Cooperative play probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when reflecting on the Castlevania series, which built an identity around solitary adventures through a single, massive castle. Some ardent fans may even consider the major integration of such a feature sacrilegious, as in something that breaks Castlevania’s fundamental appeal. But, like it or not, cooperative play (supporting up to six players online and four through local play) is the crux of Castlevania: Harmony of Despair. There’s not much evidence to suggest that the formula should work or provide any semblance of entertainment beyond that of staring at a train wreck, but Harmony of Despair delivers a fun, new, and interesting approach to a franchise that has largely followed the same rubric for years.
That’s not to say that much of the game won’t feel immediately familiar to those who have played the last few Nintendo DS games or the PlayStation classic, Symphony of the Night. In fact, much of Harmony of Despair–from the characters to the maps–is a Frankenstein monster of sorts. It selects various visual and gameplay elements from those games and melds them into a cohesive experience. Accordingly, you have the option to select from seven characters from previous Castlevania outings: Soma Cruz, Alucard, Jonathan Morris, Shanoa, Charlotte Aulin, Julius Belmont, and Yoko Belnades. The last two characters were downloadable content in the Xbox Live version of the game but are included as a part of the package in the PlayStation Network version. These characters have skills and abilities unique to the games in which they appeared.
Alucard can still change forms and find spells to complement his strong melee attacks; Shanoa relies heavily on magic attacks that she can steal from enemies by absorbing their glyphs; Charlotte can learn new spells by blocking enemy projectiles with her special shield; and Jonathan Morris can learn new martial arts skills that are dropped by enemies upon defeat, which also applies to the traditional Castlevania subweapons he can use. What’s great about these characters is that they all have distinct strengths and weaknesses that balance out when you’re playing cooperatively. Alucard may have strong melee attacks, but his magic attacks are relatively weak, so he’s not that effective at a distance. But when he’s partnered up with characters that are more proficient with magic, the combination is devastating. Still, don’t expect to just waltz through Harmony of Despair’s seven levels, even when playing cooperatively. The game is hard, and it knows it’s hard.
Therefore, death is an intentionally common occurrence, but it’s not an entirely frustrating one, thanks to the surprisingly addictive way Harmony of Despair handles character growth. To put it simply, it’s all about grinding, but you’re not doing it in the traditional sense of defeating enemies and earning experience points to level up. Characters do have individual stats, but these can only be changed by purchasing weapons, items, or armor from the store or finding them in treasure chests scattered throughout a level (special items can also be found by simply defeating enemies). Because the money you earn in a level carries over even after death, you can grind for additional funds and then use them to procure stronger items that help you get through a level. You can do the same for items not found in the store, like new martial arts skills or subweapons for Jonathan, more magic spells for Charlotte and Shanoa, or more souls for Soma.
This might all seem like a supremely tedious experience, but there are a few things at work in Harmony of Despair that counterbalance the repetition. The first is that the grinding provides an immediate payoff, at least in terms of money. Purchasing new armor or weapons (for those who can equip weapons) is a quick way to beef up your character enough to take on the boss of a level. Magic users aren’t quite as fortunate because their spells are typically limited to the enemies they have access to, but even then, finding a new spell in a level can make all the difference in a fight. The second is the way the levels are structured. Because these aren’t the same huge castles from previous Castlevania games (they’re more like mini-castles), it’s a bit easier to entertain the idea of playing through an entire level again. Plus, it’s also worth mentioning that you can easily plot an initial course to the boss by viewing the entire map (performed by clicking the right analog stick), and once you’ve found an easy route, it takes very little time to get from the start to the end.