Review by RageBot
"Sell your soul for hours of fun!!!"
So far, the GBA has seen three exclusive Castlevania titles, all following the "Metroidvania" style of gameplay first featured in Symphony of the Night. The first one, Circle of the Moon, feels a little rushed and uninspired. The second, Harmony of Dissonance, features bad sound quality and is way too easy. Neither of them holds a candle to Symphony in my opinion. The last game of the GBA triad, however, has none of those flaws, and allow you to take a look at the Castlevania world from a refreshing new point of view.
For the first time, you are no one related to the Castlevania games of old. You are not a Belmont, or a Morris, or Alucard, and have no access whatsoever to the Vampire Killer. You are Soma Cruz, a Japanese boy from the near future. In the year 2035, you go up to the temple to pray, and suddenly find yourself in a solar eclipse... and inside Dracula's Castle. In 1999, Julius Belmont took the prized whip after two centuries of Belmont inactivity, and slayed Dracula once and for all. And the one destined to replace Vlad Tepes is no other than Soma.
Your goal is not to destroy the Count, but a missionary named Graham Jones, who wishes to become the Dark Lord himself. If you achieve certain conditions, the Count's soul enters Soma's body, and he has to destroy the root of chaos within his own soul, in order to prevent himself from becoming the Dark Lord. Along the way you meet characters that take the game to familiar grounds: Yoko Belnades belongs to the Belnades family, who fought alongside the Belmonts throughout history. Julius Belmont also makes an appearance. You will also meet Genya Arikado, who is actually... just try pronouncing his name with Japanese accent, and if you're sharp, you'll find out who he really is.
People shaken by the lack of shops in Circle and the special requirements in Harmony, need not worry: you find the shopkeeper very early in the game, and he will be present near the castle's gate, so you can easily go to him from wherever you are, via teleporting to the entrance. He sells many weapons, as Soma is one of those characters who can wield any weapon, similar to Alucard. Swords, spears, axes, knuckles, and hammers are only a small part of your arsenal. In addition, there are many types of protective gear for you to wear, and some very handy accessories, including a very useful, albeit expensive, ring that increases the appearance of souls. Perfect for perfectionists, curious people and just anyone who wishes to experience with soul hunting!
The gameplay also has a brand new feature: collecting souls. When you defeat an enemy, if you're lucky enough, a red, blue or yellow orb will leave the enemy's corpse and enter Soma's body. That is a soul. Every enemy in the game has a soul, and each soul has different features to ease Soma's adventure. Red souls are basically subweapons, as you cannot use holy subweapons. Blue souls will function as long as you press the R button, and yellow souls will enhance Soma as long as they're equipped. Abilities, such as double jump and sliding, also come as souls, but you need not earn them from enemies, instead you find them inside special candles, usually after defeating bosses. For having souls from every enemy, you earn a special bonus in the end.
Another neat feature is the accessibility of all areas but one, from the entrance area. Think the castle is shaped like a star. You start at the center of the star, heading up one arm at a time. At the end of each arm is a boss, and after defeating it you earn an ability soul, gaining access to another arm. Then you can simply walk into one of the many teleporter rooms of the castle, teleport back to the entrance, and head up the now-accessible arm. Speaking of which, this is the first game where, instead of a specific movement between the teleporters, you can choose where to teleport.
Many people are disappointed by the lack of difficulty in the handheld titles. While this game still cannot hold a candle to the old NES challenges, it is definitely not a walk in the park. Early bosses return as advanced enemies, and the second half of the game contains some enemies and hazards that can and will kill you several times if you're not careful, especially if you're not using a wide array of offensive and defensive souls.
No great game would be complete without an array of good music and appealing visuals. The music is standard for Castlevania: Gothic, mystical and simply entrancing. There are many new tracks, all of them feels exactly in place and excellent. There is also a surprising remake of the Castlevania 1 hit, Heart of Fire. As for the visuals, they are also very good. Some of the backgrounds are very complex and push the GBA graphical performance almost to the very limit. No area looks the same as another. There is also little to no rehashments in the monster designs, many monsters are new and don't look the same as one another. Don't worry about the classic monsters, as they are all here, too.
Possibly the only flaw in the game is that it's too short. People seeking to rush through will finish it in a couple of hours, and even after hunting for all souls and finding all secret rooms in the castle (and there's a lot of them in this game, even more than in Circle of the Moon), you will still beat it in under ten hours. There are the alternate modes, sure, but there's only one of them this time, and it's as short as hell because there is no need to get souls and you start with all abilities right off the bat.
Of all the GBA Castlevania games, this is the one I recommend the most. Try it out.
Final grade: 9.2/10
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 08/29/11, Updated 09/12/11
Game Release: Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (US, 05/06/03)
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