Review by UltimaterializerX
One of those JRPGs that people will use as an example for why JRPGs are long past getting stale.
I'd note that I haven't played any of the other games in this series yet, but it doesn't seem to matter based on fan preference. Fans of the series think this game is disappointing, JRPG fans think this is disappointing... if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, nature doesn't exactly give us many scientific classifications, now does it? Besides, this game was advertised as something that stands completely on its own from the rest of the series, so that's what we're going with.
Regardless. Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is a game released 7 years after the prior game in the series and the in-game events take place 30 years in the future. If you're attached to older characters in the series, don't be, because you'll end up playing as their children even though the Golden Sun event of the past renders most of its inhabitants mutated beastmen, or in the case of the prior heroes, incapable of aging. The very short of it is the world has a power called alchemy, which can both ignite the world's civilizations and destroy the world all at once. In prior games, Isaac and pals brought it back to the world. In Dark Dawn, you get to see the consequences of it. Cities with alchemy prosper, and cities without it don't really get to do much. The geography has also changed. There are also some psyenergy vortexes scattered about that suck in the power of alchemy, though they are literally only ever seen at the very beginning and very end of the game in an exceedingly stupid setup for a sequel.
This is where you come in. Sort of. See, very little is explained about what you actually have to do in Dark Dawn. You, Matthew, and a few friends, are basically kicked out of the house by your parents and told to go to save the world by getting rid of the psyenergy vortexes. You never actually do it, mind you, but you're booted out as children in a move that would deem most parents completely psychotic, and told to save the world. Sure, okay. From there, you go through standard "bad JRPG" fare. Pick up some new party members, save a few people, come into contact with the eventual final boss, go through a laughably predictable plot twist, watch a sequel be set up. Wind the clock, do it again, wind the clock, do it again. Japanese RPGs are a genre that refuses to evolve except in the absolute top tier of games, but those are becoming more and more rare as the genre gets older and older, and western development all but renders Japanese development obsolete.
To the point here. Dark Dawn's entire plot, what little there is, is completely ludicrous. We can expect a certain degree of having to suspend disbelief for a Japanese RPG, but this goes way over the top. Kicking your own kids out of the house on an unnamed quest is bad enough, but having the major event from the beginning of the game completely disappear so a sequel can be set up later is just bad storytelling and cheapens the entire game. I won't get into too many details because I don't want to completely spoil everything, but what happens in Dark Dawn is the equivalent of watching the 2013 Super Bowl, and then at the very end being told by some time traveler who is going to be in the 2014 Super Bowl without even being given a final score. It would just be exceedingly stupid.
As for what actually happens in the Dark Dawn plot, it isn't much. The only plot twist is spoiled in the game's own title, the characters have no character development to speak of, the villains have virtually no presence at all (there is a reason for this, and it is an believably overused, predictable, badly done plot device), and there really isn't much conflict. The major good portions are the morality issue presented by the alchemy dilemma, and a couple of very touching moments near the end of the game. Beyond that, I found the plot boring at best.
And can we please stop with mute protagonists? They all suck, and will never succeed at putting the player in the character's shoes in a Japanese RPG. Western RPGs are the way to go for player avatars, JRPGs will never figure it out, so just let it go already. So long as JRPGs remain on rails, mute protagonists will never be good in them. Yes, this includes Chrono Trigger and the Suikoden games. Just let it go already, JRPGs, and stick to what you're good at. The latest mute protagonist abomination introduces an emoticon system that bears no relevance on the plot whatsoever, on top of an encyclopedia system that shoves as many proper nouns as possible into every conversation. And why? So you can press L or R and learn the back story of all of them, because the writers of this game were too lazy to explain it in a fluid way.
A typical Dark Dawn line will go like this, and I give you the very short version with absolutely no exaggerating whatsoever. Tyrell: Us Fire Adepts are good at using Fireball Psyenergy, which will be needed to get through the Cave North of the Cave to grab the Sol Mask and restart the Alchemy Machine in Amiti's hometown of Ayuthay.
Imagine that nonsense for every single conversation in the entire game, only much longer and much more annoying. "Childish" sums it up well enough. The worst part of it all is if you actually want 100% encyclopedia completion (you're a psychopath), the game only randomly highlights proper nouns. Good luck!
The game is however saved, or at least rendered somewhat playable, by its gameplay. Exploration is made very easy by the top screen on the DS having a map, you're not forced to use trashy touch screen gimmicks, and there is a good mix between on-world puzzle solving and random encounters. The encounter rate isn't high, but you'll still get into enough battles to have a good progression through the game. I played through the game as quickly as possible, and I never had to stop and grind experience until the final boss kicked my ass a couple of times. Notable here is that the final boss is one of only two difficult enemies in the entire game, but that's fine. JRPGs aren't exactly advertised for their difficulty, anyway, and the experience you get in the fights just preceeding the final boss gives insane amounts of rewards. So overall, there is a good mix of gameplay in Dark Dawn.
The one issue with it is overuse of the party's psyenergy to solve puzzles. Remember how in Final Fantasy 3, the game was awful because gimmickry was required in every dungeon, and then a fight would happen and you were stuck in mini frog status because mini frog status was required to go through some hole? Dark Dawn has a similar problem, minus fights being annoying since mini frog isn't required. Almost every dungeon in the entire game has a ridiculous number of psyenergy points and the harder ones all basically amount to trial and error until you use the right skill on the part of the environment that doesn't fit in. This is good in small numbers, and some dungeons handle it well, but the amount you have to do starts to get in the way. There is an item you eventually get called the Insight Glass that speeds this process up, and there are some spots where the puzzles are fine, but overall I would say they're an overdone hassle. The worst part is the unrealistic notion that characters in games can't jump higher than 6 inches. Trust me, you will get beyond tired of psyenergy's dumb height restrictions and the game not letting you jump over some fence instead of just walking around it. JRPGs have had this problem forever, and rather than ever fixing it they just deny it's a problem.
Djinn and the actual combat are what Dark Dawn does best. Djinn are little monsters, similar to Pokemon, that your party members will find and recruit throughout the journey. As you gather more Djinn, your party will have new and exciting things become available to them in combat. What's neat is how the Djinn aren't required to have a great party, and the game lets you do whatever you want in combat. It does this with a standby system, whereby equipping Djinn (putting them on standby) lowers your stats but gives you the ability to summon them in battle and do insane damage, or you can take them off standby, which increases your stats by a ton and allows you to do insane damage the old fashioned way. In either case, the Djinn you have set to a character determines the spells they can cast in combat, and if you overload one type of a Djinn onto a character's element -- for example, equipping nothing but Venus Djinn (bolded for your encyclopedia needs) on Matthew (okay, I'll stop) -- it will eventually allow him to cast Odyssey (last time, scout's honor), or you can just never put Djinn on anyone and have way too much HP and MP. I personally liked higher stats and faster fights, so I just put all Djinn away and hacked through the game as fast as possible. I will always love those little Djinn for allowing me to do this and making at least one part of this game awesome.
Beyond that, there isn't much to say. Music is good, but not great, outside of a few select songs. The graphics are good, but not great, especially by DS standards. I guess overall, Dark Dawn is best summed up as forgettably average. It's one of those games where I knew fairly quickly that I was in "beat this so I can play something better" mode, which is perhaps the biggest issue of all. JRPGs are supposed to hook you in, not make you blast for the end as quickly as possible so you can move on to something else as quickly as possible. But if Dark Dawn won't take itself seriously, then neither will I.
Rating: 2.5 - Playable
Product Release: Golden Sun: Dark Dawn (US, 11/29/10)
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