Review / Castlevania: Harmony of Despair (XBLA)

To review Castlevania: Harmony of Despair, I need to discuss Metroid. I may be dating myself here, but finding out Samus Aran was a woman at the end of the first Metroid was a pretty big deal back in the day. Indeed, very few Nintendo gamers ever found out that the game’s intrepid explorer was of the fairer sex, as one needed to beat the it in under 3 hours to reveal the secret. But who would ever want to beat Metroid in under 3 hours? It was a game of exploration and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who spent time searching for every missile upgrade, shooting every wall, bombing every floor, looking for every secret. Unarguably, Metroid and its successors were games to savor, to get lost in.

Enter Castlevania: HD and its omnipresent timer. Unlike the single, huge maps of previous Castlevania games, CHD presents you with a series of much smaller maps, each with an end boss and timer. And that timer starts the moment you begin a level and doesn’t stop for anything. It doesn’t stop when you pause the game, nor does it stop when you enter the inventory screen to change weapons and equipment (A modest suggestion: go to the bathroom before playing this game).

Speaking of inventory management, it’s a farce. You can’t access your items from the pause menu – instead, you need to search out randomly located “books” within the levels. While standing near a book, you can open an inventory screen and fiddle with options and gear (but move fast – the clock is ticking!) What does this all mean? Picking up a dropped item or looting a chest is devoid of any excitement or sense of achievement, as you must wait to locate a book before you can actually use the stuff you acquire.

All of this pales in comparison to the problems that arise from multi-character gameplay. You can choose to play a level as one of five familiar characters – Soma Cruz, Alucard, Jonathan Morris, Shanoa, and Charlotte Aulin. First of all, the characters are wildly out of balance – you’ll find yourself picking Jonathan once you’re familiar with the other characters’ shortcomings. Second, and more importantly, not every character can beat a given level. But, you won’t know that until you find yourself stuck at an obstacle. And you can’t change characters in-level, meaning once you find your current character stymied by a ledge that’s too high or an impenetrable door, you’ll actually have to quit to the main menu, pick a new character, and start the level anew, all the while hoping that the new character is the one who’ll be able to make it to the end.

Allright, time for the good stuff. It is a Castlevania game and if you’re a veteran of the series, you’ll get to play with old favorites and face familiar enemies. And the game doesn’t look terrible – they don’t call it Castlevania: HD for nothing. Perhaps the game’s main selling point is its multiplayer – you’ll be able to tear it up with as many as five friends, although this doesn’t add much to the experience – you’ll simply have some allies on the screen and someone else to talk to as you face the game’s numerous gut-wrenching challenges. And, if you can ignore the ticking clock and contrived inventory blockades, you’ll likely have some fun – at its base, this game is full of tried and true Castlevania gameplay. But, if you’ve got some money to burn and are looking for a great download, please consider Castlevania: Symphony of the Night – it’s a game you’ll be able to take your time with and really enjoy. And let’s face it – there was a good reason why Samus’ gender was such a well-kept secret.

+ Old school 2D Castlevania on next-gen consoles
+ Multiplayer lets you enjoy (or suffer) with friends
+ Game is full of familiar, nostalgic goodies for Castlevania vets

– No true pausing and delayed inventory management are ridiculous
– Game redefines cheap for this generation with uniquely unbeatable levels
– That timer will haunt your dreams