|Platform:||Game Boy Advance|
The castle towered above the earth, an ominous shadow given a ghastly aura from the moon's pale light. Silhouetted against the homely satellite, the castle seemed to be more than just enveloped in shadows, but rather a presence that challenged light in its entirety. A cry echoed out and a horde of dark shapes swarm from towering peaks that seem to cut into the night sky like daggers, piercing the impossibly dark blanket that is the heavens. Ageless, the cold, gray stones that compose its structure resonate with the soft hum of evil things, the hallways laced with its master's touch. The castle is the source of many stories, many tales, and the home to equally as many dangers. Deep within its walls, at the heart of the massive structure, an ancient darkness stirred, seeking to return to a corporeal state. As the cogs of fate set into motion, and a new story began to be written...
A story focused on a young exchange student named Soma Cruz, who currently studies abroad in Japan. It is the year 2035, and on the night of the game's beginning the first solar eclipse of the 21st century. Soma and his fellow classmate/friend Mina, have set out to witness the eclipse from the Hakuba Shrine, which Mina is the caretaker of. Unfortunately for the hapless hero, what starts off as a simple trip to the Shrine in order to witness this celestial phenomenon becomes the catalyst that leads Soma and Mina to be transported to Dracula's "true" castle, magically sealed within a dimension that exists within the solar eclipse. It is there that they meet Genya Arikado, a well-dressed man shrouded in mystery, who reveals the greater mechanisms of the universe and Soma's role in life. It is learned that Soma possesses "dark powers" that allow him to snare the soul of defeated enemies and utilize them as enhancements to his own self. Arikado informs Soma that there he has few options, that his survival, and more importantly the survival of his dear friend Mina, relies on his ability to brave the dangers of Dracula's Castle and survive until he reaches the structure's heart, the Prince of Darkness' throne. Only then will he discover the means to escape. Leaving Mina at the castle's entrance, Soma sets forth to challenge the horrors of castle Dracula and secure safe return to earth for him and Mina.
The most noticeably appealing aspect of Aria of Sorrows is the graphics. Although Konami still hasn't managed to replicate Symphony of the Night's graphical allure entirely on the GBA, Aria of Sorrows makes a damn good attempt at it. The castle environments are gorgeous and well layered, some rooms even sporting impressive effects like rolling clouds and various other background activity. The game also possess fairly decent animations, although more so in quantity than quality. For every different type of weapon there is a unique animation to it, such as a downward or upward slash, a forward lunge or a horizontal chop. While there is nothing outwardly wrong with the movements of the weapons and sprites, they are far from lavishly detailed or noteworthy. Not to mention that if there wasn't so much to pay attention to while playing, Soma's awkward running animation would be quite the eyesore. Thankfully players are kept occupied dealing with the hordes of enemies that assail poor Soma from every direction.
The award-winning aspect of Aria Sorrows, however, is its addictively fun gameplay. On par with Symphony of the Night, there is a considerable array of powers, abilities, and weapons to choose from, all that diversify the gameplay extensively. Most of this is thanks to the newly introduced Soul system. Just to debunk other sources, the Soul system is nothing like the Fusion system in Metroid Fusion. There are really minor similarities, but ideally they work on two different levels. In Metroid Fusion it was HP or missiles that were regained upon killing an enemy. When boss fights were completed abilities were obtained. Not much more to it. In Aria of Sorrows, however, there are four types of Souls to collect, and each type has its own unique effect on Soma. The Souls are as followed: Bullet Souls, Guardian Souls, Enchanted Souls, and Ability Souls.
Bullet Souls, obtained by slaying normal enemies, are represented as a red color, and can best be compared to the secondary weapons found in most other Castlevania games (knife, holy water, cross, axe, etc.). After killing an enemy containing a soul, Soma then absorbs their innate abilities, like a spear-throwing skeleton who's Soul obviously bestows upon the hero the power to hurl spears - at the cost of his MP, naturally. Guardian Souls are blue. Much like Bullet Souls, they too consume MP but generate a continual effect until turned off or the MP gauge is depleted. Activated with the R button, they include such effects as the ability to glide or drain an enemy's HP with a wicked looking device. Enchanted Souls, indicated by their yellow color, have a continuous effect on the character without being initiated and do not consume MP. The best example of an Enchanted Soul is the Undine ability, which allows Soma to walk on water surfaces. Enchanted Souls go into effect immediately when set in the menu system. Like the other two, only one Enchanted Soul can be used at a time.
The only Souls that can have multiple instances used at the same time are Ability Souls. Like Enchanted Souls, they are not dependent on the character's HP and go into effect immediately upon acquisition. Double-Jump, Back-Dash, and Slide are all examples of Ability Souls and all can be turned on simultaneously without any consequence. With all these instances, only one of each can be set into effect.
Although equipment such as weapons, secondary items, and armor have been available since Symphony of the Night the introduction of the Soul System gives a new level of customization that previously had been absent in the Castlevania series. This is especially true when coupled with the character levels and stats, such as HP, MP, Attack, Defense, etc. The ability to choose what types of attacks, defenses, and abilities the playable character can invoke has given Aria of Sorrows a chance to be the most revered installment of the series, hardly caught in the shadow of Symphony of the Night like its predecessors. If uniqueness is the key to being noticed, then surely Aria of Sorrows represents this idea entirely.
Now for the burning question everyone is sure to have: how does the music fare? As many know, Circle of the Moon is mildly acclaimed for sporting rather high-quality music, both in selection and in excellence. Its successor, Harmony of Dissonance, was quite a let-down to fans, however, as the music was toned down in order to devote resources to other aspects of the game. Thankfully, with Aria of Sorrows, the developers discovered a pleasant equilibrium, sacrificing nothing regarding sound and music for any other part of the game. All the melodic, ambient tunes expected of a Castlevania game are sealed within the tiny cartridge and accompany the player during their journey through Dracula's castle, from the second the title screen fades until the very last moments of the game. The only shortcoming to a game with music this captivating is the limitations of the Game Boy Advance. Some of the songs would have far great impact if their orchestration was possible, instead of the blips and beeps and restrictions of MIDI. Perhaps an arranged album or something of similar taste will be released so that the music can truly be appreciated. Nevertheless, even while considering the aural constraints of the Game Boy Advance, the oh-so Castlevania-esque compositions ring true and proud.
Despite all the alterations, Aria of Sorrow remains irrevocably familiar, undeniably another installment of the Castlevania series. Equipped with the elements many gamers hold dear and consider the lifeblood of the series, Aria of Sorrow also showcases the true art of game development: to adapt and change as necessary yet remain consistent. A cornerstone to the company's success, Castlevania continues to bring Konami high praise and a decidedly powerful fan-base. A round of applause goes out to the company for taking fans' appreciation into thought and producing the ideal hybrid that many were skeptical of. It goes without saying that many will put their fears to rest concerning Castlevania's future, whether it is 2-D or 3-D. The story of Dracula and the heroes who seek to slay the Prince of Darkness lives on...