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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (395)

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Indivisible 3/5
Final Fantasy XIV Onlin... 2/5
A Total War Saga: Troy 3/5
Stardew Valley 3/5
Soulcalibur VI 4.5/5
Owlboy 3/5
Battletech 3/5
Bloodstained: Ritual of... 3/5
The Legend of Zelda: A ... 4/5
Hob 3/5
Assassin's Creed Odyssey 4.5/5
Ittle Dew 2 4.5/5
Luigi's Mansion 3 4/5
Xuan-Yuan Sword: The Ga... 3/5
Star Trek: Bridge Crew 3.5/5
King's Quest: The Compl... 3/5
Strange Brigade 4/5
Metro Exodus 3.5/5
Evoland Legendary Editi... 4.5/5
Evoland 2 4.5/5
Burokku Girls 2/5
Finding Paradise 4.5/5
To the Moon 4/5
Marvel: Ultimate Allian... 2.5/5
Valley 4/5

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Castlevania: Harmony of Despair   PlayStation Network 

Heavy on the Despair, Light on the Harmony    1.5/5 stars

In 1997, Konami revitalized their ‘Castlevania’ series with the release of “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.” This game took a series that had been just another platformer with terrible controls and linear levels, added RPG and action/adventure elements, and placed the action in a vast, interconnected castle. Gamers loved it and, in the traditional way of developers like Capcom, Konami pumped out six nearly-identical sequels for the Game Boy Advance and DS. The formula never got old, and fans continued to love the new style, dubbed ‘Metroidvania.’

“Castlevania: Harmony of Despair” (“HoD”) is an Xbox Live and PSN game that attempts to pay homage to these beloved games that saved ‘Castlevania’ from obscurity by mashing-up all of the characters, gameplay mechanics, enemies, bosses, and maps from the franchise’s history, then adding multi-player for no other reason than the fact that EVERYTHING seems to require multi-player this-gen. Yet instead of an amazing culmination of amazing games, “HoD” is a catastrophe that not only shames its pedigree, but stands as the poster-boy for the flaws in 7th Generation gaming.

Presentation
“HoD” takes the easy way out in invoking older games by simple re-using all of the visual and auditory assets from the games that inspired it. Of course, 2D sprite-based ‘Castelvania’ has always been superior to the 3D polygonal abominations in the series… so what’s the problem? The problem is that “HoD” is a HD game intended to be played on huge TVs via HDMI, while the visual assets that are used in the game were intended to be seen on a 3” 240x160 resolution handheld. And it’s not just the sprites used for characters and enemies that are problematic, but the sprites that make-up the walls, floors, and ceilings of the stages as well. It would not have killed Konami or broken their budget to include remastered HD sprites or at least properly-upscaled sprites in “HoD,” but they didn’t, which makes the game nearly unplayable because of how small and pixilated everything is: It’s hard to tell what’s going on.

The camera is another offender in making the graphics unbearable in “HoD” due to the fact that it loves to zoom-out and show the entire stage at once instead of focusing on the player(s)’ character(s). This wide-angle zoom-out also serves as the game’s substitute for level maps, allowing the player(s) to see the entire stage at once… except it doesn’t help at all. When zoomed-out all the way, the resolution of the tiny sprites clashes with the resolution of an HD display, resulting in a view where the graphics literally undulate, hiding platforms, small objects, and small enemies in the process. When playing local multi-player, the cameral also zooms-out to show all of the characters, should they split-up, instead of performing any kind of dynamic split-screen, which results in a multi-player experience where everyone NEEDS to stick together, or perish in blurry, pixilated, undulating agony.

The music, at least, is still good, classic ‘Castlevania’ stuff. It’s just as reused and rehashed as the visuals, but at least Konami put a bit of work into remastering it and using high-quality audio instead of just including the over-compressed Game Boy Advance audio.

Story
In order to justify characters and bosses from the entirety of the ‘Castlevania’ timelike running around together in one big mash-up, Konami put a somewhat interesting twist on the story in “HoD.” Instead of yet another retread of ‘Oh darn, Dracula has revived again and someone needs to go kill him!’ or ‘Oh darn, Dracula’s castle has reappeared and won’t go away until the reincarnation of its master tells it to!’ “HoD” all takes place after the final doom of Dracula and his castle, within the pages of a book narrating the entire series timeline. Yes, Dracula’s demonic vampire powers were so great that just writing about or drawing a picture of him and his castle causes the whole thing to come back to life (So, does that mean this review is cursed too?!).

But this twist is the extent of the narrative capabilities of “HoD.” There is no real story, the characters all use their motivations from their original games (without any rehash, as Konami must assume that we all remember the exact details of every previous ‘Castlevania’ story), the individual stages aren’t tied together in any meaningful way (which makes this game a step backward even from the old 8-bit and 16-bit games in the series), and there is no ending. Instead the story of the cursed tome of ‘Castlevania’ lore implies that a “Groundhog Day” scenario plays out within the pages of the book where Dracula continually revives and Belmonts/Dracula’s son/Dracula’s reincarnation continually put him back down. As a commentary on the dire state of creative storytelling in games from formerly-great Japanese developers like Capcom, Konami, and Square Enix (which it is not), “HoD” works; as an engaging narrative with a compelling beginning, middle, and end, it fails.

What’s even worse, though, is the fact that the $15 purchase price doesn’t even give the buyer access to the full breadth of ‘Castlevania’s’ past, but only 7 stages and 7 characters. The rest are available only as egregiously-overpriced DLC (ranging from $2 to $4 each), allowing those with more money than sense to expand the game with 4 more stages and 4 more characters for $24 – more than the base game itself!

Gameplay
“HoD” is a confusing mish-mash of old-school ‘Castlevania’ and Metroidvania, along with the current trend in RPGs to focus less on character development and more on grinding for loot drops. Each character begins the game with a couple of their signature abilities, 300 Hit Points, and 100 Magic Points. Characters never gain levels, but instead increase their stats through finding and wearing more and more powerful equipment. All characters also begin with the ability to double-jump, slide, and swim.

Where the characters differ is in the fact that they each follow their own rules – the same rules they followed in the games they originally starred in. Whip-wielding characters start with the classic knife sub-weapon, which levels up through use (as do all whip-wielder sub-weapons). Alucard starts with the ability to temporarily turn into mist and cast Summon Spirit, Soma starts with a Skeleton Soul, Charlotte starts with Fireball, etc., etc. – none of which abilities improve with use. All characters, however, can’t access their other abilities without first finding them as item drops (or soul drops in the case of Soma, or absorbable glyphs in the case of Shanoa). These drops are very rare and very random, sometimes coming from enemies, sometimes from treasure chests. All characters can wear armor and other defensive accessories, while a few can also change their weapons. Every character is also allowed to carry a single type of healing item with them (the number of copies of this item that can be carried depends on the item’s quality, with weak items limited to 3 and better items limited to 1) which affects all nearby allies when used.

Each stage is fully visible from the start, allowing players to plan a route through the stage to the garishly-indicated boss room (Seriously, the boss has a big arrow and the word “target” pointing at it!), flipping switches to open doors along the way. The ugly part is the addition of a timer: Each stage allows player(s) approximately 30 minutes to navigate to the boss and defeat it, all while trying to cover as much of the stage as possible to open chests (for random items whose rarity/quality is based on the chest’s color), acquire Water of Life (a one use item that revives an ally in multi-player), and defeat enemies (again, for item drops, as well as the long-shot of acquiring a new ability). But unlike the Metroidvania games “HoD” attempts to pay homage to, there is little permanent character development and no permanent progress in the stages. Switches don’t stay flipped, each stage has a single starting point, and the bosses don’t stay dead. The only way to even tell that a player is making progress in the game is the number of unlocked stages. While stages 1 and 7 are unlocked from the start, stages 2-6 must be unlocked by completing the preceding stage, with the end of stage 6 culminating in a triple-formed battle with Dracula (an incredibly tight squeeze, considering the time limit) and a credit-roll.

It seems that the entire purpose of “HoD” is loot farming and landing high scores on the leaderboards – that “HoD” is an online-centric, nearly MMO-type of game. This focus on online multi-player becomes even more obvious when one looks at the local multi-player: It is not possible to play a mixed local/online game, and the previously-mentioned camera issues are primarily a problem in local, especially when a character dies. A dead character causes a headstone to sprout at the spot they fell, allowing their animated skeleton (wearing a halo, I guess because its soul is still attached) to return to battle and throw bones at enemies. Should the skeleton player die again, not only does the game subtract 3 minutes from the already short stage timer, but the skeleton reappears at its headstone, which causes the camera to zoom out AAAALLLLL the way in order to keep all characters on the same screen. Online players don’t have to deal with this problem. Of course, it would have made more sense for the game to pop-open faux-split-screen boxes for local players who stray too far away from Player 1, but that would have been too much work and would have gone against the obvious goal Konami was aiming for with “HoD:” Release a rushed, incomplete, pointless game using pre-existing assets to make a quick buck at the expense of Metroidvania fans.

Overall
“Castlevania: Harmony of Despair” is not a homage to the games whose assets it reuses, but an insult. Removing the RPG and exploration elements from this series also removes everything that makes it good. Not even the most ardent ‘Castlevania’ fan should waste their money on this blatant cash grab.

Presentation: 2.5/5
Story: 1/5
Gameplay: 1.5/5
Overall (not an average): 1.5/5

 

 


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Chris Kavan

Chris Kavan- wrote on 04/21/12 at 07:28 PM CT

 

Spot on my friend. Spot on.

 
 
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