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Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (Game Boy Advance) artwork

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (Game Boy Advance) review

"A really good Symphony clone is still a Symphony clone."

The history of Castlevania has been an interesting one. Throughout the eight- and 16-bit eras, if a game bearing that moniker was released, you often could expect a tough-as-nails two-dimensional platformer where you controlled a dude with a whip who'd battle through all sorts of monsters on his way to confronting Dracula. However, with the PlayStation, a new direction was taken.

Symphony of the Night kept the two dimensions and the platforming, but changed the focus to one of exploration, giving you a massive castle and changing the protagonist to Dracula's estranged son. You'd gradually collect abilities granting you access to new areas of the castle. Meanwhile, the difficulty was dropped significantly, making it a far more relaxing game than its predecessors, as you could explore at your own pace and occasionally find weapons or accessories capable of turning even the toughest adversaries into complete pushovers.

From there, the series embraced the third dimension on consoles and I found myself losing interest around the time I played Lament of Innocence and decided it felt less like Castlevania and more like a half-hearted God of War impersonator. However, the Symphony blueprint wasn't taken out of commission -- it just moved to handheld devices.

The GameBoy Advance received a total of three scaled-down Symphonies, with 2003's Aria of Sorrow being both the last and the best of that number. Not satisfied with being a mere mirror of its inspiration, Aria tinkered with the formula to become something more complex than one would expect of a game that can be beaten in less than 10 hours.

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow screenshot Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow screenshot

In devising the story, the design team seemingly went the route of psychedelics. Lots and lots of psychedelics. A lad named Soma Cruz visits a shrine with a friend during a solar eclipse and winds up at Dracula's castle, where he meets a motley crew of other people who also found themselves there. As Soma explores the place and does all the requisite killing of monsters and gaining of abilities, he finds out that Dracula and his castle are beings of chaos and Dracula isn't just a man, man; he's a state of mind and his soul can be passed down to those deemed worthy. Graham, one of those other people stuck in the castle, is convinced he's the dude about to inherit all the vampiric goodness. However, Soma's the one who is the protagonist, so, yeah, good luck with that, buddy.

As far as gameplay goes, the basic framework of Symphony is still intact. Soma will explore a large castle divided into numerous sections. Castlevania's beloved Clock Tower is there, of course, as well as underground waterways, vast chambers, an arena and all sorts of other places littered with secrets. Many of those secrets involve new weapons, armor and accessories for him to equip. The combination of those and the levels gained from hacking his way through the hordes of monsters inhabiting the castle gradually transform Soma from a weakling into a powerhouse.

The biggest alteration to that framework comes from killing those monsters. Occasionally, Soma will absorb the souls of his prey -- a mechanic that works as the cornerstone of Aria. You'll get introduced to this almost as soon as you've started playing. Soma will best a weak Winged Skeleton enemy and instantly gain its soul, which allows him to use a bit of magic to fire a spear at foes. Throughout the rest of the game, he'll regularly gain more and more of those souls.

A few of them are found in rooms and typically are rewards for defeating bosses. Odds are they're there to fill specific purpose that's an integral element of any game given the "metroidvania" title -- to give Soma an ability needed to access parts of the castle he couldn't previously reach. Others follow the example of Mr. Winged Skeleton and grant him various attacks, while a few also give passive boosts or enhance his stats. Oh, and you'll also need to possess three specific ones and have them equipped during the apparent final boss fight in order to keep the game running past that point and allowing you to access the true big baddie and the game's best ending. At least the game hints at this and there are a handful of books found in out-of-the-way places which give clues as to which souls you need, but still…

Another deviation from Symphony of the Night lies in the simple fact that this game actually has a certain amount of difficulty. It's not a brutally difficult old-school Castlevania and you likely won't feel like going from one save room to the next is akin to a death march, but there are a few moments in this game with the potential to become brick walls you'll have to bounce your head against until something breaks.

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow screenshot Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow screenshot

My personal moment of humility was provided by series staple Death. After the game's first boss was so pathetic it elicited a strange mixture of pity and contempt from me and the next few all resided firmly in that broad category where a person does have to pay attention and might even have to expend a healing item, but probably can get through without much stress, I was not prepared for a two-part battle against a durable foe possessing a number of quite damaging attacks that can at times be difficult to avoid. I was stalled at his chamber for a good amount of time, with my main saving grace being the combination of this game regularly placing save rooms next to boss rooms and there being some good enemies to battle nearby in order to grind levels. One of those foes, a giant suit of armor, even was kind enough to eventually drop a couple pieces of equipment which proved beneficial in boosting my stats enough to get past the grim reaper. Eventually. It also probably didn't help matters that Death resides at the top of the Clock Tower, which was a fair bit trickier to navigate than previous areas of the castle.

Things got better after that, although bosses still were challenging more often than not, with the penultimate foe on the path to the good ending being a real pain to get past. Part of that probably had to do with the levels I gained before finally toppling Death, but a lot of the credit also should be given to how powerful Soma can become in the hands of a gamer willing to explore every nook and cranny of the castle. There are some great weapons, including a massive and super-powerful sword that can cover an amazing amount of territory with its swings, ripe for the picking if you're not averse to retreading old ground whenever you gain a new ability.

Aria of Sorrow is a worthy handheld successor to Symphony of the Night, even if it isn't perfect. It's a quite short game. If you're familiar with Symphony, you'll find this one reaching its conclusion right about the time you'll be expecting to hit the midway point. While the soul-collecting aspect is really neat and gives you a plethora of ways to customize Soma, Aria still feels similar enough to its inspiration to be more an altered take upon it than an original creation, leading to me having a vague feeling of diminished returns. I enjoyed playing this game and doing all those fun "metroidvania" things like exploring a large castle, acquiring useful items and equipment hidden off the beaten path and finding ways to reach previously inaccessible places. However, nostalgia is a powerful drug and this one didn't captivate my imagination the way Symphony did when I first experienced it. It was a quite fun game, but there was a bit too much of a "been there, done that" vibe for me to feel like I'd want to replay it from time to time.

overdrive's avatar
Community review by overdrive (October 01, 2021)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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dagoss posted October 02, 2021:

Great review! How did you play it?

I went on a DS and GBA Castlevania kick last winter, and AoS was the final one I played (on an SP 001). I did play it when it was new, but it had been awhile. I'm not going to review it because it's so well trodden, but I did have some questions and thoughts.

Is this your first time through AoS and did you play SotN when it was new? Of the six Castlevanias on GBA and DS, Aria is the one I see the most compared to SotN and I think the player's opinion will differ heavily on what order they played it. SotN was groundbreaking and playing it was an awe-inspiring, once-in-a-lifetime experience. There was nothing like it. Now there's lots of stuff like it (especially with all the metroidvania-style indie games, largely inspired by Iggavanias), so Aria can't have the same impact SotN did on the player. I'd imagine someone playing SotN for the first time today after Aria, Hollow Knight, and a few others might shrug and say "cool music; but what's the big deal here?"

I found Aria somewhat devoid of challenge, largely because the breadth of souls leaves so many options. That's not a complaint though. Exploring the soul system was proportional to exploring the castle, since the player can steal a soul from basically every enemy so seeing a new enemy was exciting. I'm not really looking for a challenge in this style of game, I'm looking for something interesting to explore.

I agree that the castle is a bit too small, but that might be a credit to how good the game is--I didn't want it to end. I've never finished the Julius mode, but I appreciated that it was there. There's actually not much about Aria that I would change. The different areas felt connected and cohesive, there's a lot of secrets and variety to the ways you can play, and it's generally fun. It doesn't "captivate the imagination" like SotN does, but I'm not sure any game can really best the platonic ideal of SotN living in my memory of it anyway--probably not even SotN could meet those standards.
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Germ posted October 02, 2021:

Beautiful review, Overdrive. I played AoS when it came out and while I thought it was a step up over Harmony of Dissonance, I definitely didn't think it held a candle to Symphony.

Dagoss, I'm wondering if you've replayed SOTN recently? I play through it or a large portion of it every other year or so and it's always absorbing to me in a way the portable games never were, even though I also quite like them in their own right. I like indie Metroidvanias too, but there's still nothing quite like SOTN. Of course, that could certainly just be nostalgia clouding my judgment each play. I've never given AoS a replay since my first time when it came out, it could be my opinion would change.
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dagoss posted October 04, 2021:

Dagoss, I'm wondering if you've replayed SOTN recently? I play through it or a large portion of it every other year or so and it's always absorbing to me in a way the portable games never were, even though I also quite like them in their own right. I like indie Metroidvanias too, but there's still nothing quite like SOTN. Of course, that could certainly just be nostalgia clouding my judgment each play. I've never given AoS a replay since my first time when it came out, it could be my opinion would change.

My last full, 200% playthrough would have been about 10 years ago. I did pick it up a few months ago and tooled around for about an hour. It is amazing how just hearing it transports me to a time 20 years ago, sitting in my bedroom with a tube TV completely unaware that I was about to have a once in a lifetime experience.

Near-legendary games like SotN have a really interesting legacy and it'll be interesting to see what younger generations that go back to it with a clean mind think. My SotN is a horrible amalgamation of memories and love and crap that can't be separated from the game itself. I could see someone born in the early 2000s saying the castle is sparsely populated and its layout lacks branching paths and variety. There's probably a valid argument that Aria is better designed, but I'd never see it hiding in SotN's massive shadow.
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overdrive posted October 05, 2021:

Dagoss, my history with this game is complicated.

If you look at my review library, I did Circle of the Moon in '04 and Harmony of Dissonance in '08. Shortly after that, I planned to review this game. Like those two, I used Boycott Advance (main Mac emulator for the GBA at the time, but very spotty on compatibility). With it, I made it up to Headhunter, as which time, one of the most bizarre emulation glitches ever happened. The first head levitates over to Headhunter...and then goes right past the boss, off the screen. The fight never starts because of this and you're trapped in the boss room. Utterly bizarre.

A couple years later, I found another emulator that worked better, but didn't have external controller support. Made it to Death, but the combination of it being tough and me trying to use fingers on a laptap keyboard did not work, so I abandoned it. Then, recently, I found OpenEmu, which both works great and has controller support (and is compatible with a ton of systems, making it a one size fits all emulation deal) and decided I had a score to settle with this game. And now it is settled.

So, this is my third time "playing" Aria, but the first time I made it all the way through. As for SotN, it wasn't THAT long after it was out. Like with most systems, I jumped on the PS a few years after its release, so the game had been out for a bit, but it was new to me, as all I knew about it was a brief snippet or two I'd seen in magazines.

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