Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (2005)

Platform: Nintendo DS
Stages: 12

American Version

Japanese Version

The original Metroid on the NES was filled with scary, freaked-out moments, the best of which came in the final moments of the game. After defeating Kraid and Ridley, you entered Tourian, with the best ambiant music that square waves would possible generate, and you were just SWARMED with those bastard Metroid things that seemed invincible, unless you read the latest issue of the Nintendo Fun Club. And God help you if you never found the Screw Attack to get through those stupid fire rings. All of this insanity reached its pinnacle when the game expected you to perform several feats of acrobatics up a narrow tube whilst a countdown played ominously. It is, to date, one of the most intense experiences to come out of any video game I've ever played.

As much as all second generation Castlevania games (Symphony and beyond) have aped Metroid, they never quite got the climax down. Sure, Symphony had a nice false ending, but what followed was simply a minor journey through an upside down castle, which culminated in two incredibly easy boss fights. Harmony was much the same, and while Circle had a fiercely difficult final boss, it still just didn't have the right build-up.

The closest Castlevania ever came to getting it right was with Aria of Sorrow. Once you beat Graham, you entered into the Chaos realm, a spooky area with familiar with disconnected areas with washed out colors. Sometimes you would exit a room and you would be in space. It was freaky, but perhaps not freaky enough. The final boss looked simultaneously gross and pretty, but it was still a cakewalk.

This has been a problem with every game since Symphony. All of the Gameboy Advance games have tried to emulate Symphony so hard, but not quite getting there. Once again, Aria came the closest, but as much as it almost came to surpassing it, it still felt like things weren't fleshed enough to surpass its glorious predecessor.

At first, Dawn of Sorrow seems to follow the same path as Aria - a magnificent game, but still a shadow. I changed my mind come the final area of the game. Up until that point, the castle design still seemed uninspired, regurgitating the same areas and many of the same enemies we'd seen several times before. Sure, the snow-covered village was nice, but one of the later areas is simply an update of the first level of the first Castlevania, complete with the 573rd remix of the song Vampire Killer. And you think, did someone at Konami miss the point? Practically ALL of the Castlevanias up to this point included some kind of reference to this seminal stage, but did we really need another one THIS blatant?

Anyway. the final area is, quite simply, Hell. There are skulls that are perhaps from goats, and there is fire. It's about as much as you'd expect, but it looks nice on the DS screen. Then it gets crazy, with Egyptian architecture and more outer space backgrounds and a map screen that kind of hops around haphazardly but still conforms to some kind of pattern. The mid-boss is some kind of hopping lizard who appears to be wearing a red suit. The background is a red haze with a single lonely tree in the background. It's messed up and original and maybe just a bit creepy. And, at this point, I got the feeling that maybe the folks who made this game really, REALLY knew what they were doing - but maybe they just weren't given enough time or resources to do it. The final battle is even better, with a huge boss battle that, while not impossibly difficult, is still an exercise in skill in the same manner as oh-so-many classic Konami games.

In this aspect, Aria of Sorrow just sort of petered out around third base. Dawn of Sorrow takes it all the way home.

On that same note, I remember talking to one of my friends back when Aria of Sorrow came back. We both agreed that the bad ending - wherein Soma becomes Dracula - was awesome. But, wouldn't have it been even cooler if you got to play as Julius is his quest through the castle to destroy that white haired jerk? And yes, while there was an option to play as Julius, it was the same half-assed alternate character modes we'd seen with Richter and Maria in Symphony, or with Maxim in Harmony. There were new play mechanics, yes, but it was stripped of so many elements that made the main game so interesting.

Dawn of Sorrow doesn't play around. There is a similar bad ending in Dawn. It is here you unlock Julius Mode, which actually has a (minor) storyline this time. You kill bad guys, and you gain levels. While most of the skills necessary to proceed are granted at the beginning, you're still far too weak to face the final bosses (which differ from the main game, which is another incentive to play through this mode) and leveling up is a necessity.

And it just gets better. Yoko, who literally did nothing but sit around and get stabbed in Aria of Sorrow, becomes a playable character. Like her ancestor Sypha, Yoko uses the same three magic spells of fire, ice and lightning, although the ice spell regrettably does not freeze enemies. She attacks with a dumpy little staff, which has the pleasant side effect of replenishing a bit of health.

And then there's Alucard.

As much as certain fans tend to bash Igarashi, he's gotten very good with fan service lately. He was well aware that Castlevania kids everywhere want to see their favorite angsty vamp back in action. And here he is, looking almost as amazing as he did in Symphony.

Other touches flesh out the experience further. The soul gathering concept from Aria is one of the most brilliant the series has even seen, but many of them had varying strength levels, and many became useless as the game progressed. Not anymore - the more souls of a particular monster that you harvest, the stronger it gets. Souls can also be used to upgrade weapons, which is done by visiting Yoko at the opening stage of the game. Hammer is still around too, although he mostly just sets up shop so he can hang around Yoko, whom he has a silly, boyish crush on. There are still hidden rooms, but not many - the designers must have realized that randomly slashing at brick walls in hopes of finding a secret must have been more tedious than fun. Instead, there are several obscure puzzles to solve, most of which result in a useless item, but show a bit of inventive flair. There are several hidden souls to collect, and you'll find clues in little newspaper shards hidden around the castle. Konami tried to utilize the touch screen of the DS by requiring that you draw seals before beating bosses, and it succeeds by adding an extra bit of intensity to battles that are still, for the most part, somewhat easy. But the advantage of the DS really comes into play with the map screen, which is always visible on the top screen. Bloody convenient, it is.

Once again, the plot is kind of there, used as a device to set up yet another adventure into yet another castle. It's nice to see the characters from Aria again, since the game seemed to have a large cast that didn't do much. While the change in art style has been much bemoaned by gamers who still think anime is for teh kiddies, it's pretty decent, and at least superior to the now-retro look sported by Dracula X (which came out over ten years prior.) New villains Celia, Dmitri and Dario look a bit dorkier than the returning crew, and their role in the plot - revive Dracula again blah blah - seems to be the antithesis of what a good Castlevania plot should be. But we'll forgive this and move on.

As much as Dawn of Sorrow is a pleasant evolution of its predecessor, it unfortunately still feels a bit samey. All of the GBA titles had distinguishing play styles, but this is technically just Aria all over again. As mentioned, most of the castle areas aren't anything too interesting, although the boss fights this time around are much more inspired. The game still isn't very long or very difficult - getting the best ending without going on any subquests took me about seven hours on the first playthrough. Although, as mentioned, Julius Mode is actually worth playing through, giving it a fair bit more replayability.

The DS is Nintendo's first portable system that is really comparable to the Playstation as far as graphic hardware, and Dawn of Sorrow is the first game that really comes close to matching it. The gorgeous polygonal backgrounds used sparingly in Symphony are used much more often here, to exquisite effect. While the DS has obviously has the technical assets to match the PSOne, it's flaws are mostly artistic ones. Many of the areas seem to lack the polish and inspiration of Symphony - there's an area called the Wizardry Lab, which should bring to mind the gorgeous Alchemy Laboratory of Symphony, but it looks nothing of the sort. Soma - and most of the enemy sprites - look pretty decent, but Julius and Yoko look a bit slipshod. It's still marvelous, don't get me wrong, but it's one area where it could have been better.

And then there's the soundtrack. Composed by Masahiko Kimura, who contributed greatly to the Castlevania 64 soundtrack, the music is much more subdued, relying on soft piano melodies and gentle strings. Very little of it is bad, and there are a few excellent songs ("Pitch Black Intrusion", the snow village theme, and "Dracula's Tear", the Wizardry Lab, are amongst the best), but overall, it feels to be lacking the intensity that Castlevania games should possess. The samples also have an unfortunate MIDI quality to them, although it does sound far better than any GBA sound.

Dawn of Sorrow is still a superb game. Much like Aria, the formula does appear to be wearing a little thin, but there are enough brilliant moments of inspiration that propel Dawn far beyond the mere status of "retread". It's an awesome game - you should buy it.

Dawn of Sorrow Artwork

American Cover
American Back
Japanese Cover
Japanese Back
Cover Image
Soma 2
Celia 2
Dimitri 2
Mina 2
Dario 2
Wallpaper (OZ artist)
SD Character Wallpaper
Dario Wallpaper
Dmitri Wallpaper
Dmitri Wallpaper (Flames)
Magazine Ad
Japanese Manual 1
Japanese Manual 2
Cover Image (Large)
E3 Demo Unit Picture
Wallpaper (Rough)
Soma Wallpaper
Hammer Loves Yoko Wallpaper
Skeletons Wallpaper
Full Map Courtesy of Doublejump Books
Ayami Kojima Artwork 1 (from soundtrack)
Ayami Kojima Artwork 2 (from soundtrack)

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Castlevania Games - Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow