Review by Halron2
"Why is it that the non-Belmont Castlevanias seem to be better, nowadays?"
The release of Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow didn't really come as a surprise to anyone who had been following the series since the Playstation and Saturn hit Symphony of the Night. Quite frankly, the games were (and still are) faring so well in 2D, both commercially and critically, that it was highly predictable that Konami would continue harvesting that particular source, even with the development of 3D Castlevanias for the Playstation 2. Aria of Sorrow marks the full return of the Symphony of the Night feel for the series, for the first time on the Game Boy Advance. At the same time, it's also probably the best Castlevania game for the portable system.
Since the release of Symphony of the Night, the series spotlight has been drifting away from the most famous vampire-hunting family in gaming history, the Belmonts. To be frank, that's pretty weird, but the best recent Castlevania games don't have Belmonts as main characters, and such is the case of Aria of Sorrow. The story takes place in 2035, during a solar eclipse. You play as Soma Cruz, a weird guy that sometimes looks like a girl, who is somehow transported into Dracula's castle as the sun is covered by the moon, but the vampire lord himself isn't anywhere to be found. There, he meets a good number of weird characters that are going to help and/or get in the way of Soma's objective, which is to leave the castle (instead of the classic 'defeating Dracula' goal). The cast of this game is a strong point, with some memorable and enigmatic people to cross paths with. Strangely enough, the group of characters actually reinforces the Symphony of the Night feel of this game, specially since you'll find, later on, that Soma is related to Alucard in some weird way.
The good impression caused by the characters is also helped by a surprisingly strong story. The Castlevania series has a long tradition of terrible stories and of screwing every little decent idea they ever had with corny dialogue and poor narrative, but that's not the case this time around. There are plenty of interesting and original concepts as far as the series goes, and they aren't really wasted in any way. The end of the game is filled with manga-like unbelievable plot twists, but the fact is that most of them work pretty nicely. The main positive point is that the character of Dracula is used in a completely different way in Aria of Sorrow, one that's original and effective at the same time.
Another point of interest is the fact that, while the story takes place in the future, the setting remains exactly the same as in the previous Castlevanias. Sci-fi fans might be bummed by the fact that you won't meet robots, high technology weaponry or any element of the genre that could have been used in this game and, in many ways, that is a waste, because it could have opened new possibilities for the series. But in the end Dracula's castle still is a very strong place to be used as a setting, and continues to hold many different areas, only their names aren't as interesting this time around.
As expected, the core gameplay in Aria of Sorrow is a carbon copy of the system inaugurated by Symphony of the Night and religiously followed by every 2D Castlevania game since. Dracula's castle is a unified entity, with all different areas interconnected in some way, but much of it isn't accessible when you start the game. So, Soma has to travel through the available areas until he uncovers new abilities that will allow him to visit previously unreachable areas. Many of these abilities are old classics, like the mandatory double jump and slide skills, and most of the castles puzzles' will be pretty obvious to veteran players of the modern-day' Castlevania games.
Also similar to Symphony of the Night is the equipment system used in this game. Soma can equip all kinds of weapons and isn't limited to the classic vampire-killing-whip like the Belmonts. Apart from swords, knives and such weapons, there are is number of weirder stuff, like knuckles and even a pistol. He can also equip armor and accessories to increase stats, and from a point on in the game you can access a shop where you can buy and sell items (Soma also collects money from candle stands and enemies). Add that to leveling up and the core gameplay of Aria of Sorrow is closer to Symphony of the Night than any other Castlevania before it, which is probably this game's biggest problem: to those who have played (or, as many have done, exhaustively replayed) the classic Playstation game, Aria of Sorrow will be a been-there-done-that affair in many occasions.
There's one thing to set this game apart from its father figure', which is also the saving grace of its gameplay: the soul system. Right as you begin playing, you'll discover that Soma has the ability to absorb his enemies' souls. Killing an enemy may release his soul, which the main character will automatically grab, and every different enemy has a new soul for you to collect. Some souls are used as special attacks (up + 'B', for the veteran Castlevania players), others have continuous effects as long as you keep the R button pressed, while some are equipped automatically (giving you stat boosts or protection from status-altering effects, for example). Using the first two kinds of souls will consume the classic hearts, which Soma can collect in candle stands throughout Dracula's castle.
With more than a hundred different enemies, Aria of Sorrow is a completist's dream. This may sound a little too much like Pokemon to some older players (gotta catch em all!), but the bottom line is there's a huge diversity in special abilities in this game, thanks to the souls you can collect. With all the different weapons you can equip, Soma alone has a vast combination of gameplay possibilities, which players can explore as they wish, and that's the true strength of this game, at least in terms of how the game works. Combine that with the perfect controls and great level design you'd expect from a 2D Castlevania, and collecting every single soul turns out to be a fun goal, not a tiresome activity.
Like most recent Castlevania games, Aria of Sorrow allows players to play as a secret character after you've beaten it. This character is a new member of the Belmont lineage called Julius, which gives the game more of a vintage Castlevania feel and is a good solid bonus which extends the lifespan of the title a bit. Another contribution to replay value is a harder mode, also unlocked after you beat the game. It must be noted that these bonuses are actually very welcome, because Aria of Sorrow isn't exactly a long game, so its intrinsic replay value is limited, even if the basic gameplay is one of the best in the whole series.
As usual, Konami kept the difficulty level rather low for this game. With so many abilities and items to be found, apart from all the leveling up, Soma gets really powerful quite quickly. Most of this game's boss battles are a piece of cake even if you ignore many of the character's most useful resources such as usable items and all the soul possibilities. Besides, the unlockable harder mode isn't really an excuse to make the game so easy, since you'll have to play through the whole game once to get to that possibility. Anyway, this ridiculous level of difficulty is getting to be a trademark for the recent Castlevania games, so that was expected.
As far as graphics go, Aria of Sorrow is easily the best among the Game Boy Advance titles. Harmony of Dissonance had already been remarkable in this area, but this game clearly bests what had already been a great effort. Not only the designs keep the tone of the series since the breakthrough of Symphony of the Night intact, but they are very striking in their own right. Soma has incredibly fluid animations and his design goes along very well with his ambiguous nature. The enemies are also a step up from Harmony of Dissonance, with some strong design work and in-game graphics that do them justice. Backgrounds for the different areas of the castle are pretty varied and convincing, each with its distinctive feel. All in all, this game owes nothing to Symphony of the Night in terms of graphical quality, and the fact that it is a handheld game makes that fact all the more amazing.
In terms of sound, while the actual quality of the samples doesn't reach the level of Symphony of the Night (which is to be understood), it's miles ahead of what we saw back in Harmony of Dissonance. Besides, the best news is that composer Michiru Yamane is back writing the whole soundtrack and, as far as I'm concerned, this guy should be the only person allowed to compose stuff for Castlevania games. His previous work has been amazing and with this game he offers another batch of classic Castlevania themes. Each different castle area has an individual music piece and the vast majority of the compositions found here is quite good and up to the standard set by the past Castlevania games as one of the greatest series when it comes to music.
Overall, Aria of Sorrow is probably the best Castlevania game for the Game Boy Advance. The only thing actually preventing it from being better is that it's just too similar to one of the best games in the series. Still, with such consistent and addictive gameplay, Aria of Sorrow easily cleanses all doubts (possibly) left by Harmony of Dissonance that the series might be going downhill. This may not be the evolutionary step that Symphony of the Night was, but it sure as hell is one of the best games you'll ever play with your Game Boy Advance.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 01/23/06
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