Until this week, I found it odd that the concept of a social-focused "Castlevania" hadn't been explored. "Castlevania" is popular. People want to play it together. But after digging into "Castlevania: Harmony of Despair" -- a Konami joint that seeks to bridge "Metroid-vania" and co-op -- I think I understand the hesitation, or at least, the reason why we haven't seen a project quite like this before.
"Despair" plays a lot like previous "Castlevania" games, but with a twist in the form of MMO-style instances and online play. The game features a series of six timed gauntlets, whole and separate and without a narrative nod to each other. Up to six friends can join you in these kill-the-boss rushes, all of whom can pick different characters with unique skill sets. Each character, much like the enemies in "Despair," are plucked from previous games in the vaunted franchise.
Built with RPG-light concepts, you'll able to pick up loot from foes and obtain new weapons and armor, in addition to cash bags and snack foods. The former of which lets you buy stuff, which is integral since "Despair" doesn't have traditional EXP-based leveling.
Scale, Strategy, and 2D
Press the stick, and you'll see just how big each of the game's 2D levels are. "Despair" comes with three levels of zoom, one being an action cam to facilitate the game's brawler-focused action. The other zooms pan wide, exposing a skeleton of a "Metroidvania"-inspired map, which in turn allows you and pals to strategize ways -- and there are multiple paths to take -- to get to an end boss.
I'm a huge fan of Dracula and candles, so I'm glad the old dork and ornaments have been resurrected for "Despair." Chances are if you're a "Castlevania" fan, you'll see numerous enemies and hallmark items and weapons that'll tickle you, too.
"Despair" has bad UI. The "Main Menu" option, for example, takes you to the screen where you can switch weapons and armor. You'll get used to weird decisions like this, but the design as a whole is scatter-brained, making navigation too difficult. And while that's a bummer, the fact that you can't equip anything in-game without going on your own backtracking mini-adventure is the pits.
Bosses are tough. They're health suckers and masters of catastrophic attacks. That's fine, but there's no way to tell how much health given boss has left in its tank -- there's no shake, shudders, or flashing red lights. This makes it hard to strategize potion, magic, and dual-attack usages with others and can compromise you when you're going for broke in vein.
This lack of feedback is mimed in most every aspect of the game. How does progression work? What door did this switch just open? Am I supposed to be in this level yet? Does this magic spell level or is that green bar there because I somehow obtained two of the same thing?
The Lack of Balance
Starting players will get no mercy from "Despair." The first level is challenging, but the subsequent ones are too difficult for someone who hasn't either: A) grinded gold to buy better weapons or armor or B) found a higher-level user to whisk them through the catacombs of the next four levels, all the while building up their own character to do the same with others.
There are a lot of little things that feel wrong in "Despair." You can't cancel some attack animations. The second level is harder than the proceeding two. You can't join others on the fly. You can't play with a local user. Magic scrolls drops are too rare. And just two-to-three revival potions are offered in each level (five people could, theoretically, die).
A multi-player "Castlevania" is a novel idea, but "Harmony of Despair" isn't proof that it works. All the bone-slinging skeletons and lightning-hurling Frankensteins on the planet can't convince me that dull and simplistic melee-based combat, torturous difficulty curve, lackluster menus, and trivial end-game grinding is worth the price.