The enchanting music plays as the story-book-style menu options unfold before your eyes, and then for the first time in Castlevania history you will notice the ability to set up a 6 player online game over Xbox LIVE! However, if you prefer to play on your own and with slightly less difficulty in terms of gameplay, the Single Player chapters await your attention - it’s not all about the multiplayer, but this game will soon have you begging for co-operative help!
Designed by the legendary producer of the Castlevania titles, Koji Igarashi, Castlevania Harmony of Despair is the first in the series initially exclusive to the Xbox LIVE Arcade, and is the third game to be released as part of the popular â€śSummer of Arcadeâ€ť campaign.
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Before commencing the start of any chapter, you have the ability to select your playing character from those featured in previous Castlevania titles on the Main Menu. Soma Cruz, best known from ‘Dawn of Sorrow’, Alucard from ‘Symphony of the Night’, Jonathan Morris and Charlotte Aulin from ‘Portrait of Ruin’, and finally - Shanoa the heroine from ‘Order of Ecclesia’ are all instantly available, each with their own unique weapons, attributes and power-combo attacks. Upon making your character choice, you can choose the dress style colour which is mainly for the purpose of looking different to other players in multiplayer who may have selected the same character. You can also assign different weapons known as your Offensive Gear to selected buttons on the controller and place Defensive Gear to boost your character attributes on the character.
The Main Menu will not only feature at the start of each chapter you play, but accessible from set places within the chapter as a book icon also. The reason for this is because of the Shop Options available which will allow you to purchase new Offensive and Defensive Gear ranging from weapons, potions, clothing and accessories that will give you a stronger attack and defense against enemies. Items can be bought using the gold you find within the chapters, but can also be sold back to the Shop later to boost your gold count towards purchasing other gear. It is best to familiarise yourself with the menu options early on because each chapter you play is timed, and the more time you spend browsing the availability of items could cost you your life later on in the game. Viewing the Menu and Shop does not halt the timer, nor does pausing. When the clock stops or your health drains to its lowest point, expect a “Failed” notice to signal game over, and you’ll have to play the chapter again completely from scratch.
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Visually, ‘Harmony of Despair’ is a 2D game featuring a mix of detailed sprites, characters and their locations from previous Castlevania titles on other platforms. If you have played any Castlevania title on the Nintendo DS, ‘Harmony of Despair’ can be compared to that as a much crisper, clearer game that can fit more areas of the Castle on screen than any other! To view all of the on-screen areas at once, one of the new features to Castlevania within ‘Harmony of Despair’ is the ability to pan out the camera using a click system. A press of the right thumb stick will zoom out the camera to show you all of the Castle locations on screen in one frame. This can be used to assist you in your quest to find the end of level boss, and show you other players’ locations if you are in a co-operative multiplayer mode. Another new feature is the ability to save recordings of your game progress; this works by fully completing a chapter and selecting an available save slot to replay it for later.
Hardcore Castlevania fans will feel at home with the visuals and art-style true to the originals, but those new to the series on the Xbox LIVE Arcade may be put off by the 1200 MS Points price tag for it looking too much like a highly polished 16-bit title. The 2D side-scrolling perspective has been part of the Castlevania games for more than 20 years now, and ‘Harmony of Despair’ uses next-gen console technology to ensure it is the most detailed and animated 2D iteration of the series to date. Each and every one of the characters, enemies and background animations are fluid, very responsive and portray the dark-gothic feel of the story well within every chapter.
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There are currently six playable chapters within the game and you can only start at chapter one. The other chapters are unlocked after you have completed the previous chapter and each is a separate Castle with its own unique end of level boss. Even on the Normal setting, for a Single Player game it is insanely difficult because not only are you up against a 30 minute unstoppable clock, you are also on an exploration adventure with a horde of enemies in your path. Initially, you will start each chapter with weapons and hunter skills that cause very little damage to your enemies, and it is highly unlikely you will complete the Castle with the tools you are given on a first run through. The good news is that even when you die, your gold count is carried over and this allows you to buy better weapons that cause higher damage to eventually help you slay that end of level boss. Each Castle is so big that you will not be able to explore every room and hallway on your own within the given time, so it is best to try and make your way to the boss as quick as possible with as much health as you keep! There doesn’t appear to be any story to this Castlevania title other than the obvious that is presented. You start at the bottom of each Castle and must explore its labyrinth consisting of varied haunting hallways and rooms until you have found its end of level boss - kill the boss and move onto the next chapter which is a whole new Castle to be explored.
‘Harmony of Despair’ was certainly built around the six player co-operative ability in which you can join forces with your friends to fight your way through the halls of Castlevania together. In Co-op Mode you can easily join a “Quick Match” or better still, “Create a Team” where you can invite up to five other players with you from your friends list or find randoms on Xbox LIVE. There are no Local Multiplayer capabilities within the game, but you can find other players from Xbox LIVE specifically in your own country or worldwide. Once the Co-op game has started, it plays just like the Single Player except each character is placed on separate areas within the Castle and together you must find your way around independently to the end of level boss. Some players will be required to find switches that will open gates and drop down lifts to enable other players to move forward within the game. Unless you are in an area where all characters are together at once, your screen will just focus on your own character because you can use the click system as previously mentioned that will pan out the camera to show the location of everyone else.
It is worth noting that the enemies within the game become increasingly difficult the more players there are in Co-op for balancing purposes. The reason for this is because up to all six characters can meet up and use their weapons simultaneously on an end of level boss, so the more players, the more hits an enemy requires as a joint effort to slay it to death. Naturally the more players there are, the more fun the game becomes because it requires team work and good effort to proceed further. Playing on your own is slightly less difficult, but you do have to play the chapters more often to build up your Gold count. As an alternative to the six player Co-operative gameplay an additional six player Survival mode is available. Within the Survival game type, you are fighting for your own character survival and play the game as you would the Single Player, but the winner is not declared until all other players have died.
Castlevania Harmony of Despair will be released on Wednesday 4th August for 1200 MS Points. The game is a challenging 2D slide-scrolling slayer that pays homage to earlier Castlevania titles and is a must-have for all Castlevania fans. Whilst the game does not have an overall story and lacks the character leveling up feature from previous titles; the fun is in experiencing the difficulties and gameplay with other friends co-operatively. Newcomers will find this title extremely difficult at first, but either way, it certainly ensures good value for money. There are 12 challenging achievements to be unlocked, no Avatar Awards unfortunately and the Single Player could become quite repetitive if you’re not keen on playing with friends online.
It has already been confirmed that new characters and chapters will be available as downloadable content in the near future.
Final score: 8 out of 10 - Good (How do we rate games?)