Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow ReviewJoe Shaffer
Dracula is dead, slain by the vampire hunter Julius Belmont. It took a millennium, but the morning sun has finally, truly vanquished the horrible night. And there was much rejoicing...
However, not everyone rejoiced. As we all know, there's always someone out there who's bat-shit crazy enough to ruin a good thing for everyone. Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow introduces us to a new villain named Celia Fortner, a cult leader who believes that the world is not better off without a Dark Lord. She therefore seeks to resurrect the awesome and terrible powers of Dracula by awakening them within their current host.
This is where Soma Cruz, protagonist of Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (Dawn's predecessor), comes in. By luring Soma to Dracula's castle, Ceila seeks to reawaken the vampire lord's powers within him, and then transplant them to a new host. She's even taken captive of Soma's main squeeze, Mina, as a means to goad the young man into action.
Soma, of course, isn't about to stand for this. Dagger in hand and with his friends Hammer, Yoko, and Aluca--I mean, Arikado--by his side, he once again enters Dracula's vile castle in the hopes of finally laying the fiend's powers to rest and ending Celia's terrible cult.
As you might expect, that equates to roughly the same adventure as Aria of Sorrow. You explore yet another castle, Metroid-style, battle an army of demonic and mythological creatures, and randomly absorb their souls. As in Aria, each soul grants you various powers and abilities. Some act as sub-weapons, providing you with the ability to toss deadly implements, ranging from disembodied bones to massive spears. At one point, you can even call a cloud of locusts to swarm your enemies, handy for fighting off multiple airborne nuisances. Other souls act as passive abilities, thereby boosting stats or granting you protection from various conditions. Others, still, can be activated by holding the R trigger. The Flying Armor, for instance, allows you to slowly float downward when falling, perfect for closing wide gaps.
Since that's mostly traveled territory, Dawn of Sorrow would need to expand upon its predecessor's concepts and features. The problem is that the soul system in Aria was solid enough that it doesn't need to be retooled. Thankfully, Konami seemed to realize that and kept the system the same, while graciously expanding Dawn on various other fronts.
For starters, Dawn of Sorrow sports vastly improved visuals. Maybe it's because it's on a more advanced platform than Aria, or maybe it's because Konami was able to donate more time and effort towards fine tuning the game's visuals. In any case, Dawn of Sorrow is an ocular treat in comparison to its portable antecedents. You can see the difference in the first area alone. Not only are the graphics crisper and more well defined, but there are multiple background layers. You don't only see the snowy foreground and a wall in the distance, but a whole field and a forest blanketed in frost. Later in the same region, you can spot a distant village, complete with detailed houses and vehicles.
Dawn's stages are nothing new. By now, we've explored wizardry labs, clock towers, and subterranean departments numerous times. However, familiarity in this case is no biggie, especially when the stages are as darkly gorgeous as they are here. For instance, I love the watery tones used in the region called Subterranean Hell. The stage's algae-covered rocks and virgin blue waters create the impression that this grotto was left untouched for millennia, and still has yet to be fully corrupted by Dracula's forces. You also have the Silenced Ruins, decked out with recognizable white walls, earthy draperies, and massive windows. Yes, the stage is a huge throwback to the original game's initial level, unfortunately fallen into disrepair. It's as though the castle itself shuffled this iconic locale to the furthest corner of the premises to be forgotten, where it withered and decayed. Visually, it's a gorgeously haunting, if somber and plain, level to behold.
Dawn's breathtaking visuals aren't limited to environments, either. Enemies throughout the game look nastier and more devilish, and even seem to perish in grander style. Offing ghosts, for example, causes them to erupt in a dazzling array of indigo sparks and wisps of smoke. Other creatures burst into displays of fireworks, crumble to meaty bits, or explode in clouds of colorful gore. More than anything, spectacles like these are a very nice touch, and show that Konami put a lot of care into developing Dawn.
The game's improvements don't cease with its graphics, as it also features a killer soundtrack. The song "Pitch Black Intrusion" ushers you into the campaign itself, perfectly setting up the game's Gothic atmosphere with its synthesizer-like sound. "Platinum Moonlight," while not as exuberant as the previously mentioned cut, is another track that bolster's the game's dark and mysterious atmosphere. That and the beginning totally smacks of Black Sabbath's "Planet Caravan." There's also "Cursed Clock Tower," which immediately fires up with a frantic pace, as if the track is trying to instill in you a sense of urgency.
Boss battles in the previous game were not as enjoyable as they should have been. Roughly half or a third of them consisted of dull foes that would eventually be downgraded to standard enemies. Thankfully, Dawn of Sorrow avoids such a nuance by providing mostly epic boss battles. While some fans might find the lack of classic bosses a bit troubling, the game offers some magnificent new villains, including the Freddy Krueger-like Zephyr and the fire demon Aguni. You'll also cross paths with an immense beast called Gergoth, a creature driven insane by its imprisonment. Even if you can manage to escape its crushing leaps, you still have to contend with its absolutely punishing laser attack. Later on, the campaign shoves you into abyssal darkness where you once again cross paths with the challenging Death, and later on attempt to exorcise the anthropomorphic locust Abaddon. While these altercations may not be as skull-crushing as those in the classic-style Castlevania games, they come pretty close. Quite a few of them are fairly tough, demanding that you land your attacks precisely and pick your shots wisely, else you wind up running headlong into your opponent.
Near the beginning of the game, Yoko establishes that the bosses contained within Dracula's castle are immortal. Even if you destroy them, they'll immediately return to life anyway. In order to combat this phenomenon, you have to seal each of the game's bosses by drawing sigils on your DS touch screen when prompted. Some folks have complained about issues involved with etching the sigils properly, but personally I found it quite easy to do. Mostly, it involves toying with the feature a bit in order to discover a workable speed to move the stylus. Although this feature is more for show (and to utilize the DS's touch screen), I adore this little concept. I've always found the idea of sealing monsters as opposed to outright killing them fascinating, and it's nice to see a game incorporate the idea.
Dawn of Sorrow is likely the closest portable games will ever get to aping Symphony of the Night. Franchise chapters before and after didn't quite have the same level of grandeur as this one, though they do come close. Mostly, the game looks, sounds, plays like any 'Metroidvania' game ought to, and in possibly the best way. I get the feeling that this was the kind of game that the GBA iterations strove to be, and finally Konami nailed it.
Now, unfortunately, they had a tough act to follow here. While the next two games, Portrait of Ruin and Order of Ecclesia, don't measure up as fully to Dawn of Sorrow as they should, they are still fine additions to the franchise.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.