Review by Perch
"The best of Circle and Harmony"
The Castlevania series is one of the most respected in the industry. With few exceptions, every game in the franchise is suitable for placement in the Greatest Games of All Time list. When all the other games were going 3-D in the late '90s, Konami opted to maintain the classic 2-D setup, feeling that it was the best way to present the gothic world of Castlevania. In doing so, it created Symphony of the Night, easily one of the Playstation's best titles. Since then, three pseudo-sequels to SoTN have been released, all for Game Boy Advance, and all using the same gameplay method: You're trapped in Dracula's massive castle and you have to fight your way out.
While the first two were excellent games in their own right (Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance), the new adventure, Aria of Sorrow, eliminates their failures and improves upon their best qualities. Circle of the Moon had amazing music, but so-so graphics; Harmony had very impressive visuals but the tunes were quite poor. Circle was fairly difficult, while Harmony was very easy. Aria so happens to be the perfect blend: A game that looks and sounds great, and is neither too simple nor too hard. It seems Konami finally figured out how to harness the Game Boy's power.
But the graphics and sound are just bells and whistles. They're not the meat of the game. Exploring Drac's castle and powering up your character (in this game, high school student Soma Cruz) is where the excitement is. You begin with just a small dagger and regular clothes, but by the end you'll be equipped with a menagerie of weapons and all kinds of items. But again, this sounds a lot like the previous two games. What makes Aria so much better?
Well, it turns out Soma Cruz can control souls. He doesn't know why, but every so often after killing a monster, its soul flies into him and he now can use the creature's abilities. There are over 100 different ones to collect, each doing something unique. Some are vital to advance in the game, while others exist merely to entertain or spice up the regular gameplay. This, in effect, masks the once tedious task of backtracking through the castle every time you get a new soul or item. In the earlier games, several areas are inaccessible early in the game. After gaining certain abilities, you would have to think ''Where did I see that door I couldn't open?'' and walk around until you found it again. Now, you don't notice so much, because every enemy in the game has a soul with your name on it.
The only downside to this system is that many enemies are extremely reluctant to leave their soul behind. Walking in and out of the same room, killing one monster and then leaving, only to reenter and repeat, gets almost hypnotic. It's not really too terrible, but many solid minutes can be wasted in one place, trying in vain to usurp that blasted Bomb Armor's soul...
However, if you try and still can't collect them all (which isn't necessary to see the best ending), Aria lets you link up with a friend to trade for the souls you couldn't get. This is a strange option indeed for a Castlevania game, but is just another example of how Pokémon managed to change the face of gaming.
So now that you've got your fully customized Cruz, what's the rest of the game like? Basically still a lot like the 1997 Symphony of the Night. In fact, that's why it's so good. It's the first of these handheld vampire hunts that captures the spirit of Symphony so well. The same areas still exist, as if Dracula has the same fickle architect every 100 years. All four games feature an underground system of caves, a clock tower, an open-air courtyard and share many of the same creatures. This should be a bad thing, but it isn't. It's a testament to how polished an engine this series has become. Nearly six years later and the presentation still feels new every time.
Many critiques of this game have said that it's far too short, and it's true it only takes about seven hours to complete the game, with the best ending. But this could be viewed as another strength: Symphony, Circle and Harmony all have you explore an expansive castle only to discover you've barely been through half the game. It's nice to be surprised, true, but at this point most of us Castlevania fans are expecting a second castle or a variation of the existing one. To wrap it up in such a concise way is kind of refreshing.
Yet, if you like your adventures longer, you can still try to collect all 100-plus souls, which adds immense replay value to the quest. Also, don't give up if you beat the game and see a terribly short ending. Equip three certain souls, and the trek continues, where you'll discover why Cruz has these powers, and what Dracula intends to do about them. As far as portable games go, any Castlevania is good, but Aria of Sorrow is the one to get.
Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 06/02/03, Updated 06/02/03
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