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Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow – GBA

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow – GBA

Castlevania: Aria of SorrowPlatform:  Game Boy Advance

Release Date (NA):  May 6th, 2003

Developer:  Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo (KCET)

Publisher:  Konami

Genre:  Action-Adventure, RPG

Nerd Rating:  9 out of 10



Well, I finally made it to the third and final Castlevania game for the Game Boy Advance, Aria of Sorrow.  After being moderately impressed with the first offering in this trilogy of handheld Metroidvanias and slightly less enthused with the sequel, I was treated to one of the most well-crafted Castlevanias ever conceived.  Konami really pulled out all the stops with Aria of Sorrow and created a game that, I believe, is quite comparable to the oft pined for Symphony of the Night.  I don’t, however, believe that every single discussion about Castlevania should come down to Symphony of the Night, but it’s quite clear that throughout its run on the Game Boy Advance (and beyond), the series attempted to recreate SotN’s magnificence.

Alright, let’s get the obligatory “how I played it” out of the way quickly.  I spent a couple of hours with Aria of Sorrow on an actual GBA SP (outdoors no less), though the majority of the time it was firmly entrenched in my Game Boy Player so that I could enjoy it via the comfort of my TV.  Oh, correction, the cartridge was actually entrenched in my GBA Action Replay, which itself was planted into the GameCube add-on.  To keep things spirited yet casual, all I did was give myself infinite HP and MP; I left all the searching and finding and leveling as is.

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow

Notice the rather effeminate males.

For the storyline this time around, Konami decided to go in a different direction than the standard “Belmont vs. Dracula.”  Well, sort of anyway.  Admittedly, it gets kind of confusing because of all the characters wandering around in the castle, and it doesn’t help that their origins are never explored nor are their plotlines ever properly concluded.  Seriously, no less than 6 people are gallivanting within the walls.  Anyway, the year is 2035, and Soma Cruz and his friend Mina are witnessing a solar eclipse from a shrine dedicated to solar eclipses somewhere in Japan.

Suddenly they find themselves just inside a castle, and one of our supporting characters explains some stuff about things being hidden in an eclipse.  Eventually they get to a conversation about Dracula.  Soma (the protagonist) suddenly goes nuts since the castle is supposed to be in Europe yet they’re in Japan.  Some other stuff happens, but it’s not really that interesting, until we find out that Dracula was defeated (apparently for good…or not!!??) back in 1999 by one Julius Belmont (who happens to be wandering about the castle in an amnesiac stupor) and because of said defeat, no one can figure out why the hell the castle has reappeared inside the eclipse.  I don’t want to spoil anything past here, but the story does take on some interesting developments at the end.

Aria of Sorrow takes the basic exploratory platformer and RPG elements that made SotN such a hit and, after spending Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance figuring out what works and what doesn’t, made several worthy changes.  Like its two predecessors, our protagonist roams freely about Dracula’s castle with the goal of killing the Dark Lord.  Although the game is “non-linear,” there is a prescribed order in which things must be done.  For example, large parts of the castle are underwater and thus inaccessible to Soma, and so he must acquire the abilities to both walk on water and sink like a stone in order to progress.

Castlevania: Aria of SorrowA plethora of items are available, including armor, weapons, and various charms and trinkets that alter the player’s stats in one way or another.  Unique to this installment is Soma’s ability to absorb souls.  In lieu of subweapons, our vampire hunter has the power to absorb souls of vanquished enemies and use some aspect of the foe to his own advantage.  These “souls” also account for the magic system in previous games, sort of wrapping up subweapons and magical powers into a single mechanic.  Although it seems very different when looking through the menu the first time or reading the introductory text in the beginning of the game, it’s actually a fairly elegant way of handling so many different capabilities.

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow

Soul abilities lead to crazy shit, like transforming into a multi-armed woman thing.

Enemies may drop items, money, or nothing at all, but in Aria of Sorrow, they may on occasion “drop” their “soul.”  Soma automatically absorbs the ability and can choose which one(s) is active on the pause menu, similar to changing equipment.  Without going into too much gory detail, the souls that Soma absorbs can be divided into 4 types, thus assimilating the disparate functions of relics, familiars, subweapons, and magic into a single gameplay element.  The first type encompasses abilities which become a very part of Soma’s being and are neither turned on or off, such as double jumping, sliding, and the like.  The other 3 occupy 3 separate slots in Soma’s inventory, therefore one of each type can be active at all times.  One acts as the subweapon, launching spears, fireballs, and whatever else.  Another acts as a special move when R is pressed, such as turning into a giant bat, summoning a familiar, or activating some other type of spell.  The last slot is reserved for souls which cause changes similar to the double jump, slide, etc. and those that change the value of certain stats when active.  They include immunity to petrification, gaining more money through various means, walking on water, certain types of healing, large boosts to a particular attribute, and many, many more.

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow

In homage to Symphony of the Night, this very necessary soul is named after Galamoth.

Ok, so enough explanation, but I did want to point out how refined the series’ complex system of abilities has become.  It’s still a lot to deal with and a lot to pay attention to, only now it’s wrapped up in a neater, friendlier package.  This weird soul stealing ability (which is called “dominance” in Aria of Sorrow’s proper sequel, Dawn of Sorrow), might sound a little far-fetched, but in addition to the practical benefits it also gives the player more of a reason to fill in the bestiary (other than “just to do it”) and gives some purpose to grinding (killing enemies for the hell of it to gain experience and thus “level up”).  Massive extra experience can be gained in the process of “farming” (killing a certain enemy over and over hoping for a soul drop), or, while one is engaged in some grinding, enemies will inevitably drop souls.  You still have to do it, but your efforts are doubly rewarded.

At the time, I said something similar about Circle of the Moonbut now I truly see Aria of Sorrow as the most probable contender for the “Symphony of the Night 2” crown.  Navigating the castle is done in a fun but updated manner, and with all sorts of items, equipment, and souls at Soma’s disposal, almost anything is possible.  The wonder and marvel from SotN isn’t quite there this time around, though it overwhelmingly embraces the concepts, mechanics, and aesthetic that made it so successful.

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow

I always love to see Legion return!

Besides the main game, there’s also a few other things to do if you can’t get enough of Aria.  In addition to a Boss Rush mode and a hard difficulty setting (with exclusive items), several different names can be entered for a new file once the game has been cleared for interesting effect.  A couple of “names” will create a majorly difficult experience by stripping Soma of either items or the power to use souls.  Most notable is the option to play as Julius Belmont, which incidentally removes many of the RPG elements from the game.  No items, no souls, no leveling, not even a proper pause menu, just the map screen.  He is loaded down with a number of selectable subweapons though, giving Julius some degree of variety.  I enjoyed moving through the castle as Julius for a while, but his static strength gets frustrating after a while.

The graphics in Aria of Sorrow set the precedent for what all 3 installments on the DS would look like, finding a balance between the gritty, subdued style of Circle of the Moon and the toon-esque imagery from Harmony of Dissonance.  As usual, the details are exquisite and the monsters, and especially the bosses, strike that wonderful chord between beautiful and grotesque.  On the downside, all 3 DS games have a clear anime flavor, obviously initiated by Aria of Sorrow’s setting, Japan itself.  There are no overt oriental elements, but the animation is distinctly Japanese, and it kind of diminishes the whole Eastern European vibe that the series has thus far adhered to for the most part.

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow

Amazing stuff on the small screen that holds up remarkably well when blown up on the TV as well.

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow

At least the in-game graphics aren’t “adrogynized.”

Perhaps it’s just a ridiculous personal hang-up, but seeing names like “Yoko” and “Arikado” tend to take away from the typically moody and atmospheric vibe of Castlevania, not to mention the rather androgynous appearance of our hero Soma and the decidedly un-European presentation of the game’s one and only Belmont.  One thing that the series has always had going for it is its setting.  Now, not only has Dracula been plucked out of Europe, but he’s been thrust into the future as well.  It’s a bold and in many ways commendable approach to the (admittedly exhausted) tale of Dracula and the Belmonts, but maybe the change from a very traditional culture steeped in myth and superstition hundreds of years ago to a modern, culturally progressive future in an area of the world that evokes few comparisons with Eastern Europe was a mildly hasty endeavor.  Personally, my mind conjures up a sort of oriental mysticism with “life energies” and warrior honor with a kind of subdued enlightenment when I try to reconcile the Far East with the supernatural, rather than the dark, anxious times of the Middle Ages where fear and isolation bred all sorts of wild fantasies.  Yes, I’m getting carried away, but I have a tough time getting behind the combination.  However, Konami does have every right to stick Castlevania in its birth country.

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow

Final form, the end!

All in all, Aria of Sorrow is an amazing game, certainly considering its status as a handheld exclusive.  It’s satisfying, complex, and although it may not be as lengthy as its other brethren, it stops itself from becoming annoyingly difficult, confusing, or frustrating.  If we’re really being honest, some of these Castlevanias tend to wear out their welcome just a tad.  Equally impressive is Aria’s feat of mimicking yet also improving upon its progenitor, Symphony of the Night.  I probably don’t need to say this, but Aria makes a much stronger impression on the big screen.  If you can’t find the magic while tackling it from your GBA, definitely be sure to get a Game Boy Player and put it to good use.  As enjoyable as Aria of Sorrow is, I do find myself starting to wish for something beyond the tried and true SotN formula….

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow

Oh wait, the REAL end!

Gamers in general can find plenty to enjoy in Aria of Sorrow; this isn’t strictly for Castlevania fans.  Many critics consider it one of the best GBA games, and although there’s plenty of the GBA’s library that I’ve yet to play, so far I’d be inclined to agree.  It may not possess a few of the usual Castlevania strengths, but the gameplay is so smooth and polished, it’s damn near impossible to find a reason not to continue playing.

Also check out Aria’s sequel, Dawn of Sorrow for the Nintendo DS!

Reviewed by The Cubist

Written by The Cubist

The Cubist

Co-founder, Head Author, & Site Technician

Find out what these ratings mean and how I rate video games.

I collect as much video gaming paraphernalia as I can get my hands on, especially when it comes to hardware. With over 40 systems including oldies like the ColecoVision and Intellivision, obscurities like the CD-i and 3DO, and the latest and greatest including the Wii U, PS4, Xbox One, 3DS, and PS Vita, I get easily overwhelmed. Most of the time you can find me firmly nestled sometime between 1985 and 1995 when it comes to my games of choice, but I’m also having a great time seeing what the 8th generation has to offer.

Currently in love with: Mortal Kombat

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