After the previous few installments in the Castlevania series, Judgement in particular, Harmony of Despair sounds like heaven to fans of the series. Six player co-op, an ensemble cast of previous titles in the series plus some lovely HD sprites, it's hard to veer from the classic formula. Unfortunately for us, this classic formula is now a little stale. It's fun but it's not fun. The fun seems lost in the middle of the grinding chore that this game can be. At points it feels more like another addition of things to do around the house than it does a game.
Harmony of Despair is about....well, I don't know what it's about actually. The game has no story, there's no explanation of how these 6 characters from previous installments (including Alucard, Jonathan Morris and Charlotte Aulin) even met and there's no continuity between the different chapters. Everything seems to be based on previous installments in the series making it feel more like a "Greatest Hits" version of Castlevania...without the great hits.
If you're looking for an interesting story, you're in the wrong place but if you loved the series because of the gameplay and not because of the story: first you're quite masochistic because this is ridiculously difficult at points and secondly, you're in luck here. Each chapter has the simple objective of killing the boss. The boss is, you guessed it, a monster from a previous game and so you have to work your way through the sprawling levels past enemies you've seen before, dodging traps you've dodged before and passing familiar backgrounds along the way.
As I said, there is no continuity to the 6 chapters handed to you. Levels near the start are much harder than those at the end, with Chapter 2 containing possibly one of the most infuriatingly cheap boss fights I have ever encountered in a videogame. Harmony of Despair is definitely one of the most difficult Castlevania games ever made, and not because of the well-designed difficulty, but because of cheap tricks and ridiculous difficulty scaling. Many times I just put the controller down and walked away because I simply could not be bothered to play any further. You will die a lot. This is a guarantee. It doesn't help that your character's control like they're wading through a vat of treacle whilst wearing iron boots to the weigh them down, making timing jumps correctly an impossibility.
It now explains why the levels are so few and so short (each have a time limit of 30 minutes). Ramping up the difficulty means you will either have to die and start - ALL THE WAY FROM THE BEGINNING - even if you died at the boss battle, or you will need to grind to boost your stats to actually get anywhere. Neither of which sound like fun to me. In fact, I'd replace the word fun with a series of words that my editor probably won't let me use incase the little kids are offended. And even grinding is not easy to do. Your characters don't level up, as in previous games, instead relying on the powers the items they pick up along the way instill upon them. Unfortunately, no decent items can ever be found. Enemies rarely drop them, even difficult to reach chests will have something poor, like a cape, and the shop rarely has decent stuff in it. It seems like you're stuck in a perpetual state of being crap.
Co-op does not makes things easier either. Enemies HP levels raise with the amount of players in the game and frustration levels reach an all time high. It's impossible with one player, it's still impossible with six. I can't even imagine the most psychopathic serial killer and his serial killer buddies finding the amount of frustration and sociopathic game design in any way fun.
The game does do somethings right though, which is a relief. The variety of characters spanning back to Symphony of the Night are all very welcome. Each have different powers and weapons, and all handle in extremely different ways. Playing in co-op with the right team can make things marginally easier for all involved. There are a few sections which require the assistance of other characters and areas only reachable to certain characters, so choosing a character wisely can have a large effect on the way the level plays out.
The map system is also quite nice. Instead of being confined to the immediate space around you, you can zoom the game out to view the entire level. Of course, it's pretty hard to work through the level like this since your sprite is tiny, but it gives you a good insight as to what is coming up next or even to plan a route.
It's clear that Harmony of Despair tries to be something different but it's almost impossible to do when the contents of the game are recycled. It's like a horrible person trying to turn over a new leaf...by being a horrible person. It just doesn't make any sense. There is fun to be had here but the fun is overshadowed by frustration. Any game can call itself "hardcore" by using the same tricks as HD. Sure the map system is snazzy and the HD graphics make it look nice, but there's still so much wrong with it. It feels like Diet Castlevania; keeping things mostly the same, rehashing old ideas but just removing the interesting bits i.e. the story, any amount of real challenge. Even as a Castlevania fan, you probably won't lose any sleep if you missed this out.