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Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is super old school

Microsoft’s Summer of Arcade continues with the ultra confusing vampire/zombie/frankenmonster/ice demon/skeleton riding half a horse/ slaying cast of pretty much every Castlevania game ever.  The big hook of this offering is Co-Op, new to the Castlevania series.  Throw in some RPG elements such as evolving attacks and equipment and you have an intriguing old school side scrolling offering.

If you checked out my review of a previous summer of arcade game, Limbo, you will see that I said at the start that I found that game difficult to review or explain.  This is not the case with Castlevania HoD.  This game is exactly what it sets out to be and makes no bones about it, which is both a blessing and a curse.

The gameplay will feel very familiar to anybody that played 16 bit side scrollers and even MORE familiar to anybody whose played any of the Castlevania games.  Five characters are playable, each with their own set of unique powers and game mechanics (I’ll get back to that point in a bit….ooohhh will I get back to that).  I will admit, I am not well versed in Castlevania lore, but for those of you who might care, the characters are: Alucard, Soma Cruz, Jonathan Morris, Shanoa, and Charlotte Aulin.  The game plays very traditional, with a basic attack, magic attack, and generally some sort of zany character specific ability thrown into the mix as well.  The game throws a few curves to make it interesting, a large one being all six levels of the game are on a timer of 30 minutes.  If that timer reaches zero before you defeat the boss, the level is failed and must be restarted.  However, in the trend for most games these days, dying or failing a level is not that big of a deal and actually probably helps you in this case.

I image searched for screenshots and amid all the game screens was this. I do not question Scarlett, I just post.

HoD has a very basic loot system, with most items acquired through treasure chests scattered about the level.  Monsters that gave you a ton of problems before will die in seconds as your gear (and thus, stats) get better, and these carry over from one level failure to the next.   So, even though the game only has six levels, you will be running them over and over again, learning the layout and acquiring more and more items every time.  Items can be sold to acquire gold (something else that sometimes resides in treasure chests, although watch out for DEMON TREASURE CHESTS later in the game.  Sneaky bastards) with which you can buy a few new pieces of gear and healing items to keep your HP’s and MP’s high.  There aren’t a ton of options as to what to buy and you will quickly come into more gold than you could possibly spend on anything, but hey, there is an achievements for having a million gold!

The level design in HoD is quite well done with each level being fully visible at any time via clicking the right analog to zoom out all the way.  This lets you choose a path and potentially see how to get somewhere, although it keeps things from getting too simple with switches that open doors, areas that only certain characters can get too, or warp gates that give no indication of where exactly they go.  Learning the levels through the various playthroughs lets you get faster and have more time on the boss which is nice, or even plotting the course that will get you the most treasure chests in the shortest amount of time possible, if you find your gear is lacking.

Right! No, left! Up? Monsters used to be so much easier to find.

Speaking of bosses, the design on them is excellent as well.  Some are basic pattern recognition Megaman style, but others will travel throughout the whole level, forcing you to have a good path to get to them, or take up the entire freaking screen and scare the crap out of you until a giant hammer knocks them over.  The less you know going in the better, but let it be known the bosses are super fun.

The co-op is the crux of this entire game, to the point where single player really isn’t worth it.  In fact, this is the second biggest problem with the game.  HoD was designed to be played with other people.  When you perish in multiplayer, you become a skeleton that can throw bones at the enemy, and you can be revived by another player who has the appropriate item.  You can never truly “die” as a skeleton as long as another player remains alive, although if you do lose all your hit points in skele form, the timer decreases by a few minutes, so endless skeleton graveyard rushes on bosses are not practical.  None of that applies in single player.  Treasure chests that can only be reached by somebody else standing on a switch and keeping something open?  Nope!  Get some friends, loser!

WAIT WHY DID I WANT TO FIND THIS?!

The MAIN problem is that HoD explains NOTHING about how to play.  This is different than my complaint about Limbo in that there was no plot explanation.  Here, you could easily play the game for a couple hours and not realize how to get new abilities for your character.  The stat screen shows many symbols and stats, but I have no clue as to what exactly any of them do.  My character has a INT stat and a MND stat.  INT is intelligence of course, but what is MND?  Mind?  Something to do with mana?  Spell damage?  The game never tells you the difference, so it makes choosing gear somewhat of a guessing game.  The character I’ve played most of the game with, Shanoa, gains her abilities by stealing spells from certain enemies you encounter.  To do this, you press up on the dpad or left analog and she goes into an immobile but spell absorbing state.  The *only* reason I knew about this was a vague reference to it that I came across while reading through a preview about the game, and even then I actually had to use the power of the internet mid-play to figure out exactly what I should be doing.

Whether or not HoD is worth playing is an easy question to answer.  If you’re a gamer that will overcome the problems, the game becomes very enjoyable for you and some friends to hack and slash your way through.  I feel HoD is pretty unique in the respect that the flaws of the game can be fixed by the player. Two simple questions:

Will you have at least two friends that will play this game with you?  Yes?  Then ignore the single player for the most part and just play with them, one problem solved.

Will you take a few minutes to read about how each character works from an outside source instead of the game teaching you?  Yes?  Second problem solved.

Those problems aside, you will find clever level design, fun boss fights, and five unique characters to level up and play with.  If 16 bit style old school goodness is your thing, get out there and fight some vampires.

PS.  Why you should play this game with Enosh:

Enosh, one of my esteemed compatriots here at Faceplant, joined me and Tophat in our HoD adventures.  He provides endless hilarity!  Find a friend like him!  First and foremost, he is terrible at platforming.  He insists his character cannot jump as high or as far as the others.  He falls on spikes alot and yells things like “GOD DAMN IT I HATE THIS BLEEPING GAME” or “THAT IS SUCH BLEEPING BLEEP BLEEP” or sometimes he spends 20 minutes getting from one end of the level to the other because he saw an enemy I killed drop a character specific item, then freaks the f out when he gets there and it is gone.  Good times will be had by all if you find our own Enosh!

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2 Responses

  1. Oh, I don’t think I’m nearly as bad as all that. Especially now that I’ve switched from Alucard to Charlotte. As you mentioned, I played the game for several hours before realizing that I was supposed to be able to pick up scrolls that gave me new spells to cast. These seem to be rare items indeed. It’s much easier to use Charlotte’s shield to steal other enemies’ spells. And, I’m quite certain with her broomstick she can jump higher and farther than Alucard. Also, Elrood has the single most powerful character in our game, whether that’s because he figured out how to level his character sooner or what he can kill everything very quickly with a simple lightening spell. So awesome.

  2. […] differently!  I think of what the recent summer of arcade title Castlevania: Harmony of Despair (my review here) did with different characters having different abilities and feel Hard Corps missed the boat.  […]

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