A fantastic multiplayer game that could have been so much more
It's difficult to label Harmony of Despair a Castlevania game. Sure, you have the dark setting, you have Death, Dracula, and your whole posse of vampire hunters are there, but the game lacks the traditional Metroidvania formula found in just about every main Castlevania game after Castlevania II. What at first glance appears to be a dirty way for Konami to make money by reusing assets is, in reality, a relatively complex and rewarding experience for those who are able to forgive the game of its flaws. But enough talk! Have at you!
First, I have to make one thing clear: Harmony of Despair is absolutely not meant to be played alone. Sure, it's possible, once you gather enough good equipment, but this title really shines in the multiplayer component. After completing the six chapters, you're able to play through them on the hard difficulty. This is more challenging but there is a higher potential for rare loot, which brings me to my next point. At only six stages long, it may seem incredibly short for a 1200 point game, but the aspect that makes it worth its price is the loot craze.
What makes Harmony of Despair so incredibly addictive is the Diablo or Borderlands style loot system. Naturally, you're going to find a lot of “treasures” that get sold immediately, but with characters like Soma and Charlotte, whose power increases as they collect more souls and spells (respectively), the loot serves its purpose very well. Distribution of the spoils during multiplayer is done very well; when a player opens a chest containing loot, every player in the game will get a random piece of equipment based on difficulty, chapter, and character.
Other than the soundtrack, the overall presentation is less than stellar. Taking most of its graphics from five year old DS games, Harmony of Despair isn't exactly high definition. This gives the game a very pixelated look at times, especially for some of the oversized bosses. This is coupled by some pretty high resolution art, but that is few and far between. This isn't disappointing per se, as Castlevania games have always looked good with their detailed 2D sprites, but the moniker "high definition" could be misleading to those expecting incredible eye candy.
To add more replayability, you have Survival Mode. However, this is just a single stage, making this addition seem like more of an afterthought, as it consists of only a single stage and poorly thought out mechanics. While interesting in concept, it's unfortunate that players with poor equipment or magically oriented players will get completely destroyed at the hands of fast-attacking physically oriented characters like Alucard and Soma. With more options and stages, Survival could have made a worthy addition to the game, so it's unfortunate to see how little it has to offer.
One major flaw in Harmony of Despair is its menu system, which includes how item management is handled. First of all, once a team of players is formed, it is impossible for another player to join in without completely disbanding the team. Second, item management must be done by the usage of books while in a level, and it is entirely possible to get hit by enemies while moving around your items. Lastly, due to this fatal error, healing items do not stack. Therefore, if you have nine potions and use one, you have to find a book in order to equip the next one. While these may sound like minor gripes initially, the constant annoyances become more and more prevalent as the game progresses.
The soundtrack in Harmony of Despair is fantastic, and this comes as no surprise considering the series' reputation. Castlevania games have always been known to have fantastic tunes, and Harmony of Despair is no exception. With familiar tracks from the series' DS installments, as well as entirely new songs, the energetic music rarely disappoints.
Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is a difficult game to review. It's a blast to play with friends with its addictive loot mechanics and dramatically different characters, but its major flaw is the real lack of originality. Given the fact that there are only six stages, it has surprising longevity; I've already spent around 20 hours playing it, almost entirely with friends. If you are able to overlook Harmony of Despair's flaws, you'll find a game which has a surprising amount of content and depth.
+ A blast to play through with a few friends
+ Loot fuelled gameplay is addictive
+ Characters are varied and interesting
+ Soundtrack is fantastic
- Reused assets make up a lot of the game's art
- Only consisting of six chapters and an ill-conceived Survival Mode, some players won't find much longevity for a 1200 point game
- Not built to be a single player game
- Menus are flawed, causing numerous issues