While just about every other reviewer played Castlevania: Harmony of Despair for a whopping 2-3 days before getting their reviews up just in time for the embargo to end (review codes were sent to journalists on a Friday, the embargo ended the following Monday), the game’s absurdly hard single player mode had me thinking that maybe I should wait until this thing’s released to the general public so that I could fully enjoy it the way it was meant to be played: co-op.

Well, I waited, then played through all six of the game’s levels. Then played some more. Then some more on hard mode. And then some more to try and unlock some better weapons and spells for various characters because I can totally beat Dracula without getting killed next time!

I think you see where this is going.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuxlZ6VTrW4&fs=1&hl=en_US]

Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is basically just a bunch recycled sprites and backgrounds from previous Castlevania games, re-purposed with arcade-y 6-player co-op in mind. This may sound like a bad thing at first, but it’s totally not.

The Co-Op: Up to six players can take on a level together and you can play Allucard from Symphony of the Night, Soma Cruz from Aria of Sorrow and Dawn of Sorrow, Shanoa from Order of Ecclesia, and both Jonathan Morris & Charlotte Aulin from Portrait of Ruin. But don’t worry if you’ve never played any of those games before, Harmony of Despair has absolutely no plot whatsoever, which leaves you free to focus on more important things, like killing Dracula.

Co-Op is where the true heart and soul of this game lies. Each character plays surprisingly different from the other, for example, Shanoa can fling herself from metal spheres scattered across levels, allowing her to reach areas inaccessible by other characters. She can also absorb enemy spells which can then be equipped.

Aside from each character getting their own unique set of abilities and usable weapons, co-op mode also introduces an item called Water of Life. See, when you die in single-player, it’s game over, but when you die in co-op, you turn into skeleton with a cute little halo and a tombstone marks the spot where you died (this is your new respawn point). Each time a player dies as a skeleton, a few minutes get shaved off each level’s 30-minute time limit. If a non-skeleton character has Water of Life, they can bring a skeletized player back to life.

These features wouldn’t be anywhere near as awesome if it weren’t for…

The Maps: Each of the game’s six maps are decent in solo play, but co-op is where they really shine. Each level has its share of routes that are only accessible by having another player stand on a switch or pull a lever. The maps are also designed in a way that makes the boss battles a blast in co-op mode as opposed to how insanely frustrating they can pay in single player. Speaking of which…

The Bosses: Holy fuckballs, some of these boss battles are fun! But only really in co-op. Halfway through the first boss battle, the floor collapses and sends you into a chasm full of enemies. In single player, you’ll probably want to take these dudes out on your way to the boss unless you want your shit rocked, but if you’re playing with a decently-equipped team, you can probably head straight for the boss and the baddies below shouldn’t be too much trouble.

In another level, the boss takes up the entire map and literally destroys almost all the platforms used to reach him. You can either attack him head on which only does a wimpy +1 Damage unless you hit his barely-reachable weak points, or you can flank him and send someone to the top of the level to pull a lever that swings a giant hammer into his chest which knocks him down for a few seconds.The hammer can then be reset by having another player stand at the opposite end of the map to attack a crank that sets it back into place so the other player can pull the lever again.

With the right team and a headset, you’ll totally find yourself screaming and laughing during a few of these battles. They’ll remind oldschool gamers of epic boss battles from back in the day, when the person you were playing with was actually in the same room.

Zooming: Using the right analog stick, you can zoom between three modes: regular Castlevania view, zoomed out kind of a lot, but not too much, and zoom out all the way so you can see the whole freaking map. Zooming makes it way easier to plan routes and find other players if they need help. This is such a simple feature, but it works so perfectly that you’ll wonder why they didn’t put it in every Castlevania game since Symphony of The Night.

Single Player Mode: Not only is it really freaking hard unless you replay levels in hopes of finding stronger weapons and accessories (which are randomly dropped by enemies and tucked away in chests), you’ll have a pretty difficult time playing through this game solo. And when it’s not being crazy hard, it’s just stupidly tedious. The first time I played this game, the first boss killed me within a matter of seconds three times in a row before I figured out that I could just stand safely outside the battle arena and spam magic. While it worked, I had to keep waiting for my Magic Points to regenerate which made the boss battle last close to 10 minutes. This wasn’t fun, it was just tedious and boring. Almost as tedious and boring as…

The Grinding: It says something about this game’s design when you have to purposely play through the first level and die a few times just to score loot and money to buy more loot until your finally strong enough to do enough damage to the boss that it doesn’t take a million years to kill. You’d think the enemy drop rate for stronger items would be higher, or maybe the shop would carry better stuff to help you on your journey, but nope – prepare to play through these six levels many times if you don’t want your ass handed to you.

Luckily, there’s co-op and the possibility of finding a high-level team of members with high Luck stats, which increases drop rates of rare/powerful items from enemies and chests.

No Local Co-Op: This is by far the worst thing about this game. As fun as the online co-op is, I could only imagine it being more fun with another person. I’d even be happy if they restricted it to 2 player split-screen instead of six, because I could see how six split-screens could get a little nuts.

Final Word
While this game’s certainly not for everyone, there’s enough radness in here to warrant a purchase from anyone who’s a fan of Castlevania or epic boss battles. With awesome co-op, an unlockable “Hard Mode” for extra challenge, and planned DLC featuring more levels and characters, this is one game that – despite negative first impressions – is easy to get addicted to for hours on end.

Free review code provided by Konami. Played through multiple times on “Normal” difficulty.