In what appears to be a gaming conundrum, Castlevania: Harmony of Despair represents a step both forward and backward for the famed series.
Konami's newest offering on Xbox Live Arcade innovates by allowing as many as six people to team up simultaneously. At the same time, it moves backward by dropping three-dimensional environments in favor of the classic two-dimensional style that first made the Belmont clan of vampire hunters famous.
It's refreshing to see a game embrace an older design. It's much better than, say, playing a game that just feels clunky with bad 3D gameplay mechanics. Even though they are in high-definition, the graphics have the same styling of past Castlevania adventures, including the vaunted Symphony of the Night that appeared on the first PlayStation.
In fact, you can play as that game's main character, Alucard, in this new adventure. You and your friends play through levels inspired by previous games and do so as a host of characters who also have appeared in the series previously.
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And I emphasize you and your friends, as this is definitely a multiplayer game. You can play alone, but the levels are designed so friends can trip levers in various areas of the stage to clear paths for the others. You can zoom in and out of the map to show the locations of your compatriots, and that becomes a handy feature as you progress.
Single players, meanwhile, will struggle with the time limits and the boss fights. The villains are quite strong because they're supposed to pose challenges to six players, and that makes a single-player boss fight that much more difficult.
The single-player mode is far from perfect, but at least it exists. The major drawback to this game is that multiplayer is possible only online. It would have been much better if you could play co-op together in the same room on the same Xbox 360.
Otherwise, Harmony of Despair boasts many of the best elements from previous Castlevania titles, including a nice variety of enemies and strong magic libraries for certain characters. It's certainly a worthy entry in the series, and it's nice to see Konami taking a chance on 2D.