Submitted October 14th, 2012
by Lil' SPK

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?

The Review

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 thereís 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 RPGís theyíve 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 weíve 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 arenít knock-out themselves. Sure, theyíre 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 shouldnít have made his debut on the very last stage, since Somaís pace isnít on key with the general gamerís. The controls are easily executed, itís just that the developers purposefully injected the characters with Instant Christopher Belmont ģ.

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon isnít considered on par with Symphony of the Night, but one area Circle trumps the latter in - and Circleís Koji Igarashi follow-ups - is its true Castlevania-style platforming. The power that be gave us a smaller castle than the Nintendo DS could fit, but its pacing gives us more than our moneyís worth. Whereas in the other ARPG games - excluding Circle of the Moon - leveling up came accordingly and achieving level 99 wasnít at all necessary - and in Symphony and Harmony, almost discouraged - here potions are going to become your new frequent buddy. The boss battles sure are exciting, and even minor enemies can present a great challenge if youíre not careful. Youíll be able to make it through the game, though, and enjoy whatís there. This is the most well-balanced game in a while as far as difficulty goes.

The major flaw of this game in general is that it is no different than all the other Action RPGís weíve 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 Sorrowís Tactical Souls system, a fun yet used extra that hasnít 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 DSís capabilities do, though? Diddly-squat. The extra screen is used for the pause screen and map, which wouldnít 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 theyíre 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 donít make up for the big pictureís lacking.

The accompanying score by Michiru Oshima is a winning piece, boosted by the Nintendo DSís 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." Oshimaís 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 arenít 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 thereís a fitting effect for even the areas that donít need it. The Japanese voice overs are cool, even though the international gamers wonít catch most of it. Even the international gamers can tell whoís 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 Somaís 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 gameplayís formulaic, the soundís 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 Alucardís 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 donít dish out their own personality. Did I mention Alucardís 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 donít have that trademark grime and grump that weíre used to as Castlecvania fans. What can I say? It must be a newer castle. While weíre at it, letís 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. Itís 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 whatís 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 youíre in Boss Rush mode, and the only way out is to knock-off all the successive master enemies of the game one by one. Youíve 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? Thereís 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. Thereís only a set area, but itís a dang fun extra nonetheless. Thatís not all. After years and years of writing hate mail, threat mail, and blackmail mail, weíve finally won ourselves a 2-player Castlevania video game. It may be racing, but at least itís 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 otherís time. If youíre mad because your friend got through the course more than twice as fast as you did and now he wonít stop bragging about it to everyone, you can always challenge him to one of your very own Enemy Set mode concoctions. Wi-Fi Castlevania isnít far off.

As if those things werenít enough, thereís a much improved secret player mode. Ever since Richter became a side character in 1997, weíve been receiving in each game a whole other mode where we explore the ARPG castle from a different perspective. Since then weíve played as Maxim and Julius, but something was missing. No, it wasnít just Hugh Baldwin. There really wasnít 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 Igarashiís favorite Castlevania game - as well as that of many others - Castlevania III: Draculaís 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 thereís no Grant in this mode, we acquire Alucard and Syphaís descendant, Yoko Belnades. Not only that, but they are both accessible at any given time, whereas the allies in Draculaís Curse could only be used one at a time. Truth be told, Dawn of Sorrowís extras more than make up for any of the main gameís faults.

Some people might enjoy a game that does everything thatís been done before, but is just smoother around the edges. But that kind of thought process doesnít do justice to Castlevaniaís 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 donít make classics. Originality makes classics.

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Final Rating: N/A

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