Review by The Vic Viper
"An excellent Syphony-of-the-Night-inspired game"
The Castlevania saga might just be one of the longest running stories in a videogame series (that doesn't involve time travel). It started in 1094 with Leon Belmont, and concludes over nine hundred years later with Soma Cruz. Thirty-six years after Dracula's final defeat, his castle mysteriously appears over Japan during an eclipse. Soma and a few other people are transported into the castle. Unable to leave, you set forth to try and figure out exactly what is going on and how to stop it.
The story isn't bad, though since no Castlevania game has yet to cover the defeat of Dracula in 1999, you might be left with the feeling that you're missing a couple of important details. Over the course of the game Soma meets a variety of people, most are good, one is bad, and none of them are particularly forthcoming with what's going on. Eventually Soma learns why the castle appeared when and where it did, and why he suddenly has the ability to absorb the souls of things he kills. While not an epic tale, the story is complex enough to drive the game and keep you interested. Like Symphony of the Night, the game has multiple endings which one you get depends on how you beat the bosses. One ending despite being the "bad" ending is probably one of the coolest ones in the series.
Despite taking place in the future, it doesn't seem that futuristic. In fact, they could have said that it took place in 1936 and it wouldn't really seem out of place. Part of this is because of Dracula's castle, which has always kept the same style and lack of technology regardless of the time period. There are a few pieces of modern technology, like a handgun, but they are few and far between. For the most part you'll be fighting monsters out of mythology using swords, spears, axes, and other medieval weaponry. Like Symphony of the Night, which is the inspiration for this game, the protagonist never uses a whip, which had always been a rather defining feature of the series and an integral part of the story. Now, plot-wise, it makes sense as Soma is not a Belmont, however it does make it feel a little bit less like a Castlevania game.
Non-futuristicness aside, the castle is very well designed. You have your standard Castlevania areas the clock tower, the underground caves, the throne room, and so on. What is impressive is that, even though these areas have appeared in numerous games in the series, they managed to be different enough so that it doesn't make the design seem stale. While it is a very large castle, you can still move through it pretty quickly because of how compact it is. There are also the standard teleporter rooms to facilitate your movement. It would have been nice if there were two or three more of these, since you do end up having to go from one end of the map to the other on several occasions, but doing this never gets so tedious that you get bored with the game.
The enemies are the standard ones that you've seen many times before in previous games. Most are monsters taken straight out of mythology and stories zombies, demons, Medusa heads, harpies, imps, and more. There's also the Castlevania standbys skeletons, bone pillars, axe knight; the ones that make the series what it is. While the enemies might not be that original, they are quite impressive looking and there's enough of them that combat doesn't get repetitive. There are eleven bosses in the game, and the first four of them are just regular enemies that are more challenging because they appear early on when you're relatively weak. The next four, however, are pretty impressive. Legion and Death return, and both are at the top of their game. Death, in particular, as Aria has one of the best incarnations of the Grim Reaper in the series so far.
Not only are there a ton of weapons in the game, but great variety among them as well. Unlike many games, where every weapon looks just like the others, except maybe a different color, each weapon is given great detail. Weapons attack in different patters (some in sweeping arcs, others in forward stabs, and so on), have different sizes, speeds, and animations. There is also an elemental aspect (fire, water, dark, holy, etc) to some of the weapons, however it usually isn't that important as you'll be more concerned with choosing the weapon that is the right speed and size for what you need to kill at the moment.
Aria completely ditches the traditional sub-weapon system as well. Throughout the series, the heroes have always has a standard set of limited-use weapons knives, axes, holy water, boomerangs, etc. to use in addition to their main weapon. Recent games (most significantly Harmony of Dissonance and Circle of the Moon) have added a magic system is as well. Aria has a heavy focus on the magic system, both in terms of gameplay and story.
You have the ability to absorb the souls of defeated enemies, and when you "equip" their soul, you can use their powers a magic version of Mega Man, if you will. In many cases, this means replicating their attacks the Axe Armor soul lets you throw axes, the Merman soul lets you shoot a jet of water, and so on. Other souls give you abilities related to the monster, such as running quickly, walking underwater, turning into a bat, or hovering in mid-air. Finally, some souls boost your stats strength, intelligence, constitution, and luck.
There are quite a lot of souls to gather, and for the most part, they add a diverse group of weapons to your arsenal. The abilities are fairly well balanced, so that there isn't one that you use all of the time while the rest get ignored. Certainly, there are some with questionable usefulness, but for the most part they all have their place. Some of the ones that aren't the most useful are the most fun (such as beating enemies down with a red carpet or vacuuming away their HP), so you'll find yourself playing with them anyway. The more powerful abilities are harder to come by, don't appear until late in the game, and use a lot of magic, which helps keep things from becoming too easy.
Now, except for bosses, enemies don't always drop a soul, so you will have to kill a fair number of them before you actually get it. Souls are treated like items when you defeat the enemy, the game determines based on your luck and the rather low drop rate whether or not you get one. The drop rate varies between enemies, with the more powerful souls having the lowest probability of being dropped. While a good system for preventing you from becoming too powerful too quickly, the problem is that the drop rates are ridiculously low. You may have to kill 50 or more of a single enemy before you get the soul, which means if you want all of the souls, or even if you just need to get one before proceeding to the next area, you have to do a lot of grinding.
To be fair, there aren't that many souls that you have to have if all you want is to finish the game. However, a lot of people like to collect everything in a game, especially in games like these where there are a limited number of things to collect (only 110 souls, as opposed to thousands of items in some games), everything has a purpose, and you get rewarded for collecting all of the souls. Players who prefer to do low-level and speed runs won't have this problem, as they will be avoiding most fights. For those that really like making things difficult for themselves, you can use a password to disable all souls in the game.
While the game is fairly short (even if you get every soul, it'll probably only take you 10 to 12 hours to complete), there are a lot of things to do. In addition to the main game, there's Hard mode, Boss Rush mode, New Game +, and you can play through the same game with one of the secondary characters.
Hard mode is harder than normal mode (as one would expect), especially when it comes to the last couple of bosses. However, the only real change is that the enemies do a bit more damage than before and may take another hit or two to die. They have the same amount of hit points, all of your stats are exactly the same, and you level up at the same rate as in the original mode. Even with enhanced enemies, the game doesn't present a major challenge, as Aria is a fairly easy game to begin with. The problem lies in the necessity of grinding for souls. Since you have to kill so many enemies for every soul, you are going to rack up a lot of experience points during the process. Most of the time you'll get the soul within twenty or so kills, however there are about five (give or take, as luck not the game stat is a major factor) enemies that have incredibly low drop rates. As a result, you can easily gain five to seven levels for each of those souls that you go after. By the time you get all of the souls, you'll probably have several hundred more HP and be able to deal 100 or so more damage than you would if you hadn't gone through all of that grinding.
The alternate character that you can play through is a nice touch, for the most part. This mode plays just like a traditional Castlevania game no leveling (though you do deal a bit more damage after each boss you defeat), no equipment to find, the whip and most of the sub-weapons return, and you start with all of your abilities. Players who have never played, or didn't enjoy, the NES and SNES games might not find this particularly appealing, but those that did will probably enjoy the return to the classic style. It's very similar to the alternate modes in Symphony of the Night and Harmony of Dissonance. In fact, it's a bit too similar to Symphony - the character plays almost exactly like Richter Belmont, including his (what was at the time) unique special attack.
The big issue is that there is literally no plot to this mode, even though it begins by showing Soma's intro for some reason. Once the game begins, none of the other characters appear, and since you start off with all of Soma's abilities (double jump, walk underwater, etc.), you don't even have to fight all of the bosses or explore the castle much. You can just head straight on up to the throne room. Of course, you can explore the entire castle if you want, and you do get a slight strength boost for every boss you kill. However, the entire thing just feels rather half-assed. It really wouldn't have taken the developers too much effort to write up a new intro, and replace the final boss. This is especially disappointing considering how the main game establishes a potential reason for this character to be going through the castle. This mode is still fun, but it could have been so much more.
Boss Rush mode is, however, very well done. You unlock it by beating the game, but once you do, you can play through it at any time with any existing save file. This means that you can decide what level, equipment, and abilities you have when you play it, so it is as easy or as difficult as you want it to be. You'll fight all of the bosses, except for the secret final one, in order. How quickly you complete the course determines your prize a weapon that will be available to you in the regular game. None of them are the most powerful weapons in the game (giving you further incentive not to wait until you're ultra-powerful before going through), but the one is certainly one of the most fun.
New Game + is exactly what you would expect, but as a nice feature, you can play it in either Normal or Hard mode. You play through the entire game, with no changes to the story, however you keep all of your souls (except the ones that give abilities needed to access certain parts of the castle), weapons, armor, and items, and the full map is available. You do start back at level 1, but when you can equip the best weapons and armor in the game, you're pretty much invincible. This can either be fun or really boring, depending solely on personal preference. Since you don't have to fight for souls, or do much leveling, you'll be able to complete this mode in a very short time. If you play New Game + on Hard mode, you can find a couple of new pieces of equipment, including Death's scythe.
Despite the soul grinding, and related issues, Aria of Sorrow is a very fun game. It managed to be what Harmony of Dissonance tried to be similar enough to Symphony of the Night to appeal to fans of the game, but without coming across as a cheap imitation. Aria has a sequel, Dawn of Sorrow for the Nintendo DS, which takes place a year later, involves many the same people, and has pretty much the same gameplay (though tweaked and expanded upon). It also fixes the issues with the soul drop rates, adds even more weapons and items, and has a bonus mode that feels more complete than Aria's.
Aria is available as a standalone game or bundled with Harmony in the Castlevania Double Pack.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 01/16/08
Game Release: Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (US, 05/06/03)
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