Castlevania games are great. There are classics like Symphony of the Night, Dawn of Sorrow, Aria of Sorrow and Order of Ecclesia. So it’s a crying shame that the first original Castlevania on the Xbox 360 – Castlevania: Harmony of Despair – is such a mess. It had the potential to be great. It has the right characters, and the timed gameplay format could have worked wonders, but it falls far short of expectations. This summer, there were some gems like Limbo and the new Tomb Raider on Xbox LIVE Arcade. Castlevania was supposed to be the other great title. It’s not.
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Here’s a quick run down of Castlevania games – lots of platforms, lots of monsters, lots of weapons, and big boss battles. What made it fun was the variety the games offered and the satisfaction of defeating Dracula after a harrowing fight. Harmony of Despair gets together some of the past protagonists and a few levels inspired by the past games, and adds a co-operative component and a time limit to finish the boss.
Players can select between Alucard, Soma Cruz, Jonathan Morris, Shanoa and Charlotte Aulin – all protagonists from previous games. If you are playing multiplayer, every player can select the same character, differentiated by their colour palettes. There are six levels or stages and each must be completed in thirty minutes. If you die, go back to the last checkpoint, or wait to be revived by a teammate. There’s a lot of grinding involved to get gold and buy new equipment which will make you stronger. Ultimately, you can go and kill the boss.
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There’s a nifty feature of zooming out the whole level to fit on your screen. This is supposed to help you define your path to the boss, but it just kills the exploration factor that the previous games were known for. Everything is shrunk down to such tiny detail that it’s not possible to play, although the game goes on. You do need to attempt each level multiple times to know where the various levers and switches are which will open up paths to the boss. Each character comes with their own abilities from previous games, so there’s a lot of replayability.
If you are new to the Castlevania series, you will be left scratching your head wondering why people salivate over the previous games. The controls are not very responsive, and this is my biggest crib. An action platformer requires perfect controls, especially one where the enemies are supposed to be tough, and a timer is ticking away. Pressing the right buttons at the right time is the key to enjoying these games. Shanoa may look lithe, but she moves like a slug demon. The next big crib is absence of tips/guides. Well, there are some entries in the menu which say things like ‘double-jump to jump higher’ and ‘two players can make devastating combos’. While a game guide or in-game tips may not be required for people who eat Dracula for breakfast everyday, it’s definitely required for the Summer of Arcade target audience. I am not saying dumb it down like Splinter Cell: Conviction, but don’t expect someone new to know that Alucard can disappear in a mist or Shanoa can traverse spaces by attaching to certain objects. Thirdly, the time never stops in single player. If this was a multiplayer-only game, that would be fine, but the game has a separate single player option and we should be able to pause when required.
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The entire game has been structured as a great multiplayer experience for players who love the series and are familiar with the old games. Find five other Castlevania lovers on Xbox LIVE and you are all set. Be prepared for a tough fight though, since the bosses scale in HP with the number of players in the game. The bosses are tough, but don’t have the menace which was there in some of the old games. The game itself is tough, which is expected of Castlevania games, but the challenge is compounded by the aforementioned gimpy controls. The 30-minute time limit ensures that you can wrap up a couple of levels in one sitting assuming you know what you are doing and are already armed to the teeth. But a real Castlevania lover would rather play one of the old games or expect some new challenge, not a gimped, recycled version of past games.
Graphically, the game looks decent. It’s in HD, but reuses almost everything from past games, which in case anyone forgot, are from past generations. So it’s still blocky sprites moving on the screen against some pretty background. The sound is also reused and the music really sounds great.
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Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is fan service to hardcore Castlevania fans and provides some fun co-operative play, but it falls short of being enjoyable and might even succeed in turning off those new to the series. This should not be your first Castlevania game; it should ideally be your fifth or sixth, and something you play while you wait for the new three-dimensional Castlevania. Or just spend these points and buy Symphony of the Night from Xbox LIVE. You’ll thank me.