Castlevania: Harmony of Despair (XBLA) is a really neat idea: Take a classic Castlevania game, strip it down to its basics, and make it an online multiplayer adventure. It's an intriguing twist on the franchise formula, and while it will undoubtedly make a certain kind of player very happy, for anyone looking to just have some multiplayer fun, it falls just a bit short.
Harmony of Despair lets you and up to five friends play as one of six iconic Castlevania characters, like Alucard, Soma Cruz, or Jonathan Morris, working your way through six different sprawling mansion levels, each complete with its own ridiculous architecture, tenacious enemies and over-the-top boss. In that way, it's not too terribly dissimilar from the single-player games in the series, but while it's technically possible to play through Harmony of Despair by yourself, it's far more difficult and not very much fun. The levels are clearly designed for multiple players, right down to switches and shortcuts that require more than one person to activate.
Thankfully ignoring Castlevania's forays into 3d space, Harmony of Despair sticks with the more traditional 2d format, while also keeping the hordes of enemies and precision jumps that made the series famous. You will kill stuff, you will explore, and you will curse more than once as you miss that motherloving jump onto that motherloving swinging platform. Each chapter offers a huge, sprawling level to be explored, stuffed to the rafters with treasure, monsters, and trickery. These are all good things, and adding the ability to team up with other like-minded slayers should make Harmony of Despair a guaranteed good time. And if you happen to really, really love Castlevania ...well, even then, it's kind of hit or miss.
Harmony of Despair is based on incremental improvement and advancement; you have no choice but to play levels over and over and over again before you succeed. Simply exploring the enormous levels chews up a fair amount of your time during your first few attempts, and the fact that you'll die repeatedly until you score better gear doesn't help. After a few runs, you usually have good enough equipment and a sound enough knowledge of what levers need to be tripped in order for your team to reach the boss, but actually killing it might take a few more tries. This wouldn't be as frustrating if you weren't also racing the clock, but you only get thirty minutes to finish a level. Once you've played through it a number of times, then that should be more than enough time, but having to start completely over simply because you ran out of time is needless aggravation.
The game is also not very welcoming to anyone unfamiliar with the Castlevania series. Newcomers will still be able to play it, but they'll only know a fraction of the abilities and techniques that are available to them, and the game doesn't do much to tip them off. Harmony of Despair apparently expects you to either come in fully armed with advance knowledge of Castlevania lore or to learn by experimenting. How does a grenade differ from a Bible? What's the deal with the puppets and the iron maidens? What happens when Charlotte gets cursed? You'll probably figure out all of those things if you play long enough, but would it have killed Harmony of Despair to have filled in a few of the blanks?
Ironically, longtime fans of the series may also find that Harmony of Despair doesn't go quite far enough into Castlevania's history and lore. The trappings are all there, and it certainly looks, sounds, and plays like a classic Castelvania title, but it's lacking the richly layered nuances of those games. Harmony of Despair exists in this kind of bizarre no-man's-land of being a bit too reliant on Castlevania fandom to be accessible for newcomers, but not drenched enough in it to be true fanservice.
Despite all of its shortcomings, Harmony of Despair can be a whale of a good time when you get a full party together and venture off to kick some undead ass. It's up to you whether you'd work together in Co-op or try to outlast each other in Survival Mode, but there's fun to be had in either direction. The trademark Castlevania aesthetic makes for a welcome diversion, with a charm and sense of humor that's hard to deny. (It's a weird sense of humor, granted, but it's there.)
Bottom Line: If you enjoy Castlevania, if you don't mind time limits, if you don't mind having to replay levels numerous times, and if you can deal with minor irritants like not being able to share teammate-resurrecting Water of Life items (in fairness, the game does let you keep playing as a skeleton even if you've croaked), then you'll probably have some fun hacking and slashing your way through Harmony of Despair - but that's a lot of "if"s.
Recommendation:A delicacy for some, but most definitely an acquired taste. Sample with care.
Game: Castlevania: Harmony of Despair
Release Date: August 4th, 2010
Platform(s): Xbox 360
Available from: Xbox Live Arcade
Susan Arendt thinks the maids in Harmony of Despair are hilarious.