"Nothing feels particularly refreshing. You've seen all the tricks before, they impressed you at the time, and now there's this overwhelming sense of deja vu. Some of the absolute coolest bosses in the game, for example, feel like they were ripped straight out of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Which makes sense, as they obviously were."
Sometimes Dracula likes to wander about his castle on the eve of a millenium with his dark, twisted powers left back in the coffin, somewhere up in the highest tower. He likes to stare at the moon, marvel at the swirling black clouds that hang over his dreary home like a plague, and wait for a hero to come along and seal him away until the next full moon. Or so one would suppose, upon diving into the story that lies behind Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, the latest entry in the famed series that has been putting players in the role of vampire hunter since the 8-bit days.
Since most of you are aleady familiar with the story behind the franchise's evolution from clunky platformer to silky-smooth adventure, I'll eschew the details and get right down to the discussion of those things that keep us playing every new entry into the franchise that Konami manages to internally develop and toss our way: plot and gameplay.
As mentioned above, this story revolves around the theory that Dracula was somehow weak at the time the full moon (when all monsters are typically at the height of their powers) ushered in the new millenium. This enabled a mysterious hero to seal the fiend away into the eclipse, along with his monstrous castle, Castlevania. About 33 years later, a guy by the name of Soma was wandering up a dark and mysterious set of stairs to join his friends for the full moon party, when things went black. When he came to, he was in the castle courtyard with a friend. And that's where the game begins.
As you progress through the adventure, you'll find that this tale has as much depth as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night before it, and certainly more heart than Castlevania: Circle of the Moon and Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance managed in the last year and a half. That's not to say that every boss battle is going to reward you with another chunk of plot. There are in fact only around 4 or 5 character encounters between the ones at the start of the game and the one that precedes the final battle. These twists do hint at a very interesting set of events, though. Without saying too much, the true secret identity of that vampire hunter at the start was--ha ha, just kidding! And that's not the only secret that will be revealed. As you delve deeper into the twisted corridors that comprise Castlevania, you'll come to understand that not all is as it appears, not everyone is who you might think, and Soma looks enough like Juste from Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance that they might as well have the same name.
Now that we've got plot out of the way, for the most part, I thought I'd dwell on the topic a little longer so I can be accused of beating a dead horse. But seriously, plot is important not only for what's there, but for how it adds to that other important element known as...gameplay.
See, Soma finds upon waking in the castle that he has gained the very cool ability to drain souls from monsters. Just about any monster you meet has a soul to steal. Your ability to steal the soul is unfortunately quite random. You might fight an enemy once and see that happy little bubble of joy flash over to where Soma stands, or you might fight a hundred of the stupid skeletons before anything happens, if it does at all.
The way skills work is very similar to skills in Castlevania: Circle of the Moon. This time, though, you're limited to a combination of 3 types of skills instead of just 2. Though they don't join to create new attacks or anything here, you definitely have to keep in mind what you want equipped in order to succeed. There are basically three types of skills, too: offensive, supporting, and time-related. So you might equip the ability to toss a butcher knife as your weapon skill, to add to your strength with a particular monster ability, and to extend the distance you can jump with your support skill. For the most part, these are going to use up your heart meter.
That's right; the heart meter returns. Instead of using it to toss an extra knife or ax, you use it for your skills. If you're missing the ax, just suck the soul out of an unfortunate ax knight. So nothing is really missing, and the way things are implemented this time around feels perfect. In so many ways that truly count, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is the best 2D outing the series has seen since Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
Yet there are a few problems.
One fact you'll be unable to escape is that around halfway through the game, you suddenly realize you're just going through the motions. If you have a particularly short attention span, you might even find yourself yawning as you head for that next warp point to skip from point 'A' in the castle to point 'B' and save a little time. Nothing feels particularly refreshing. You've seen all the tricks before, they impressed you at the time, and now there's this overwhelming sense of deja vu. Some of the absolute coolest bosses in the game, for example, feel like they were ripped straight out of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Which makes sense, as they obviously were.
The further you go in the game, the more this feeling increases. I hesitate to call the developers lazy. Instead, I'll say they must have been rushed. At around 80%, I was feeling pretty amazed. I'd heard the game was only 5 or 6 hours long, and here I was at almost 5 hours and only 4/5 of the way through. But that last bit just flew by. There are whole rooms with no purpose other than to contribute massive chunks to the percentage of the castle the game figures you've explored. It's rather disappointing.
At least the graphics aren't all bad. Think of the perfect cross between Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance and Castlevania: Circle of the Moon and you've probably got a good idea what the developers and artists have in store for you. You'll see all the familiar areas, from the waterways to the cathedral to the arena (which looks almost as cool as it did on the Playstation).
Soma moves with grace, too, though he doesn't feel as fluid as Juste did. He's definitely a lot more comfortable with motion than the hero from Circle of the Moon, but he's no Alucard wannabe. Enemies generally look very organic, as well. When you're fighting a monster that fills half the screen, it doesn't look like it's just a background with animated eyeballs (a trick some Capcom games use on us all the time). Instead, segments move independently of one another, while somehow working in tandem. Nothing to complain about here.
Speaking of complaints, there are less of those that can be legitimately leveled against the audio. Though the graphics here are a fraction less inspiring than those in Harmony of Dissonance, the sound this time around is arguably the best the franchise has seen on a handheld. Though sound isn't really my forte, I have to say there's a lot better instrument variety here, and the music doesn't seem quite as tinny. So if you're an audiophile, go nuts.
Another mixed blessing is that you won't have a chance to get sick of the music. That's both because there's a good variety, and because the game is likely to last you only the afore-mentioned 6 hours, or perhaps 8 hours. And when a game is this cool, 8 hours is never enough.
What all of this comes together to mean in the grand scheme of things is that you should connive a friend into buying this game, then borrow it over a weekend and finish it. Sure, we should all have this one in our collection. It's one of the best games on the system, hands down. But like so many games, it only lasts a short time. If that doesn't bother you, this one is by all means recommended as a purchase. Otherwise, borrow. Just make sure that whatever you do, you play it.
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Staff review by Jason Venter (May 13, 2003)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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