Daniel Sims Intro:
After bringing us three excellent handheld Castlevania games on the GBA, all of them in the style of the seminal hit "Symphony of the Night", Konami takes the classic franchise onto two screens for the first time...Story:
One year after the events of Aria of Sorrow, Soma Cruz, the supposed reincarnation of the Dark Lord Dracula encounters a Cult that intends to kill him and create a new Dark Lord. To prevent this from happening Soma must infiltrate enemy territory and visit Castlevania once again.
Castlevania Dawn of Sorrow keeps up the usual gothic style that is a staple of the series with dark, gloomy environments and a variety of monsters to populate it.
Most of the enemy designs are ones that have been used in Castlevania for years. But in this game many of them are more elaborately designed and of course there are some new ones that look pretty cool. From you usual skeletons and zombies to gigantic demons of destruction in this game you encounter many different enemies from all over mythology.
The environments in this game are mostly the same as in many Castlevania games. You'll go through places like the chapel and guest house once again. There are also a couple new places like the Village outside the castle and the Mine under it, but it mostly feels the same as before, only these environments are designed to look more elaborate and more detailed than before. If you are used to Castlevania you know exactly what to expect in terms of where you'll go but there is still a good amount of variety in the game world here.
One thing about this game that may disappoint some fans of the series is the absence of Ayami Kojima's excellent production art that has been applied to nearly every other game in the series. Instead of her gothic artwork the game has been given a more generic anime-like style that may feel less classy. But I got over it pretty quickly and realized that it really doesn't affect the end result of the game.
The Visual department is probably where Castlevania DS shows the most improvement over it's predecessors on the GBA. Although most of the character sprites seem to be brought back from Aria of Sorrow (some from much earlier than that), they are all much larger (probably twice the size) and much more detailed with improved animation. Soma's cape and hair will flow more realistically as he walks and he probably has twice as many animations as he did in Aria of Sorrow. Enemies, move, attack, and die more fluidly. When you kill an enemy with a stabbing weapon or a large swinging weapon, there will be a difference in how the body's fragments fall to the ground, which only adds to the variety of death animations you'll see in this game, some of which are actually really cool. Then there are the bosses, some of which are gigantic, taking up nearly an entire screen with their lavish animations and impressive design detail.
What has also received an improvement is the environments and backgrounds. They are larger, more detailed, more elaborate, with more dynamic objects, and most of them scroll as you move through them. A couple of the backgrounds in the game are even in 3D, done so that they actually blend into the 2D foreground quite well. With this game Konami has done great work with the new DS hardware to make probably one of the best looking games on the platform so far.Gameplay:
Although the Nintendo DS is a platform that's made to stress innovation and new styles of play, Dawn of Sorrow actually plays almost exactly like its GBA predecessors.
It's still a side-scrolling action game in the "Metroid-Vania" style of Symphony of the Night in which you must travel through each section of Dracula's castle, fighting enemies, leveling up, and obtaining new items and abilities which allow you progress to new places.
All of the obstacles, traps, and enemies in this game will require you to have some platforming skills though. Sliding under enemies, memorizing their attack patterns, jumping over blades, and dashing away from traps does give off a nice sense of challenge. Always letting you know that this game isn't just about leveling up and getting to the next area of the castle. This is especially true for boss fights.
As Dawn of Sorrow is a direct sequel to Aria of Sorrow, Aria's Soul system has made a return in this game with more souls and more abilities to go with them. For those of you who have not played Aria of Sorrow, whenever you kill an enemy in the game, there is a chance that you might retrieve their "soul". When you do, you gain the ability to use their attack at the cost of MP (which automatically recharges slowly now). There are four kinds: Bullet souls which shoot out like projectiles, Guardian souls which project out a shield or familiar that fights with you, Enchant Souls which either temporarily grant you certian abilities or raise stats, and Ability souls which permanently give you new abilities and powers.
What's new in this game is that whenever you collect more than one of a particular Soul, instead of piling up on your equip screen, your abilities from that soul become stronger. On top of this your souls can be used to upgrade weapons into newer stronger weapons or simply get rid of useless ones to eliminate clutter. There are a lot of souls to collect so you probably won't use every single one of them but you'll almost definitely find a favorite set of souls that you'll use most of the time. These new additions to the soul system help things feel more convenient and also give you more uses for Souls, adding variety to how you can play the game, which overall makes things better for the player.
Because this is a Castlevania game in the SOTN style, the entire castle is set up in a non-linear way that will require you to run through many areas several times to unlock new areas. The castle in Dawn of Sorrow feels very large (probably larger than in any of the GBA games) and integrated very well, as you'll probably be using the warp zones more often than before.
What the DS has done for Castlevania gameplay-wise, although not incredibly innovative, does make this game feel much nicer and more convenient to play.
All of the action in the game takes place on the bottom screen while the top screen can be switched between a map and an information screen showing your current equipment and stats. Although using a map for the second screen in many other DS games hasn't really helped much or been at all seen as innovative, in a game like Castlevania where knowing your location at all times is essential, it is a godsend. Instead of pausing the game all the time I can just glance at the top screen for a second to know where I am while I'm not even taken out of the game experience.
The two extra buttons on the DS are also put to good use. There are now two attack buttons, one for normal attack and one for a stronger attack that uses up MP. On top of this, once you receive a soul called Doppelganger, you can set up two different sets of Souls and Equipment that you can instantly switch between with a simple press of the X button. This allows you to prepare for and adapt to various situations in the game on the fly without even pausing.
Touchscreen support in this game is minimal. There are a couple puzzles that require use of the touchscreen and a couple small gameplay elements. First there's the whole icebreaker thing. When you get a certain soul, you'll be able to break away blocks of ice in your way by drawing over them with the touchscreen. There are parts where Konami makes some good implementation of this by making you think about which blocks you really wanna destroy but the whole thing isn't used too much.
Then there's the Magic Sealing. These are symbols that you write on the touch screen. At certain points in the game you'll get new ones that will allow you to go through certain doors you couldn't before. When you fight a boss, eventually you'll have to write the symbol to seal it. Get it right and the boss is gone. Get it wrong and you gotta keep fighting until you get it right. I have to admit that with some of these boss fights being as hard as they are, it can be pretty aggravating to mess up on a seal and end up having to fight Death three times in a row. At first the symbols are pretty easy, but the later ones actually get pretty complicated and do take some memorization and practice.
Even as challenging as those puzzles and the magic sealing can be, it can be easily seen that touchscreen support in Dawn of Sorrow was never the center of design.
On top of the main story in Dawn of Sorrow is the inclusion of two alternate modes of play. Julius mode and Enemy Set mode.
Julius mode, where you can play as a Belmont and experience the game more like you would a regular Castlevania game makes a return from Aria of Sorrow. But this time Julius mode is an actual part of the storyline that you must complete in order to unlock everything. On top of this you can level up now just like in the normal game.
In this edition of Julius mode, you start out as Belmont but eventually gain Beldandes and Alucard (yes he's back) as playable characters. Each one has their advantages so you'll get about equal mileage out of all of them.
However, when playing as the trio you cannot use any
items at all. This means almost no healing. As you could expect this makes boss fights much more difficult. Whereas in Soma mode you could just stock up on healing items for those tough ones, in Julius mode you must rely almost entirely on your master platforming skills (you did bring them right) to get through boss fights. This makes them much more challenging and in the end probably more fun. Julius mode is an excellent (and pretty simple) addition to the game that not even I have been able to complete yet but has given me more of a challenge than the normal game.
In Enemy Set Mode, you are given an empty set of rooms in which you can place any enemy you want out of the ones you've retrieved the souls for in the main game in any setup you want to create your own custom obstacle course which you can wirelessly send to a friend and have them play through while timing them.
Seems pretty cool right? Well as far as I've seen you can only use the rooms they give you and you can't change their order. All you can do is place enemies and you can only pace them in a set area in each room. You also have a limit for how many enemies you can place in each room, based on the size of each enemy. Now with the right set of enemies and some careful planning I'm sure that it's possible to create some pretty challenging enemy setups but in the end this feature feels kind of tacked on just to give the game more replay value. It is a nice concept however that could prove successful in future games with some work.
Instead of using the DS hardware to try to make Castlevania feel really new and more innovative, Konami simply used the DS's conveniences to make the gameplay feel much more streamlined and to quicken the overall pace of the game, which proves that a game on the DS doesn't have to make total use of everything on the system to make for a good game.Audio:
One staple of Castlevania's success has been it's above average music. This does not change with Dawn of Sorrow. From the start the music seems to fit the style of each environment nicely, from the starting music of the Lost village to sort of 80s Michael Jackson-themed Wizardry Lab, to the solemn tunes of Subterranean Hell the music in Dawn of Sorrow does not at all disappoint. Fans of music from games like Symphony of the Night and Circle of the Moon should enjoy what this game has to offer.
The other audio in Dawn of Sorrow is great as well. When I hit an enemy, kill it, and hear it explode into a cloud of fire or blood I got a nice sense of impact from it. Although it's all in Japanese, the voice acting that is in Dawn of Sorrow is actually quite good. When you do a certain attack or get to a certain cutscene your character may say a random word or two, none of which I really understand but still enjoy to some extent, especially the dying cry of the Werewolf.
With a great soundtrack and satisifying sound effects, Dawn of Sorrow probably has the best audio on the DS. This is definitely a game that should be played with headphones on at all times.Replay:
Replay value was one area in which this game actually surprised me a bit. In Aria of Sorrow there was the main game, the main game in hard mode, Julius mode, and boss rush, which I had cleared only a few days after buying the game. I've had Dawn of Sorrow for over a week (almost two) and it's gotten tough.
What surprised me the most after "beating" the game for the first time was when I found out that I had only fought and killed around half the bosses and still had much more ground to cover to truly finish the game. Plus there's going through the whole thing in Julius mode which can become far more challenging. All of this makes the game feel much longer than Aria of Sorrow and should keep you into the game for at least a couple dozen hours.Closing Comments:On the DS Konami has taken the Castlevania experience and streamlined it to make it feel better paced and much more convenient as well as bring us nicely improved visuals and some of the greatest music on the DS. If you are a fan of action platformers and own a DS, this game is a must buy. If you are a fan of Castlevania, Konami is now commanding you to purchase a DS.9/
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