"Aside from the soul-absorption ability, you can also pick up weapons! That's right, just like in Symphony of the Night, the main character can arm himself with swords, axes, maces, even a gun. "
The Castlevania games on GBA just keep getting better and better. The first, Circle of the Moon showed us that GBA can handle a game like its predecessor, Symphony of the Night as well as plenty of cool spells and features unique to the GBA title. Harmony of Dissonance boasted even more impressive visuals, and a world just as complex and immersive as Circle of the Moon's. After three consecutive releases, all using roughly the same formula, gamers might be getting slightly suspicious of this little franchise. Has the RPG-cum-sidescroller recipe been played out? Or is there more satisfaction to be found in this extremely rewarding game design?
Aria of Sorrow plays a lot like the other three titles. That isn't to say there are some major differences, though. You'll still be running through voluminous chambers and long hallways, all the while engaging a variety of familiar enemies, along with a few new ones. However, instead of chasing after HoD's meager 6 spellbooks, or even CotM's 20 DSS cards, you'll have the opportunity to collect over 150 enemy souls. Sound like fun? It is.
The soul-absorption system roughly mirrors the magic-setups of the last two games, but offers more of everything that matters. The most exciting addition is the ability to equip 3 souls at once. While HOD and CotM only let you combine two different factors, AoS permits the splicing of three. This, along with the massive number of souls makes for huge variety and experimentation. Much like in CotM, the souls are separated into categories. However, instead of actually merging different soul attributes, to produce a single effect, each soul equipped acts in its own right, mostly uninfluenced by any other souls active. For example, you may have one soul equipped which grants you a sub-weapon, one which activates a passive defense spell, and another which raises your stats, simultaneously.
You're probably wondering what powers all these ''souls;'' the answer is somewhat surprising. Konami has done away with MP, and basically replaced your standard magic points with hearts. Yes, that's right, those little hearts which fall from slashed candles now facilitate all your special abilities in the game. As for the sub-weapons, which are usually what use up hearts have been ommitted. You will no longer be able to pick up the crucifix, knife, holy water or any of those other fun items found in all the past games. If you're disappointed, I'll say that this change was for the best. Not only is it nice to not have to worry about two depletable resources, but those sub-weapons seem to have their equivalents in certain souls. Therefore, the system is near-perfect.
Aside from the soul-absorption ability, you can also pick up weapons! That's right, just like in Symphony of the Night, the main character can arm himself with swords, axes, maces, even a gun. If I had to choose one thing that was missing from SotN, it would be a decent magic system. And if I had to choose something that both CotM and HoD were without, it was equippable weapons. Now we have both of these fun gameplay elements incoprorated into one game. Essentially, this makes playing AoS more fun than any of its immediate predecessors. ''Even more fun than SotN, you say?'' Yes, I do.
For those of you who thought that HoD was visually impressive, I suggest you take a look at AoS. It's true, HoD was a big improvement over CotM, graphically, and so is AoS over HoD. Richer, more detailed backgrounds, brighter, more vibrant colors, less slowdown, crisper effects, and, possibly most impressive of all, noticeably smoother animations. In two short years, Konami went from Nathan's clunky, 3-frame run, to Juste's semi-smooth glide, and now to Soma's silky jog. When I say silky, I mean like Alucard-silky. This guy runs with no noticeable choppiness, and sets an example for all the monsters in the game. Truly impressive stuff.
HoD's sound was less than adequate, but no one really complained. Trust me, AoS's superb soundtrack will make you feel the need to complain about HoD's aural mediocrity. The tunes are as catchy, atmospheric and entertaining as SotN's, and the sound quality is as good as CotM's. Unbelievable? Yeah, it really is.
AoS has more of an emphasis on plot than the last two games, but maybe not quite as much as SotN. There are more characters this time around, instead of just the main character, and a ''friend'' or two. Those standard, expected encounters youu find yourself in with these characters are also much more in-depth than you would expect. Dialogue lasts longer, is better-written, and certainly reveals more than in the last two games. As for the storyline itself, things have been switched up. It takes place in the future, which has little effect on the castle itself, but adds an interesting dimension to the storytelling aspect. Not bad, overall, and almost certainly as good, if not better than the last three games in the series.
The level of difficulty is very important in all games, but it seems that people complain most about misgivings in the action/adventure genre. When a game is based almost purely on hands-on battle and exploration, rather than story sequences and other such elements, whether the game is too easy or too hard can really influence how one feels about a game. Some say CotM was too hard. These are the same people who say that HoD was too easy. Though I don't necessarily agree with either of these statements, if I had to make a decision, it would be that AoS is almost smack-dab in the middle of those two games, when it comes to measuring the overall difficulty. This doesn't matter so much to me, because I feel that all three games are adequately difficult, it may be very pleasing for many people to hear this.
AoS disappointly, is very similar to HoD in length and replay value. Expect to spend 5-7 hours gametime to actually reach the ending. However, I spent 10 extra hours getting everything in the game, which I'm sure some gamers who can't get enough of this will be likely to do as well. Still, unlike SotN, which boasted at least 10 hours of gameplay, AoS may leave gamers feeling a little shortchanged. There are a few extra features, however, such as boss ruch mode, and an extra character mode which allow a little bit of lasting interest. Overall, though, I would have certainly liked more.
Once, twice, three times Konami has amazed GBA owners with some of the most spectacular sidescrollers ever seen. It's hard to believe that Aria of Sorrow came so quickly after Harmony of Dissonance, especially when considering the quality and scope, surpassing that of the previous games. Symphony of the Night started an amazingly successful sub-series of sorts, with the sleak little titles now being brought out on GBA. It's funny, because I called Harmony of Dissonance a cross between Symphony of the Night and Circle of the Moon. Now I'd say that Aria of Sorow could be labeled a cross between Harmony of Dissonance, Circle of the Moon and Symphony of the Night. It's as if with each new episode, Konami are tweaking their formula just enough to get it perfect. The weapons and graphics from SotN are here, the magic from HoD and CotM is here, and the overall gameplay quality you've come to expect from this series is most definitely here. Aside from the aging factor a series must equate after more than 2 titles, this one is incredibly satisfying. If you don't mind taking a different route through the same town, pick up Aria of Sorrow as quick as possible.
Staff review by James Gordon (May 15, 2003)
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