Castlevania is a series that needs no introduction. One of the consummate action platformers, the franchise has evolved considerably over time, sometimes with innovation, other times by shamelessly ripping off Metroid. Say what you will about the past games, they are deep, highly detailed and well designed titles perfectly suited for the small screen and single player. Now it is time to see how this first HD and Multiplayer outing will fair against such a high standard of excellence.
If you’ve played a Castlevania game in the last ten years or so, the graphics of Harmony of Dispair (HD… Cute) will be familiar to you. Very familiar. Identical in fact. The sprites seem to be the very same ones that have graced the DS screen in the past few installments, and likewise the environments are a shuffled up rehash of the same backgrounds. Retro games like Megaman 9 and 10, as well as retro styled games like the upcoming Scott Pilgrim, have been making headway recently, so maybe that is what Konami was trying to cash in on. Unfortunately, the these particular graphics aren’t quite old enough for nostalgia to kick in, so the fact that every single enemy and environment seems to be a cut and paste from a prior game comes off as little more than laziness. To Konami’s credit, the sprites were top notch in their original format, so they don’t fair as poorly as they might have, but they are anything but up to what gamers have come to expect. Hilariously, not even the handful of polygonal overlay enemies from the series seem to have have made the transition to current gen hardware.
One wonders then, if they are using such tiny sprites, what Konami is doing with all of the extra horsepower available to them on this full sized console. Well, after a load that seems ridiculously long for a 2D side scroller coming off the hard drive, you find that it was the entire map loading. Every enemy, every room, and even the boss show up from the start, and you can zoom out to a real time, full view of the board while playing if you want. Shrinking the graphics down this small, sure enough, gives you HD detail. It also will give you eye strain if you play it in this state. You’ll spend most of your time zoomed to a more traditional, and more dated, scale and detail.
The gameplay, like the visuals, will be familiar to fans of the series. Here, though, they have made some major changes. The essence of a classic Metroid-vania game is the slow, steady development of a character that progresses through a map finding and earning the skills, weapons, and abilities necessary to open new doors and reach new areas, discovering precious new map tiles and eventually finding the boss. This is not a classic Metroid-vania game. From the very start, the level can be completed by any of your five characters right out of the gate, and forget about slow and methodical progression. Each of the levels is a timed speed run toward the known location of the stage boss. The clock starts at 30 minutes and ticks down constantly until victory or death, stopping for nothing. (More on that later.) The controls are what have become standard for the series, though changes have been made to take advantage of the additional buttons. They have also been fiddled with to allow for one of the other major shifts to the gameplay.
Equipment management has always been a big part of the series. The correct assortment of armor, weapons, and accessories make a huge difference in gameplay, and the constant shuffling of spells and familiars is one of the great strategic aspects of the game. Not anymore. Now you can only configure your inventory at save point-like pedestals scattered throughout the level. And I mean the only time. There is no obvious way to configure your apparatus before starting the level, so you’ll be ticking down the first thirty seconds of each session fiddling with your fancy hat and nifty rings. Though the pedestals are intelligently placed to be mostly safe, the game is still active when you are configuring, so pay attention to that health bar. Speaking of health bars, with no inventory you’ll be left with a single slot to stick a recovery item, though it can be a stack of them. Since you can’t keep trading secondary weapons out, and there are a lot of them, the “hunter weapon” button can fire 4 secondary attacks. Since these are either B alone or + Up, Down, or Forward, you’ll spend a lot of time tossing the wrong attack until you get used to momentarily ignoring which way you want to move in order to activate the desired button combination. Dealing with this lack of inventory micromanagement is at first jarring, but I came to appreciate it, because it keeps the pace up and forces you to plan ahead. This adds a fair amount of depth and a whole new type of strategy to gameplay.
The first major gimmick of the game is the fully loaded map. Though you’ll rarely be making active use of the global view, the game utilizes it to full effect. The boss is loaded from the first moment, and on the first level he’ll start taking pot shots at you long before you get to him. Our dear friend and Castlevania mainstay, the grim reaper, even starts attacking you from the first minute of his level, forcing you to figure out a way to keep him in his room until you are ready for him. Enemies fortunately won’t bug you until you get close enough or one of your stray attacks hit them, so you aren’t in the center of a ghoulish dog pile from the moment you start. They will follow you once you’ve pissed them off, though, so it pays to face them rather than running. Those stray attacks can be hilarious, by the way. I spent many fond minutes zoomed completely out, killing skeletons by throwing knives a quarter of a mile down a hallway. It may be a gimmick, but the live map adds a fair amount to the game, and only annoys on certain rare occasions – like when Alucard’s spirits decide to attack and agro the harpies in the room above you rather than clearing out the fleamen in front of you.
Speaking of Alucard, this game has an all-star line up, with five playable characters. Everyone’s favorite dyslexic vampire is back, naturally. Joining him are: Soma Cruz the soul stealing badass, Shanoa the battle witch, and Charlotte Aulin the regular witch. Notably missing from the cast is a Belmont. Instead, trusty Vampire Killer is wielded by Jonathon Morris, a Belmont in everything but name. Each character differs vastly in play style and development. Soma still harvests souls, but Alucard now finds spells to cast in chests and from enemies. Shanoa has to track down enemies that use glyphs for their attacks and steal them, and Charlotte captures projectiles to use them. Jonathon can collect various weapons to toss as well as martial arts attacks. The fact that the differences are more than superficial keeps the game from getting boring; if you are sick of grinding axe armors, switch for a while and start catching fireballs.
Of course, these many playable characters exist to exploit the other massive new aspect, multiplayer. I didn’t get to make much use of this, but what I have seen makes me hungry for more. Powerful dual crashes can be used by carefully syncing with teammates, different sections of levels can be accessed by having fellow players hitting switches, and the whole team can split up to converge on the boss via different routes. Even death is softened by converting you to the form of a skeleton that can pitch in a bone or two until revived or until all of your buddies are similarly fossilized. My only gripe with the multiplayer is that, because if it, there is no single player. Playing by yourself is pretty much just playing multiplayer with one person. I can understand not stopping the clock and the action when you pause during a multiplayer match, but single player? Yep, pray you don’t get a phone call during a boss fight, because that pause button is just going to make you a sitting duck.
As with all other parts of this game, the sound is just like you remember it. Semi-generic but still well done gothic rock music and some of the most hilariously awful voice clips known to man. The voice actors didn’t do a bad job, but there are only so many times you can hear Dracula’s hilarious threats without giggling. If you were a fan of it in the other games, good news, more of the same. If you hated it, bad news, more of the same.
If you need to be told what the story is, you have never played a Castlevania game. You, a vampire hunter (or five) have to re-re-re-re-re-re-kill Dracula. There are no dialog screens, and there is something about a grimoire that contains all of the history of the good and bad events of Dracula’s castle, but that’s just a hand wave. You’re here to try to put Dracula down again, so get cracking.
You’ve probably heard a lot of bad things about this game, and I haven’t really painted a rosy picture of it, but the fact of the matter is, it is good. Sure, they made some mistakes, but the core gameplay is just as solid and enjoyable as it has been in the past. The level design guides you logically forward, with even the most maze-like levels challenging without being frustrating. The mulitplayer aspect, classic character building, and item collecting give it near endless replay value. It may be far from perfect, but Castlevania HD is an addictive and well-built game that is truly fun to play alone or for the first time as a team. This is a game that is more than the sum of its parts.
7.8 / 10. It stumbles graphically and makes some questionable design decisions, but overall Castlevania HD retains enough of the series’ virtues to be fun.