Originally posted at: http://www.criticalgamer.co.uk/2010/08/11/castlevania-harmony-of-despair-review/
Before you look at the score at the bottom of this page, consider this simple calculation – for every player less than six that you play Castlevania: Harmony of Despair with, subtract a point. By yourself? Forget it. Even with two or three players it’s not quite there. But get 5 or 6 players together and the trek through Dracula’s castle becomes a riotously good time.
That’s because Harmony of Despair actively goes against the grain of modern game design to craft a unique cooperative experience. The game does little to teach you its rules, but they’re never so obtuse that you can’t put your heads together and figure it out. The game reinforces comradery at every turn, something you can’t experience by yourself.
Harmony of Despair’s design is a patchwork of concepts from various Castlevanias. The game’s five heroes come from different games in the series, and each has a unique set of quirks. Everyone has a mix of close-range attacks, magic projectiles, and double-jumps, but what they focus on and how they get stronger ranges wildly. Characters like Soma and Alucard use a shop to pay their way to better weapons; meanwhile Jonathan uses special attacks to level up his whip.
The balance between characters isn’t perfect – some characters simply take longer to advance – but the variety makes the game a very different experience for each player.
Each of the game’s six chapters features a different set of quirks, cooperative challenges, and enemies. One chapter features a hulking monstrosity so huge it destroys a third of the dungeon. Defeating it requires the coordination of players in three completely different areas of the map.
Keeping track of action that spans so many rooms is easy thanks to the game’s zoom function. By clicking in the right stick to zoom out the camera, players can pull out to a view of the entire level. You can even play like this, but it’s not advisable. Zooming and panning the camera allows you to survey your team mates, keep an eye on the boss, or simply find your way around the environment.
In one instance, separated from a few friends who were new to the game, we pulled the view out to keep an eye on them and navigate them to safety. Players who take on a leadership role will find the game offers ample opportunities to be a helpful commander or skilled hero.
Harmony of Despair is a hard game, and figuring out the quirks of each boss monster may take a few attempts. When you die you become a skeleton. You can’t do much but throw bones, and every time you die after that the whole team loses five minutes to finish the level. That sound really frustrating, but to be honest our group couldn’t stop laughing every time things went horribly wrong. Trapped in the boss room with your skeletal buddies cowering in the corner, desperately trying to finish the fight is a hilarious experience. This game takes the idea that “co-op makes everything more fun” and runs with it.
From the very beginning, Harmony of Despair was billed as a six-player Castlevania game. If you stick to that notion and play with friends, and you don’t mind a bit of old-school punishment in your 2D platformers, you won’t be disappointed. There are some rough edges – poor online lobbies, slow running speed, and some nasty graphics here and there – but it scores where it counts, offering a framework for what could be one of the most memorable online experiences you’ll ever have.