When the Golden Sun series kicked off on the Game Boy Advance in 2001, it was lauded for its unique visual style and challenging puzzle elements, but after two releases the series took an extended break, so long in fact that many fans wondered if the series would ever see another entry. Now, over seven years later, Camelot has resurrected the series for the DS, and while the game features a complete visual makeover, most other aspects of the game have remained virtually unchanged.
The gameplay system itself should feel quite familiar to fans of the series as most elements feel like they were carried directly over to Golden Sun: Dark Dawn with very few adjustments. You'll still travel to towns and dungeons via the world map, where you'll do battle with random enemies in order to earn money and level your characters up. You'll also spend time speaking to various townspeople in order to gain clues as to what you'll need to do next in order to progress on to the next part of your quest. In fact you'll quickly find that the game is extremely heavy on dialogue, maybe even more so than the original releases, not to mention featuring a lot of breaks in the action that tend to unload a wealth of story elements on you at steady intervals.
Of course it wouldn't be a Golden Sun game without puzzle elements strung throughout the areas and dungeons, and once again you'll be forced to use your special Psynergy powers in order to traverse tricky sections. This will mean moving items around and burning obstacles that get in your way, as well as a host of brand new special twists to keep things interesting. The puzzles tend to be far more creative this time around, although they are also quite a bit easier, especially with the way the game cuts down the number of random enemy encounters you'll face while tackling these puzzles.
The battle system is another staple of the Game Boy Advance releases that makes a return pretty much intact and unchanged. Combat is still carried out in turns and you'll have the standard attacks and Psynergy spells at your disposal, as well as the Djinn that can be used in battle as both special attacks and summons. You'll find that once again locating and capturing Djinn will be most useful to your adventure and experimenting with their class-changing abilities can give you quite a bit of freedom in how your characters will act and what skills they'll have access to. Of course given their power, they also give you a fairly significant advantage during battles, especially boss fights, something that sharply cuts the difficulty down when coupled with the constantly-refilling Psynergy points.
To make things even more intuitive, the game makes great use of the dual screens of the DS making menial tasks like setting up Djinn, perusing your characters' inventory and skill sets and buying and selling items from the various town shops quick and painless. The game even offers the ability for you to set your two most used Psynergy skills to the two shoulder buttons of the system, very useful during puzzles that require the same basic set of skills repeatedly used. These minor touches might seem rather trivial in the overall scheme of things, but you'll find out quickly just how user-friendly they make the overall playing experience.
Although the familiar layout of the game makes it extremely easy for long-time fans to pick up and play, you can't help but wish the developers had taken a few more chances and tried a few more new ideas. The combat system is still quite strategic, but the low level of difficulty in battles makes using some of the more in-depth attacks almost more trouble than they're worth, especially considering you can often win the majority of battles using just standard attacks. The puzzles will please fans of the series, and you'll find them quite a bit more enjoyable without having to stop every few steps to complete a random enemy encounter battle. It's clear the developers wanted to make the game more accessible to a wider audience, but the radical drop in difficulty might end up turning off more seasoned RPG fans looking for a challenge.
The most radical change of Dark Dawn easily lies within its visual presentation. The pastel sprite designs of the original releases has been replaced with a more 3D cel-shaded look that really kicks the graphics up to a whole new level. Not only do you get a lot more detail, but the scrolling and rotation effects have never looked more fluid or flashy, and even the world map is much easier to navigate and recognize with the new visual style. The same applies to the monsters you'll encounter as they too have never looked better and some of the bosses are downright striking. There will obviously be those who'll wish they'd stuck with the 2D visuals, but after seeing a few of the game's impressive landscapes rotate around a few times, you'll see just how incredibly the 3D graphics perform.
It must have been difficult for the developers to choose which classic tracks to bring back and how many new tunes to create for the game, but they've done an fantastic job of creating the perfect balance of old and new tracks for the game. Not only have they carried over some of the best musical pieces from the original games, but they've given them new life with unique new remixes. But as catchy as the classic tunes are, the new ones are every bit as solid and there's a huge level of variety between the various moods of the songs you'll hear throughout the adventure. There's still no real voiced dialogue, but the voice sound effects make a return and can even be turned off if they're not to your liking.
Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is certainly an enjoyable and engaging RPG adventure, but you can't help but wish the developer had been a little more ambitious with the game, especially considering the seven year wait. The wealth of classic Golden Sun elements should please most long-time fans of the series, but the return of the lengthy dialogue, not to mention the somewhat short quest and tame difficulty level, might not be quite as welcome among veteran RPG fans looking for a more considerable challenge. Dark Dawn might not be the major upgrade many were hoping for, but it is yet another solid DS role-playing adventure and a golden opportunity to revisit yet another classic RPG series.