Thursday, August 19, 2010

XBLA Look - Castlevania : Harmony of Despair

It's been rough for fans of the Castlevania series. Over the years we've seen the franchise make one distinct change that has split the fan-base pretty severely. This year we'll see the fan-base split again with the upcoming release of Lord of Shadows. In a way we were long overdue for a change considering there have been no less than nine games in the Metroidvania saga and about the same to slightly more in the original series. That doesn't excuse absolute pap like Castlevania: Judgment however.

While fans of the olden-styled "get knocked into a pit by a medusa-head" Castlevanias have long since been left to die (aside from the recent and rather good Rebirth game) it seems even the fans of the "phat loot and experience points" Castlevanias have been left bewildered by the latest offering by IGA. Oh sure we still get our phat loot but we have to trade our Metroid-inspired powerups and levelups for completely open-ended levels and multiplayer. As a bonus the amount of original content in this game couldn't fit a thimble. Just what was Konami thinking charging $15 for this?

Well whatever their reasons they got my money and close to forty of my hours. It's certainly not without regret but as a whole I found the game to be quite enjoyable. Maybe it was for all the wrong reasons and I certainly can't give it a substantial recommendation but well...there it is. This is the purest definition of a "love it or hate it" kind of game and even the parts that deserve love take a lot of dedication to get into.

As the story goes Dracula is back and still sucking. This time he doesn't even bother to come up with an excuse for why he's returned and inexplicably a whole bunch of famous Vampire Killers like Alucard, Soma Cruz, Charlotte, Shanoa, Jonathon, and whoever else Konami thinks they can make some DLC money off have arrived from all times and places to put Dracula down once and for all...or maybe they'll just keep killing him until he drops some cool weapon or piece of armor they're looking for. Face it, Dracula, his minions, and saving the world all take a backseat to collecting hundreds of weapons, items, and useless trinkets.

Harmony of Despair is a game about anticipation. We play it because there's always something to look forward to. Every chest, every monster, and every boss can potentially drop something worth picking up. There are only six stages but they're filled with carrots that are divided up among each character. Alucard for example will find lots of swords and other fine weapons to wield but girlie princess boots are out of the question. In order to get everything one has to play as all of the characters and put in I'd say about five to ten hours apiece just to master all of them.

While it's ironic that we spend so much time finding things to kill enemies more quickly that feeling of anticipation is hard to ignore and will most likely be the driving force as to why so many hours will get spent on this game. I myself am an easy target for this sort of thing because traversing the same hallway over and over to kill one enemy for a chance to get one particular drop is actually fun and enthralling. Thankfully the level-design in Despair is at least a step above that.

In fact it's possible that this game has the best level design of any Metroidvania. This is rather surprising considering all of the levels are for the most part jumbled together from previous games. There's more of an effort put into clever enemy placement and while the entirety of the stage is viewable at any time there are still at least some twists and clever ideas to keep things interesting. They're also open-ended to the point where depending on the goal of the player they can either rush for the treasure, go straight to the boss, or just wreck everything without too much of a hassle. I'd expect nothing less however since each stage must be repeated several times if one hopes to collect everything.

To mix things up a bit each level has a gimmick of sorts. The first boss for example will at certain points spit out a giant laser, the second boss will crawl all over the map looking for iron maidens to toss the players into, and so on. They're considered gimmicks in that they are pretty one-dimensional and once figured out they don't pose much of a threat. Still it's a neat idea and creative players can even find ways to take advantage of it(like using Death's scythes for shortcuts in stage 5).

Each of the five characters has something to offer players of all skill levels and preferences. Alucard is pretty standard as he works best with powerful weapons, Charlotte takes a lot of hard work to learn her spells but she's essentially a beast when mastered, Soma is pretty catch-all and his wild collection of souls offer quite a bit of variety, Shanoa and Jonathon are pretty basic in comparison but they hold up well and Shanoa also happens to make a good beginner character. Unfortunately a major issue in this game is the complete lack of balance. It's not unexpected since the prior games weren't exactly balanced, there are 101 ways to break Symphony of the Night after all. Still some truly ridiculous weapons aren't too far out of reach for the likes of Alucard and Soma, making even the hardest sections of the game absolutely trivial. Still there's some sort of strange appeal to this aspect of the game. There are so many weapons and styles of play for each character that even if there's one absolute best method it's still quite a bit of fun trying new ideas and running with certain weapons even if they hardly work at all.

The best advice for any new player in Harmony of Despair is to start off playing solo. Yes while multiplayer is a major selling point of this game it is also a brutal affair for anyone not familiar with the levels and enemies that inhabit them. The difficulty scales in accordance with the number of players and even the most broken Alucard can't expect to carry five players who can't even carry themselves. There is a time limit for each stage and while thirty minutes is far more than enough it disappears very quickly when undead players start getting their bones scattered.

In an interesting twist death in multiplayer Despair is not final. Upon dying the player will become a skeleton whose only abilities are its double jump and that it can throw bones. These guys can't even crouch, they're hopeless. If that wasn't bad enough skeletons also aren't rewarded with treasure. Skeletons die in maybe one or two hits and when that happens a large chunk of time is lost which inevitably lead to all players(even the surviving ones) failing the mission. All is not quite lost as skeletons can regain their human form through a revival potion.

This leads us into the more complicated and several times more fascinating part of the cooperative experience. When playing Harmony of Despair one is bound to run into all kinds of players who operate under all sorts of skill levels. A revival potion can only save one person. Do you give it to the guy who is running headfirst into every enemy, falling into spikes constantly, and just an absolute nuisance? Or do you give it to the guy who has shown quite a bit of skill but just happened to have some bad luck(likely because he was trying to cover for that other guy)? While you're asking yourself this question the game is still going on. I can count the number of times I played with people I actually know on one hand but most of my time was spent with randoms even if more often than not they managed to cost me time and sanity. For best results groups of six should actually be avoided if possible because due to scaling even four good players can be undone by two awful players.

For fans of the Castlevania series this really isn't a truly difficult game. There are a few walls at first(most notably the Puppet Master boss of the second stage) but they can be overcome through practice and/or a more powerful weapon or ability. More often than not however a lot of players will find themselves dragged through the game without so much of an idea of how to dodge an attack and they'll get frustrated when they can't even get through a single stage on the Hard difficulty (which naturally is home to all of the best loot in the game).

There's a list of issues with this game that is almost as big as the boss of stage 3 but I'll try to focus on the most major of them. To start off with the running speed for every character is much too slow. The best way around this is through a piece of equipment called the Winged Boots. To get these boots one has to kill Dracula on the Hard difficulty. These boots don't become available in the shop however. See that sort of stuff is all left up to chance. Maybe you'll get lucky and those boots will drop, or maybe Drac is feeling rather jerkish and leaves you with a piece of meat for your trouble. It's one thing to make absolute best weapons and even the silly laser gun that shoots exploding hearts that do 0 damage* ridiculously rare drops but such a unique item that can change the way the game is played? That's not something that should be left up to chance. In fact a surprising amount of content can be locked away depending on the luck of the player. This can be manipulated somewhat through equipment and certain consumables but the effect isn't particularly dramatic and won't in any way guarantee that one item needed to make a character better.

This was probably done the way it was so that players will make do with what they have and it'll allow for some creative builds. The game wasn't balanced around that however so quite a few players are going to be stuck with garbage while waiting for Dracula or a certain other boss to give them something worth a damn. This creates an almost infinite anticipation-loop that is balanced only by disappointment and all that can be said after getting that one particular bit of loot is "Great! This will make it easier to farm."

This aspect is the ugliest side of Harmony of Despair as once all of the anticipation dries up there's nothing left but a handful of items that require farming in order to attain. Require is probably the wrong word for it but considering there are people out there that have fought Dracula 30+ times in a row in the hopes of acquiring some particular item well what else should one call it? Sure luck plays a factor but some sort of other method for attaining items would have been the perfect way to fix this. The game gives out so much gold but after a certain point there's nothing left to spend it on.

Hard difficulty could also stand to be a little more balanced. Essentially it boils down to everything doing and taking a lot more damage though enemies also tend to attack faster and Dracula gets a couple new tricks. For some characters the jump in challenge isn't too bad but for those who are more gear-dependent it can be a pain to defeat bosses simply because they take so much damage. On the other hand the characters who don't have to rely so much on great weapon-drops have to put in so much of a grind to have any hope of achieving similar results that they're more than likely left for later. Insta-death attacks are also quite a bit more prevalent in the hard difficulty and that's really not much fun, especially when Drac is capable of performing most of them.

So what about becoming really good at the game? Phantasy Star Online offering some impressive rewards for players who managed to best its Challenge Mode so what's stopping this game? I've no idea myself really but it strikes me as a huge missed opportunity. There are leaderboards and replay videos for those standout players but the scoring system revolves around getting through a stage as fast as possible while collecting and destroying everything. This all but guarantees that all non-Soma and Alucard players will never have a chance at hitting #1. Some rule settings or maybe even different leaderboards for different styles of play would have alleviated this somewhat. As it stands however there's really too much blurring of the line between a masterful Castlevania player and a mediocre one who just happens to be dual-wielding the two best weapons in the game.

Which is perhaps the greatest shame since the game has so many rewarding aspects to it for players who think outside the box. For example I'm a huge fan of Soma's ability to throw skulls and then jump off them to reach different places. Those skulls may have been designed to be kicked into enemies but for me it's more about using them to reach areas quickly and more efficiently. Jonathon has a handful of tools available to him for skipping past certain sections and even evading traps that would usually require the assistance of a friend to press a switch.

There's a ton of untapped potential in this game as the concept is rather fresh and a nice change of pace, but it's just not where it should be. More stages and characters will soon be available but Konami expects to charge for them, which will do nothing but segment things ever further. In fact this will only prove to further ruin the balance as some players will have to pay to make their characters better (like say in the new stage Charlotte has some new spells she can absorb, Jonathon finding another subweapon, and so on). It'd probably be different if these expansions were sizable to the point of an additional three stages but currently it's just not going to work out well.

Yet while I have nothing left to look forward to in this game and may never play it again it was still fun. For those who played the previous games on the Game Boy Advance and DS this will be an all too familiar romp but for some like myself who spent countless hours getting every last dumb item in the series Konami crafted a fine way to do it all over again. Sure the fans of the older Castlevanias will laugh themselves to death over why I liked this game but whatevs...loot-collecting is just as legitimate a videogame genre as action.

Game Rating - 2.5 out of 5
There are a number of good ideas and the concept is very sound. The execution is unfortunately still quite a ways off. I'd say these are the sort of things that could be fixed in a sequel but that's out of the question. More than likely this is a one-time experiment that will be put down when it's too dry to milk. If you've already played the demo and hated it there's really nothing in the full game that'll grab you. Other things like the presentation need serious work as well. As it stands Despair is prone to freezing while searching for games and there tends to be more disconnects than is healthy. I can blame only so much of that on the other players.

My Rating - 4 out of 5
The rating I give this game has more to do with my tastes. When I played the demo I thought something to the effect of "whoo boy look at dat phat loot!" and promptly bought the full game. Sure I might have said a thousand times in the past that this game is a rip-off and Konami can burn in the fires of a thousand hells but principles be damned when I can open a chest and get something new to swing. That's not to say that's all the game has to everything else is pretty competent. It's just for the most part it's nothing we haven't seen before, boss patterns and all. Still it was a good time.

*Heart shooting laser gun doesn't actually exist in this game...I think.

1 comment:

  1. get on live person who is not named gabe