Those of you lucky enough to have experienced the sublime Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow will no doubt be very excited by this latest release for the Nintendo DS. Once again Konami have settled on the tried and tested ‘Metroidvania’ format, first premiered way back in 1997’s Playstation epic Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Dawn of Sorrow was a game that effectively ‘sold’ the DS to many gamers, but will the concept work as well a second time?
As one of Konami’s longest running and most well respected franchises, Castlevania has plenty of history behind it. With PoR they’ve tried to tie in with a previous installment - in chronological terms it charts the events after the sublime Megadrive game ‘Bloodlines’ (aka: The New Generation, Vampire Killer). Set after the events of The First World War, you assume control of not one, but two vampire-hunting heroes. The first is Jonathan Morris, son of John Morris who appeared in the aforementioned 16-bit classic. The Morris family are actually linked to the original Bram Stoker novel (Quincy Morris is one of the vampire hunters that tracks Dracula back to his lair in Transylvania). The second character is a young witch called Charlotte Aulin. Here we have the ‘hook’ of PoR – you can switch between these two leads at will. When this concept was first announced fans were buzzing with expectation about how it would ultimately affect the game play. The unfortunate answer to that question is: not that much, really. There’s a smattering of puzzles that require you to utilize both characters, but these appear too seldom to make a lasting impact. Jonathan is the more powerful of the duo and consequently players will find themselves relying on him to fight their way through Vlad’s imposing fortress.
Fans of the unique ‘soul’ collection system, so beloved in Aria of Sorrow and Dawn of Sorrow, will possibly be upset to learn that it has been replaced here. Thankfully, the new ‘skill’ concept is practically the same and in many ways offers more depth, as powers can be improved as the player progresses. For example, if you use a certain weapon enough, its attack potential increases. Another feature that has been jettisoned is the cumbersome touch-screen ‘seal’ system. Tacked onto Dawn of Sorrow in order to justify the use of the what is arguably the most interesting technological feature of the DS, Konami have thankfully seen sense and the player is only called to use the stylus when playing in one of the unlockable modes. To some it may seem like a step backwards, but platform games of this nature really don’t have much call for touch screen features.
Another fresh aspect of this game is the ability to enter paintings and teleport to locations that exist outside the boundaries of Castlevania. This has two very important effects on the game – it creates a massive play area and it allows for some truly weird and wonderful levels. Previous Castlevania titles have had to recreate the interior of the infamous citadel several times over and to be perfectly honest, it was starting to grow a little stale. PoR takes steps to avoid this problem - here we have Egyptian pyramids rubbing shoulders with the London Underground. On the whole the level design is competent (if a little inspiring in places). Some of the stages dazzle with their artistic inventiveness, whereas others come across a little drab and ordinary. Although the introduction of these supplemental areas boosts the size of Dracula’s fortress considerably, it doesn’t actually add that much play time and PoR can be completed in roughly the same time as previous CV ‘Metroidvania’ titles – roughly eight hours (more if you go out of your way to locate every item, fight every foe and learn every skill).
The enemies that inhabit the locations within the game are something of a mixed bag, too. There’s a sprinkling of new sprites but most have simply been lifted from previous games. While this cynical recycling of foes is by no means a new thing (the GBA versions and Dawn of Sorrow all borrowed content from games as far back as Dracula X on the PC Engine Super CD-ROM), it does tend to annoy more than a decade down the line. It could be seen as a trade-off, as there are hundreds of different enemies to be tackled and it would be a tall order expecting Konami’s designers to create them all from scratch, but that doesn’t prevent you from feeling a little disappointed as you fight the same monsters you saw many, many moons ago.
In terms of music and sound, the package is thankfully more well-rounded. Many of the tracks are penned by the legendary Yuzo Koshiro (famous for his work on games like Actraiser, Streets of Rage and Revenge of Shinobi) and they are simply outstanding. The DS may lack the ability to stream music from a disc (as Sony’s PSP does) but with PoR it makes no difference. The quality of the soundtrack is stunning and comes very close to matching the previous best of the series – Symphony of the Night.
All in all, PoR is another excellent addition to the Castlevania lineage. Konami seem committed to keeping the format of the series in stasis – at least on the DS, anyway. Hopefully they can find other more creative ways of expanding the concept, because as good as PoR undoubtedly is, the blueprint is now over a decade old and a fresh lick of paint is badly required.