RELEASED: August 25, 2005
AVAILABLE ON: DS
The last system on the list is none other than the best-selling handheld game console of all time - and one I've often criticized - the Nintendo DS, which was launched as a successor to the Game Boy Advance in November 2004. What I never liked about this thing was the touchscreen technology. I cursed at game developers for making so many good new games and remakes exclusively for the DS - I just couldn't imagine myself playing on a DS, let alone buying the thing. I thought having two screens, complete with the stylus, was distracting and too technical, and playing anything would feel as awesome like poking a Game & Watch with a toothpick. Well, as it happens, I became more receptive towards touchscreen technology late last year, upon getting myself a smartphone. I'm not kidding, that's exactly when I really started digging through the DS libraries (and probably stopped telling well-placed DS jokes) and eventually found some potentially fantastic games that could no longer be avoided - I think the DS will be a strong addition here. To prove it, I first dug up Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, the critically acclaimed sequel to the equally acclaimed Game Boy Advance title Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, which I have often named one of my favourite Castlevania games, perhaps second only to Super Castlevania IV. It pretty much sports the same short flaws as its predecessor, complete with a few more relating to the use of the stylus, but it also retains everything that was great about Aria of Sorrow. Though it doesn't really present itself as a credible next-gen game compared to its predecessor, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow is another very good game.
Return of the not-so-Dark Lord
It's the year 2036. A year has passed since student Soma Cruz escaped Dracula's castle with the knowledge that he is the reincarnation of the prince of darkness, and is living peacefully, believing that his dark powers have been lost and he is no longer threatened to be taken over by them. A Dracula-worshipping cult led by a woman named Celia Fortner is not so content with Soma's decision to live out his days in peace and seeks him out to assassinate him, so his powers would be granted to another host. Agent Arikado advises Soma to not pursue Celia, due to the risk of his dark powers emerging. Stubborn as he is, Soma travels to the cult's base, which is non-surprisingly built to resemble Dracula's castle, and comes face to face with Celia, as well as a couple of hopeful candidates to inherit the dark lord's mantle.
|The "evil mastermind" from Frankenstein: The|
Monster Returns... well, returns.
Now that we got THAT out of the way, let us reminisce on how great Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow was from every other angle. Seriously no less than the second-best game in the franchise, if you ask me, and the best "Metroidvania" game of 'em all. Everything that was great about Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (the first, classic Metroidvania), and that game's Game Boy Advance successors Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (non-canon) and Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance, was carefully noted when they made this game called Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow. I don't remember what originally drove me to that game, in fact I can't even imagine what it was, 'cause I wasn't much of a Castlevania fan back then - I'd had more bad experiences with the series than good ones. I had always loved the music in the early games, but that was pretty much the limit of my love towards Castlevania. I hated the games that were coming out on major platforms back then, since they were such blatant copies of Devil May Cry, and they didn't have even the slightest magic left. In other words, the music sucked. Whatever it was that prompted me to try this game, Aria of Sorrow blew my mind in five minutes. I might as well give credit to that game for making me a Castlevania fan, finally. The stupid plot didn't really matter, 'cause whenever the dialogue (finally) ended, the next tens of minutes were about bashing monsters, stealing their powers and using them against other monsters and/or to get ahead in the Metroidvania style, all to some great music and level design straight out of Symphony of the Night. I'm glad to state that everything I said just now, could just as easily be said about Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow. Glad, still a bit disappointed of course since all that I just said was not all good. And, Dawn of Sorrow does bring a few more sorrows to sulk upon.
The graphics and sound are where Dawn of Sorrow hits the first snag. This has nothing to do with how even more Japanese it looks like than the previous game... although it does, and it's distracting 'cause it's based on the original continuity of the series, and I once again grew up with caucasian Castlevania, in illustrations of which at least the American and European characters didn't look Japanese. Whew - I think that's it. The problem with the graphics is that I constantly find myself searching for any visual reasons this game could not have been accomplished on the Game Boy Advance. I mean, there's a certain gameplay element that requires a DS base, but in the beginning, there's really no concrete visual proof that you're playing a next-gen sequel to Aria of Sorrow. Well, then come the huge bosses with their flowing movement, but let's say that about 70% of the game looks like a bit more detailed Aria of Sorrow. The level design is very good, and for the first time, I can comment on how they managed two screens. The upper display either shows Soma's stats developing in real time, or you can set it to show the map in real time with just one press of a button - which I always do, this is seriously my favourite development in this game since I've always hated menu toggling, particularly in Metroidvania games. It's a bit distracting and making out doors from that small display is extremely hard on the eyes, but it's a fantastic development that allows smooth progression through another copy of Dracula's castle (how every bad guy besides Dracula has the ambition and resources to quickly build one for each game is beyond me).
|That fist's coming down, and it's coming down|
In case you missed Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, my first advice is to correct that outright mistake - but, if you insist on continuing to miss it, here are the deets. You play as Soma Cruz, a teenage student who runs around killing monsters just like the Belmont and Belnades families, Nathan Graves and Alucard before him, but unlike his fellow Castlevania protagonists, he has the power of consuming the monsters' souls, which allows him to copy their abilities for combat or navigation. For example, killing a set amount of skeletons allows him to throw bones, and killing a flying boss might grant him the ability to glide - or as the game puts it, slow down his fall by having the spirit of the boss "carry" him. This feature was one of the main draws of Aria of Sorrow, the one that set it apart from each Castlevania game that preceded it, and it's gloriously duplicated here, even though some of the abilities are just as completely useless and even ridiculous as the enemies you stole them from. However, in Dawn of Sorrow, you can trade any excess abilities for weapon upgrades. Some abilities which have no use to you per se, can turn out really powerful in the weapon upgrade department; this is one of the best new things about this sequel.
You can assign four different abilities at the same time thanks to the increased amount of buttons (and a little later, you can assign two different ability sets to be switched at the press of a button); Bullet, Guardian, Enchant and Ability, one for each category. "Bullet" essentially means "secondary weapon", powerful projectiles to compensate for the short range of Soma's light weaponry and the low speed of his heavy one. The passive, supportive "Guardian" abilities usually accommodate Bullets or work as tools for navigation - Flying Armor with the glide ability is one of these. "Enchant" usually offers you a real-time perk, such as an increase in basic strength. "Ability" - you gain these as you progress in the story; just like in Aria, these sooner or later allow you to swim, do a double jump and even manipulate the environment with the DS stylus. Yeah, they had to throw that in somewhere... besides its main purpose.
The stylus and touchscreen are most used to (re)create Magic Seals, and if may be frank, if this feature's the reason why this game was made for the DS instead of the Advance, my respect for the developers just got a little spike. You absolutely need Magic Seals for most bosses. You can bash them to your heart's content, but they just won't die, not until you've used a Magic Seal at a scripted moment to "seal and capture" their powers - probably, since I really didn't pay attention to the dialogue. A Magic Seal is any type of simple figure composed of straight lines, such as a pentagram, to come up with an advanced example. When you gain one, you need to pay attention to the direction and order of the lines as they are drawn on the screen. When you open a door to a boss room, it's shown again, but when you have the window to use it on a boss, you need to have it memorized and be extremely quick to draw it on the touchscreen. I would've said "with the stylus", but that's almost impossible, the time window's so small that you need to try your luck with your finger, which the touchscreen is really stingy to register. Fingernails work fine, but 1. I have really short ones, and 2. I really can't recommend prolonged use of fingernails on the screen. Yeah, these Seals are a nice enough idea to support the DS' cause, but once again, was it necessary to make this game for the DS if there's really nothing fundamental to break into the new generation with? Oh wait, there's the map on the second screen - now that WAS a good idea.
|That's what going to church every Sunday|
will eventually do to you.
As always, conquering the whole map is a huge journey to undertake, and it comes with the usual ups and downs. The ups are obvious - it's Metroidvania, as it's taken form since Symphony of the Night. You don't need to make huge overhauls to make that work every single time. In fact, just designing a new set of levels and simply working on some bigger problems of the past is sometimes enough. The downside that still bothers me after all this time is how the game registers a small corner of the room fully explored once you take one step within its invisible borders; there might be a powerful item you aren't able to collect without some further upgrade, and when you finally gain that upgrade, you won't necessarily remember to travel back to get the item since the corner's marked explored on the map. Even back in 1994, Super Metroid mostly fixed this problem by having HUGE rooms - you couldn't even reach the borders of those small corners without a serious jump/speed upgrade.
Just like its RPG-like predecessors, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow is pretty much as challenging as you want it to be. You have so many choices. With the aid of the real time stats, you can easily spot rooms that are good grinding grounds, and keep running back and forth between them to get to high levels quickly. You can easily stock up at Hammer's nearly any time you wish. Or, you can do it all the hard way and just keep pushing forward, looking back as rarely as it's possible with your current set of upgrades, and make do with the items and equipment found on the field. It's Castlevania, so I usually play it safe; since the first games, I've found myself dealing with bosses as recklessly as the game allows me to. These Metroidvania games have health items to allow me to often wipe my ass with strategy. You can be strategic if you want, but in the case of this particular game, I find it kinda pointless since you aren't able to really kill the bosses dead without those damn Magic Seals.
Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow is a very good game, and a good sequel to its frankly groundbreaking predecessor, but it's even less of a superficially satisfying Castlevania experience, and secondly it isn't a very justified DS game. I think they could've just as easily removed those touchscreen features and toned down the bosses by just a little bit, and they would've ended up with another awesome Game Boy Advance game; of course, then they would've been accused of self-repetition and/or being stuck in the past. What can I say, being a developer is never easy or a straightforward deal.
+ It's classic Metroidvania, and retains most of the elements that made Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow the best game of its kind - the most notable of which is feasting on those souls
+ Comfortable, smooth navigation thanks to the option to use the whole map in real time, and the decreased need for backtracking
+ You can acquire powerful weapon upgrades with excess abilities, neat!
- The story's taken a turn for the slightly better, but the cast of characters is still a waste
- The music's a bit disappointing; this IS Castlevania, am I right?
- The stylus features feel planted in, and altogether the game doesn't really feel like it's that much advanced from its predecessor, technically or practically
< 8.4 >