Platform: Nintendo DS
ESRB Rating: Teen
Release Date: October 4th, 2005
The "Sorrow" games of the Castlevnia series have been, in my experience, relatively popular. I've known several friends to have enjoyed the game - my ex-girlfriend particularly enjoyed them and was the person who gave me the itch to play them - and it's gotten good reviews in general. I had mostly ignored the portable Castlevania's until around this game, the last I'd played was Symphony; when I went away from this game I was pleased in general. But when it came time to review, keeping the entire franchise in mind, Aria's direct sequel isn't really all that remarkable.
Just about any Castlevania that uses the Metroideque gameplay and isn't 3D is eventually going to draw comparison to Symphony of the Night, the 1997 Playstation classic. It's completely unavoidable; Symphony was truly a part of the period where the series was at it's highest, being a direct sequel to the greatest game of the classic formula, Chi No Rondo. When compared, no game since has managed to reach those lofty heights again and with good reason; the number of items, areas to explore, paths to take and just things to discover in general was at an asinine level.
With that in mind, Dawn of Sorrow is a good effort and takes the higher tier of all the games that have followed Symphony. Is it the best since? That's debateable, one could argue that Aria, it's direct predecessor, was at a bit higher level.
We'll start with the story. In general, the story is rather simple as expected. Actually, it's even simpler than Portrait of Ruins; or at least it came off that way to me. The characters themselves, if you were to isolate this game, are relatively dry; even Arikado, the civilian identity of Symphony frontrunner Alucard and the son of Dracula, really doesn't have a whole lot interesting to say or do other than "we can't risk you becoming the dark lord, leave this to us. They don't even actually say his real name in game; the only place it's mentioned is in the specific entry dedicated to Alucard that is given after the scene alluding to Arikado's true identity. Motives of the villains are simple as well; gain more power and become the new Dark Lord.
Even the dialogue isn't all that great. There isn't really a whole lot of wit to the dialogue, something the series has actually somewhat lacked in general since Symphony first game the series games with much of a story beyond destroying Dracula. It's dry and mostly there to service and move the plot forward with a little villain evilness for good measure; all they were really missing was a good bwa-ha-ha, to be honest.
But this isn't something to be held against the game too much; in fairness, it's predecessors in the portable realm were really no better in this regard.
The graphics are a bit of a mixed bag. The good outweighs the bad, but there are odd design choices. The staple enemies often seen since Symphony are generally here in full force, but there isn't a lot of originality this go around. If you've played a previous title, you're going to run into a lot of old friends. For once, we do find ourselves outside of Dracula's castle, but the place we traverse, with the exception of the section called "The Lost Village", is a castle anyways. There are some different locals here and there, but little is different enough to distinguish it from Drac's castle, of which we've traversed dozens of times in one form or another. This one even has a Clocktower, for goodness sakes.
Also, other touches are relatively questionable. The character portraits and overall look has ditched the usual beautiful artwork that the games have held since Symphony for an extremely generic style you could likely see in any random saturday morning anime. It's a choice that leaves you scratching your head, especially when you consider that this is a game immediatly following a game that still used the old portrait style. In another realm, the game does use some 3D for the backgrounds, which was welcome to see considering it helps convey movement with the background moving with you; but it lacks polish. They definitely look like the 3D models they are, which often looks kinda weird against 2D sprites and such.
All of this may sound negative, but the overall look of the game in action looks as good as any other Castlevania; being servicable in every respect, so it's not all bad at all.
Music is probably a bit better this go around. I particularly enjoyed some of the themes we got in this game, along with remixes of some classic themes from previous games. It thankfully wasn't all remixes of classic Castlevania themes, thankfully, with some new music that I felt stands well amongst the general quality this series has always provided. The soundtrack is a bit more memorable this go around.
Controls are, for the most part, as good as any other "Metroidvania" Castlevania title; on a handheld anyways. There are more buttons on the DS than the Game Boy Advance, which was the platform it's predecessor was put out on, but they're not used for anything particularly interesting. The X button can switch your equipment sets and the A button does a slightly more powerful standard attack with a little visual effect. Gameplay is spiced up by the Soul system, wheras you can use different abilities depending on the souls you equip, but this is a carryover from Aria and thus not really a plus unless you've never played that title.
The new perks that come from the DS's features are hit and miss. The dual screens are used well enough. The bottom screen is used for the action, while the top screen can shift between two functions using the select button; a general castle map and a stats screen. The map is exactly what you'd expect and is rather useful to have always there with you instead of needing to obsessively pause the game to check where you are. The stat's screen allows you to see your own stat's, along with affects that may happen from an enemy attack or item as they happen, and an entry on the enemy you're facing, including weaknesses, strengths, item drops and the number of souls you have collected of that monsters.
The touch screen controls, however, are far less intuitive. In essence, they're a product of the time when this game was released; when the DS was a relatively new system and developers felt they had to use the different features to justify their inclusion, often to less than stellar effect. For every game like Kirby Canvas Curse, which made the touch screen a fun and vital part of the experience, there were three or four other games that basically threw in hackneyed touch screen capability that was generally sparse and unnecesary in an attempt to utilize everything and justify it. Dawn unfortunately falls under the second.
There are two main things that will require your stylus. One soul allows you the ability to tap special blocks which you can shatter through the touch screen. The number of area's you will need to use this on could probably be counted on one hand. The other is the outright frustrating Magic Seal system, where to actually defeat a boss, you must first draw out some weird pattern; if you mess up or don't draw it in time, the boss regains something like half it's health which you must deplete again before you get another crack at the pattern. You can probably see how this might be frustrating; especially when the time limits become more restrictive and the patterns more intricate. Now picture it in battle, where you have to use the buttons to beat the boss, then rush to get your stylus ready to draw that pattern lest you have to continue the fight; needless to say it's not for the uncoordinated. It's unnecesary and more frustrating than interesting; making me wish it had either been left out entirely or given a bit more thought so it was a bit more intuitive. I had only one or two problems with it in the end, but I've been playing videp games since damn near coming out of the womb; anyone less attuned to video games will probably have trouble with it as the systems somewhat unforgiving.
The extra stuff is generally alright. You have Julius Mode, unlocked after you get one of two of the three different endings. This mode is more or less a precusor to the team system slightly expanded upon in the next title to come, Portrait of Ruin. You can recruit a couple characters and switch between them with the X button. The only thing really missing are the team up attacks and the ability to equip the characters with things; an experience which truly makes you realize just how little Portrait of Ruin actually innovated. The requisite Sound Test is here as well, which should come to no surprise to anyone.
The Score: Dramatic Thumbs Up
Overall, this entry to the Castlevania is just fine, if not quite as strong as it could have been. It's nice to hang with Soma and company if you play a lot of Castlevania's and it's a good entry if you're new to the series as well, considering the library entry's will catch you up to speed on the very basics. Would I reccomend it above any other entries in the series? Not really. Is it a good portable Castlevania? Yes. Time, and me getting my hands on a copy, will tell if Order of Ecclesia has managed to be a better game than it's DS Castlevania brethren.