Castlevania is a name that has come to represent a very particular experience. Big castles, tough bosses, and a pretty decent length. When I first caught wind of Harmony of Despair that's what I was expecting, just with more people. As it turns out, Castlevania HD is not that game, but as it turns out that may have been for the best.
If this game has taught me anything it's that funneling six people down the same corridor doesn't work. Castlevania HD is at it's best when it has your team working separately at completely opposite sides of a map to put the boss at a disadvantage. The basic gameplay rhythm usually turns into: Locating the rest of your party, two or three people splitting off the main group to disable the boss while the remaining players engage the target, and finally everyone groups up to take the boss down.
That isn't to say that exploration doesn't play into the game at all. Each map is literally a maze, and finding the quickest way to your point of interest usually won't happen on your first or even second try. These maps were built to be replayed, and it shows. My only real complaint regarding the level design is that after you figure them out, they are pretty easy. You would think that the ability to zoom all the way out to the full map would help, but when you input moveable gates and teleporting paintings into the equation it becomes a bit more difficult. I would have loved to see some randomly generated aspects, even if it was just the enemies. Perhaps we will see some more variety in future DLC, but as it stands the replayability is a pretty set quantity. Of course, the boss is not the only point of interest. There are also treasure chests and health pick ups scattered throughout each level, and you will need to find them if you wish to survive Dracula's castle. Chests will give you weapons, armor, or items which can be equipped at one of the several station in each level or in the main menu while various food items scattered throughout the level will instantly grant you with a set amount of health. Finding each of these is half the fun of the game, and although items often repeat you will get enough of them that buying better equipment in the store shouldn't be much of a concern.
Navigation, however, will most likely be the least of your concerns. The game is tough, and it makes no attempts to disguise it. It will hand your ass right back to you again and again, so you better come well equipped. While at first glance Castlevania HD may appear to be a loot based game, this is really not the case. While equipping better weapons and armor will increase your survivability, each character also has a means by which they can level up their spells and abilities. Soma captures the souls of his enemies and each successive soul makes the ability more powerful, Jonathan and Shanoa can power up their sub attacks through repeated use, and Charlotte can capture enemy magic. Alucard is the only character who cannot increase his strength without loot, although in exchange he is the only character that can equip a shield. Each character also has certain nuances to them such as Alucard's transformations or Shanoa's ability to grab grab various hooks throughout the levels which she can launch herself from.
With that out of the way, let's talk about the bosses. Each of the bosses in the game has been hand picked from previous Castlevania titles, but this is no way means that they are carbon copies. Each boss has a few new tricks up their sleeves, but strategic players will be able to disable some of these if they work fast enough. It's definitely more fun to take on these behemoths with a party, especially if you have a varied party make up. While Normal may not prove very difficult for veterans of the series, Hard mode will definitely keep you on your toes and makes the best example of why you should always bring friends.
Now to get those friends you're going to have to go online, and let's just say that the experience isn't streamlined. it is impossible to invite new members into your group once you have started a game, even if you are at the level select screen, so rather than simply letting you go back to the lobby menu the game forces you to eject your entire party and then invite them once again if someone new wants to join. That means that if someone in your game gets disconnected for even a split second, they have no way to reenter. That is really the worst of it though, and throughout my play time with the game I experienced zero lag, even when I played with the French.
In the final analysis Casltevania HD is a game that rewards persistence, and should you adhere to these principles then the experience will certainly be a better one. This Castlevania has everything a fan could want: exploration based looting, massive bosses, and character leveling; it's all just done a little differently. While the game may be bit short and perhaps even flawed in its vision, the fact of the matter is Castlevania HD is one hell of a good time for any prospective team of vampire hunters.