Game Description: Continuing the storyline from the critically-acclaimed Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow follows Soma Cruz who finds himself at the center of a mysterious cult's plan to resurrect their evil lord and master, Dracula. Players will find themselves in the role of Soma, the game's protagonist, as they infiltrate the enemy's lair, a towering replica of Dracula's castle, and battle against gruesome creatures and the franchise's signature oversized bosses. Drawing inspiration from the past Castlevania titles and their role playing roots, players can, through an enhanced Tactical Soul System, collect more souls than ever before to upgrade abilities and skills. Completing this compelling gaming experience are its stunning graphics, special effects as well as an all-new musical score.
Ah, Castlevania. If I had to pick one "elder statesman" of action gaming, this would most likely be it. I can think of few other series which have spawned so many quality titles and endured for so long. Capcom's Mega Man might be in the running, but the variety isn't there. Metroid might be a contender too, but the current shift to first-person gives me a bit of pause. There are a handful of other series that might take the crown, but for old-school action like few others, it's hard to beat a Castlevania title.
The latest entry, Dawn of Sorrow, comes courtesy of the Nintendo DS. For those not familiar with the games (what, all four of you?) the action consists of taking the current main character, Soma Cruz, and exploring a large, intricate castle. Along the way, Soma collects various weapons and items, steadily gaining in strength and ability. Presented in glorious 2D, its colorful and attractive graphics are a good match for the handheld.
To be honest, I have not spent serious time with a Castlevania title since the immaculate Symphony of the Night on the PS1, so I was definitely in the mood to play Dawn—the two games are extremely similar in structure and content. The original formula that drove Symphony to become such a sidescrolling classic hasn't really changed significantly, and considering that the game came out close to a decade ago,that's a testament to its design. I imagine if I had played all of the other games released in the interim I might very well be tired of them by now, but coming to Dawn after my long Castlevania hiatus was like coming home.
The centerpiece of the platforming play is the polished "soul collection" system. Each monster in the castle will randomly release a soul after being killed… although some are more frequently released than others. Each one Soma harvests will bestow a different property like summoning a creature to fight alongside him, increasing various statistics, giving him different kinds of attacks—and one even lets him grow a goofy (yet functional) scorpion tail.
It's a great system, and gives the adventure a very Pokémon-esque quality that made me want to "catch 'em all". Some are obviously more functional than others, but half of the fun is simply discovering what each one does. The downside is that due to their random appearance, some of the souls took far too long to be collected. For example, there were two souls in particular I was after, and each took me over an hour apiece before getting what I needed. It's not fun to spend that much time killing the same enemy over and over—it felt like I was working some kind of crazy videogame slot machine, waiting for my payoff. If some souls need to be "rare" I can understand that, but this was taking it to a slightly unpleasant extreme—though on the whole the soul system is a great mechanic.
However, as good as Soma and his souls are, one of the best parts of the experience was only accessible after the credits roll. After achieving a certain ending, Julius mode becomes selectable from the main menu. Extremely similar in nature to Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse (easily one of the best entries in the entire series), this mode stars three of the peripheral characters from Soma's adventure as they fight through the castle on their own. It felt a little rough in places, but was an excellent addition and made me feel as though I got two complete games for the price of one. As a bonus mode, it was pretty outstanding.
The only other things to mention are the parts of the game that utilize the DS's stylus to "enhance" play. Honestly, I saw them all as nothing but gimmicks, adding nothing significant. Basically, the stylus can be used to break blocks in two or three areas, and it also is used to draw a shape when finishing off a boss. If the shape is not drawn correctly, the boss regains some life and continues fighting.
Personally, I don't especially like using a stylus under most circumstances, and Castlevania is the kind of fast platforming action that cries out for both hands firmly on the controller. I was a little annoyed at having to keep the stylus handy, and dropped it a few times in the middle of battle. I do admit that have been the castle map constantly displayed on the DS's upper screen was quite handy, but otherwise the other DS-specific implementations were irrelevant.
It may not be very original or innovative when compared to the rest of the games in the series, but Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow succeeds in bringing a similar level of polish and quality to the Nintendo DS, and I can't think of too many things that make the hours pass by as smoothly as a good Castlevania can.
Castlevania and I go way back. I've probably logged more hours defeating Dracula than Sephiroth. In similar fashion to Brad, I would call the Castlevania series a dynasty in the gaming world. For many console generations, it would represent the epitome of design, production value and artistry. Super Castlevania IV, for example still holds up incredibly well for a nearly 15-year-old game. The original PlayStation library cannot be defined without Symphony of the Night (SotN) . Unlike Brad, I've played through every Castlevania that has been released since SotN, and my perspective on the series is probably a bit fuller.
The GBA games were high-quality titles, and on the DS, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow is no exception. I definitely agree with Brad in this regard. Yet, for all the quality of the work, I feel Castlevania has finally—for now—run out of steam.
Here's the problem: A game is made that makes a huge impact on the way the series is perceived. Once that's happened, the series suddenly hits a brick wall. It's done all it needs to do, and all that's left is honing the formula to razor sharpness. The formula is this: create a multiple-path route, create single-element areas (i.e. the underground water level, the library, the forest outside), add a boss which you think is the end boss but actually isn't, explore some more, get the one item to change one minute element, defeat final boss, rinse, repeat. SotN did a remarkable job of refining this formula to near-perfection—and even SotN was an expansion of ideas taken from Dracula X: Chi no Rondo (only available either in Japan or to stupid people who spend too much money on eBay like I did). The problem is, in over eight years, not much has changed.
It is this rehashing that leads me to the downfall of Dawn of Sorrows. With the creation of a wonderfully creative canvas, Koji Igarashi (IGA to the faithful) utterly fails to make any major improvements to the formula, let alone re-imagine the formula itself. Coupled with the barrage of GBA titles, Dawn of Sorrow was almost unnecessary.
This isn't the first direct sequel to a previous Castlevania game. SotN was a direct sequel to Dracula X on PC Engine. While it worked then, it doesn't so much now. Too much of Dawn of Sorrow was directly copy-pasted into the new game. The soul acquisition system hasn't changed at all. In fact, many of the enemies are copy pasted themselves—from Dracula X over 12 years ago.
My other main gripe is the missed opportunity with the platform itself. The concept of destroying blocks with a stylus to create a pathway sounds like such a creative treat. The large cavern in Castlevania III—ten solid minutes of working with falling bricks to create one's pathway upwards—could have been completely re-imagined. But, this remarkable ability is used in a grand total of two—yes, two—rooms. Very few of the backgrounds have any 3D at all, and the presentation is just too well-worn and familiar.
Don't get me wrong: taken on its own, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow is a very high-quality title, and I would encourage anyone to play it. The Julius mode is worth the price of admission alone. (In fact, that's probably the way they should have made the game: with Julius mode being the primary drive behind the game, and Soma being the bonus quest.) But one can't just look at a single Castlevania title without looking at where it came from. Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow looks a little too much in the mirror.
According to the ESRB, this game contains: Blood and Gore, Fantasy Violence
Parents don't have a lot to worry about. Although the game's graphics are sharp and feature smooth animation, I wouldn't really call it "gory" although there is some blood (mostly red splooshes here and there). Basically, the violence consists of the main character attacking creepy monsters, spirits, and other things that go bump in the night. The symbols that must be drawn before finishing off a boss monster look vaguely occult-ish, but in my opinion this is a very minor detail that has no significant relevance to the actual game. There is no questionable language and no sexual situations.
Action gamers will be treated to one of the best purchases for the Nintendo DS. It's not revolutionary, but it's completely solid and well worth the price of purchase especially when you take into account the optional Julius mode that opens up after beating the game. If you're tired of Castlevania you might want to skip it, but otherwise this is a must-buy.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers will have no problems here. The game features full text for all dialogue, and there are no significant auditory cues. Personally, I played more than half the game with the sound completely off and had no issues whatsoever.