"Amoebic sludge balls, armor shelled warriors with axes, shape shifting walls, and lightning powered phoenixes -- these are the things a Castlevania game is made of. "
Since the early days of Simon Belmont, down through the generations, Dracula and his evil minions continue to find ways to resurface. Similar to the great heroes of time, each descendant manages to come of age with powerful new techniques and abilities which hold evil at bay. However, no matter what picture you paint within the haunting realm of the dead, every new Castlevania game will always remain true to its series. From the groundbreaking customization of Symphony of the Night to the card-based combat system of Circle of the Moon, each title brings something new to the table. And Dawn of Sorrow is no different. Konamiís new package encompasses all of the challenges and charms its series has always possessed, yet it seems to lack something. Perhaps that missing puzzle piece lies in the fact the game misses the chance to take full advantage of a particular feature; that of course being the touch screen.
Nevertheless, I was having too good of a time to worry about the few minor complaints that surfaced here and there. The improved enemy intelligence and intriguing soul weapon system bring about a monumental improvement that many of the early titles lacked. The passive puppet-esque motions of foes from the past have been replaced with active adversaries that seem to come to life when you draw near. I canít tell you the number of times I was fooled by a demon archerís precision or an explosive plant that looked like a normal shrub. New demons spawn with each passing room that you tear through, and you are given nothing less than a rough time by each one of them.
Poor Soma Cruz just can't seem to catch a break.
A year has passed since the events of Aria of Sorrow and Soma still struggles with the fact that, he alone, is the key to awakening Dracula. Even conquering the demons inside himself wasnít enough as now a deranged cult, led by the evil sorceress Celia, plans to resurrect the dark lord by force. Of course, our protagonist could just keep himself hidden but to protect the world from yet another evil, he decides to venture beyond the door and return to the castle.
Within the halls of the great fortress are a tremendous number of demons that require slaying. Luckily Dawn of Sorrow introduces a new combat system that gets the job done like never before. What brings about the fresh feel to the game mechanics is a three piece system that all works around capturing souls: enchantment, summoning, and absorption. With each soul captured you can use their power to enchant weapons, summon a previously defeated monster, or use their abilities to solve puzzles. This makes combat very addictive and you will spend every waking hour searching for demons to vanquish, so that you can add their essence to your collection.
On another note, unlike the previous titles in the series, there are many more save points. So, if real life responsibility rears its ugly head you wonít have to journey too far to take a breather. What also helps relieve some tension is the helpful map layout borrowed from previous titles in the series; no more getting lost and running into that same dead-end thirty or more times. This of course all occurs on the top screen alongside a menu that displays player stats and equipped items. The touch screen though is what brings about the most unique element hidden in the gameís repertoire -- the Magic Seal system.
Not too far from the starting bell will be the introduction to the seals and how you utilize them. Opening doors with magical barriers, vanquishing reoccurring obstructions and banishing evil manifestations to oblivion are just a few of the options available to you. With the stylus in hand you draw a particular pattern when a seal appears, usually when facing any of the previously mentioned events. Each successful drawing has certain effects, as one pattern could send certain monsters to their doom, another could possibly unlock previously unreachable areas. However, the system can get frustrating later on when some seals get very complicated and hard to memorize, and failing a seal at opportune moments could have you fighting that boss multiple times.
I suppose that we can forgive it though. The boss fights alone are almost worth the full price of admission.
Towering behemoths that launch eye beams, pyro-maniacs, and acrobatic dagger throwers -- each one provides a challenge and several are quite the sight to behold. Taking full advantage of the DSís visual capacity, many of the creeps you will be battling with seem to be part of the very background itself. Balore immediately comes to mind when I think of immense. Dodging his massive punches gives you the sense that you are fighting both him and the room, all the while his expansive lasers are ripping through the fragile icicles that surround the corners of the frigid cathedral. Unfortunately for him, it doesnít take long to memorize his attack patterns, and a couple of head shots with your claymore will send him packing. With each antagonist you lock away, a new power is yours, and aside from the level grinding, it will be the primary way to increase your strength throughout the game.
Complementing your progression through the castle is a series of great tracks that really make you feel like the great demon hunter himself. The eerie sound effects and excellent composition of some pieces help bring about a greater sense of involvement in the game. Hear the classic organ playing a dramatic, upbeat theme as you scurry within the wizard's laboratory and an ambient melody for some of the underwater portions. And of course, it wouldn't be a Castlevania game without the disturbingly quiet save rooms. The only complaint that I have here is that there aren't quite enough different tracks, with some of the same music being repeated throughout. All in all though, everything comes together remarkably well.
Yet, if there was one minor detriment noticeable throughout Dawn of Sorrow, it would be the uninteresting side characters. You will come to find out that most of the people Soma interacts with are generally introverted. Well, except for Hammer. He is just hilarious. However, one has to wonder if there was something more that could have been built into the storyline. The result is a tried and true formula that gives off a cliched blockbuster sequel feel, but truthfully, you shouldnít fix what isnít broken. On the bright side, if you have not played Aria of Sorrow then you will not be affected by this in any way. Just like all other side-scrolling platformers, the game is easy to pick up and will have you feeling as if you have been hunting down zombies for years.
Simply put, it is hard to complain when everything comes to together so well. The haunting overworld themes, the barren setting, the diverse combat capabilities, and the engaging boss confrontations all make Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow an unforgettable experience. Even after everything is said and done, there is a lot to work for in the form of unlockable characters and extra endings. Sure the anime style makes it feel less Gothic and the touch screen isnít used nearly enough, but in the end it doesn't really matter. Konami took all the strong points from previous Castlevaniaís and crammed them together to form one of the best action adventure titles I have played in a long while. The attentions to relevant detail and building on what makes this series so excellent, are the key reasons it will be around for a long time.
Staff review by Branden Barrett (October 11, 2005)
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