Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is an oddity in the series. The paper thin plot available via the main menu is that the Grimoire book has assembled five characters from the series to take on Dracula and a host of other bosses. The five characters are: Alucard (from multiple games), Soma Cruz (from Aria of Sorrow and Dawn of Sorrow), Shanoa (from Order of Ecclesia), Johnathan Morris and Charolette Aulin (from Portrait of Ruin). The Grimoire book itself brings some semblance of logic to the fact that we have characters from the 1800s to the 2300s in the series (Alucard covers several centuries and games himself).
You start off with the usual weapons for each character: swords for Alucard and Soma, whip for Johnathan, spell book for Charolette and glyphs for Shanoa. You are able to purchase new offensive and defensive items as well as regular items for the character you choose as you stash away money while playing. You can only buy and sell in the main menu, there is no way to do it on the fly while playing. Each character has eight different outfits, or more accurately colors, you can choose from. You can play Harmony of Despair by yourself or with up to five other people. The interesting thing with co-op is that each character will usually start off at a different Grimoire than the one you start off at. It does mix things up a bit in path selection, but in many cases it can shorten the path by quite a bit. Usually you want to wait for your partners to reach the boss before taking them on though, just makes defeating them that much easier.
The game is made up of six levels that are large in scope. You can view the whole map no matter where playable characters are at any time by pushing in the right analog stick. With that same button press you move into a mid-range zoom where I played in most of the time. With another press you can really zoom in close to your character and you start to see the pixels of all the characters and enemies, but the background stage itself still retains a high resolution texture as everything is scaled to high definition. In fact, the graphics are quite good in this game as long as you aren’t in the super zoomed in camera. The game moves smoothly and I didn’t notice any slowdown even when fighting some rather large bosses that you’d never see rendered on the current handhelds where the games of many of these characters are found on.
In each level you have 30 minutes to beat the boss of the area and continue on. There are multiple ways to get to said boss in each level, but it does behoove you at least early on to open up whatever treasure chests you can see on the map to gain money and items. There are also points on the map where the Grimoire icon is. Here you can go in and change your offensive and defensive loadout by pressing the right trigger. The negative part of this is that you cannot change your setup at any time, something you can do in most games in the series.
I am very impressed by the level design and even though I wasn’t playing through a game with a deep storyline, there is a lot of fun to be had both alone and with others, at least early on. The only problem with playing on your own is that you are going to have a tough time beating the bosses whereas if you had multiple people you’d be able to hit them from all sides. Along with this you can also pull of combo moves if other people are playing that result in massive damage (queue robotic history crab). Another bonus to playing co-op is the ability to resurrect dead players with the water of life item, although you can also play as a straight skeleton while being dead. Another plus to co-op is that any item picked up or chest opened will be duplicated for all characters, so the opener is not the only one that benefits.
Even though the game has no real story, this is a fun experience whether playing alone or with up to five other people. Once you know the paths to the end boss of each level you may become disinterested in the game, but joining up with other players will usually mix it up a bit as you start at a different Grimoire than you would in single-player. Ultimately I feel you can find many hours of enjoyment in Castlevania: Harmony of Despair, helped no doubt by the three game modes; single, survival and co-op. If you're in this for only the solo experience you're going to want to skip Castlevania: Harmony of Despair at $15. Co-op is where it's at and is an enjoyable experience. Dracula beware there's six of us coming!
Part of this is review is adapted from the original review written by Loren Halek for Colony of Gamers. That review can be found here.