Platform: Nintendo DS
October 4, 2005
Warning: Some spoilers for Aria of Sorrow and Dawn of Sorrow to follow.
The DS launched in November of 2004, but it wasn't until nearly a year later that Konami began to release games for it in North America. After a lackluster start with Lost In Blue (a sequel to the Survival Kids games for the Game Boy Color which, while reportedly good, did not prove popular) and a new Frogger game (which is by all accounts awful), they hit it big with Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, a sequel to the acclaimed Game Boy Advance title, Aria of Sorrow. This title, rather than focusing on any Belmont, put the player in control of one Soma Cruz, a young man with the remarkable ability to absorb and utilize the souls of defeated monsters. By some magical contrivance he and his friend Mina are whisked to Dracula's castle, and Soma must fight his way through hordes of demons to find a way out before the dark magic of the place kills his friend. In the end it comes out that Soma was brought to Dracula's castle because he was supposed to be the next Dark Lord (i.e., the next incarnation of Dracula), but with the help of Yoko, Arikado (Alucard), and J (Julius Belmont), he escapes the castle with Mina, and thus escapes that fate.
Dawn of Sorrow picks up where AoS leaves off. It is one year later, and Soma is accosted suddenly by a sorceress named Celia Fortner. The leader of a cult that seeks the rebirth of the Dark Lord, Celia seeks to destroy Soma so that the destiny of Dracula will pass to another, preferably one of her proteges - Dario Bossi, a man who can control fire, and Dmitrii Blinov, a man who can absorb the abilities of others when exposed to them. Soma easily repels her attack, and is advised by Arikado (who mysteriously appears on the scene right afterward) not to pursue Celia. But Soma worries that Arikado and his allies will not be able to defeat Celia themselves, and so he journeys to the cult's castle - a castle remarkably like that of Dracula in design.
As in Aria, Soma can absorb the souls of Celia's defeated minions. These souls come down to three types: "Bullet" souls (which when used fired projectiles at enemies), "Guardian" souls (which often activate shields or sustained attacks), and "Enchant" souls (which give Soma stat bonuses). Soma can only have one of each of these active at any given time. A fourth soul type, the "Ability" type, is very rare, but all of these can be active at the same time. Abilities typically increase your ability to access parts of the castle - by allowing you to swim underwater, for instance, or to "double jump". Soma has several RPG-style stats, such as Strength and Intelligence. These increase on their own as you level up, but are also affected by your active Weapon, Armor and Item. Besides finding these objects in travel and from dropped enemies, you can buy them from Hammer or ask Yoko to combine captured souls with weapons to create more powerful ones.
Generally speaking, if you enjoy the gameplay of the 2D Castlevanias (and Aria of Sorrow in particular), you will enjoy DoS -- it's the same basic formula. The amount of detail given is simply amazing - from each enemy having specific elemental vulnerabilities and strengths (e.g., attacking a flame demon with a fire-based soul is not a particularly good strategy) to little niggling things like the Persephone soul (a vacuum cleaner that sucks health out of enemies) sucking up fireballs and visibly moving curtains, to the fact that Soma and game objects actually fall at 9.8 m/s2. (Of course, Soma doesn't get hurt no matter how high he falls, but I think we can attribute this to his magical abilities.) As far as combat goes, the real fun is in the boss battles, which require a great deal more thought and reflex than the regular rooms. It's one thing to go through a hallway and take out a bunch of Ghouls before they run into you; it's quite another to stand in a tiny room with a laser-breathing Tyrannosaurus and wonder how the hell you're going to make it out of this alive.
The graphics are admittedly still 2D sprites, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little disappointed with this. I'm all for keeping 2D gaming alive, but just because the gameplay is 2D doesn't mean the graphics have to be. Capcom's Viewtiful Joe: Double Trouble, Sega's Sonic Rush, and of course Nintendo's upcoming New Super Mario Brothers all use 3D graphics at least in part in what are in terms of gameplay 2D games. That said, I still can't see DoS' graphics being done on the GBA, or at least not while maintaining any reasonable speed.
The music and sound effects are excellent, but in order to truly appreciate them you really need to wear earphones. (Actually, I've found this is pretty much true of all handheld games; the speakers they're capable of holding simply can't do justice to the sound.) Frankly, with the quality of music we're getting on handheld games recently (mostly with the advent of the DS and Sony PSP), it's somewhat galling that there are so rarely soundtrack CDs - although we rarely get these in the West without importing anyhow.
My only real complaint with Dawn of Sorrow is the half-assed and - I hate to say it - gimmicky way the touchscreen is used. The top screen as a stat/map screen, I can accept, but the game would've been better off without the two major uses of the touchscreen. These are the Magic Seals (connect-the-dots drawings you have to quickly complete to kill bosses) and the "Balore" soul, which gives you the ability to destroy ice blocks by touching them. (This ability is useful for about five rooms in the whole game, and they're all in the same part of the castle.) In fact, the only really worthwhile use of the touchscreen by Dawn of Sorrow is to target enemies with certain Bullet souls. I do not believe a DS game needs to use the touchscreen well to be good. However, it'd be better for them to avoid it altogether than to use it in ways that don't contribute to the gameplay. It's been suggested to me by some people that the only games that should really use the touchscreen are those that NEED to in order to play properly - Kirby Canvas Curse, Nintendogs, Trauma Center, and the like. I tend to agree with this sentiment.
Besides the base game's replay value, there are a number of extras. "Enemy Set Mode" allows you to design your own short level and see how quickly you can run through it. At one point you will be able to unlock "Julius Mode", just as in the first game - in this mode, you play the game as Julius (who can alternate with Yoko and Arikado) in a much more traditional Castlevania, only in this mode you must eventually confront Soma (who has become evil). Completing the final ending of the game will unlock "Boss Rush Mode", in which you must fight nearly all the bosses in series with a minimum of health and mana items. There is also a "Hard Mode", allowing you to play over again with more difficult enemies. Finally there are a number of Konami-related easter eggs, a free item for owners of AoS, and a very special item that can be found if one captures at least one of every enemy's soul. (This can prove difficult, since boss souls can only be had once, and other souls can be hard to come by either because the incidence of their appearance is low or the enemy itself only appears in a few places.)
Overall, Dawn of Sorrow - while not contributing anything particularly new - is a fun and very worthwhile addition to your DS library. You may want to get it now before it becomes like AoS - a game that GameStop and EB charge $35 for used and with just the cart.1
Actually, Konami is re-releasing AoS in a dual-pack with Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance. Or maybe they already have and I just haven't seen it yet.