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Castlevania Harmony of Despair
At it's core Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is Diablo meets good old fashioned 2d action. It's all the loot collecting, stat inspecting, boss mangling goodness you'd expect from a dungeon crawler. Then mashed into a delicious Castlevania tortilla with a healthy scoop of multiplayer coop play on top. All for the low price of about fifteen bucks.
Sounds like it's about time to whittle a pair of vampire killin' stakes out of salad tongs and start going to town right? Well stop staring down that life size Twilight poster for just a minute because while the short answer is yes, this game is just chock full of monster flaying goodness, it's also filled with some mind bogglingly strange design decisions.
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The graphics of Castlevania Harmony of Despair are a throwback to previous Castlevania games in the truest sense of the word. Almost too much of a throwback though if you're expecting anything new.
While it's fun to relive old boss fights with a horde of your friends almost the entire set of art assets are ripped straight from previous titles. That makes the game a Frankenstein of cobbled together sprites and artwork. It's not necessarily a bad thing if you're looking for a trip down memory lane, but if you're expecting at least something to take advantage of the 360s power or are looking for some new never before seen items or enemies you're in for a disappointment.
If you're a newcomer to the series or a veteran who's happy reliving his glory days of slicing Death to pieces with a favorite sword from the past then put down the torch and let this monster run free.
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I don't know what it is but I just cannot get enough of this soundtrack. It's cheesy in parts, almost always over the top and yet strangely awesome. Most of the music is a guitar filled, goth inspired, rock fest that almost sounds like it belongs in a Dynasty Warriors game or the climax in some horrible 80's anime. Somehow though it all fits perfectly and a few of the game's songs will almost certainly get stuck in your head for a while.
The sound effects themselves however are average at best with the usual grunts and sword clangs you'd expect. It is a fun touch though that each character has their own set of voice emotes, unfortunately they're mostly pretty dull with riveting clips like "thank you" or "all yours".
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If you've played a previous Castlevania title you'll feel right at home with Harmony of Despair. The game is old school through and through and there are a few sections that are just a tad clunky. For the most part though everything (aside from the horrible Charlotte leveling system mentioned later) feels just right.
Be warned though this is a game that demands some time grinding out skills and new equipment. If you're expecting to jump into single player and count on your mad Castlevania skills that you earned on the mean streets of the 3rd grade Super Nintendo circuit, you're in for a rough awakening. For the most part you can count on needing to pick up at least a few new items from each level before you can finally crush the boss although the rewards for doing so definitely make it worth the effort.
Speaking of items, there is a massive buffet of deadly implements to choose from and by the end of each level you'll likely be spending some time checking out all the new gear you got. Plenty of it's not particularly useful but lots of the weaker items are still worth busting out on occasion. In what other game could you kill Dracula with a teddy bear stuffed with lead ball bearings?
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The developers have done a great job of tailoring the game for multiplayer coop. Matchmaking, while fairly basic, usually finds a game quickly and for the most part there is very little noticeable lag even when playing with players from another country. Also in one of the most convenient additions to a multiplayer dungeon crawler like this that I've seen in a long while, every time a player opens a chest everyone else in the game gains a new item as well.
The only real problem comes from the match making system not knowing what levels you've already unlocked. So if you're coming fresh to the game it'll likely take a while to find a match that won't boot you out after the host changes levels. If you've got a few friends to help you through or can host your own game though you won't find any problems.
Once you find yourself a good team though Castlevania Harmony of Despair really comes into it's own. There are plenty of short cuts and extra chests that require teamwork to get and with enemies scaling depending on how many players are in a match the game remains challenging and fun. It's a great way to spend a few hours with some friends and the pick up and play style makes it perfect for a quick game with some random folks if you need to kill a half an hour.
All in all Castlevania Harmony of Despair manages to bring a normally single player only experience into the multiplayer realm and still retain what makes the series a classic. For the price tag it's one of the best multiplayer games to grace Xbox Live in a while.
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If you've played a Castlevania game in the past decade then you know basically exactly what to expect here. While the button layouts may have changed a bit the game retains the smooth feel of previous titles. Every character plays the same control wise aside from Charlotte's unexplained inability to jump kick so initially most of them feel the same.
However each character also has their own plethora of special moves and many weapons have a unique attack that can be utilized with the classic quarter turn Hadoken motion that most gamers are familiar with so once you get a few new gear upgrades or spells each character really comes into their own.
The only issue is that the characters all feel like they're walking just a little to slow for my taste. Some kind of Megaman X inspired dash would have really set the game at a perfect pace.
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First off if you've played the demo and wondered why the hell anyone would want to play a vampire themed ant farm then you're not alone. It took me a little fumbling around to realize that the default zoom level can be changed from Google Maps view to something actually playable with a click of the right stick. The fact that there is no real tutorial and the in game instructions are laughable at best is one of several strange moves by the designers.
To compound the worthless instruction menu is the fact that every character gains stats and abilities differently. If you don't spend a little time on the internet reading up on what you should have already been told you'll end up wondering why every one else is throwing minivan sized axes and busting out shoryukens like it's a Street Fighter reunion tour while you're stuck trying to kill Dracula with a Bic lighter and a balsa wood stick.
On a final negative note, if you're planning on playing Charlotte get ready to do some time in single player before you jump online. Charlotte's power increases as she absorbs new spells from enemies with her shield. On paper it sounds like a fun mechanic and it would work just fine if this was a single player game. However, with 22 spells available to her and 9 levels to max out each spell you're already looking at needing to absorb 198 spells.
That still seems reasonable in a game you'll probably be playing for a while right? Well the final part of the perfect storm of frustration that is leveling Charlotte comes from the fact that if you're lucky you'll absorb one spell in ten. Now try standing around in a multiplayer match while you're hoping to learn that huge fireball a demon is about to hurl at you. Odds are that critter has about 10 seconds of glaring at you before it eats a face full of swords from your teammates or if you're lucky you'll maybe get one new spell by the time the boss dies. It is just about the worst mechanic for a multiplayer action RPG I could imagine.
That being said I still straight up love this game. If you can make it past the initial confusion you'll find that Castlevania: Harmony of Despair offers a surprisingly deep and addictive experience for a Xbox Live title. There's loads of weapons and abilities to collect, with some of them offering fun and unexpected tweaks to your character. It's some of the little touches like an invisibility cloak that grants your character a predator like cloaking field that make Castlevania Harmony of Despair stand out.
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At the end of the day, despite some flaws, Castlevania: Harmony of Despair offers up a great experience. The gameplay is fun and the controls are responsive, the soundtrack is gloriously over the top and hurling lightning at Dracula while you're buddy wails on him with a magic wrecking ball and a whip is always a good time.