I love Castlevania. I grew up playing the NES games, I played through Symphony of the Night countless times in the PS1 era — and again a good few times upon its subsequent rereleases — and I frequently spin up some of Michiru Yamane’s finest soundtracks while I work.
Castlevania is an integral part of gaming history. It helped to define so many things that we take for granted today: deliberately paced combat where rushing in will get you killed; an emphasis on observing enemy patterns before figuring out how to deal with them; and, of course, the entire open-structure side-scrolling platformer genre, commonly referred to as “Metroidvania”.
There’s one game from the series that, over the years, hasn’t had the love it deserves. And that game is Castlevania: Harmony of Despair (not to be confused with Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance), a download-only title for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. I’d like to tell you a bit about why I like this game so much — and why it deserves a new release on modern platforms.
Castlevania: Harmony of Despair’s title is intended to be a reference to the fact that it was the first Castlevania game on HD platforms. But it unfortunately didn’t get off to the best start when it was revealed that it was not simply a new open-structure exploration-centric game, but rather a game based around discrete stages — and a game with a multiplayer mode.
For many people, the idea of multiplayer simply didn’t mix with the concept of Castlevania; many of the previous games were about being a lone hero up against unimaginable challenges, and successfully overcoming those challenges through your own hard work and stubbornness. Leaving aside the lore issues — Castlevania heroes come from a broad range of centuries and thus most of them would never be able to meet under normal circumstances — many people felt that that “lonely” aspect was a core part of the Castlevania experience.
On top of that, the open-structure format had been so well-established by this point that people wanted more of it. People still want more of it today, which explains its prevalence in the indie space today — as well as the success of Koji Igarashi’s Kickstarter campaign for Castlevania spiritual successor Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. And, as such, there was a lot of assumption that Castlevania: Harmony of Despair, by eschewing what people thought had made Castlevania great, would be a pile of old toss.
This is unfortunate, because while Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is a very different experience to many of its contemporaries in a lot of ways, it is a damn good game in its own right — whether you’re playing solo, with comrades online or with some friends in couch co-op on the PlayStation 3 version.
Here’s the gist, if you’re unfamiliar. There’s this magic grimoire, right, and it records the history of Dracula’s castle Castlevania throughout the ages. Unfortunately, being magic, it has a habit of coming to life and manifesting the various incarnations of Castlevania, which is obviously a bit bad for humanity. Fortunately, since the heroes who have defeated Dracula repeatedly between the years 1691 and 2036 are also recorded in said grimoire, they’re able to come to life and tackle every possible incarnation of said castle, put it back to sleep in the book and keep the world safe for another evening.
What this means in practice is that in the base game there’s six levels based on various highlights from past Castlevania games, and five playable characters also from past games, including Soma Cruz (Aria of Sorrow/Dawn of Sorrow), Alucard (Castlevania III/Symphony of the Night), Jonathan Morris (Portrait of Ruin), Charlotte Aulin (Portrait of Ruin) and Shanoa (Order of Ecclesia). The latter was a bit of an odd decision, since the game supports up to six simultaneous players — meaning one character will have to “double up” in a full party — but it certainly provides plenty of variety.
The game can also be extended with a number of downloadable content packs. These include five more levels — including one that effectively recreates the entirety of NES Castlevania in a single stage, and another which pays homage to relatively unknown-in-the-west Famicom title The Legend of Fuma — and six more characters.
With the character DLC, you have the option of playing as Julius Belmont (Aria of Sorrow/Dawn of Sorrow), Yoko Belnades (Aria of Sorrow/Dawn of Sorrow), Richter Belmont (Rondo of Blood/Symphony of the Night), Maria Renard (Rondo of Blood/Symphony of the Night) as well as the original NES/Famicom incarnations of Simon Belmont and Getsu Fuma.
The way Castlevania: Harmony of Despair works is that you (and up to five friends) pick a stage and character, then attempt to clear it. How thorough you are about clearing the stage is entirely up to you, but all you need to do is fight your way to the boss and defeat it before the half-hour time limit expires. If you choose to explore further, you can find a variety of loot along the way, including new weapons, armour, accessories and consumable items — and if you’re feeling particularly feisty you can play for high scores, with the most points being awarded for a no-damage run.
Each stage is based on a memorable moment from various Castlevania games, and features authentic music, enemies and bosses along the way. Typically there are multiple routes you can take through each stage — which means if you’re playing multiplayer you can split up if you so desire — and co-operation is encouraged by the fact that some shortcuts can be opened up if more than one person is playing.
There’s no experience-based levelling system in Castlevania: Harmony of Despair; the majority of your character progression is instead through equipment, which gives the game as a whole something of a dungeon crawler feel. Characters who are able to use magic or special abilities can power these up through repeated use, too, so there’s incentive to stick with a favourite character and buff them up as much as possible — but no penalty if you do desire to try playing as someone else for a bit.
Once you clear the initial six levels, a significantly more challenging Hard mode opens up, and the DLC stages are all pretty challenging, too — though the more difficult stages do also reward you with better loot, so things balance out quite nicely. And the loot pool is communal to your entire save file, so if you want to quickly get another character up to speed, simply take your favourite and/or best characters into a challenging stage, grab some loot and then give that loot to the new character. Self-twinking at its finest.
It’s a game made to be replayed, and one that you can never really “finish”; it’s fun to just dip in and out of now and again when you fancy a bit of Castlevania action, but you don’t fancy the commitment of playing one of the longer games.
Which brings me to my main point: this game needs to come back, it needs to have a lovely physical print run with all the DLC included, and it needs to be on my Nintendo Switch. Because this sort of “hunt, loot, upgrade, repeat” gameplay is absolutely ideal for the hybrid nature of the Switch — the relatively short individual play sessions make it ideal for handheld play, but the long-term metagame of buffing up all your characters means you can get thoroughly invested in it if you so desire. And enjoying the game alongside a friend or five just makes the whole thing even more fun.
With the PlayStation 3 version going the way of the dodo once the Great PlayStation Store Purge gets underway and the Xbox 360 version buried deep in a dusty corner of Xbox Live Arcade, the time is ripe for a rerelease of this game. Not only are people always keen for a new chance to enjoy some classic Castlevania action, but the growth in popularity of online multiplayer over the last decade means that the potential audience as a whole would likely be much more receptive to what this game has to offer today.
Now, has anyone seen Konami recently? They’re not answering their door and all I can hear through the letterbox is pachinko noises…
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