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Konami's Castlevania series has come a long way from its humble beginnings in the arcades and MSX platforms. Spanning nearly every console made, and with a storyline stretching back to the thirteenth century and shooting past the present to 2035, it's no surprise that the series is classic. Though one person's "classic" is another's "tired," and in this case, the series' latest iteration, Dawn of Sorrow for Nintendo DS could go either way, honestly. Read on and decide for yourself.
After the events of 2035, Soma Cruz and his friend Mina are enjoying some time together when a strange woman confronts Soma, walls him in magically, and forces him to fight a group of demons. Out of nowhere comes suave, cool Genya Arikado, who tosses Soma a weapon which Soma uses to dispatch the baddies and gain their souls. After the woman flees the battle, Arikado explains that Soma never actually lost his soul domination power, but it merely went into dormancy until he was again in danger. He also explains that the woman, Celia, is a priestess who is attempting to revive the Dark Lord. So it's off to a remote village and a new demon castle to do battle with Celia, her henchmen, and her cult of demons.
Okay, let's face facts; the Castlevania series has never had a deep and compelling storyline. The premise has always been to fight your way through a horde of undead enemies to eventually kill the baddie at the end, be it Dracula or another dark entity. Dawn of Sorrow is no different in this regard, and the few plot twists you get are not really surprising.
The one novel factor about this title's story section is the characterization: each character is pretty stereotypical, from the merc-turned-merchant Hammer's romantic interest in church agent Yoko Belnades, to Arikado's cool and impassive personality. The reason this is so original is because it marks more character development than the series has seen since Symphony of the Night, all those many years ago.
But hey, Castlevania's never been about the story or characters; it's all about the gameplay, right? Well, fortunately or unfortunately depending on your point of view, the gameplay is almost exactly like its recent predecessors, especially Aria of Sorrow for GBA.
Anyone familiar with Symphony of the Night or Aria of Sorrow will instantly be able to pick up the gameplay, which basically revolves around Soma exploring the castle and environments, gaining experience and gold, finding weapons/armor/items, and killing enemies (often repeatedly for an hour) to acquire their souls which, when equipped, confer bonuses or abilities. However, if you're not familiar with the gameplay, let's break it down.
You play as Soma, who can equip a variety of weapons ranging from long swords to maces and axes and, later, handguns (though not very powerful). You use these weapons to beat on enemies, and when they die you gain experience which you use to go up levels. There is also a chance that the enemies will drop money (fairly common) which you can use to purchase weapons and items from the merchant, Hammer. There is also a less common chance that the enemy will drop an item. Finally, depending on the rarity, there is a chance that you'll receive that demon's soul, and here is where the meat of the game's system appears.
Souls come in four flavors: red bullet souls, which usually allow you to throw or shoot some special weapon using MP; blue guardian souls, which have effects you can turn on and off using the R button and use MP while on; yellow enchant souls, which don't use up MP and are constantly in effect when equipped; and gray ability souls, which give you special movement abilities, don't use MP, and can be turned on or off in the status screen.
Again, we have a case of "classic" vs. "boring," with your preference being the deciding factor. The system is nearly identical to that of Aria of Sorrow, and if you didn't care for that game, you won't like this one.
That's not to say that there's nothing new, however: far from it. New to this game is soul-forging, which allows you to use excess souls to level-up the weapons you collect during the course of the game. In fact, the best weapons can only be gotten by doing soul-forging, which means you'll be going back and forth in rooms killing the same enemy over and over until you get its soul. This part of the game is tedious, and if you can't stand repetitive killing for minutes to hours at a time, you can forget about having the best stuff. It seemed that, even with the item that increases the appearance of souls and my luck boosted with everything I could find, some souls just didn't want to appear. If the gameplay has one down side, it's the miniscule chance of getting certain souls.
Another new element to enter the game is the Magic Seal system. When you get a boss enemy down to zero HP, the screen will flash and a sigil will be displayed on the screen. You then have a very short time to draw the sigil in the correct way or else the enemy will revive with some of its HP and you'll have to whittle it down again. Really, I didn't have a whole lot of problem with the Magic Seals, and as long as you practice on the menu screen, you'll be able to pull off the seals no problem. Unfortunately, this aspect was underused and frankly seemed to be there only so Konami could say, "Hey, look, we're using the DS's touch screen." Personally, I really dislike using a feature minimally just to say you're using it. The game didn't need a Magic Seal system and it didn't benefit from it, so it shouldn't have been there in the first place.
Similarly, there is really no reason (except laziness) for the soul-trade option, other than being able to tout the use of the DS's wireless feature. Of course, the Enemy Set mode is quite interesting. In Enemy Set mode, you can create a "course" wherein you place enemies of your own choosing and have other players fight through the room.
Fortunately, there was one way Konami managed to use the DS's features to the benefit of the gamer. Having the map or your status information on the top screen really helps you navigate and keep track of Soma's stats, abilities, and enemy weaknesses. Menu navigation is also very smooth, which brings me to the control area of the game.
Dawn of Sorrow controls very well, and with the exception of a few occasions when I wound up using my bullet soul instead of my regular attack (all of which was my fault, probably) Soma's moves were executed quite fluidly. Sometimes I forgot that there was an L button, as it really is underused (no more whoring out the backdash). Otherwise, though, the game ranks high on control.
Visually I was not impressed in the least by Dawn of Sorrow. Aside from the anime intro, which is admittedly fun to watch, the graphics gave no real indication that I was playing on a next-gen handheld. The game probably could have been done on GBA, and it shows. Spell effects are nothing impressive, enemy sprites are mostly reused from other Castlevania titles, and the level design is uninspired. Graphically, the game just reeks of unoriginality. Add to that the change of character designer from series standard Ayame Kojima (Symphony of the Night, Lament of Innocence, Aria of Sorrow) to a more anime-ish designer, and you lose some of what made the characters really visually appealing. It feels too much like they're going to make a cheap anime series out of the game, aimed at pre-teens. Sort of like Yu-Gi-Oh! except you have to collect demon souls instead of fighting card battles. The sad thing is, I'd probably watch it.
Finally, we get to the sound portion of the game. Usually I enjoy the series' music, especially that scored by composer Michiru Yamane's. However, lately the quality's been slipping, and with Yamane taking a back seat (and second billing) to Castlevania 64 composer Masahiko Kimura, Dawn of Sorrow's soundtrack was neither ear-catching nor profound. And, while Dawn of Sorrow has a totally new soundtrack (with the exception of the boss music and the requisite Vampire Killer), it didn't really make an impact on me. That's not quite true; it did leave an impression but only because of how much I listened to the music while trying to collect souls. At least the tracks aren't annoying.
In the final analysis, is this game "classic" or "boring?" Personally, you could throw me the same game with different areas, enemies, weapons, and souls, and I'd still buy it, play it, and enjoy it. The unlockable Julius mode also adds to the replay and gives a bit of a challenge and a nice homage to the third game in the series. However, that's just me, and I fully respect other people's right to find the gameplay monotonous and uninspired. And with the direction the series has been going lately, I seriously wonder how much Konami is willing to experiment, at least on the handheld front. If you liked Aria of Sorrow, pick up DoS. If not, steer clear.