Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow
Dawn of Lost Opportunities
The following review was SPK's first formal, full-length game analysis, which he submitted to Mr. P of Mr. P's Castlevania Realm the Summer of '07 during which the ethereal fairies took material form and danced gaily in a swirl of effervescent light that brought peace, love, and extended contraction of the pupils to the entirety of the universe, as it does every other millennium. (No, really. You'd know this if you'd been there.)
It's amazing how much little (well, BIG, now) SPK has grown. See, back then he was making use of such vocabulary as "Action RPG," focusing on such qualities as "originality," and rising up to the occasion of discovering all he could be. Now, he's using diction like "Metroidvania," placing value on "innovation," and defending the honor of comic industry legends Many Hands and Tucker T.J., 9, (only the best Casper comics fan artist evah!) on hyper-prestigious forums like "Pocket Lint Collectors' Society of Arizona - General Chat". Brings a tear to your eye, don't it?
When the Nintendo DS was launched, a great era in video game history began. Some competition from the PSP was involved, but not enough to scar Nintendo. Why is it the Nintendo DS is such a great system? The answer lies in the name. "Dual Screen" is what it technically stands for, but reviewers and Nintendo themselves like to dub it "Developers System." Honestly, with this system there’s nothing holding the developers back. In fact, the double screens - one being touch-interactive - are pushing them forward. Pushing them to be original.
Again we have Koji Igarashi on board, with the Dracula X team at his side. These developers have made classics, so the extra capabilities of the system should be taken due advantage of. This just might be able to break the constant fit of Action RPG’s they’ve been pulling out with little change. The new features have so much potential to make a fully interactive Castlevania experience. Fans could possibly reach out and attack enemies straight-on, watching blood splurt out from their very styluses. Maybe the castle corridors can be split up between screens, our favorite Belmont hopping up and down as he jumps from platform to platform. Then again, maybe we will be given the exact same game we’ve been playing for years and years.
The Castlevania series has always had its faults when it came to becoming a Belmont. With the early games, however, the slow and sluggish controls fit the levels. Their tight level designing requires making as much out of them as humanly possible. When exploration becomes a key factor, however, giving a hand is only courteous. Koji Igarashi was a true gentleman up through Harmony of Dissonance. Soma Cruz moved closer to his primordial counterparts in Aria of Sorrow, but now he and his three pursuers - Alucard, Julius, and Yoko - are everything their makers intended them to be. Unfortunately, the characters are naturally slow. They trot leisurely amidst the torrents of monsters trying to decapitate them, just going at their own pace and taking their time. Humph! Teenagers. Their slides are also incredibly ineffective; they might as well be crawling. Simon Belmont kneel-walked faster in Super Castlevania IV. The high jumps aren’t knock-out themselves. Sure, they’re quick, but Soma probably goes a third as high as Nathan Graves from Circle of the Moon. Not that this game has as much open space as that particular Gameboy Advanced title, which is disappointing for a game with exploration as one of its primary components. The engine used in this game is obviously capable of faster movement, as backgrounds zoom across the scene when the Black Panther soul is equipped. That enemy really shouldn’t have made his debut on the very last stage, since Soma’s pace isn’t on key with the general gamer’s. The controls are easily executed, it’s just that the developers purposefully injected the characters with Instant Christopher Belmont ®.
The major flaw of this game in general is that it is no different than all the other Action RPG’s we’ve been playing since 1997. We go into a castle, progress through the accessible areas and train here and there, and defeat master enemies to work our way up - or down, or left, or right. We explore the terrain and find secret areas, encountering the occasional puzzle or two. We also collect magical items, encovering the wonders of an all-new system. This is usually what can save the game, but this game falls short. It instead recycles Aria of Sorrow’s Tactical Souls system, a fun yet used extra that hasn’t seen much change beyond the incorporation of some new monsters. The good news is that the small areas have been tidied-up, leaving cars bouncy and characters with frosty breath, enemy projectiles taking a life of their own and random objects having actual functions - whether it be to sit on a chair or destroy a crate. What do the Nintendo DS’s capabilities do, though? Diddly-squat. The extra screen is used for the pause screen and map, which wouldn’t be so bad if the touch screen was incorporated a little better. Instead we get to do three things: Destroy blocks, command familiars, and execute spells. These things can be fun, but since they’re the only touch-oriented things involved it can be quite annoying to have to pull out your stylus just to take advantage of them. The subtleties are fun, but they don’t make up for the big picture’s lacking.
The accompanying score by Michiru Oshima is a winning piece, boosted by the Nintendo DS’s superior sound quality. The tunes, as usual, mix old reworkings and new offerings, but now the orchestration has nothing holding it back. This helps you notice the musical quality. In fact, this score really deviates from that beloved and hated thing called "popular music." Oshima’s scores always have a genuine mastery, of course, but even her older music had a hint of that story telling style of music. This one, like the game, relies more on subtle beauty. This works, too, because the music is free to have whatever effect it needs to in order to fit the current situation. The game tells its own story, after all, and has its own sounds to cover that area. Those sounds aren’t lacking, either. This is quite possibly the best array yet seen in a Castlevania game. It may not have as striking sounds as Symphony of the Night - which can be good or bad, really - but there’s a fitting effect for even the areas that don’t need it. The Japanese voice overs are cool, even though the international gamers won’t catch most of it. Even the international gamers can tell who’s speaking based on the voice, though. The different monsters have different roars, as usual, but their different projectiles and motions - such as galloping and wing-flapping - are also duly covered. Using different weapons the same way over and over - by throwing them over Soma’s shoulder - can get boring, but each sword and axe and spear has a unique execution as far as the ears can tell. Sounds are a rare treat in this game, and the inclusion of the Sound Test mode is welcome as always.
The gameplay’s formulaic, the sound’s an interesting approach for Michiru Oshima, but the appearance lies on both ends as far as quality is concerned. Whether or not each character plays well, the sprites flow smoothly and fluidly. Like the Tactical Souls system, however, some borrowing was involved. The Soma sprite seems to have used Alucard’s from Symphony of the Night as a skeleton. Further, the other characters borrow qualities from it, giving them the look of whittled-down Alucards. They sure don’t dish out their own personality. Did I mention Alucard’s sprite is present? Yep, the exact same one from Symphony of the Night. The developers also made slick use of some of the exact same enemy sprites as Symphony of the Night and other popular Castlevania video games! The new sprites are kind of dull and undetailed, but who cares about originality? ...Anyway, the natural areas - such as the wintry Lost Village - have stony, highly dimensional walls and flooring, with scenic and distant-looking backgrounding. Of course, the interior areas don’t have that trademark grime and grump that we’re used to as Castlecvania fans. What can I say? It must be a newer castle. While we’re at it, let’s blame the architect for giving us an unimaginative castle! ...The graphics are gorgeous when they want to be, and then you run into Slogra and Gaibon twenty times in the same area.
So we are once again handed the famous Boss Rush mode. It’s nice to have this urgent heart-stopper, which made its debut in 2002 and has since become a standard in Castlevania games. It puts you in a parallel castle - repetitive designing, sure, but complementary for what’s needed. You walk around a bit, all the while ignoring the ominous timer on the top of the screen. You enter the next room and - bam! - you are face-to-face with enemy that looks strangely similar to the first boss of the main game. A minor annoyance; you slash it and go your merry way. Another room - just like the last one, but now the obstruction is the slightly more annoying second boss. It is at this point that you realize you’re in Boss Rush mode, and the only way out is to knock-off all the successive master enemies of the game one by one. You’ve only been given a small assortment of items - one that looks a little shady, but might be useful - although making it through in a minimal amount of time just might be worth the challenge. Anything else? There’s a new feature, the Enemy Set mode. You are given a standard fighting area, a castle about as parallel as the one in Boss Rush mode. But this time YOU decide what enemies YOU want to fight based on what souls YOU collected throughout the course of the game. Did I mention? YOU. There’s only a set area, but it’s a dang fun extra nonetheless. That’s not all. After years and years of writing hate mail, threat mail, and blackmail mail, we’ve finally won ourselves a 2-player Castlevania video game. It may be racing, but at least it’s not some useless Soul Trade mode or anything. Basically, two friends can go through a challenge course and handle the enemies while trying to beat each other’s time. If you’re mad because your friend got through the course more than twice as fast as you did and now he won’t stop bragging about it to everyone, you can always challenge him to one of your very own Enemy Set mode concoctions. Wi-Fi Castlevania isn’t far off.
As if those things weren’t enough, there’s a much improved secret player mode. Ever since Richter became a side character in 1997, we’ve been receiving in each game a whole other mode where we explore the ARPG castle from a different perspective. Since then we’ve played as Maxim and Julius, but something was missing. No, it wasn’t just Hugh Baldwin. There really wasn’t any background to the whole deal, no reason for Maxim and Julius to be in that castle in the first place. Thus, not quite so much interest. Maxim may never be saved; neither may Harmony of Dissonance. Though Julius has taken refuge in an alternate universe, one where Soma Cruz has succumbed to the evil inside him and the only Belmont must fulfill his promise and kill the Dracula reincarnate. Not only is there more intrigue to this mode, but it pays homage to Koji Igarashi’s favorite Castlevania game - as well as that of many others - Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. One of the great things about that game was that the player could pick up an ally and use them for their own selfish purposes. The three allies were Alucard, Sypha Belnades, and Grant Danasty. Although there’s no Grant in this mode, we acquire Alucard and Sypha’s descendant, Yoko Belnades. Not only that, but they are both accessible at any given time, whereas the allies in Dracula’s Curse could only be used one at a time. Truth be told, Dawn of Sorrow’s extras more than make up for any of the main game’s faults.
Some people might enjoy a game that does everything that’s been done before, but is just smoother around the edges. But that kind of thought process doesn’t do justice to Castlevania’s legacy. Koji Igarashi had yet another chance to make a Symphony of the Night: A classic. Instead he made another Symphony of the Night: An Action RPG. Nice subtleties and fun extras don’t make classics. Originality makes classics.