"The constant cycle of death and rebirth is not the escapist entertainment that’s often expected of the medium." What game could I possibly be talking about?
It's "a game with no traditional save point system, no pause option and no coddling of the player who may have become accustomed to simpler, more forgiving fare. It is a hellish place of suffering, where men are routinely crushed by the powerful demonspawn that inhabit it."
It’s "challenging to the point of being punishing, and the tension generated by knowing death lurks around every corner is almost a tangible thing."
A game where "you’ll spend a lot of time replaying an area until you discover its intricacies and secrets, learn how to best tackle its denizens, and grind, grind, grind for souls and gear."
They're all quotes from the various times we've written about Demon's Souls over the past year or so. The curious thing is, they could all apply to another game, released tomorrow on Xbox Live Arcade.
Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is the Demon's Souls of 2D platformers.
It has six worlds for you to explore, each with a boss to defeat. You can choose from five characters, all taken from previous Castlevania titles with their disparate abilities intact; Symphony of the Night's Alucard can shapeshift, for example, while Aria of Sorrow's Soma Cruz can use the souls of defeated enemies.
It is extremely difficult. You will find yourself killed by the most basic monsters - those armoured knights and their spinning axes proved especially troublesome for me - and come unstuck through all manner of vicious and inevitably extremely pointy traps.
When you die, that's it, you're dumped back to the lobby. You only get one life and when your health is depleted, it's game over. However, your gear and gold persists. After death, you can visit the lobby shop and purchase and sell equipment.
The idea is each time you venture out into a world, you'll know a little bit more about what you need to do, the route you'll need to take, and the tactics you'll to adopt. And each time you make that attempt, you'll have slightly better gear with which to do it. With every death, your chances of success increase. You have, in very literal RPG terms, gained experience.
(Aside: A clever point of difference from Demons's Souls is that your gear and gold persists across all five characters, too. So if you want to take a break from using Alucard and instead utilise Shanoa from Order of Ecclesia's grapple-like ability, then you can equip her with all the weapons and armour and other items you've previously gained.)
It also has an unusual take on online multiplayer. You can tackle each world co-operatively with up to five other players. I've yet to test out this mode, but I hear it does make things a little easier, even if the difficulty is apparently scaled with each new player.
Harmony of Despair's core concepts resemble Demon's Souls in many ways. It's not as successful, admittedly, at least to my mind. The sombre art direction of Atlus' game serves to heighten the sense of desperation and futility in much of what you do in Demon's Souls; its aesthetic complements and underlines its gameplay mechanics. Here, however, Castlevania's bright colours and lurid anime stylings clash with its punishing nature.
Some design decisions strike me as odd: you can see the entire map at all times - heck, you can even keep playing from the fully zoomed out view - so there's little sense that you're discovering the world. I miss the slow reveal of the Castlevania world map as you steadily explore its nooks and crannies. Here you immediately know where you need to go, but you still have to work out exactly how you're going to get there.
And in an effort to maintain a balance in multiplayer, your characters don't level up as they do in other Castlevanias. Instead they are able to purchase better gear which, in turn, offers incremental stat boosts. An experienced character will be noticeably better than a novice, but the gap between is not as great as it could have been.
I'm enjoying what I've played of Harmony of Despair thus far. Once I'd adjusted my mindset from hoping for Symphony of the Night 2 to embracing Demon's Souls 2D, I found myself enjoying it even more.