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.
Time is another important component of Harmony of Despair, as well as another affront to the Castlevania games of the past few years. You have 30 minutes to complete each level. If your teammates happen to die, they transform into skeletons, which allows them to move around and continue attacking. But if they die while in skeleton form, the countdown goes even faster. Teammates can revive fallen comrades by using the water of life, but sometimes that's easier said than done when players are scattered across the map or if there is no water of life to be found in a level. Moreover, pausing the game doesn't stop the clock or the equip screen that you can access through special books placed at various points in a level. At any rate, when the clock hits zero, the game ends. However, the bite-sized nature of the levels do not make it as frustrating as it sounds, and time hardly factors into the equation when you know the correct route.
There are some areas where Harmony of Despair falters. Some of the visual elements used in this game are well over 10 years old, and the attempt to shoehorn the visual style of numerous Castlevania games into one package enhances its Frankenstein-monster-like nature, particularly when it comes to the level of detail (or lack thereof) in the characters. The environments look fine, but absolutely nothing was built from the ground up for the PlayStation 3 version, so everything generally has a gritty, pixelated look that can make things difficult to see unless you're sitting close to the TV. The four-player local cooperative mode also magnifies how bad that look gets. All players share the same screen real estate, forcing the game to zoom farther and farther out as players drift apart. Unless you already know the level very well, it can be incredibly difficult to fight enemies or search for treasures as they become miniscule specs. Online multiplayer is a better option, if not for the simple fact that it prevents some serious eye strain because players have their own screens. The music is passable guitar-heavy stuff--with some remixed Castlevania tunes included--but there's nothing that really stands out. Controls feel a bit too loose at times with jumps, attacks, or spells not coming out when you want them to work. They feel friendlier as you progress through the game, but the controls aren't as razor sharp as those found in the previous incarnations of the series.
Even with these complaints, Despair's most egregious failure is the way it presents information on how to play the game properly and what different things mean in context of gameplay. There is an in-game manual that gives basic information, but neither it nor the character equip menus go into enough detail to explain how certain things work. Or, they're simply not clear enough. How long does it take to capture spells? Can this character use different weapons? Is that spell really leveling up? These are questions you might often ask yourself. Of course, if you've played the past few Castlevania games, you should have no problem. But if you've been out of the loop since Symphony of the Night, you may find yourself tinkering with characters for quite some time in an attempt to learn on your own. The game's Survival mode, which pits you against other players in a deathmatch arena of sorts, is a good place to see how your skills stack up and if you're missing anything particularly noteworthy about your character. But overall, the game is in dire need of some proper documentation.
There are many smaller things that seem initially frustrating but make more sense the more you play the game. For example, not having access to your health items at all times; they can be accessed only before you start the level or by finding an equip point, and even then, you can equip only one type. But if you were able to use them at any time without equipping them, Harmony of Despair would be a much easier game. Along those same lines, other multiplayer grinding tropes--such as sharing items, weapons, and armor--would also make the game far easier because stronger players could simply give their best equipment to a teammate. Part of this game's charm lies in building up your character and handily beating the boss, only to move to the next level to be thoroughly beaten down by a new boss.
Of course, there are some instances where Harmony of Despair caters more to the multiplayer cooperative experience than the single-player. For instance, most of the secret areas can be accessed only with other players, but in reality, that's the best way to experience this new Castlevania. And it's the optimal way to experience what may be a new and fun potential direction for the series to take.