Castlevania series producer Koji Igarashi says he injected fresh blood into 1997’s Symphony Of The Night by helping introduce a leveling system and recasting straightforward dungeon runs into freeform Metroidvania maps because he saw little-replayed copies of previous entries languishing in the used-games bin. The resulting game was a masterpiece, and the series has been self-cannibalizing ever since, but it’s still surprising how blatantly Castlevania: Harmony Of Despair cherry-picks from the characters, sound effects, sprites, monsters, and maps of that iconic game and the 2-D Nintendo DS titles it spawned.
Despair is essentially six beefy boss rushes set to the tempo of a timer counting down from 30 minutes. It’s nigh-impossible when attempted alone, but the difficulty evens out somewhat if you cooperate with up to five friends playing as proven heroes like Alucard from Night or Charlotte from Portrait Of Ruin—the 2-D two-player model for this kind of team-up. But while the faces are familiar, the abilities are anemic, with each character granted an assortment of skills bordering on caricatures of what they were capable of in previous, more fully fleshed-out games. Also simplified: the character upgrading, which ditches leveling but keeps equipment drops, most of which turn up less-than-useful items. And in a concession to easy stockpiling—if not exactly replay value—treasure chests always appear in the same places on the map, even though levels are designed, punishingly, to require multiple tedious play-throughs from beginning to end. Players who don’t mind the gold grind can scrimp, then splurge on powerful weapons at the shop; even here, though, Despair lives up to its name by allowing inventory changes only at special tomes.
The game does have some novelty going for it: The zoom can be set to four different lengths, from classic scroller to godlike. There’s some thrill in seeing the entire board lit up with Universal monsters, Castlevania staples, and other players triggering switches and providing shortcuts for each other like a livelier version of older titles’ dungeon maps. And an all-players-for-themselves survival mode supplements the standard co-op outing, even though the game doesn’t offer enough combat depth to make the prospect particularly appealing. Igarashi has given the series another infusion, but unyielding maps married to middling combat amounts to drudgery, whether players are going it alone or en masse.