Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow ReviewJoe Shaffer
Dracula is dead, laid to rest in the year 1999 at the hands of Julius Belmont. Yet somehow his magnificent castle has manifested in ghostly fashion over Japan, and you are tasked with exploring its convoluted corridors and wonderfully dark scenery once again. But before you can breathe an exasperated sigh, know that Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow isn't a mere rehash of previous two Castlevania portables. Unlike the last two chapters, this installment has you dabbling in soul thievery...
As it turns out, you, Soma Cruz, are one capable youngster. Never mind the awkward white lab coat you don as a fashion statement or that you've never been properly trained in combat; you're one BMF, because you possess a talent for stealing your opponents' souls. Every bat you slay, skeleton you topple, and mythological creature you fell has a slim chance of shedding its soul, which you can then "equip" via in-game menu.
These souls are not mere trinkets or war trophies, either. A large portion of them provide you with one of Castlevania's defining features: sub-weapons. While you can obtain classics like the axe and dagger, they pale in comparison to some of the wild new weaponry Aria of Sorrow provides. For instance, you can throw katanas--katanas--as if they were daggers, lob mighty bladed discs, fire beams immense enough to make Son Goku envious, or even spill scalding curry on your opponents.
Sub-weapons aren't the only kind of souls you can procure, though. Some souls boast a continuous effect that initiates when you hold down the 'R' trigger. For instance, there's a soul that provides a boost in your strength stat, and another important one that slows your falling speed. The only tradeoff is that such souls diminish your MP while in use, so the advantages they provide are mostly temporary. My personal favorites, though, are souls that bestow passive abilities. Stat boosters seem to dominate this category, but there are others that grant immunity to various status ailments or even increase your prowess as certain conditions are met. One, for instance, grants you a sizable boost in various stats whenever you're poisoned.
My only complaint with Aria's soul system is that it can lead to a hefty amount of tedious farming. Some foes are quite resistant to giving up the very essence of their existence, and prefer to force you to kill them again and again and again and again and again...... Farming isn't as annoying when you can take out your adversary with a single blow and leave the room quickly. In such a case, you should be able to acquire a soul in no time. Obtaining souls from massive, multi-hit monsters, though, is quite a chore. The worst of all of them is the Iron Golem, who sports an impressive amount of HP and tends to only take one point of damage per hit. Let's just say you might have to get comfy on the couch, maybe even keep a bag of snacks and drinks handy, before undertaking that one.
Taking digs at Aria of Sorrow is difficult. The game sports tight control response, an impressive array of weapons (some of which are ridiculously powerful, like the sword Claihm Solis), awesome environments, and a whole slew of wicked boss battles. Unfortunately, these are all par for the Castlevania course, and especially the "Metroidvania" games. By this point, you'd think that Konami would have developed such a finely tuned game that Aria of Sorrow would be orgasmic, but it isn't. In other words, the game's only real sin is that it's 'great' and not 'amazing'.
Aria of Sorrow's visuals are nothing remarkable, albeit well developed in their own right. They carry the same dark tones that Circle of the Moon did, combined with the soft, somewhat bright coloration that came with Harmony of Dissonance. While it's a nice combination of styles, the fusion does sometimes clash, especially in the game's bestiary. On one hand, you have creatures like Nightmares and Poison Worms, which look downright menacing and befitting of a Gothic game. On the the other hand, you have gremlin-like Ukobacks and possessed cloaks called Killer Mantles, which are more lighthearted and cartoony. The presence of the two styles can be a bit jarring, but then again I could say the same of a plethora of the "Metroidvania" games. It just seems to be more apparent in this installment.
Even boss battles (the franchise's bread and butter, as I see it) are technically well designed, but aren't amazing or memorable. Hell, the first four bosses are eventually relegated to standard enemies. Those four aside, you'll still find decent fights against monstrous entities, like Balore. This tough customer loves to crush his opponents under his meaty, boulder-sized fists that can shave off a fair amount of your HP with each blow. Of course, if humanoid giants aren't your thing, then you might enjoy a rematch with Legion, complete with a destructible shell and laser-shooting tentacles. Death also returns, and this time with a trick he learned from Darth Maul. Destroy his scythe and he'll unsheathe a new one, decked out with dual blades. Sadly, though, this iteration of Death is not at all difficult and can be brought down with a little cautious movement.
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow isn't completely forgettable. Heck, I personally found it better than Harmony of Dissonance, mainly because the game does more to stand out. My only issue with the game is that it didn't go as wild as it should have. Of course it doesn't help Aria's cause, either, that it's sadly overshadowed by its sequel, which replicates the soul system, features cooler boss battles, and is an all around more memorable game.
Honestly, though, if the worst thing I can say is that the game isn't amazing, then that should tell you where I stand on Aria. It's a fine addition to an awesome franchise, though you aren't likely to spot it on many top ten lists.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.