There's no question about it: When we look at a series whose console escapades are as bountiful as they are legendary, we come to realize that, in the modern climate, "Castlevania" has instead staked a reputation as a handheld mainstay, plying its trade on a perceived lesser form of technology while succeeding in breaking the mold and for its contributions becoming synonymous with the very market it now helps to redefine. Thus, it's after the release of three GBA titles that its fervent path has invariably led the series to the Nintendo DS, whose reputation has yet to be fully forged.
It's on handheld systems, truly, where Konami's developers have been allowed to continue a series whose very precepts are most strongly based in a world of two dimensions, and, therein, they've done well to maintain its credibility and mystique while not giving in to the technology-obsessed crowd that clamors for the wrong type of change. However, when we of sound mind complain about the series' misguided forays into the world of 3D, it doesn't--or shouldn't--say to them that they have carte blanche to forever recycle the same working formulas without ever improving upon them; looking at the recent evolution, over the course of the last five years, it can't be denied the developers' efforts have since become stagnant.
It's just their luck that arisen is a new opportunity--provided to them is a handheld device that has featured (a) power greater than or at least equal to the original PlayStation, where exhibited was their best work, and (b) unique functionality that can be used to somehow enhance the experience while perhaps establishing for their series one or more new tenets. So it begs an important question: Did Konami seize this opportunity, or did it provide to the consumer absolutely more of the same? Well, let's take a look.
Accepting the challenge are Koji Igarashi and his Dracula X team (the division KCET, incidentally, is no more because Konami recently consolidated its resources into one development house). The talented group brings to you Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, which is the direct sequel to 2003's critically-acclaimed Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow for the GBA. There are no surprises as to its genre: Dawn of Sorrow is another in the line of adventure-RPGs, and, for the best definition, it builds further on the foundation laid down two years earlier in Aria. It's in Dawn of Sorrow where you'll guide Soma Cruz through a twelve-section castle, where within each section will be traversed and conquered the "rooms" comprised of randomly paired enemies, challenging platforming scenarios, deadly tricks and traps, some considerable puzzles, and inconvenient combinations of the aforementioned. Soma will naturally have to attain new means of accessibility if he hopes to fully explore the castle; he'll garner such abilities by locating the most immediately accessible boss and by defeating it earn a necessary soul power, which will surely open up a whole new path.
Aria's most curious precedent was its future time-placement, which asked us to envision a world where Count Dracula was no more and a new "Dark Lord" was for some desperately needed. Dawn of Sorrow, especially, documents Soma Cruz' continued plight. One day, while walking the streets of his home town with by his side trusted friend Mina Hakuba, Soma is accosted by Celia Fortner, a powerful shadow priestess who has founded a mysterious cult whose mission is to bring about the return of the Dark Lord. By playing upon his fears, Celia and her cult--represented most popularly by the fiery Dario Bossi and the posh Dmitrii Binov, both Dark Lord candidates--hope to slowly arouse Soma's anger and antagonize him to the point where he gives in and unleashes the Dark Lord powers that lay sleeping within his soul. In reaction to their games, Soma must infiltrate the cult's hideout, against the wish of his allies who think his involvement to be too dangerous, and through the following encounters eventually decide his most desired life path. The story is sometimes difficult to follow due to some premises that aren't fully explained or easily understood (like Dmitrii's reversing the flow of Arikado's dark power, or how a simple talisman can halt the mightiest of transformations), but Dawn of Sorrow wants to tell an epic tale and for the most part does so.
Soma Cruz will take to the adventure in a most expected way: Starting out with only his fists, an ineffective knife, wimpy stats, and a largely useless backdash maneuver, Soma will have to at all times boost his potency by manipulating the ever-present RPG system. He'll do this by collecting, purchasing or magically fusing dozens of new weapons and armor types that cover for three separate bases while increasing or decreasing his stats in different increments; and by defeating more and more powerful enemies to gain experience and thus higher-level status, which on its own perennially improves stat-potential and his meters' capacities. It's easy to miss that assigned to each striking weapon is an exaggerated special move (pulled off by pushing "A"), each draining Soma's magic meter according to its duration and relative impact.
Returning, too, is the celebrated "Tactical Souls" system. One of Aria of Sorrow's true joys was the system of soul-stealing that allowed Soma Cruz to compile over one hundred new powers in four separate categories. Dawn of Sorrow replicates this famed convention as it was; that is, Soma can by defeating minor enemies and bosses alike absorb their most prominent powers and utilize them as his own. Souls fit into, as mentioned, four categories: (1) Bullet Souls, which act as typical series' sub-weapons. (2) Guardian Souls, which summon special familiars or afford other means of protection. (3) Enchanted Souls, which affect Soma's attributes in unusual ways. And (4) Ability Souls, whose always-available powers supply Soma the mandatory special moves--the double jump, bat transformation, the super jump, etc.--and some unexpected. Soma can mix and match souls from the former three categories to form a trinity; these powers, also, can be leveled up, for increased effectiveness, if Soma is able to collect more than one of a given soul (a certain number from one to nine, considering its type). Regardless, your gravitation toward certain souls will most likely depend on their usability and their overall magic consumption.
Most interesting from the Ability Souls category is the "Doppelganger" ability, which allows Soma to have on standby an alternate weapon setup (three equippables plus three soul powers), which gives him two quick-fire options to switch between. If you'd like to have on-hand a swift-striking but weak spear to supplement your slow and unwieldy but powerful battle axe, go for it. If the skeletons' bone-tossing soul is too important to store away though you prefer the axe armor's axe-arcing, it's not a problem--just assign it to your alternate setup. It allows you to during battles improvise, and by not having to repeatedly access the inventory screen to find your favorite soul, it speeds up the game in general.
Provided through the Tactical Souls system is a wealth of offensive and defensive measures, and it does really well to draw you in to a part of the "Castlevania" universe that was always to the heroes taboo. Surely we all remember at one time or another being overwhelmed by the Grim Reaper and his rapidly-appearing sickle attack and having no real response to it; it's these very same memories that lift me into a euphoric state when I can years later turn the tables and unleash on a boss--like, say, Abaddon--the very same sickle attack. Is there a series foe of which you've become a fan (like a Spear Guard or Slogra)? Well, now you get to be the foe in question, at least in a sense. In comparison to Aria, Dawn of Sorrow's soul system is applied more to the adventure, itself, but there's still the disappointment that they didn't do even more with it. Sure--there are those blockades that can only be shattered by putting to use a soul in question, but it's not enough where I can imagine so much. The collection of the majority of souls is still unnecessary, as they won't count toward the game's completion, which I'd like to see changed if Tactical Souls is to return in a future title.
While the services of Hammer, the game's typical merchant, are predictably presented ("collect currency and buy the weapons as they become available"), it's in Yoko Belnades' magic shop where Soma can put to use the more interesting if slightly confusing "Soul Synthesis," a process in which he can release or sacrifice any extra souls and fuse them to collected weapons to magically craft even more destructive armament. The process is limited to predetermined combinations, which considering the pure amount of weapons and souls is for the best.
The cult's hideout is not surprisingly your run-of-the-mill series castle. The stage design entailed is what I'd call "compact." It's not that the games are getting smaller--it's that Konami has done a better job of allocating the selected castle areas so that crazy ideas, like Harmony's "transient castle," are ditched in favor of better pacing through the level-gaining procedure and the game's unfolding storyline. Though, there's again nothing spectacular about this design--it's purely zigzag platforming repeated to an almost dizzying level; this not only serves to slow the game down, quite purposely, and cause frustration when you want to get somewhere quickly--it will simply never be a suitable replacement to the many clever ideas we're not seeing as a result of its continued overuse. I ask again: Where are the twisting and turning rooms? The clever shortcuts and passages that like a nexus transform the castle into a fully functioning organism? The pure interaction? The puzzles (like the flint-old-style roomset manipulation, and the location of enemies like the Yeti) are a nice distraction, I admit, but much more is needed if the level design is to remain this tame. And, as I've mentioned, the soul system is hardly applied, which is particularly disappointing because it does make for some of the more fun excursions when they use it in a manner of goal-achieving. There's our major problem: We've seen all of this before.
But what about the DS? What do the DS' features do for Dawn of Sorrow? The answer is "not much." The handheld's best-used aspects are its namesake, the dual-screens. The game action is designated to the bottom screen, the one touch-sensitive, while the upper screen houses two separate displays--the castle map or an attribute listing--that you can switch between using the "Select" button. The first is useful because you'll never have to pause the game to look at the map, a convenience that is at times invaluable; the alternate display helps in that you'll have available up-to-the-minute information on your current experience and statistics while also present is a quickly prepared scouting report on the last enemy with which you made contact.
In-game touch sensitivity is used in four instances: (1) For the drawing of the post-boss-battle seals that forcibly end encounters. (2) For the scarcely used Balore soul, which allows you to rub at the touch screen and clear away icy obstructions. (3) As an alternate means of moving puzzle pieces. And (4) to quickly select a warp point. If the Balore soul is its most frequently used touch-based property and it's therein decidedly limited, this should tell you all you need to know as the extent of the handheld's inspiration. And yet most questionable is the implementation of the process of drawing seals, a connect-the-dots affair that over the course of the game gets more and more complicated. In order to put the lid on a boss fight, you must use the stylus to quickly sketch out a pattern and thereafter hope your penmanship was sufficient. If you fail to properly construct a seal, the boss fight will reconvene at about its three-quarter point, where the process will repeat. While the actual construction process is somewhat lenient, it's terribly inconvenient to after a grueling boss fight have to suddenly reach for the stylus--trying not bumble it--and quickly eke out a pattern you might have forgotten. This could have been used elsewhere, perhaps as spell-casting device, but here it's completely unnecessary.
Dawn of Sorrow's graphical style is a strange animal--it's a mix of the spectacular and the very ordinary. That is, sometimes the world looks vibrant, its multiple layers of scrolling backgrounds strongly detailing the surrounding landscape and drawing in to the unseen plane the player's imagination, and other times it looks flat and lifeless--more suited to what you'd expect to find in a GBA title. Once basking in the splendor of the parallax scrolling of the Lost Village, where the houses and trees come alive with rousing depth, you'll be a bit disappointed to enter into the castle heights only to find the same boring textures repeatedly stretched onto what should be the most ominous interior design. It's high expectation, really: We saw what they did with the PlayStation and Symphony of the Night, where their efforts in bringing to life a 2D world were breathtaking and filled to the brim with ambition; it never looked flat, even in areas like the Outer Wall, where a single texture reigned. That's not the case here. Still, you should consider these thoughts rudimentary, because Dawn of Sorrow is truly the best-looking 2D entry since Symphony of the Night--not to its level but superior to the rest in what it does within the limits of 2D with 3D-effect enhancement.
The character design breeds the same mix. The heroes and enemies are well-detailed, and theirs is smooth-looking, fluid animation that has them seemingly glide through open space; returning, also, is the shadowy transparency effect that trails Soma Cruz and highlights his every movement. The characters' attacks, projectile onslaughts, and death sequences are creative, with vivid explosions, colorful bursts (like the Killer Clown's demise) and fiery banishment. I suppose that this is to be expected, since Dawn of Sorrow again recycles foes, pixel-perfectly, from Symphony of the Night and its prequel; therein, one can't help but notice a certain sharpness to the Symphony enemies compared to those unique; Dawn of Sorrow's exclusive selection--like the Manticore, the Creature, and the Slaughterer--doesn't seem to be in its league, which is likely to create a certain lack of equilibrium to those who recognize foes from the former group (it's like when you try to combine action figures from one company with those made by another). Even Soma Cruz' animation is recycled, his movements ripped directly from the earlier Alucard--only Soma's sprite design is equally middling, which all but confirms a missing creative force. That or, perhaps, their ulterior focus was on the boss creatures, who considering their largest representatives are an awesome sight; it's here where the team best uses 3D effects to empower the huge cretins with crawling, scaly skin and a frightening amount of pulsation.
Dawn of Sorrow scores a clear knockout in the area of sound. Composed, again, is the series' best soundtrack since the over-mentioned Symphony of the Night. Michiru Yamane hits you with what she does best: She supplies a lot of new tunes, sprinkles in some older favorites, and tops it off with spine-tingling remixes of even melodies long since forgotten; from the latter categories comes my favorite--the very welcome Underground Melodies, which is a Haunted Castle standout as was Aria's Heart of Fire. They recognize the past and utilize it: I hear in the music, also, some subtly-sewn-in strands of Dracula's Curse, Bloodlines, Chronicles and even Castlevania 64. And the tunes are all well-matched and tailored perfectly to the separate castle areas. I remember most prominently the energetic Pitch Black Intrusion, the Lost Village theme that at the very start emboldens the player as did Symphony's Dracula's Castle in its bid to start the adventure off with a bang; its sheer power is certainly matched. I speak of the soundtrack so fondly because its many pieces continued to afterward play in my head for days (and they still do).
The use of sound effects is equally impressive: Everything tangible manages to make some sort of sound, from jumping and falling; to the swinging of weapons and the tossing of projectiles; to the painfully violent deaths suffered by the game's characters. Halls literally shake as monstrosities like Treant, Gergoth and the Iron Golem stomp their way through them. Voice samples further define the characters, and though not applied to all cast members, such oration works to provide to scenarios a sense of progress or consequence. Some corners were cut in that the main characters retain their Japanese-version voices, but this hardly dampens the experience.
Dawn of Sorrow's control scheme is very serviceable. The action moves quickly, the characters precisely, and the button reaction is responsive; some weapons are purposely made to handle more stiffly and with a bit of a stall, but this is by design--a natural quirk negotiated by your very decision to equip them. It may take time to get used to the setup, considering the DS' smaller buttons and the manner of holding the device, which can cut off your use of the "L" button (the backdash, which is hardly useful anyway), but the controls are handled so finely and everything's mapped out so appropriately that they're second nature. Our biggest concern is the wielding of the stylus, which is primarily used for constructing the seals that end boss battles; while the screen-detection is as accurate as possible, it takes a firm hand to consistently pull off well the sketching process. Repeated success or lack thereof is more dependent on the user. Otherwise, the clearing away of ice blockades and the manipulation of puzzle pieces are more convenient methods of using the touch control if not very imaginative.
It took them a couple of tries, but the developers finally found a way to implement an RPG system that governs a game's every aspect while not sacrificing any semblance of a challenge-level. Dawn of Sorrow is consistently challenging throughout, and no boss battle is ever a breeze. There's a sort-of Mega Man element to boss battles, whereby a certain soul will aid greatly in the defeat of an at-first more-than-formidable boss creature, but this hardly guarantees success. Even if by game's end you manage to reach beyond, say, Level 55, you'll hardly be positioned as the nemesis that past heroes could become--even some minor enemies (like skelerangs) from earlier-traveled areas will still put up a struggle. In response, if you want to limit the frustration, you will have to put in the time to gain levels by repeatedly assaulting the same minor enemies again and again, which could become time-consuming and thus boring. You don't have to gain levels if you don't want to, but you'll regret not putting in the time. You could get by solely through the purchasing of healing items, but they're rather expensive, which, in examining their provision in earlier games, is a good way for the developers to control and thus limit their overuse.
In what's becoming a series' trademark, Koji's crew supplies to the wonting audience a whole gaggle of extras earned through clearing the game. You have the now-standard "Boss Rush" mode, a rooms-long romp where you battle in succession all of the game's bosses (or most of them). There's the "Enemy Set" mode, in which using the game's assortment of minor enemies you can set up a five-room gauntlet and challenge other players to clear it--either by use of your system or by wirelessly uploading your gauntlet to a friend's DS. There's the always popular "Sound Mode," where you can listen to the game's music. And by again using the DS' local wireless (not Wi-Fi) connection, you can trade with your friends enemy souls if you've been unsuccessful in collecting them.
Most interesting is the game's primary extra: "Julius Mode," where you take control of Julius Belmont and, as you've done with past secret characters, run through the castle for an unrelated mission; however, this mode is particularly exciting because it's not a one-man crusade. It's in "Julius Mode" where you'll over the adventure's course meet with both Yoko Belnades and Alucard (known until then as Genya Arikado), who both become playable characters via the ally system made famous in Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse. By utilizing the strengths of each character, you can progress through this equally difficult fantasy mission (an unseen leveling system balancing it) and discover the surprise that awaits at its end. All told, the characters are fun to use, their quirks satisfyingly derivative of past games, and it's fully worthwhile to give the mode a run-through. It's good, too, to once again see Alucard as he appeared in Symphony of the Night.
Dawn of Sorrow is tough to figure. It's clear from the very early stages that the developers played it safe and in many respects mailed it in. It's as if Dawn of Sorrow is hardly its own game--it's more a collection of the separate parts of several earlier titles. The DS' features were used sparingly, no fundamental changes were made, and the functionally applied feels almost distant to the action, as if it's an unwelcome guest. It's surely a great game, high class in its presentation and rock solid as a handheld product, but I can't even say, considering the luxury of more powerful hardware, that it's appreciably better than even Aria of Sorrow.
Upon playing the wonderful "Julius Mode," I was met with a great sadness. It was obvious to me that the answer was right there. The adventure-RPG genre, as I explained in Aria's review, was a well run dry, and the continuing adventures of Soma Cruz prove it; however, the adventures of Julius Belmont prove that there is a way to give new life to the genre if they're willing to see the potential in "Julius Mode"'s simplistic yet efficient RPG system, therein a controlled arsenal, and a very underappreciated ally system. Igarashi obviously loves Dracula's Curse enough to recognize its contributions, so why not give another shot to something that worked so brilliantly the first time? Bring this back, I say, and make it the complete focus of the next game. Oh, and the Tactical Souls system can come, too.
It's tough, after a while, to pretend that I'm not over and over again playing iterations of the exact same game, and Dawn of Sorrow doesn't do much to buck the trend. However, Dawn of Sorrow does a lot of things really well, and there's enough here to where it stands up defiantly to the rest of the DS' library; it is, so far, one of its standouts. I again reiterate that I can't call it superior to games of its ilk, but the amount of extras, especially the enjoyable "Julius Mode," push it to where Dawn of Sorrow shows hints that its creators are very slowly starting to get it. For your money, you'll get about eight-ten hours of gameplay plus hours more if of the extras you take advantage. It all amounts to four and a half Medusa Heads.