Version tested: Xbox 360
The two-faced mansion from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night endures in players' memories because it's the perfect venue for adventure. You never stop pushing into new realms, yet there always remains another locked door or an unreachable ledge - something more to discover. And, most famously, at the moment you think the journey is over, you learn it's not even close. Symphony of the Night is a romantic's idealisation of life: a cycle of mystery and discovery with no end in sight.
That must be a frustrating irony for Koji Igarashi. As the producer of most Castlevania games since Symphony of the Night - including the latest, Castlevania: Harmony of Despair - the series has offered him scant opportunity for discovery. He's overseen a litany of spiritual sequels to Symphony of the Night on the Game Boy Advance and DS, all of them engrossing and fun, but familiar. It's clear that Igarashi wants to break free from the formula, but whenever he tries to explore a different vision of Castlevania, it's either forgettable (Castlevania: Lament of Innocence) or a debacle (Castlevania Judgment). Harmony of Despair is more of the latter.
Igarashi tries to split the difference between old and new in this year's third Summer of Arcade title on Xbox Live Arcade. The conventional ghoul-slaughtering action is set in sprawling but tightly compartmentalised 2D mansions, with a style and character design lifted (often in straight pixel-by-pixel copies) from earlier titles in the Symphony of the Night lineage. The modern wrinkle is that multiple players, up to six at a time, can band together online to fight through a stage together.
I'd advise players to take advantage of multiplayer mode, since the game is practically insurmountable - or at least an excruciating waste of time - by yourself. In each level, the camera starts out with a wide shot, taking in the dozens of rooms that make up that "chapter" and highlighting the boss's lair. Then it zooms in on your comparatively tiny character, and the epic stage is set. You wind your way around the mansion for 20 minutes or so, reach the boss, and die.
Of course. Everybody eats it on the first few attempts. That's what makes it a boss fight.
Yet Harmony of Despair has no sympathy for failure. When a boss claims victory, you start from the very beginning of the stage, with nearly a half-hour wasted. That's right: the first time you die, you have to make another run through the whole mansion. The second goddamn time you die, you have to make another goddamn run through the whole goddamn mansion. After the third time, you start using words that my editors won't let me print.
Even that might be acceptable if the journey through each castle were more exciting. It's a trudge, though. One of the first things I noticed about Harmony of Despair was that regardless of which character I chose - players are given a choice of five Castlevania luminaries including Alucard and Soma Cruz - my hero was in no hurry to get anywhere. I bent that analogue stick as far as I could, and yet the little sprite wouldn't speed up. My high school running coach used to make us do a strength drill where we ran laps in six inches of water; that's what it feels like to move around in this game.
It's not an aberration; almost every aspect of Castlevania gets watered down in some fashion. The mansions are shells cobbled together with set-pieces from better games like Aria of Sorrow, laid bare and stripped of their mystique. The variety of enemies is lacking, too, which is hard to explain given the library of monsters that Konami's team had on hand. In the early mansions, the sheer number of axe knights is something out of a fever dream, as if Igarashi fell asleep on the Grim Reaper level of the original Castlevania and never woke up.
In multiplayer mode, each player can revive a fallen comrade (provided they've picked up a Water of Life tchotchke from a treasure chest - irritatingly non-transferable between team members). That means you spend less time restarting each stage. I welcome anything that shortens the Harmony of Despair process, so in that respect, the co-op feature is a winner.
In seriousness, there was a kid-on-a-playground thrill the first time I pulled the picture out and saw friends double-jumping and whipping their way around the same Gothic castle as I was. The sensation wore off, however, as if we were frolicking in a corporate office park: No matter what we did, it was going to feel like work.
Harmony of Despair strips Castlevania down to its lowest common denominator in order to make multiplayer function, rather than reinventing the game to make multiplayer thrive. To ensure that players stay more or less at the same strength, the character-levelling system is scaled way back. The power of some secondary attacks improves, and players can make occasional modest upgrades to weaponry and armour. It's a neutered imitation of the battle systems in the DS Castlevanias, which spoil you with more attacks and magic options than you could ever hope to use.
You can adjust the camera view to three different levels of zoom as you play, taking advantage of the Xbox 360's high-definition canvas so that you can see a huge swathe of the castle and, in theory, follow the exploits of your compatriots. The three available angles are: Impossible To See What's Going On, Somewhat Less Impossible To See What's Going On, and Actually Playable.
There's a survival mode that focuses on combat, which mostly serves to accentuate the aforementioned clumsiness of the movement controls. The co-op mode is the centrepiece. Yet aside from boss fights, where teamwork is essential in the later levels, the opportunities for meaningful co-operation are thin. Many of them involve one person waiting patiently for someone elsewhere in the castle to pull a lever or some such, so you can access a treasure chest that probably contains the same garbage armour you already have. Neither player in this scenario feels like the dashing vampire hunter of box-cover lore, but there is a special Zen impotence in being the guy who stands around doing nothing in the middle of a Castlevania game.
One time, while enduring this forced meditation, I considered what a joy it would be to play a Symphony of the Night-type adventure with a few friends, exploring a castle that had untold hours of secrets to unlock, each of us developing our own fighting styles from an array of possible strategies.
That would be a fantastic journey. It's what this mess of half-ideas and compromises wanted to be. Harmony of Despair isn't a failure of concept but a failure of ambition, one that leaves Koji Igarashi still waiting for his next great discovery.
4 / 10
Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is released on Xbox Live Arcade this Wednesday, 4th August, for 1200 Microsoft Points (£10.20 / €14.40)