By the time Harmony of Dissonance was released for the Game Boy Advance, it was clear that Konami had fallen in love with Nintendo's newest popular handheld system, no doubt in deference to its huge userbase. Harmony's director, Koji Igarashi, and his famed Dracula X team were thus so sure of its success that they had actually begun development on a direct sequel at the exact same time. The tailgating sequel, which they bring to you only months after Harmony's release, is Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, the third series title available for the GBA. One who examines this process with any amount of retrospect would probably find it strange that KCET would take this approach to game-production, almost as if it knew that Harmony would be plagued by shortcomings that it could immediately remedy with a newer installment.

So what seems like a title rushed to market, you sense, is actually the game more representative of their true vision for Castlevania on portables. In truth, the two previous GBA titles, Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance, both celebrated successes but came up short of being outstanding due to certain miscalculations. Aria of Sorrow is intentionally positioned to be the solution, the capper whose mission is to cover for their deficiencies and finally deliver a more balanced game. From this, it should be obvious to you that KCET again deviates very little from the formulas that have become its staple--you've seen this type of game before, and you know, at the most basic level, what you're going to get.

The good news is, though, that KCET has come up with a few creative ways to stretch these formulas to their bounds and cover for what is a now-standard style of gameplay. Mainly, the lure of Aria of Sorrow, as focused upon in the advertising, is that it's the first game of the multiple-title series to be based in future times--in the year 2035, to be exact. What could be interpreted as a gimmick, in fact, turns out to be one of Aria's greatest strengths, because the interesting precedent of "Castlevania in the future" forces the team to be creative, to find the right compromise between story and gameplay; the result is the elevation of both. A traditionalist might view the time-placement as a risk, wherein the game's solidly based lineage ("strictly in the past") would find itself in jeopardy, but the futuristic premise is only a backdrop, an inviting canvas, to the action you've come to expect, and you wouldn't even know better if the instruction manual didn't inform you that "it's the year 2035." Aria of Sorrow is a standard adventure-RPG in theory, yes, but the title defiantly, continuously, nudges itself toward greatness in spite of its classification.

Aria of Sorrow again pits you inside Dracula's huge haunt for what is another in the line of exploration-based nonlinear adventures. You'll have to negotiate thirteen different castle sections by navigating through those "rooms" that are defined as the areas that comprise each section. You will within each room, of course, encounter randomly paired enemies, some puzzles, all types of twisted tricks and traps, and combinations thereof. While you're free to roam about the castle as you so please, you'll have to achieve certain goals if you hope to fully access the entire castle and thus complete your mission; that is, your immediate goal is to at all times find a castle section's most accessible boss, its ringleader of sorts, and defeat it to collect an item that is necessary to open up a new path to a new destination.

The story is an important element, because it envelopes the whole adventure: Soma Cruz, a high school exchange student studying abroad in Japan, and his childhood friend Mina Hakuba are anticipating the first solar eclipse of the 21st century. To get the best view of the event, they agree to climb to the top of the Hakuba Shrine. One abnormality leads to another and the two find themselves whimsically transported into Dracula's castle, which has somehow been magically sealed away within the eclipse. It's here where the two youths are greeted by a cast of cold, suspicious characters who seem to know what's going on but have no intention of letting our friends in on it. As such, Soma will be forced to delve into the castle in search of his own answers. The engaging storyline that follows, while sometimes abstract to the point of confusion, is the glue that holds together the entire game; the drama involving Soma's search to find his answers, as well as himself, is what gives this project the personality that truly sets it apart from the two previous titles.

The last real risk that Konami took with this franchise was positioning Alucard, and not a Belmont descendant, as the main hero, and the team repeats the now-acceptable practice by centering the series' universe around Soma Cruz, who is seemingly an ordinary young man. In keeping with the spirit of Symphony of the Night, Soma closely mimics Alucard in that his potential is dependent on the the armor and weapons with which you equip him during the adventure. Soma begins with only a knife and his fists, but he will collect hundreds of striking weapons, armor types and accessories to cover what are three separate bases. He doesn't command any traditional sub-weapons, but, as you'll soon discover, he won't really need them. Least critical to his success is his back dash move, a virtual throw-in, which he can use to quickly evade enemies and their attacks.

To truly power up Soma to his fullest, you'll have to exploit the game's RPG system; that is, you'll have to increase his attacking and defensive stats in four different areas: Strength, Constitution (his overall defense), Intelligence and Luck. You'll do this in two ways: (1) By equipping him with new gear, which affects individual stats in varying totals; gear can be found lying around, it can be dropped by enemies, or it can be bought from the game's merchant using collected currency. (2) By earning the experience points that allow him to gain the levels that permanently boost all stats at once. The length and endurance of Soma's health and self-restoring magic meter are also affected by this gaining of levels, and these can be maintained thereafter using the collected and stored health-replenishing items and those that nullify any negative status inflicted upon him.

Aria of Sorrow wouldn't be a true GBA entry without a "system," so KCET brings to you what is perhaps the most realized weapon system out of the three available titles: The "Tactical Souls" system. Soma is bereft of any typical sub-weapons, true, but he soon learns that he's gifted with a natural ability to absorb enemy souls; using this power, he'll be able to steal the souls of all one hundred and ten of the game's enemies and harness their essences as sub-weapons and other means of attack. In effect, through Soma, you'll finally get to feel what it's like to be one of Dracula's minions; you will in using the system assault the enemies by arching bones, by throwing bombs, by unleashing spinning discs, by firing lasers and fireballs, by lighting them on fire, and by simply pummeling them in all sorts of new ways. While some may interpret this as a rip-off of formulas made famous in Mega Man, they'd be better pressed to view at it as an evolution; the system is executed so brilliantly that I couldn't imagine a future Castlevania game without it. Does it edge out the depth of Circle of the Moon's card system? In a way, no--but it's certainly a lot more fun to use.

The system relies very heavily on your magic meter's capacity and is broken up into four categories: (1) Bullet Souls, which are the sub-weapons discussed in the previous paragraph. (2) Guardian Souls, which allow him to call upon helpers that either shield him in a certain manner or transform into destructive beasts. (3) Enchanted Souls, which manipulate his stats in ways armor and gear can't. And (4) Ability Souls, which replace relics in supplying the hero with the usual special moves--the slide, double jump, dash and super jump, which are needed if you hope to gain further castle accessibility. Any of those from the first three categories can be combined for form a trinity; the fourth exists on its own, the powers available therein utilized by pushing the "L" button under the right circumstances. The "Tactical Souls" system excels because it actually has real impact on the game, unlike some of the virtually meaningless systems found in past entries; here you'll have to earn and combine certain souls if you hope to finish the game for the best ending.

The castle and level design, though again nothing really special, is a bit more interesting because it, too, is made with Soma's soul-stealing ability in mind. You'll have to cleverly utilize certain soul powers if you want to reach new castle areas. Is that large pool of water preventing you from reaching an out-of-reach platform? Well, just equip a relic that allows you to walk on water and your problem's solved. Considering the aforementioned, it's too bad they didn't do a lot more like this; it's a disappointing observation when you consider that the king of clever world design, Super Metroid, is hanging out there, and they don't consider it deeply enough, to study closer its design properties and realize how much more alive it can feel if you make it so that the items, the castle sections, and the special moves are somehow relative. There's a feeling of missed opportunity, and I hope that they figure it out real soon if they insist on continuing to use this formula. It deserves more.

Aria of Sorrow is the best-looking of the three games. While it doesn't stray too far from what its predecessor was working toward, it hits you with so much more detail and so many little effects that amplify the castle's atmosphere, which was somewhat lacking from Harmony's overly bright presentation. Of the three, Aria's is the best representation of Dracula's lair. The sights, alone, make the generic design all the more tolerable: The backgrounds are well-textured, and they're exploding with activity, with with layers upon scrolling layers featuring ominous clouds, armies of bats that fly about the castle's upper and outer regions, fabulous reflective surfaces, foreboding skies, plenty of those daunting moonshots, and that overall artistic style that'll make you feel right at home.

While its characters are smaller than those from Harmony and not as brightly colored, they, too, just feel more alive, more detailed and more animated. The gritty tone of the artwork works hard to separate it and succeeds. And we find in Soma, finally, a hero whose on-screen appearance is actually attractive--a smooth-moving character who animates fluidly and thus doesn't need an overused transparency effect. The equally animated and impressive-looking enemies represent the superior enemy selection in comparison to the predecessors; while enemies like the Arachne and Catobeplas are familiar to us, their template is almost all new, and we witness some of the more interesting, unique and imaginative foes in the four-armed Durga, the Zombie Officers and the nervous Chronomage, a time-stopping, monicle-wearing rabbit. While Harmony has it beat in striking graphical displays--in terms of rotating and scaling sprites--Aria just gives you more of everything: More enemies, more sights, more unique areas, and more crazy visuals via the soul system (take note of the large swords, like the stone-embedded Excalibur, and the evil-looking guardian helpers). "Just more" is an apt description of the game in general.

Many complained about Harmony's soundtrack, which they found lacking, and even KCET admits to sacrificing some sound quality in order to accommodate the game's other ambitious elements (read: the "Spell Fusion" system). Aria doesn't share that same sense of diminished sound quality, and this should be trumpeted as quite the victory considering how large the game really is and how much music is required. The musical score is less grainy, the song composition better utilizes the system's sound channels to create more depth, and there's more of a flow as a result. The most classic example of this is Michiru Yamane's fast-moving Heart of Fire, the Julius Belmont battle theme that's a remix-combo of the final-stage theme of Haunted Castle and the stage-five theme from Castlevania. Her work is done justice and amounts to a much more memorable soundtrack. While I sustain that I don't find it to be quite on the level of Circle of the Moon's inspired soundtrack, what with its many powerful familiar and remixed tunes, you can definitely see (or "hear") what is an obviously earnest effort.

Where they really went the extra mile is in the creation and use of sound effects: All characters come assigned with their own trademark screeches, rattles, battle cries and fiery deaths. (It's most comparable to what you'll remember if you've played Dracula X: Rondo of Blood.) The sound effects do well their good job to supplying to the game an increased sense of liveliness, as though your actions matter. Though untranslated from Japanese, the main characters also exhibit their own voice samples, which are used to help to accentuate their actions and conversations.

The controls are never really a problem even though it feels like they've taken a bit of a hit. Things at times feel a little "stiff," almost as if Soma was intentionally designed to be sluggish. It's for this reason that Aria feels like a much slower game than Harmony (even though the secret character's speed certainly says otherwise, which signifies their intent). It doesn't really hamper the overall experience, because the slide and dash moves, which accounted for the speed, have really been de-emphasized anyway, but the drawback is that you may miss being able to blaze along at a rapid pace as you once did with Juste Belmont. The buttons are again mapped out well, with the "L" and "R" buttons controlling your Ability and Guardian souls (which eliminates the use of button combinations, no less) and "Up" plus "B" launching your Bullet-soul sub-weapons. You're supplied a smooth run-and-jump playing experience in spite of the slower pace.

Where Harmony also fell short was in its challenge-level or its lack thereof. Right from when your mission begins, you'll sense that in Aria of Sorrow you're playing a more difficult game. This is not to say that KCET has abandoned the philosophy that "anyone should be able to play and win," which defines its games; boss fights, for the most part, are still very much lacking, because present are a lot of those large cretins that seem to specialize in "just standing there." But because the game's assortment of minor enemies are more interesting and better conceived as obstacles, you won't be able to just breeze past large waves of them without taking a beating. Really, it's best described as a strange balance achieved through hits and misses: As usual, excessive amounts of health-replenishing items and save rooms are always readily available, so you'll never truly be in dire straits. On the other hand, you will have to gain levels if you hope to defeat even the least motivated bosses. Level-gaining, like in Harmony, is handled in the same convenient fashion; if you explore in in a thougtful manner, you'll naturally gain levels without having to confine yourself to an area and continuously battle the same minor enemies over and over again. Its not an easy game, but its challenge is indicative of modern titles in how you can level up to the point of virtual invincibility; there are certainly other game elements to consider (puzzles, later bosses, the secret mode, etc.), which will instead do their job in supplying the challenge.

KCET didn't forget about supplying its usual extras, and you'll by simply finishing the game begin reaping these rewards. Did you think that the game was too easy? Well, you can try it again on a "hard" difficulty level. Do you miss experiencing that "classic" Castlevania action? Well, just type in "Julius" as your name to play through the game as the speedy Belmont hero, complete with his own set of moves, the traditional Belmont sub-weapons, and the accompaniment of an exclusive theme (Heart of Fire). The "Boss Rush" mode returns, too, for those who want to test their mettle in a marathon battle against the game's ultimate evils, and you can take both of the heroes along for this ride.

Another nice little feature is Aria's "Soul Swap" connectivity function: Since collecting all of the enemy souls can be a daunting task, as it's heavily based on luck, you can use this Pokemon-like feature to link up multiple GBA systems and instead trade souls to your friends, or vice versa, to save yourself some work.

All told, Aria of Sorrow is a game that surpasses expectations on the power of its story, which keeps everything cohesive, and its interesting "Tactical Souls" weapon system. It's fortunate that these elements come together so well, too, because if you strip them away, Aria of Sorrow is simply a beefed-up Harmony of Dissonance, another in what's becoming a long line of Symphony of the Night clones. It succeeds in improving upon the previous games' shortcomings to an extent, absolutely, but Aria of Sorrow is held back from excellence because there are only so many cosmetic changes you can make to hide the fact that there's really not much new here.

Even in situating the game in the future, they managed to maintain equilibrium and not offend the diehard fan. And while that's not really a bad thing, and it leads to a more interesting storyline, I think it says a lot when they can attach what is a radical idea, "Dracula's castle in the future," and not it have change the direction of series' gameplay in any meaningful way. Sometimes you have to take chances or new risks even at the expense of popular opinion, and I don't see that happening as of yet. But as the theme continues: Aria of Sorrow still succeeds in spite of criticism, because its story and soul system supply much-needed breathing room. It worked this time, very well, but this formula has its limits, and I warn and advise KCET that it has at this point run the well dry. The GBA titles have done well to present to the consumer a nice three-game miniseries, but now it's just time to move on.

Even though I feel that Circle of the Moon is most cognizant of the series' strengths and thus the most memorable of the three, Aria of Sorrow holds up its end very well and is the most complete effort. If you value atmosphere, an abundance of fun-to-use weapons, and a killer story, Aria of Sorrow is for you. What you get is four and half Medusa Heads worth of greatness that's one visionary's leap away from excellence.

Fluid animation plus convincing spritework and textures afford a first-class presentation
This is the most complete of the three GBA titles, but the formula remains stagnant
The improved soundtrack, quality-wise, is paired with nice voice and sound samples
Compared to Harmony, controls are toned down in terms of speed but still very intuitive
Boss battles are still lacking, but it's more balanced in terms of overall structure
 

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