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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Castlevania Harmony of Despair Review

In a nutshell, if you are a Castlevania fan (especially the more recent titles, like Symphony of the Night, Portrait of Ruin, Dawn of Sorrow, etc), you will probably like Castlevania Harmony of Despair.

Ah, it's been a while since I posted here last (btw, this is not the only blog I have as I have several other ones as well, along with other stuff).  Lately, I have gotten my "hands" on the game, Castlevania Harmony of Despair for the Xbox 360 (it is on Xbox live) and I do have to say that I definitely like what it has to offer (especially after playing through previous titles like Dawn of Sorrow and Portrait of Ruin.  Initially, I got the demo version, where you simply play through the first stage of the game, and later got the full version when I got the extra money for it (along with all 5 of the DLC levels as well).  The game is divided up into 6 lenghty levels, where you basically spend time fighting bad guys, collecting powerups from treasure chests, upgrade your character, and ultimately fight huge goulish bosses as you make your way through the stages.  In addition to the initial 6 levels, there are also 5 extra levels you can download as well (though they will cost you extra per DLC level), which can be useful for extending the game significantly if you find the game to be too short (considering that the main game is only 6 levels long).  The game also offers a huge co-op multiplayer mode (which is unique to the series as most other Castlevania games don't offer multiplayer game play) where you can team up with your buddies or people from around the world  and work together through the levels (which can be useful if you find the single player mode to be too difficult).   In this game review, I will rate the game and aspects of the game in letter grades (where an "A" means that it is the best game out there and an "F" means that the game is the worst game out there).  By the way, this review is based on my take of the game and you are free to agree or disagree with me (btw, feel free to comment below about your experiences with this title).

By the way, here is a short gameplay video of the game I found on Youtube (shows some dude playing through level 5 in the game):

1) Storyline - B
The game does borrow from other 2D Castlevania games, so you probably will get a feeling of de ja vu (especially with the boss fights), though the developers to add various twists through the games and levels.  Also the game is somewhat liner (though you do have huge maps to explore) and are filled with a huge array of enemies to fight through, puzzles to solve (for example, some doors require you to flip a switch that you can find hidden in the level).  The game is pretty much arcade style, so you won't get a complex storyline like you would in other games in the series (like Symphony of the Night) full of voice acting and all, but each level is unique and has their own elements.  By the way, Count Dracula is the main antagonist of the game, which will probably appeal to the traditional Castlevania fans (especially considering that not all of the newer titles have Dracula as the final boss).  The game also offers a decent collection of characters you can play as, including Soma (from Dawn of Sorrow), Alucard (Symphony of the Night), Shamoa (Order of Ecclesia), Jonathan (Portrait of Ruin), and Charlotte (Portrait of Ruin), though there are extra characters you can play as from the DLC content, including Julius Belmont, Richter, Simon Belmont, Maria, and others (which can be useful if you want a bigger collection of characters to play as, as well as if there are specific characters you want to play as not offered in the initial game).  Also, each character do have their own power, strengths and abilities.  Alucard, plays alot like the Alucard from Symphony of the Night (though toned down a bit, such as not being able to turn into mist or wolf form indefinitely like he could in Symphony of the Night) and is great at close range combat with a huge array of weapons and swords he can use.  Soma Cruse plays alot like the Soma from Aria of Sorrow and Dawn of Sorrow and like in those games, not only is he good at close range combat, but he can also absorb "souls" (or abilities) of the characters he defeats.  By the way, like in dawn of sorrow, Soma won't always absorb souls of the enemies he defeats as it seems to happen at random, and by the way, unlike in Dawn of Sorrow, he won't automatically absorb the souls of the bosses he fights like he did in Dawn of Sorrow, so you will likely have play through the same stage and defeat the same bossess several times before obtaining the bosses' souls (which can get redundant and frustrating for some if you are trying to obtain all of the souls in the game, including the rare ones).  Charlotte and Shanoa are the powerful mage characters in the game, and while their regular weapons are relatively weak compared to some of the other characters, their spells do pack a huge punch and can easily desimate otherwise difficult to defeat foes (for example, Shamoa's lightning attack can easily topple dullahans in the game).  Jonathan is a whip user (though he can also use conventional weapons as well like the other male characters) and does have access to the different sub weapons he gets from Portrait of Ruin (such as axes, paper airplanes, richochet rocks, etc).  Of course every character do have their own unique strengths and weaknesses and some will have it easier than others on the levels you play through, so you will probably mix and match them in the game.  My favorites so far are Shanoa and Soma.

2) Difficulty / Gameplay - C
Like most other people who have played Harmony of Despair, I do have to admit that this game is extra challenging and each level does get progressively tougher to play through (especially after level 5), though with all of the power ups and abilities you get, they usually do get a little bit easier over time, though they will take some time, patience and effort.  Of course, if you find single player to be too difficult, then you can always take advantage of the co-op mode on Xbox live and work togther with other players on each level, and there are advantages and disadvantages to the multiplayer mode, which I will explain later.  I have heard about some people quitting after a while (for example people giving up after fighting the infamous Puppet Master boss on the second stage in the game), though each level is masterable and all of the bosses do have their unique patterns and weakenesses for you to learn and exploit (especially the first boss in the game, Gergoth, where his attack patterns are easy to learn and remember).  It is also worth mentioning that each levels is on a timer (usually 30 minutes) which constantly counts down as you play through the levels (when the counter hits '0') your character dies and it is game over, which can be a nuisance to some, especially if you take your time exploring each map, and naturally some levels are longer than others (for example, levels 8-11 can be extra challenging given the huger than normal map layout and all).  By the way, there really is no pause feature (even on single player mode) as the timer will count down and enemies will make their moves even when you need to "pause" the game or change your equipment, weapons, etc and that can be problematic if for whatever reason you need to take a short break of you have interuptions while playing (i.e., having to use the restroom, your family having dinner, phones ringing, someone at the door, etc) as the game will go on with or without you.  Also, your character can take damage from enemies or obstacles (such as when your character falls on a spike) while in "pause" mode, and this can be bad if you have to be away from the game for a little while (for example, your parents serving dinner while you are playing on the level).  In fact, remember recently, I was playing through level 7 and I got interupted and had to be away (everyone else in my family was home and I probably had to empty the dishwasher or something) for a bit, and even though I "paused" the game, by the time I got back, my character died and I had to do the level all over again. 

3) Multiplayer mode - C+
This is a unique feature to Castlevania HOD and I have yet to see another Castlevania game that also has a huge co-op multiplayer mode like the one you see in this game and is comparable to multiplayer modes you would find in games like Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim vs the World, where you can team up with other players (whether it is your buddies or other people from around the world) and work together as a team to play through specific levels of the game (usually chosen by the "host" player).  To get the most out of Castlevania Harmony of Despair, you should probably consider trying the multiplayer mode at least occasionally, and there are seveal benefits and drawbacks to the multiplayer modes:

- Great for playing on levels that you are struggling on,  I know that some levels can be tougher than others (especially on the boss fights.
- Up to 6 people can play at the same time (by the way, assuming you each choose different characters, that can be to your advantage as every character does have their own unique abilities, strenths and weaknesses, and naturally you will have some stonger players in each level with you, especially on a typical game with 6 people in your team).
- You can obtain extra abilities earlier in the game.  For example if want more powers and abilities for your characters that you can't obtain earlier in the game, playing on multiplayer can simply that process.  Whenver treasure chests are open, everyone gets a power up in it  This can be especially useful if you are playing as Soma when obtaining the "souls" of your enemies since whenever you or your team mate(s) defeats an enemy, there is a chance you will get that sould power (which can be especially useful if you have some really good players in your team busting through the map as at least in my experience, you can play through the maps you will likely find a random soul powerup seem to pop up out of nowhere and you get that soul).  Also, assuming you are trying to get every treasure chests on a certain level, you might find that some are impossible to obatain on single player (at least for the charater you are playing as).  For example, some treasure chests and shortcuts for that matter will require Shanoa's magnus ability to get at.  Also, in the first stage of the game, there is a purple treasure chest that nearly impossible to get on single player without Soma's "medusa head ability" (which lets you hover as you jump) or Alucard's Mist form.
- You do have access to shortcuts and areas that you could not reach on single player.  For example, on the first stage, there is an elevator that you can use as a short cut to another section of the map that can only be used on multiplayer mode (where one person holds the switch down while you use it).
- Some levels will seem to be shorter and easier (especially if you have some really good characters in your team).  It has happened to me on various occasions, where you get some advanced players on your team who are able to get to the boss before everyone else does and beat them long before you get to the boss (a classic example of this is on level 3, where you fight Menace from Dawn of Sorrow, where someone will likely reach him before everyone else does and take him down rather quickly).
-  Whenever you beat a level as a team, you get credit for beating it no matter how far you are in the game (even on single player mone).  For example, if you just started a game and are on level 1, and you join a multiplayer game that plays through level 6 and your team successfully beats that level, you will get credit for beating that level and be able to jump ahead if you wanted to.     

Drawbacks of Multiplayer mode:
- Considering that the game has been around for a while, there do seem to be less people playing Castlevania Harmony of Despair lately, and even when doing "quick match" you won't always to be able to find a team to join, and that can be a bit frustrating too if you are trying to play on multiplayer mode.  The quick match usually scouts out possible teams you can join and if it finds a team you can join, you will automatically join that team, though it does not always yield teams for you to join, which means that you will have wait and try again.  Of course, you can always start your own team either invite your friends to join (assuming you have friends on Xbox live that have the game) or wait for random people to join your team (which usually doesn't take long if you are willing to wait a few minutes).
- If you go with a random team, you never really know who you will get paired up with and some people can definitely be out of your league (for example, his/her gamings are immensly superior to yours or vice versa).  For example on the last few times I played this game on multiplayer mode, the teams I got paired with usually played "level 10" on hard mode  (Castlevania Harmony of Despair has both a "normal" mode for casual players and a "hard" mode for more advanced players), and my character(s) usually don't last long on level 10 before getting defeated (I am still playing through normal mode as it is on single player, currently on level 9).   Also, you usually do get a few players who really know what they are doing and beat everyone to the end boss on the levels which can make the levels seem shorter than normal and can limit your ability to explore the map.  By the way, if your character dies on multiplayer mode, you will turn into a skeleton and will have to play through the maps in skeleton form unless if someone revives you (and on hard mode, skeletons are weak and can usually be killed within 1 or 2 hits) and each time someone dies, the game seems to penalize the team by reducing the time limit a bit and if everyone dies or the time runs out early, it is game over and you have to start over.  So, you will probably want to be selective on what teams you want to join.  Also, I find that some hosts can be a bit rude at times (especially if you have to make any preparations before a level, such as buying power ups, changing your character, etc).  For example, one time I joined a team and decided to change my character real quick (usually switching between Soma, Alucard and Shanoa), and the host decided to boot me from his team almost immediately (I guess he was in a hurry to start the game he was hosting and didn't like me changing my character).

Controls: A
Personally, I liked the controlls alot (at least the Xbox 360 version), and they are pretty easy to use and master.  By the way, if you need help learning certain moves and abilities, the game does offer a built in game manual that shows how you can use them (for example, copying the abilities of some of your foes as Shanoa, such as lightning and ice attacks).  They should be pretty straight forward. 

Replay value: B+
With so many characters to choose from, multiplayer modes, level designs and all, you will probably find yourself replaying various levels in the game over and over again.  Also, why play as only one character when you can try out the other characters as well?  For example, mage characters can be pretty fun to play as some times as you can hurle fireballs, lightning and similar attacks at your foes and bosses.  Also, there is quite a bit of DLC content and levels (including 2 based on the levels and bosses from Symphony of the Night, along with a level where you basically relive the good ol 8-bit castlevania games, particularly Castlvania 1, with lots of next gen twists and format and even has the classic remixed "vampire killer") music playing in the background as you play through the level you can add to the game if you find the initial game too dull and short as there as 5 additional levels you can download, extra characters you can play as, etc. 

Sound: A
You will probably like the remixed music that the game has (most are from the previous games in the series).  Personally, my favorites were the background musics of stages 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, and 1).  Also, the boss music is pretty much the remixed versions from the games the boss was originally from (for example, Dracula has the classic remixed version "Dance of Illusions" playing when you fight is 3rd form), The Puppet Master, Menace and Gergoth all have the same boss musics from when you fought them in Dawn of Sorrow, and so fourth.  By the way, as with Sonic Generations, if you don't like the background music on the levels you are playing on, you can always change it from the options menu (though it appears that you do have to beat the level that you want to change the music on at least once either on single player mode or multiplayer mode before you can change it).  Also, I did like the voice acting in the game, for each characters too.

Overall score: B+

I can go on an on about Castlevania Harmony of Despair, but I would give the game as a whole at least B+ as an Xbox 360 game.  It is definitely not perfect, but this game is definitely a must have if you are into the Castlevania series.  Sure the difficulty levels of the game may turn away some people (for example, there is nothing more frustrating when you fight the Puppet Master boss on stage 2 and he manages to kill you off by placing a voodo doll of you into one of the many iron maidens scattered throughout the stage, which can kill you within 1-3 hits depending on how high/low your health bar is) and the game does get progressively tougher as you progress through it (boy if you thought level 2 was hard even on normal mode, just wait till you try level 10 on hard mode even on multiplayer, now that is insane).  Also the game doesn't really have a pause feature (you open up an ingame menu when you hit start or access one of the books scattered throughout the stages that let you change your gear, powerups, etc), and so if you have to use the rest room or have other interruptions while you are playing through each level, you will probably want to keep that in mind, plus the time limit can be a nuisance to some people (and it does count down even if you try to pause the game too), especially on the bigger maps where you have more areas to explore, switches to flip, enemies to fight, etc, specially on level 10.  The multiplayer mode definitely has its benefits and does allow for co-operative play, and can be extra useful for levels you can't get through on your own on singleplayer mode, though it does have its obvious drawbacks too (like playing with people way out of your league or playing levels on "hard mode" when you are not ready for hard mode yet).  Overall, the game is decent and despite the drawbacks of this game, it does have an arcade feel to it, and the levels are pretty fun to playthrough and I do recommend it for almost any Castlevania fans out there.  By the way, the demo verision has you playing through all of stage 1 (better than some games where they cut your gameplay short long before you finish the demo stage, as is the case in Sonic 4 Episode 2, where the game resets before you finish the first level of the game). If you are interested in playing Castlevania Harmony of Despair, you can find it on Xbox Live arcade (I think there is also a version for PS3 and possibly the Wii, though I haven't tried those versions yet).  The game was a bit pricy for me, especially if you decide to get the extra levels as well, but it is defintely worth it.

By the way, have you played through Castlevania Harmony of Despair?  Did you like it or hate it?  Feel free to comment on this post and share your feelings about the game.

Similar games you might like (at Amazon.com).  Note: this is not an exhaustive list of Castlevania games as there are mroe out there of course).

Castlevania Symphony of the Night

Castlevania Dawn of Sorrow

Portrait of Ruin

Order of Ecclesia

Castlevania Lords of Shadow - this is the lastest 3D installment in the Castlevania series and functions as a sequel to Lamment of Innocence and Curse fo Darkness, though the storyline is definitely different from the previous 3D games and is a bit darker too.

Castlevania 1 - this is the original Castlevania game for the NES.  Note: level 10 is inspired by Castlevania 1.

As well as other Castlevania Games

Other similar games you might like includes:
Sonic Generations: this game seems to be Sega's answer to Castlvanis Harmony of Despair and is the latest installment of the 3D Sonic franchise where you pretty much play through remixed and both 2D and 3D versions of various levels throughout the series (including levels from Sonics 1-3, Sonic Adventures 1 and 2, etc) along with other features (I will go into more detail abotu Sonic Generations another time though).