Castlevania Harmony of Despair review – Summer of Arcade, XBLA

Castlevania Harmony of Despair review - Summer of Arcade, XBLA

The third entry into Microsoft’s Summer of Arcade promotion was a unique take on the classic 2D adventure series. Instead of exploring every square inch of Dracula’s castle similar to Symphony of the Night, players instead battled through levels with a time limit and collect powerful treasures while partnering up with up to five more players online.

Castlevania Harmony of Despair was one of 5 titles featured in the Xbox Live Marketplace Summer of Arcade promotion. Purchasing all 5 titles was rewarding.

Harmony of Despair Levels

The six levels featured in Castlevania HD were new in a sense, but each level was seen as a patchwork containing pieces, reused art assets, and even bosses from previous games. Harmony of Despair should have been seen more as a “best of” compilation in the Castlevania series with a new, six-player co-op twist, as opposed to an all new adventure.

Even though Harmony of Despair contained reused assets, clever game design made it feel like new. Gergoth, the laser-shooting bipedal demon from Dawn of Sorrow, shoots lasers across the entire stage, and Death flies around attacking players before they reach his lair. Small changes such as these helped Harmony of Despair stand on its own despite the reused assets.

Another new feature that was sure to please fans was the ability to zoom out and see the entire level at once. This allowed players to quickly see which player is where, and to plan out which route to take. After getting used to this feature, players might have a difficult time going back to previous Castlevania games that offer a much more limited point of view.

Harmony of Despair Characters

Characters featured in Harmony of Despair include Soma, Alucard, Jonathan Morris, Shanoa, and Charlotte Aulin (future DLC will supposedly add Maria Renard and Julius Belmont). Instead of leveling up through experience points, players can increase their characters’ strength by collecting more powerful loot, and through leveling up each character’s unique abilities.

Soma, for instance, collects souls and can increase each soul’s power by collecting more (up to a max of 9). On the other hand, Jonathan Morris increases the power of his sub-weapons by using them on enemies, and as his sub-weapons increase in power, so does his powerful Vampire Killer whip and his martial arts techniques. Each character is different, but the game unfortunately offers very little explanation, so new players are advised to review some Game FAQs before deciding on which character to play.

Castlevania HD Six-player Online Co-op on Xbox Live

Harmony of Despair allows up to six players total to battle Dracula’s minions and search for loot via Xbox Live. Sadly, no option exists to play co-op locally, so gamers without an Xbox Live gold account must fight solo.

Six-player co-op, while a bit chaotic, shows Harmony of Despair at its best. All players receive a piece of treasure no matter who opens a chest, so players can focus on cooperation rather than bickering over who gets the next treasure chest. The game’s difficulty scales up depending on the number of characters, so while some bosses, such as the Puppet Master, are easy pickings for a full team, others, such as Dracula, actually feel more challenging with extra players.

Castlevania Harmony of Despair’s fun factor gets knocked down a couple of pegs for the amount of time wasted simply trying to find a game. The quick match option frequently tries to join a game that is already full, which boots the player back to the title screen. Searching via custom match helps, but the same problem persists. Also, since a team cannot tackle a stage or difficulty level higher than the team’s lowest member, players frequently disband a team when a lower-ranked player joins.

Despite these frustrations, once a full team is found and the game begins, it’s an Xbox Live co-op experience unlike any other.

Limbo offers the same quality over quantity model similar to other XBLA hits like Braid and Portal. While it’s possible to complete the entire game within three hours, it’s an experience that should not be missed, even for the “premium price” of 1200 MS points on Xbox Live Arcade. Limbo was developed by Playdead, a new independent game developer based in Denmark.

Story and Gameplay Mechanics of Limbo

Limbo’s story is an exercise in simplicity. The description on the Xbox Live Marketplace only says, “Uncertain of his Sister’s Fate, a Boy enters LIMBO.”

The story, then, is more about what happens in-game. The player must dodge death and dismemberment at nearly every step, including traps, chasms, spikes, parasites, massive mechanical gears, and more. Numerous environments and varied challenges gives the player the feeling of experiencing the story, rather than simply playing a game and passively watching a story unfold through cut scenes or listening to lame audio logs.

While the obvious objective is to avoid dying to the myriad of deadly obstacles when moving from point A to point B, the player will inevitably die – many, many times. However, nearly every obstacle or puzzle surpassed offers a checkpoint. So while the game challenges the player with life or death situations at every turn, the numerous checkpoints relieve frustration and allows the player to progress without too much repetition.

Graphics and Audio in Limbo on XBLA

Limbo’s stark black and white graphics gives it a unique look on the Xbox Live Marketplace, which complements the unique gameplay experience.

Players should not be put off by the idea of black and white graphics, as Limbo’s incredible attention to detail makes it one of the most striking and beautiful in the Xbox Arcade library. Heavy objects crash loudly and sprays dust every which way. Water pours realistically. Bright butterflies twinkle in rays of light, and parasites cling to the poor boy with some horrifying sucking noises.

A casual glance at a low-resolution gameplay trailer will unlikely impress. But once a player sits down and tries out the demo on a nice HDTV, it will show some of the most impressive visuals and art yet seen on an XBLA game.