Review by Virulent

"A captivating experience with loads of replay value!"

A foreword: Most of the reviews I've seen on this page seem to lean more towards the bias of comparing this title to Symphony Of The Night, which isn't fair due to the fact that SotN was on a different console. Therefore, I'm writing this review based on comparisons against the other 2 Castlevania GBA titles.

Aria Of Sorrow is the latest in the line of rapidly-produced adventure/RPG Castlevania titles for the Gameboy Advance, and many would argue it's the greatest. Judging from the sheer possibilities and configurations you can assign to the main character, Soma Cruz, I would be hard-pressed not to agree...

In an unprecedented move for our beloved Vampire-Killing series, this CV title takes place in the future; 2035, to be exact. At the onset of the game, the androgynously-attractive Soma and his platonic (or so it seems) gal-pal Mina have woken up in the dreaded Castle Dracula after passing out at a shrine during a solar eclipse. However, the good ol' count is dead and only his castle, the source of his dark powers, remains. After a talk from the enigmatic Genya, Soma rushes off through the ramparts to find a passage home. However, he ends up smack-dab in the middle of an adventure that will have him (and the player) questioning the true identity and motives of every NPC...including our dear protagonist.

Enough prologue, on with the review we go! Gameplay is initially easy to pick up, as Soma controls much like his immediate GBA predecessor Juste. He moves gracefully, jumps effortlessly, slashes with quickness and precision, and acquires new physical abilities as the game progresses. He also has the ability to gain experience for killing the various beasties encountered in the castle, and with this comes ''level'' increases which bring boosts to statistics. However, this is all old news compared to the game's true innovation; collecting souls. In a strange hybrid of traditional GBA Castlevania play and the GameBoy's flagship series Pokemon, Soma will randomly exercise his ability to steal the souls of monsters he defeats. These souls can either provide him with a new means of attack in lieu of traditional CV ''mystic weapons'' (red souls), give him a special ability which uses up magic points based on time ala Circle Of The Moon DSS abilities (blue souls), or give a certain attribute increase or ability as long as it is equipped (yellow souls). Soma can equip one of each color type, fully exploring a dynamic magic system which was merely dabbled in by CotM's DSS Card system and Harmony Of Dissonance's spell books. Learning the intricacies of the souls you collect is also crucial to solving many of the game's puzzles and unlocking secrets which extend the life of the cartidge well beyond your first play-through. Combined with the ability to equip several different types of unique weapons, armor, and accessories, AoS ensures that no two players will ever have to storm the castle the same way.

What good is intricate gameplay if you can't enjoy the way a game looks and sounds? Aria Of Sorrow takes strides to indulge the player in both audio and visual departments. While many gamers bemoaned the dark, dingy graphics of CotM and the shrill, 8-bit music score in HoD, AoS gives these critics the best of both worlds. The visuals in this game show incredible depth in character design, animation, and articulate backgrounds, demonstrating the true muscle of the GBA's 32-bit engine. The game's musical score is of equal fidelity to that of CotM, with vividly-rendered instrumentation, while surpassing its composition by introducing brand-new pieces rather than CotM's remixes of tunes from previous CV games. The sound effects are also top-shelf, with crisp audio samples and a surprising amount of crystal-clear voice acting thrown into the mix.

The difficulty level is more balanced in this game than any other CV foray on the GBA as well. Bosses are easy enough for first-time players to battle in the beginning, and quickly elevate leading up to final battles which will give
even the most seasoned gamers cause to employ some fancy footwork. The ability to level-up also allows you to go through the game at your own pace, which gives even novice gamers the ability to see the end credits given enough time.

The only gripes I have with this game are the frustration factor involved with getting certain enemy souls, and the lack of any sort of guidance as to where to go in the castle to finish the game. The former point has been a constant source of irritation for many of the posters on the GameFAQs AoS message board; many of the creature you encounter must be killed hundreds, even thousands, of times to acquire their souls. Others require special methods which can seem rather esoteric. One boss even requires you to kill it a certain way to get its soul, and only gives you one chance in the game to get it right. The latter is addressed partially by the inability to access sections of the castle without a certain ability, but often results in a lot of aimless wandering to find out where the next boss battle is supposed to take place. The NPCs are of little or no help either; even Mina's constant stream of clues make little or no sense half the time unless you're using a FAQ.

However, these are rather minor gripes compared to the total amount of fun this game is. It may only take you a few days at least to ''win'' the game, but the endless ways of playing, coupled with the ability to play a harder game with your equipment and souls intact and/or play as a completely different character, will extend the life of this cart long after you complete the quest for the first time. Also included in true CV style is a ''boss rush'' mode, allowing you to test your skills against bosses and the clock for bonus items. In conclusion, I would highly recommend this title as one of the best GBA games out there, if not one of the best of the series we all know and love, simply for its incredible depth and reply value.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 05/19/03, Updated 05/19/03

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