What We Already Know:
Castlevania: Harmony of Despair (HD... see what Konami did there?) is a new Dracula hunt exclusively for Xbox Live Arcade. It’s a bit of an odd duck, taking most of its assets and characters from the various "Metroidvania"-style games and putting them into a more arcade-like, time-trial multiplayer milieu. Strange, but it just might work.
What We're Seeing Now:
Nope, this isn’t your typical Metroidvania. For starters, each level has a time limit (10 minutes in the demo) and it’s Fission Mailed if you haven’t killed the boss before it’s elapsed. You might not even have enough time to explore everything before the clock goes critical - Symphony of the Night this is not.
The RPG elements are muted, too. Your character upgrades will come almost entirely from found or bought items: no experience levels here. You can’t even change your equipment at will, so choose wisely when you get the chance.
At least the heroes are comfortingly familiar. Alucard, Soma, Jonathan Morris, Shanoa and Charlotte are all in, and the final game will feature even more. I went with Shanoa and found she played much like in Order of Ecclesia. Her sword, elemental spells, slide, double-jump, and that magnetic glyph move were all accounted for.
The levels are sprawling, maze-like affairs, and some characters will have to navigate them differently based on their (lack of) abilities. You can click the right-stick to adjust zoom, zooming out until the entire map is visible. I noted the boss at the other end of the level and it noted me too, frequently firing its laser at me from afar. Be right there, fella.
The game’ll support up to six players online (four offline) so you need not go it alone. Enemies become tougher with each new player, though, so don’t think you’re in for a cakewalk. Hopefully you’ll find good folks to play with, as there’s little to prevent your cohorts from grabbing all the valuable items: The possibilities for griefing are epic.
Harmony of Despair is really novel. Those looking for standard Metroidvania may be disappointed but I enjoyed my jaunt through the demo. This is a more immediate, action-focused experience, and lord knows the series could use a little shaking up.