As far as sequels go, modern Castlevania games are some of the least adventurous: endlessly recycling the core ethos of 1997's iconic Symphony of the Night, right down to regurgitating the same art assets over and over again. It must put Konami in a right old pickle, as whenever it tries and branch out into something new – ill-advised 3D attempts, or the loathsome fighter Castlevania Judgement – its efforts are always significantly less successful than if it had just developed another entertaining rehash: Order of Ecclesia, for instance, was both derivative and excellent. Harmony of Despair is just the former.
It's all been upscaled to suit the 360's fancy high-definition potential, though, which means all those recognisable Castlevania sprites – hello, Mr Blue Knight! – have been made slightly crisper and smaller. You're also given control of the camera, allowing you three levels of zoom to cycle through: one so far out you can't see anything, one that gets a bit closer but is still too far out and one that you can actually play the game in.
While previous Castlevania games slowly unwound to create ornate expanses of territory, Harmony of Despair dumps you into singular snapshot scenes and has you team up with up to five other adventurers to take down gnarly bosses. You can pick from Aria/Dawn of Sorrow's Soma, Jonathan and Charlotte from Portrait of Ruin, Shanoa from Order of Ecclesia or Symphony of the Night's trusty old Alucard. Yes, it's a six-player game with only five characters. A silly oversight like that is indicative of the game as a whole: a good idea that's been poorly researched and clumsily executed. But it doesn't really matter, as everyone will just pick Alucard anyway.
Harmony of Despair winds the clock back to the series' pre-Symphony takes on Dracula-slaying escapades, forcing you through humongous but claustrophobic and linear corridors, with you winding your way around sprawling architecture and treading the beaten path to each boss' domain. Where you'll be promptly killed.
Opting to go solo can only be described as a gigantic mistake – and a waste of time – as the game is geared entirely around online play. No local co-op mode is provided, so it's a case of Xbox LIVE or the highway. Your combined offensive prowess is essential, as enemies – bosses especially – are humongous HP sponges, requiring colossal amounts of deft manoeuvring and solid attacking to take down, and many levels have prime shortcuts and treasure troves only accessible when working as part of a team.
There is absolutely no margin for error: like Demon's Souls, Harmony of Despair will decimate your HP bar if you put a step out of line. Your first run-in with each boss will likely end – very quickly – with a messy defeat, which is understandable, but so will your second, third and fifth attempts. Bosses take time to fully understand, and the latter two (mandatory appearances from Death and Dracula) are very tough indeed.