"All-in-all, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is a solid and enjoyable RPG experience."
If you're a Golden Sun fan like me, then you probably couldn't contain your excitement when Dark Dawn was announced. Its predecessors, Golden Sun and Golden Sun: The Lost Age still stand out as two of my favourite RPGs. Interesting premises, stories and characters met with fantastic dungeon design, a strong combat system, and cool psynergy powers in nearly flawless execution. I could only hope that Dark Dawn would step up and meet my expectations. Does it? The answer is both yes and no.
This installment of the franchise is set thirty years after the end of Golden Sun: The Lost Age. The four lighthouses were lit and alchemy returned to the world, but things are not all hunky dory. For starters, the Golden Sun event shifted continents, changed landscapes and even birthed new species. Alarmingly, psynergy vortexes have started appearing too. These large spheres can suck the psynergy from both human wielders (adepts) and the land itself. Two heroes from the earlier games, Isaac and Garret, have been living up in the mountains near Mt. Aleph, where the Golden Sun event took place, and have been studying its after-effects. Somewhere in the last thirty years both these heroes got busy and each had a son: Matthew and Tyrell. Matthew is the silent protagonist like his father Isaac was and Tyrell is similar to his hot-headed father Garret –albeit significantly more annoying. Teaming up with Ivan's daughter, named Karis, the three of them set out to search for the feather of a Mountain Roc to repair a piece of surveying equipment that Tyrell breaks in the opening sequence.
Finding a feather to repair a piece of equipment... doesn't sound all that interesting, does it? Unfortunately, around seventy-five percent of the storyline focuses on this task. The plot does pick up toward the end and obviously sets the series up for another installment, but most of the game just feels underwhelming. There are a few cameo appearances by characters from the first two Golden Sun games, but they're far more often verbally referred to rather than actually seen. It makes Dark Dawn accessible to newcomers, but might not be quite as detailed as hoped for by series fans. Anyone who played the first two games will find the plot related 'surprises' extremely transparent. I suspect, however, that the next Golden Sun will start off on an interesting note based on how this one ends.
In a similar vein to the story, most of the characters are lackluster. You have Matthew, the silent protagonist; Tyrell, the annoying side-kick; Karis, the boisterous girl, and five other people with equally two-dimensional personalities. Of the eight characters that join you, few are likeable and only one or two are even memorable. Considering the fond memories I have of characters from the first two games, it feels like a letdown. A couple of the villains are interesting –particularly a returning one, but they feel underdeveloped in this installment compared to the previous two.
The other minor annoyance is the lengthy and needless dialogue. Many conversations have little relevance to characters or plot and should probably have been cut or at least reduced in length. Combined with this is an odd emotion system where you respond to people's questions by smiling, grinning, being angry or sad. It's very difficult to know which emotion will do what and it barely changes the outcome of the scenario or dialogue anyway.
Luckily, the disappointment ends with the story and characters. The rest of Dark Dawn is tremendous, if a little easy. The gameplay is traditional role-playing in the purest sense. You encounter enemies randomly on the field, battles are turn-based, and have your team lined up against whatever foe you may encounter. You can pick from a regular attack, magic (known as psynergy), items and Djinn. Returning from the first two games, Djinn are small, elemental creatures that can be found hiding across the world. Each has a unique power that can be unleashed in battle and when combined with others can be used to call a powerful summon. Supplementing the combat, each character specialises in a specific element along with psynergy based around it. Matthew, for example, is a Venus Adept who wields earth-style powers. Equip him with a few earth Djinn and his earth power rises, not to mention he gains a few skills as well. The Djinn system allows for a ton of different options too. You can potentially mix and match elements such as giving Matthew fire, wind or water Djinn. This massively changes the psynergy he is capable of wielding and gives him a whole new skill set. The system allows for a surprising amount of customization and gives you the ability to mix and match skills on the fly between party members. Battles are fun, but they're also very simple. Most random encounters can be defeated with a few regular attacks. Often powerful psynergy is only needed if you want to finish off enemies faster. In fact, only the final boss gave me any sort of challenge at all, and the difficulty increase was ludicrously steep. The ease of victory didn't take away my enjoyment of the combat, but it made it less compelling than it could have been.
Outside battle you'll be doing the usual: taking on dungeons, exploring towns and pillaging and looting people's closets for potions and weapons. Towns are well designed and several you might recognise from the first two games. A few have some great little hidden alcoves to find and are generally just interesting to explore. The returning Kolima Forest stands out as a highlight as you explore the branches above the trees the town is built into. The dungeons themselves are absolutely brilliant. If you have played either of the first two games you'll feel right at home in these new dungeons. Many share similar design characteristics or puzzles which are sure to bring back old memories. For newcomers to the series, the previously aforementioned psynergy can also be used outside of battles to solve puzzles. 'Move' allows you to push and pull objects from a distance; 'Grab' allows you to pull yourself towards an object; 'Insight' gives you a hint on what to do next; 'Freeze' turns puddles of water into frozen pillars, and that's just to name a few. Adding this extra dimension to puzzle solving makes it all the more enjoyable and interesting. Like the combat, these puzzles are rarely challenging, but still fun to solve. Toward the end of the game there are a few truly memorable dungeons. My favourite involves making a large, elemental wheel roll down toward a gate, but you first have to fix the platforms and time gates correctly to move the wheel through smoothly. Once you have all four wheels at the gate you can roll them so the shadow they throw on the wall forms a picture. Aside from being a ton of fun, this puzzle really makes use of the technological capabilities of the DS.
Speaking of technology, the touch screen is rarely used in this title. You can use it to move Matthew, direct psynergy, and poke through menus, but there's nothing else special that it does. The menus are not particularly intuitive so having the stylus on hand helps, but you'll generally find yourself sticking to regular controls for the vast majority of the game.
Graphically, the game is charming. The quality of the environments is high, and there's plenty of variety to see throughout your adventure. There are some particularly impressive spell effects and summons that really make use of what the DS has to offer as well. Character models are quite cute and of a high standard, but they're nothing you haven't seen before. In battle they're more realistic and detailed, but considering how fast battles are typically won, you won't have much time to admire them. Another plus was the variation of enemy models used.
Musically, the game has its up points, but it's a little plain. The music is varied, but tends to fade into the background and is soon forgotten. Having spent considerable time with the game before reviewing it I'm struggling to even remember a few notes of any tune used. Unfortunately the sound effects fall into a similar category. There's nothing wrong with them, and many are quite good, but they fail to really stand out. Voice acting is entirely absent from this game, like many on DS, but it doesn't particularly matter. In short you won't be giving the sound much consideration. It's there, it does its job, but you're not going to remember it after you're done.
In terms of value, there's plenty to be found. The main game takes approximately twenty to twenty-five hours to complete, but that still leaves a fair bit of content. After you finish the game you have access to a few bonus dungeons, not to mention anything else you missed along the way. There are optional summons and Djinn to find as well as a handful of minor side quests. If you're feeling especially committed, you can even try to fill out the encyclopaedia or work on forging rare weapons. The only minor annoyance is many of the Djinn are actually missable if you don't pick them up by a certain point. There's no New Game+ so you'd have to start all over if you wanted to get them. Altogether, the entirety of the game would give you roughly thirty to thirty-five hours of enjoyment.
All-in-all, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is a solid and enjoyable RPG experience. It may be a little easy for veterans of the genre, but it's still a ton of fun. Story aside, the gameplay is top-notch and will definitely fulfill the needs of series fans. Brilliantly designed dungeons along with great graphics and interesting locations really aid in making this a purchase-worthy title. The music and characters are a bit of a letdown, but otherwise, this is definitely a handheld RPG not to miss.