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Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow

Review By:  Josh Fishburn

Developer:  Konami
Publisher:  Konami
# of Players:  1-2 (sort of...)
Genre:  Platform
ESRB:  Teen
Accessories:  GBA Link Cable
Date Posted:  8-27-03

I never thought I would be saying this, but after playing Aria of Sorrow, Konami’s latest castle crawler, I had to submit and admit: The Castlevania series needs some innovation.  After doing some genre-redefining work on Symphony of the Night on PS1, Konami has run with the formula and started a virtual Castlevania factory on the Game Boy Advance.  Since the system’s inception, they have released three great action games with interesting RPG elements: Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance, and now Aria of Sorrow, one per year.  If you have played the previous 2, you have essentially played this one.  For most people (myself included) this is enough to warrant a purchase.  Since this is not a philosophical gaming argument, I won’t spend time wondering why we still buy these games when they are nearly identical to each other, but one still wonders…  Without further adieu: Castlevania Aria of Sorrow.

The game takes place in Japan in the year 2035.  When we join the story, the first solar eclipse of the 21st century is approaching.  You play as Soma Cruz, a stylish high school student studying abroad in Japan.  His classmate and friend, Mina Hakuba, is the only daughter of the caretaker of Hakuba shrine, a mythical shrine of ancient Japan.  Making their way to the shrine to view the eclipse, the two friends are knocked unconscious as the eclipse comes to fruition, only to awaken inside a mysterious castle.  Naturally, they wish to escape back to familiar territory.  Before they can do this Soma must explore the castle, discover its secrets and thus find a way out.

Not surprisingly, the “mysterious castle” ends up being Dracula’s castle, which manifests itself during the eclipse.  You will meet some interesting characters throughout the game, and the story does have some surprising twists.  For the most part, however, I found it to be gimmicky and silly.  The promising futuristic premise is all but wasted.  It feels like the developers just ran out of ideas and decided to hold it in the future for kicks because the castle is basically the same one we have always known.  Admittedly, they did come up with a new way to resurrect Dracula and his castle, which is what the Castlevania series has been doing for years, but it still feels stale and uninspired.

So far, it sounds like I loathed playing this game, but that could not be further from the truth.  The gameplay shines as always.  Similar to the previous GBA Castlevanias, Aria is an action game at heart that contains RPG elements.  The controls are perfect, and the gameplay has been so fine-tuned that it is as natural to me as typing this review.  What separates Aria from its brethren is the soul system, an excellent “gotta-catch-em-all” addition.  See, Soma has a dark power that allows him to collect the souls of the enemies in the game (over a hundred in total).  Most souls are dropped by vanquished foes and bosses protect some.  Some of the abilities granted by the souls will be familiar to seasoned Castlevania players: familiars, double-jump, flying bat, backwards slide, etc.  Many of these souls will aid you in your quest be it assisting in the defeat of enemies, detecting hidden areas, or getting to those hard-to-reach spots.  You will even eventually have the choice between floating in, walking on, or sinking in water depending on which souls you have selected.  Those in for the long haul will need certain souls to access all areas of the castle.  I found myself motivated to go back and collect all the souls after beating the game the first time.  Even though it is sometimes tedious, it is always addictive.  If you are having trouble collecting a soul and have a friend who is playing the game, you can trade souls over the GBA-GBA link as well.  Acquiring certain secret items will also give you a hint as to how to achieve the best ending.  Also returning is the ability to collect and equip weapons, armor, and special items.  With all of this great gameplay, it is unfortunate that the game is very much on the easy side, with only a few bosses and areas offering a challenge.  Once Hammer’s shop becomes available and you can stock up on potions and hi-potions, the challenge really vanishes.  By that time you will be leveling up as well.  I got to the point where I could destroy enemies with only an angry glance.

You will also recognize the castle if you’ve played the previous games.  The clock tower, cathedral, library, courtyard, and underground areas are all present.  As always, the graphics are great, even better than the previous offerings.  The backgrounds are awesome with fine attention to detail and multiple levels of scrolling, along with an area on the rooftop that took my breath away.  Top this off with silky-smooth animation and astonishing bosses and you have the best looking game I have played on this system.  The enemies even animate well, with cool death animations ranging from crumbling bones to collapsing in flame.  I am convinced that Castlevania protagonists should always wear capes (for tradition AND because it looks so cool).  The stylish character artwork during the conversations is also very appealing.

The big complaint about Harmony of Dissonance was the tunes, which is bitterly ironic considering the title to the game.  A nice variety of mostly upbeat songs populate Aria’s areas, and most of them complement each section very appropriately.  Overall, it isn’t a phenomenal soundtrack, but everything fits well.  The sound effects are definitely worth a mention here.  Everything is heard, from the creaking doors to shattering candlesticks to crumbling bones.  The sound effects are subtle but excellent.

Highs:

  • Engaging soul system extends gameplay without feeling like an artifice
  • Amazing graphics and animation
  • Perfect controls
  • Some glimpses of invention in the castle

Lows:

  • Weak story, futuristic theme is wasted
  • Very little innovation outside of the soul system
  • Too easy most of the time

Final Verdict:

I feel like a kid talking about his little brother.  Yeah, he’s annoying sometimes, but I love him anyway.  I railed against this game in the beginning, and then softened up as the review went on.  As I said before, the gameplay is perfect.  Couple that with amazing graphics and atmosphere and I just can’t play killjoy with Aria of Sorrow.  There are also parts of the castle where I was genuinely intrigued, like running into the Chronomage, or traversing certain rooms where exiting puts you in a completely different part of the castle.  Unfortunately these moments are few and far between, and although the gameplay has been tuned to perfection and the soul system added, I still feel like I have played this game many times before.  I still recommend it though.  Especially if this is your first foray into GBA Castlevania territory, this is the best game in the series.  For those of you who have already played the previous GBA offerings, you know what you’re in for.

Overall Score: 8.0

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