as it seems completely random in what you get, often something you already have multiple versions of, or no longer need. Selling the items is pointless as well as the lobby shop never refreshes its inventory and once you have surpassed the base items available there is nothing left to buy. Even worse, players have no access to their inventory while playing the game, unless they enter a book room in some obscure corner of the map. As you might have deduced, this also limits usage of healing items as well as mana recharging items mid-boss battle, further increasing the challenge level.
The one bright spot of Harmony of Despair, and something that is deserving of acclaim, is the way the game has managed to combine five distinct combat styles into one system while not making any one ability set become overpowered compared to the others. Each character complements each other well and when the abilities are understood, it allows an enjoyable game experience.
You notice that I included the caveat about understanding the characters abilities; part of the unhelpfulness that so hurts this game is the absolute zero player feedback on advancement, ability explanations or trap/puzzle pointers. If you have played previous Castlevania games you will have a small edge in knowing the basic idea of what each character’s theme is, but even that does not aid you greatly since there is no explanation on how to improve the abilities. If you have not played one of the characters before then you are absolutely out of luck. I played Shanoa through at least two stages before I stumbled onto one of her abilities, which through magnetic force allows you to slingshot her to higher platforms at special locations throughout the stage.
The menu system is awful as well, my favorite example being that to equip your character before a chapter you have to click on “Main Menu”. Trying to setup a multiplayer game for the first time is a like some sort of Rorschach test.
The game itself is also incredibly short. With a maximum time allowed of thirty minutes per stage you are looking at three hours if you somehow managed a perfect run; grinding for hours is not something you can claim as being a legitimate part of a game experience. A game should not be longer because you made it unfairly difficult.
Finally, they threw in a versus mode where up to six players can hop onto a screen and try to beat each other to death with random food item drops. Of course this doesn’t take into account the joy of meeting someone who happened to grind an attack ability to insane levels and blows you away in under ten seconds.
In the end I am left thinking of Harmony of Despair as it could have been. The ingredients were in place for a great product but lack of usability and call for excessive grinding has crippled the experience.