Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow – DS
Platform: Nintendo DS
Release Date (NA): October 4th, 2005
Nerd Rating: 7.5 out of 10
Well, I’ve made it through another Castlevania in just a few days; right on the heels of Aria of Sorrow follows one of the series’ few “true” sequels, Dawn of Sorrow. It’s a good game (it even made several 2005 “best of” lists for the DS), like most others in this strain of portable Metroidvanias, but to be quite honest, the formula is starting to feel a little played out. I spent a lot of time with Symphony of the Night due to its reputation. Not only did I play through it twice on the PS1, but I played through much of it on the Sega Saturn and again on the PSP’s Dracula X Chronicles not long after. In the past month, I’ve played through several that followed in its style: Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance, Aria of Sorrow, and now Dawn of Sorrow, not to mention my previous experience with Portrait of Ruin and a short stint with Order of Ecclesia. And I must say, why in the hell does everyone glance so woefully behind them at SotN when there are 6 more games nearly identical!? Konami has more than paid their dues for Castlevania 64 and Legacy of Darkness and has long since given SotN fans more than one worthy contender for the mantle. Dawn of Sorrow is a great game and I’m not out to slam it, but this endless barrage of SotN clones is wearing thin.
</rant>, let’s talk about the game. First up is the story, simultaneously one of the game’s stronger and weaker points. Of note is its attempt to bring some cohesion to the clusterfuck presented in Aria of Sorrow. I appreciate the depth that Aria strove for, but there simply wasn’t enough plot driven action to keep the story interesting. Dawn brings back the diverse cast, along with our hero, Soma Cruz. It’s been a year since the events of Aria, putting us in 2036. Soma believes his powers to be lost, but continues with the weight of the knowledge that he is in fact Dracula reincarnated. A woman, Celia, shows up with a couple of lackeys, claiming to attempt to revive the Dark Lord. It turns out that she’s part of some cult who wants to bring about the return of Dracula not so much for evil, but in order to balance out the benevolent power of God with equal malevolence. So she’s kind of an agent of God or some shit, but pretty evil nonetheless.
Soma and his old crew track Celia and her minions to their compound, which just so happens to be some sort of material recreation of Dracula’s castle. Yes, I am still fuzzy on the specifics of such a feat. The twist this time is that Celia’s two goons, Dimitrii and Dario, are both candidates to become the Dark Lord, and then of course there’s Soma, who really is Dracula. And so our adventure goes, with Soma gaining back his “dominance” powers and trekking through the castle in the hopes of stopping the ascension of evil. Julius Belmont is back at it again, popping in and out randomly and generally being one of the most useless Belmonts ever despite his claim of having killed Dracula “for good” back in ’99.
If I haven’t already made it crystal clear, Dawn of Sorrow’s gameplay replicates Aria’s almost to a tee. Really, the only changes come in the form of the improved hardware of the DS. Dawn utilizes both the DS’ touch screen and dual screen presentation to “enhance” the game (more on this to come). For those who don’t know, Dawn features a semi-open environment where the player, as Soma Cruz, explores the castle and finds certain abilities which allow him to search more of the castle. Along the way, Soma can pick up armor, weapons, and other stat-altering objects. Other RPG elements like currency, a shop, and leveling exist as usual. The main feature, like Aria, is the “Tactical Soul” mechanic, making use of Soma’s power of dominance. What is dominance? For those of you who haven’t played Aria, enemies will sometimes drop their “souls” like any other item. Soma absorbs these and gains abilities based on them, consolidating the concepts of subweapons, magic, relics, and other special moves from past games. I get into a little more details about these in the Aria of Sorrow review, so check there if you’re curious.
One of the defining stand-out features new to the scene is the “Doppelganger” soul. This soul essentially allows Soma to create two different equipment profiles. Each profile can be loaded with one main weapon, one piece of armor, one accessory, and 3 souls (1 of each type). Soma finds the item relatively early in the game, and it allows the player to switch between these two profiles with the press of a button. Let’s say that there’s a weapon you prefer for the majority of combat, but when it comes to bigger enemies, you prefer a stronger yet slower weapon. Instead of having to manually unequip and re-equip every time you run a cross a big guy, all you need to do is press “X” to cycle through a set of equipment. This provides a simple and elegant solution to having to continuously pause, change equipment, do what you got to, pause, change equipment back, and go on with the quest.
Another dynamic woven into Soma’s soul sucking super powers is the fusion of souls and weapons. In a similar manner to visiting Hammer at the shop, Soma can stop by Yoko’s new found domicile and have her fuse souls to weapons for reasonably high-powered yields. The drawback here is that there are far less possible weapons than there are combinations, and this can lead to a lot of wasted time (farming for souls) and money (buying the weapons) and time again (collecting money to buy weapons). It’s a cool idea, though I wish it were better integrated into the game. It can be an extremely helpful tool if you get your hands on a list of what works ahead of time, and it’s probably the single greatest source for getting the awesomely ultra kick ass weapons that you’ll want to have going into the final stretches of Dawn of Sorrow.
Castlevania’s jump from the GBA to the DS brings us a lot of advanced technological perks…as well as a few growing pains. Dawn of Sorrow takes advantage of the touch screen in a couple of different ways. The first comes in the form of what look like little ice cubes peppered around in like, 3 or 4 rooms total. Once endowed with the appropriate soul, the player can break these blocks by touching them. Often they’re arranged in a puzzle-like manner, forcing the player to act quickly due to Soma’s movement or perhaps construct a traversable path upwards. I found the feature purely irrelevant; it had some potential but it’s use is almost meaningless, not to mention far too scant to remain memorable.
More prevalent are the “Magic Seals,” a series of icons with increasingly intricate patterns of intersecting lines that the player must not only find but also “use” at certain times. Each Magic Seal consists of a circle with six points. Any or all of these points are connected by straight lines, which must be drawn in a specific order and in one continuous motion. At times, the seals act as keys, automatically triggering the opening of different doors as the game wears on. Their most important function, however, is to finish off the bosses. When the boss is damn near dead, the seal pops up and the player must draw it correctly. In the beginning this is a cinch, but it quickly becomes a pain in the ass. First of all, time is limited, so you’ve got to do it quickly. Second, it isn’t easy to bust out the stylus that fast and draw. Third, the bosses have no HP meter, so it’s impossible to determine when exactly the need for a seal will present itself. Fourth, not being able to get to the stylus in a hurry will lead to desperate, yet fumbling attempts to draw with a finger. And you won’t get it right. What happens then? The boss regains somewhere in the neighbor hood of 15-20% of their health and you’ve got to do it all over again until you get it right. Gimmicky, pointless aspects like the “ice blocks” I can deal with, but the Magic Seals are distracting and troublesome. Of all things, the seals are really the only thing that truly drag the game down.
Ok, I lied, but just a little. The other facet that brings down Dawn of Sorrow a notch is the marked lack of truly empowering weaponry for Soma. Besides the aforementioned soul/weapon combos (which can be a true pain to try and figure out alone), there’s a surprising lack of raw attack (and to a lesser extent, defense) power in the game. I don’t know if this is product of the moderately shorter length of Dawn or if perhaps the stats aren’t increasing as much with each leveling up as in previous installments, or maybe something else completely different. At any rate, I was at a comparable level to that of recent games, somewhere in the mid to upper 40’s. However, I wasn’t hitting nearly as hard as I am by the end of other games. In the final run of Dawn’s predecessors, I’m usually doing damage to lower level enemies in the mid 100’s, but here, all I could muster was around 70 or 80, even when picking off zombies. Battles with Final Guards and Iron Golems were extremely tedious; no matter what I did, I could only chip away a few hit points at a time; I’m talking single digits.
Despite this apparently intentional oddity, the game is noticeably shorter and easier than others like it. The lack of length does bother me that much, but the subdued complexity within the castle puts a slight dampener on things. However, Konami did have a few tricks up its sleeve, throwing in a really cool “movable room” system in an area and the exceedingly interesting (yet optional) inclusion of certain mirror rooms. A few Easter Eggs are scattered about as well, which tend to give Dawn a few unique flourishes that surprised me with their whimsy and humor.
Graphics take an expected leap forward, with more detail and realism than we saw on the GBA. The “village” is done exceptionally well, both indoor and outdoor areas. The castle itself is polished, refined, sharp, and crisp, but somehow underwhelming. What’s there looks great, but the insides are a bit bland and unimaginative. Bricks, stones, and a few caves, and that’s about it. There isn’t much variety and it seems like the artists were going for a less creative yet more plausible look and feel for this faux castle. The one highlight is the final section, The Abyss, which is absolutely bizarre and amazing.
Enemies and bosses are usually the highlight of Castlevania graphics, and while they certainly get the job done here, dozens of monster sprites are pulled directly from Symphony of the Night, adding to the sometimes tired feel. The bosses aren’t nearly as creepy or threatening either, mostly consisting of medium sized, roughly humanoid baddies. The only absolutely “wow” moment I had was the final form of the final boss, known simply as “Menace.”
Unfortunately, the Castlevania team decided to keep up the anime influences from the previous game. I still feel pretty much the same about it; see the Aria of Sorrow review for my rather heated thoughts on the matter.
From a technical standpoint, the visuals are fantastic. They’re wonderful to look at and convey a surprising level of detail on the small screen. Creatively though, the magic just isn’t there. With reused sprites from a nearly decade old game and the more down to earth ornamentation of the castle, it’s tough to get into the mood and atmosphere like usual. In fact, I find myself pulling my rating down a full half point for what amounts to forgettable graphics.
One thing missing from the last few Castlevania’s has been great music. Circle of the Moon came the closest, but Harmony of Dissonance was filled with annoying, uninspired synth. Aria of Sorrow improved upon the soundtrack somewhat, and although it still featured a lot of lower tech synth, it was at least inoffensive. Now, with the DS’ stereo sound and the handheld’s overall audio quality and volume, we get a proper, dramatic score for the game. Strings and pianos make up the majority of the music and manage to evoke fear, claustrophobia, decadence, majesty, and darkness, capturing the essence of what it means to track down pure evil. Or something like that. The increased memory of DS cartridges plus the handheld’s healthy speaker system make this music memorable again.
There are 3 endings, each one unlocking a new mode. I won’t go into a lot detail on these, especially the Boss Rush and Enemy modes. Julius Mode from Aria of Sorrow returns, and although many of the RPG elements are removed (equipment, magical abilities, etc.), at least Julius is granted a leveling system this time around so that he can compete with the ever-strengthening monsters. What makes Julius Mode in Dawn different from that of Aria is Julius’ partner, Yoko Belnades. (Ms. Belnades also appears in the previous game; the name is obviously an homage to Sypha Belnades’ character from Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. As the story goes, Trevor and Sypha ended up propagating the Belmont line. I can understand how future descendants would be related to both the Belnades and the Belmonts, but what I don’t understand is how the Belnades surname survived. Oh well.) Early in Julius’ journey, he encounters Yoko, and the player can then choose between playing as Julius or Yoko at any time during the game. There’s no cooperative system like that in proceeding Portrait of Ruin, but the switch-off mechanic is reminiscent of the tangentially mentioned Dracula’s Curse. There’s a third companion that you may run across after a while, but I won’t spoil that one for anyone interested.
Well that about does it for Castlevania’s inaugural outing on the DS. There’s a ton to love about Dawn of Sorrow, from its expanded storyline, to the updated graphics, to the liquid-smooth gameplay. Its few flaws drop it just short of greatness, and although Konami might be repeating the same formula over and over, at least it’s working. Some of the earlier titles for the original DS are beginning to look and feel a little dated these days, but Dawn is holding up well. Like Aria, this is a game not only for Castlevania fans, but gamers in general.
Reviewed by The Cubist
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