Akumajou Dracula: Harmony of Despair / Castlevania: Harmony of Despair (X360, PS3)
Review by Faididi and Co.
Better than Wai Wai World and the 6P arcade X-Men combined
Several vampire-hunting heroes from different backgrounds and eras magically team up to tackle the latest appearance of Lord Dracula and his big, evil castle. Crossovers like this may not have a real story, but who cares as long as everybody's having fun?
Released as a downloadable game that is originally exclusive to the X360, Konami's Castlevania: Harmony of Despair (Akumajou Dracula: Harmony of Despair) is a cooperative 6-Player action adventure crossover dream, and it's the best thing to happen to the series since Super Castlevania 4 and Symphony of the Night. It resembles the side-scrolling action adventures before it (particularly the DS installments), except it's divided into 6 large stages, which are played one at a time per session to accomodate the new multiplayer realities. The 2-Player minigame in Portrait of Ruin and the free-for-all wackiness of Castlevania Judgment may have already broken the series' solo-Player tradition, but they simply can't substitute for the beautiful cooperative action among the unique heroes here.
Aside from requiring Xbox Live's paid subscription service (LAN and splitscreen lovers are out of luck), the multiplayer element is no joke. With Players allowed to choose copies of the same character (using alternate color schemes to differentiate them), the heroes can jump, hack, and magic-blast their way through the deeply interactive stages together, combining their efforts in beating the bad guys and in looting the place. Mixing and matching the heroes however you prefer is certainly one of this game's key strengths, as trying out the staggering combinations of skills and equipment against the equally rich variety of enemies and environmental traps guarantees hours upon hours of enjoyment. Never before has there been a side-scrolling action platformer that lets its heroes overlap their skills to this degree, whether they're pulling off tandem magic attacks or boosting allies to extra-high ledges to discover new shortcuts.
By default, the playable characters consist of Soma (Aria and Dawn of Sorrow), Alucard (Symphony of the Night and Dawn of Sorrow), Shanoa (Order of Ecclesia), and Johnathan and Charlotte (Portrait of Ruin). The heroes actually play differently, because they rely on fundamentally different skills and tools, be they Soma's soul-powered sorcery, Alucard's high-level swordsmanship, Shanoa's mighty glyph spells, Johnathan's physical prowess, or Charlotte's massive book of magic tricks. Even more striking are the varying manners in which the heroes grow in strength. Soma and Alucard upgrade themselves strictly by gathering items, while Charlotte needs to capture enemy attacks. As for Shanoa and Johnathan, their offensive powers increase as they keep hitting enemies with subweapons (akin to earning experience points).
Harmony of Despair deals with your characters' deaths in a humorously creative manner, too. Each stage is designed to be finished within half an hour, whether by a lone hero or with a half-drunk horde of Johnathan Morrises (which you're always welcome to try). Any teammates who get wasted remain in play as friendly animated skeletons with minimal abilities. They can be fully revived with a special item, but they incur a hefty penalty on the timer if they get mowed down again in skeleton form. It's Game Over only when all the heroes are turned into skeletons or when they run out of time (hence the additional-dying penalty on the thirty-minute limit), and this is a great way to keep the entire team continuously engaged and challenged, regardless of the members' individual skill levels. Furthermore, the heroes always keep the equipment, gold, and subweapon mastery they obtain, even if they fail to beat a stage. As such, the game never feels like it's wasting your time or being unfair.
The controls are highly responsive and customizable, and the camera work is no less impressive. With every stage being entirely loaded onto the screen at once (in the essence of Namco's Outfoxies, but on a grander scale), you can always zoom and pan the camera view to keep track of teammates, no matter where they're located. The degree of zoom can also be modified, allowing the game to be played on a tiny personal screen or on a high-definition monitor with equal ease.
If this game takes the crossover spirit too seriously in one regard, that may be its recycled character graphics. For example, Lord Dracula's animation frames are the exact same ones from Dracula X over a decade ago. At least the visuals are still gorgeous, thanks to the ever-fluid animations and the sumptuous backgrounds. The painstaking level of detail found in the individually crafted rooms boggles the mind, right down to the bottles of kitchen goods being knocked off from their pantry shelves in the fourth stage or the overflowing piles of gold and jewels littering the treasury in the sixth stage.
The sound effects whoosh and roar out with force, and the catchy, rocking tunes perfectly fit the game's fun, high-action atmosphere. The characters' vocal effects are updated, and there is an option to switch between the original Japanese acting and the dubbed version.
Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is 6-Player action adventure bliss. Its unique heroes offer genuinely different play styles, and its clever multiplayer dynamics keep the whole team constantly engaged. Its flawless controls are smartly designed, and its colorful visuals are jam-packed with myriad tiny details. Whether fans of the series or not, those looking for cooperative online action that's unlike anything else before should definitely come experience this unusual crossover.
Over the months following its initial release, Harmony of Despair has seen several significant updates, practically doubling the size of its content and making other important adjustments.
Perhaps the most visible of the additions are the extra playable characters. Julius (Aria and Dawn of Sorrow) comes with his eight-way whip attacks and his ability to swing from grappling points (best compared to 16-bit Simon in the SFC/SNES Super Castlevania 4). Yoko (Aria and Dawn of Sorrow) wields the sheer magical firepower of her Fernandez/Belnades heritage. Young Maria (Dracula X) has her bullshit loli animal attacks and her smaller profile (think of the Contra series' Browny). Richter (Dracula X and Symphony of the Night) gets his fancy acrobatic moves back from his last outing, but with a few upgrades that make him an even funnier accident waiting to happen. 8-bit Simon (the FC/NES version of Castlevania) is about as retro as you can get. Finally, there's Fuuma (Getsu Fuuma Den), the samurai hero who continues to accompany his whip-swinging pal since the Wai Wai World series, and who presents another slice of Konami's 1980s history. (The two 8-bit heroes don't have any vocal effects.) Unfortunately, all of these extra characters are of the subweapon-mastery type and don't add as much variety in play styles. They feel mostly like upgraded variants of Shanoa and Johnathan, especially Simon and his descendants.
Luckily, the new stages give more bang for the buck. They contain nifty new items to uncover, along with far deadlier foes who resist certain old tactics that can be exploited to quickly plow through the original set of levels. The final two stages are particularly eye-catching, being scaled recreations of 8-bit Simon and Fuuma's original games, and they also feature lag-proof bosses who aren't affected by the crappiest of network conditions.
Just as important as the purchasable perks are the refinements to the core game. The magic costs for several special attacks are decreased to improve their usefulness. Skeletonized heroes can now crouch and slide, giving them a better chance at evading enemy attacks. The items yielded by bosses are now awarded to skeletonized heroes, too, which is a fantastic way to encourage the whole team to keep trying under heavy casualties, without worrying about depleting all the Water of Life.
If you still haven't gotten the idea, we'll say it now: Harmony of Despair is the baddest-ass cooperative crossover action game ever, and it's just become even more awesome.
Port: Above Average (PS3)
At first glance, the PS3 version of Harmony of Despair should give the X360 original's fans much cause to gripe. Not only does it bundle in three of the old DLC items for free (Julius, Yoko, and the seventh chapter), but its offline mode is also expanded to support up to 4 Players at once, with the screen zooming in and out as appropriate to keep the heroes in view. (All progress here is pooled together under the save file of the profile owner, or Player 1.) The voice language option is now retained after the end of a chapter, so Players who hate the crappy dubbing can enjoy the original acting without needing to reselect the original vocal effects every time.
However, proof of an imperfect porting from the game's X360 roots can be found in the general loss of smoothness. Most serious is the lag in the controls of the menu interfaces (from the book-themed equipment pages to the communication wheel). The original display rate of thirty frames per second is dropped to twenty-four, and loading problems with the characters' vocal effects result in distracting delays in the audio. The online mode takes a nosedive in terms of connection quality. Unless you have super-high-speed connections to your PSN teammates, you'll frequently get disconnected or suffer from fatal desynchronizations (rendering gates impossible to open or bosses continuing to kill your allies an entire minute after being defeated on your own screen). We're not kidding about everything being dragged down; even the staff credits are ridiculously lengthened, to the point where the ending music needs to loop.
The offline 4-Player support has limitations worth noting. It doesn't extend to the survival (versus) mode, and it doesn't allow clones of the same character to be selected. All of the Players' controls there must be the same as Player 1's, with the camera panning controls also being limited to Player 1. Considering that the PS3 console can read up to 7 local controllers at once, why the offline mode doesn't support the full set of 6 Players is baffling.
Where the overall picture is concerned, this port is worth picking up for those who are interested in Harmony of Despair but haven't bought the original X360 version yet. The local 4-Player support alone renders this a stronger game on the offline side (not to mention making mass item-grabbing easier). But, those who already have the X360 version and don't play locally with friends will find little reason to bother with this unpolished port's lag issues and inferior online stability.