Game Description: It's the most exciting Castlevania adventure yet! The year is 2035 and Soma Cruz is about to witness the first solar eclipse of the 21st century when he suddenly blacks out - only to awaken inside a mysterious castle. As Soma, you must navigate the castle's labyrinths while confronting perilous monsters at every turn. But beware, you must escape before evil consumes you!
Games can usually be broken down into two distinct categories: experiences and diversions. Experiences tend to be ambitious games, large in scope and innovative in design. They can surprise me, knock me off balance, make me think and wonder and use my imagination. They make me feel genuine emotion, and absorb me for weeks, or even months on end (The Legend Of Zelda series consistently does this). Experiences create vivid, detailed worlds that I'm often reluctant to leave. Diversions, on the other hand, are something for me to do while I wait for my frozen pizza to unthaw.
Aria Of Sorrow is certainly gorgeous: the moon constantly lurks in the background, chalk-yellow and ominous; the gray clouds ripple nicely. This particular incarnation of Castlevania features an ingeniously designed castle. Rarely did I find myself doing any aimless wandering, as I did in Circle Of The Moon and Harmony Of Dissonance. Aria Of Sorrow also represents a return to aural glory for the series. I'm amazed that the tiny speaker on the Game Boy Advance is capable of producing such rich, complex tunes. And the gameplay? Vintage Castlevania. Being a 10-year veteran of Castlevania games, I know the drill at this point: Storm the castle, explore every cranny and nook, find weapons, level-up my character (in this case it's the sexually ambiguous Soma Cruz), dispatch monsters and battle bosses. In other words, this is basically the exact same gameplay formula that's been in place since Symphony of the Night. The only true innovation this time around is the new Soul System—kill enemies, absorb their souls, gain their powers—which replaces the Holy Water/Rotating Bibles/Arcing Axes sub-weapon system of old.
Aria Of Sorrow is easily the best, most cohesive Castlevania on the Game Boy Advance—the gameplay has been tweaked to absolute perfection—yet the cart never quite managed to become an "experience" for me. Why? Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the game once again features monsters that aren't even remotely frightening. In fact, most of the monsters, like the man holding the trident while he rides around in a walking oyster shell, are downright silly. As I raced through the castle halls, vanquishing roomfuls of these so-called hellspawn, I began to feel less like an all-powerful vampire hunter and more like a glorified exterminator, albeit one dressed in a long, flowing jacket adorned with a feather boa. And these "monsters" can't be killed. No matter how many times I killed the man riding in the oyster shell, he always came back—always—which only served to make me feel even more like an exterminator. Of course, respawning enemies is a trademark of the series, but it's one that I've never been especially crazy about. I understand why it's a necessary ingredient in the Castlevania formula—without respawning enemies, not only would it be impossible to level-up my character, but the castle would quickly become a hollow, lonely place. That said, not once in over a decade of playing Castlevania games have I thought, How exciting and fun it will be to kill these monsters again!
As usual, the Medusa Heads put in an appearance. I prayed that they'd sit this adventure out, but about halfway through the game, there they are, floating across the screen, on their way to knock me from a just-reached perch or turn me to stone (or worse, knock me from a just-reached perch and turn me to stone). Medusa Heads have been the bane of my Castlevania existence since my old NES days. Note to the development team working on the next installment in the series: Kindly leave the Medusa Heads out. Thank you.
Over the course of the seven or so hours it took me to complete the game, I felt a few brief twinges of excitement, as well as moments of curiosity (what could be beyond that sealed door?) and empowerment (some of the Soul Attacks are truly awesome). Yet, overall, what I mostly felt while playing the game was vaguely restless. And sometimes I felt just plain irritated.
Maybe what irritates me is the fact that I've basically been playing the same game for 10 long years now. I'm getting tired of whipping candles to make them cough up hearts and bags of money. I'm tired of Mermen, tired of bats, and tired of those cursed Medusa Heads. But what tires me out the most is the fact that the Castlevania franchise remains a lowly diversion when it clearly has the potential to become a dramatically rich and emotionally complex experience. Look at the resurrection of Metroid last year, or the Zelda series, or Grand Theft Auto. In the lifecycle of any franchise, the gameplay must evolve in order for the franchise to remain commercially and critically viable. I've grown up, and I'm waiting for the Castlevania series to grow up, too.
Since Aria Of Sorrow is the third Castlevania in as many years, I'm also concerned that Konami is growing increasingly content to simply rest on their laurels. As Chi wrote in his recent story exploring the notion of videogames as art, "Until developers and gamers expect more of themselves and of videogames, the financiers and publishers of videogames will continue to clone the latest proven bestseller rather than innovate new ways to challenge gamers intellectually and emotionally." Here I am, a gamer expecting more of the Castlevania franchise, wanting more. Unfortunately, the hard truth is that lousy sales figures are often what makes developers take artistic risks. As long as the Castlevania carts keep moving off store shelves, it's unlikely that Konami will feel the need to fool with their proven formula anytime soon.
For now, I'll continue to keep a candle burning for a Castlevania that surprises me, knocks me off balance, makes me think and wonder and use my imagination; a Castlevania that creates a detailed, vivid world that I'm reluctant to leave. Let's hope the PlayStation 2 Castlevania, due later this year, will be the bona fide experience I've been hoping for and not just the latest in a long line of diversions.
I admit that I don't play many handheld games. I never really owned the original Game Boy. I do own a Game Boy Color, though, and frankly I prefer that even to the technically superior Game Boy Advance. I suspect it has something to do with the simplicity of the "inferior" graphics. The Game Boy Advance (GBA) is impressive, yes, but I have trouble taking in all that visual information on such a tiny screen, especially when I'm juggling it with the momentary distractions that inevitably come with portable gaming. Of the Game Boy Advance titles I've played, the ones I've felt are truly conducive to the small-screen experience are those which are especially concise in both visuals and gameplay. Games like Chu-Chu Rocket! or WaroWare are perfect examples of this kind of thing. They can be played for mere seconds at a time and only demand comprehension of two or three key bits of information on the screen. To me, that's really when handheld gaming makes the most sense. Otherwise, it's usually something I'd rather be doing at home, with a large screen, where I can actually absorb all the visual information that's been designed to enrich the experience.
Games that are story-oriented, which are usually the kinds of game that try to create evocative and beautiful spaces filled with detail, seem made for admiring in this way. In my experience of playing story-driven games on a portable platform, the only ones that ever really worked for me were ones on Game Boy Color. The ultra simplistic visuals of Dragon Warrior or Metal Gear: Ghost Babel were palatable enough on a small screen that I was never distracted by the fact that I just couldn't focus on everything I was seeing. Thus, I was able to immerse myself in the fictional universe just as I would playing a normal role-playing game (RPG) or Adventure game. Although I respect the technical feats that make it possible to cram so much detail onto the Game Boy Advance screen, I can never totally shake the notion that some types of games just need to be played on a television. Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is one of those games.
I generally agree with all of Scott's comments. The game is, at best, a diversion rather than an experience. The designers take the tried and true Castlevania formula that worked to beautifully in the now classic Symphony of the Night and make it manageable within the portable format. They do an excellent job of it, in fact. Of the two previous GBA Castlevania titles—Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance—I confess to playing only bits and pieces. However, it's clear playing just a few minutes of Aria of Sorrow that they finally got it right. Everything from the spot-on play control, to the rich skill system, to the lush graphics, to the fluid animation: they all scream both quality and class. Scott is also right that the general balance and pacing of the game is nicely done. Backtracking isn't very bothersome, and all the areas of the castle are visually interesting and accompanied by memorable music that sets the trademark gothic rock n' roll tone that has been the series hallmark for years.
So then, why I ask myself, was I generally frustrated and impatient to get to the end of the game? Granted, it might have something to do with the fact that I was borrowing someone else's GBA to finish it in time for a review deadline. However, I was under similar constraints when I played Metroid Fusion—a game with an almost identical formula—and I found that a more enjoyable experience. I think it probably has to do with two things: the dull familiarity of the series, and the limitations of the small screen. Unlike Metroid, Aria of Sorrow is, after all, the third game of its kind on GBA, and it is virtually identical to its predecessors in terms of the conventions it follows. The "explore castle, upgrade character, fight Dracula" progression is utterly unchanged. And although it breaks convention in some ways, such as in the protagonist's use of edged weapons and supernatural skills, they are all merely returns to elements that were present in Symphony of the Night in the first place. In other words, while Aria of Sorrow is different from its two predecessors, it only is so by virtue of being even more similar to the original game that inspired the formula. The result, while technically superior, feels even less like an original game that either Circle or Harmony. It feels almost like a point-for-point remake of Symphony, right down to the castle design, weapons, skills, characters, bosses, and even the plot. All it left me thinking was, "Wow. Symphony sure was great. How much longer is this game anyway?"
To be fair, I suppose my main criticism here is predicated on the fact that Symphony of the Night is so familiar to me. I can easily imagine players who haven't experienced its inspiration being more impressed by Aria. However, I think what lingers regardless of familiarity with the series is the tone Aria inescapable inherits from Symphony by copying so completely. Set up as an epic showdown between Good and Evil against a sweeping gothic backdrop, it speaks a language that promises an experience rather than a diversion. It sports a lavishly detailed world, amazing sights and sounds, and enthralling action in a dramatic context. Somehow, all this epicness feels hampered by the tiny screen. There's a reason why we go to the movie theater to see sweeping vistas and epic battles and stay at home to watch short, to the point comedies on television. I think the same logic applies to home games versus portable games. I just can't think of a reason to recommend Aria of Sorrow unless you're a fan who must see what happens in the story. Otherwise, if what you're looking for is a dose of 2D gothic coolness that will blow your mind—Symphony of the Night is absolutely everything Aria of Sorrow is and more. It's the same larger-than-life characters, larger-than-life action, and larger-than-life setting in the only place they make sense: on a large screen.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Animated Blood, Violence
Despite the gothic-horror content of the game, parents have little to be concerned about. Indeed, there are death-dealing weapons and herds of monsters, yet the game still manages to be a fairly lighthearted endeavor.
Younger gamers probably won't have the patience to explore the labyrinthine castle. Mature gamers will likely connect with the game on a nostalgic level, but long-time fans of the series might also find the aging gameplay tedious and stale.
Fans of 2D action games like Super Metroid and Mario should enjoy the game. RPG fans might also relish the prospect of gaining experience points and leveling up their character and fussing around with the various soul combinations.
Finally, Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers should have no trouble enjoying Aria Of Sorrow, since all of the game's dialogue appears on screen in text boxes.