Castlevania: Harmony of Despair (2011) Review

Old school side-scroller gaming comes to the PlayStation Network with Castlevania: Harmony of Despair. What it lacks in story and visuals, it makes up for with exciting team-play and mostly engrossing character building. And while each play through will never last longer than 30 minutes, there are enough characters with varied abilities to make each trek through Dracula’s domain a fun experience.

There isn’t much of a storyline here except for the usual Castlevania plot: Dracula and his minions are up to no good and it’s up to the monster-slaying Belmont family, spell-casting travelers from abroad and even some of Dracula’s kin to put down the evil. To be sure, it’s a little threadbare, but plot isn’t really necessary for this kind of game.

The player starts by selecting a character to play, which includes members of the Belmont family, Dracula’s family and other characters featured in previous 2-D Castlevania games, like Shanoa and Charlotte Aulin. As players would expect, the characters all have their strengths and weaknesses. The Belmonts have whips that can be swung around for nominal damage, but excellent protection against projectiles. Shanoa has a magnetism ability that allows her to latch onto Magnes points in the environment to help her traverse dangerous areas or bypass them altogether. In addition to their unique abilities, the characters also share common abilities, like slides and double jumps. The difficulty of the game can vary dramatically depending on which character players choose and they’ll quickly gravitate towards one that suits their play style.

The characters can be customized in limited fashion with different weapons, skills, clothes, armor and items. There won’t be much to customize on the outset, since the player won’t have any gold to spend at the shop, but after a few run-throughs of any of the dungeons, the player will have no doubt amassed a bit of loot that can be used to upgrade whichever character he or she wishes to augment. Beyond that, the player can pick from eight different color palettes for their particular character before venturing into one of Daracula’s domains, and characters typically become more powerful by how often they use a particular skill or by absorbing the abilities of monsters they meet. As such, low-level characters can expect to die many times before completing any of the levels. These early stages can be infuriating at times, especially when a player dies only because he or she couldn’t afford the proper counter to an affliction, like an antidote for poison. Once the player learns what areas to avoid, however, gameplay normalizes, so this complaint is temporary at best.

The gameplay is a side-scrolling action platformer contained in some kind of multi-level structure. The goal of each level or chapter is to navigate the character to where the boss is located and slay it. Blocking the way is a bevy of creatures, traps and other obstacles that the player must overcome. Furthermore, the path to the boss is never direct. A number of locked doors must be opened before the boss fight can occur, forcing the player to explore a good portion of each map to find the right levers that will clear the path. Thankfully, treasure chests are scattered throughout each dungeon, and their contents usually benefit the player by offering large sums of money or useful items. Once the boss is defeated, the chapter is complete and the player can replay the chapter or move on to the next. Three chapters are available in the original download with more available on the PlayStation Store.

Despite each chapter only lasting a maximum of 30 minutes – there’s a timer ominously counting down to usher players along – each level feels satisfying to run through and is full of the classic pitfalls fans of the series have come to expect, like swinging lyres and tilting chandeliers. Some of the traps require a bit of thought, especially when playing alone, and open up room for creative workarounds.

The visuals aren’t anything players will show off to their friends. The character models have only a few frames of animation and the bare minimum of detail. Impressively, however, players can zoom out dramatically and view the entire map to see what’s happening in other parts of the dungeon or simply plan an approach. Players can even play the entire game in this zoomed out mode. This view is quite helpful when coordinating with other players.

Harmony of Despair is at its best when played cooperatively. In fact, some areas of the dungeons were designed for multiple players. Consider a room full of flames that can alternately be extinguished when the correct pressure plates are depressed at the proper times. Unfortunately, the plates are in separate rooms. While solo players can definitely complete each chapter alone, they miss out on the sense of teamwork that comes with watching fellow players crawl the dungeon together. In the end, most players will want to team up since there’s very little reason to complete a chapter more than once playing alone.

Castlevania: Harmony of Despair offers an enjoyable distraction for as long as it lasts. It won’t be something that gamers spend marathon sessions playing well into the night, but it’s great for quick romps with friends.