Since the release of the absolute classic Symphony of the Night on the Playstation, the Castlevania series has metamorphasized from the original side scrolling action/platformers to sprawling adventures games, packed to bursting point with collectables, enemies and areas.
Recent 3D incarnations have been incredibly hit and miss, but in the primarily 2D world of handheld gaming the series has been given the chance to thrive. The three games for the GBA improved with each instalment, but were very, very similar nonetheless. So, I approach Dawn of Sorrow (and yes, that does abbreviate to DS. Clever, no?) with some degree of trepidation. Do we really need another identical Castlevania game? Will the DS’s new technology bring some new innovations to the series? How on earth will the stylus work?
After powering up, you are greeted with a flashy cutscene, which highlights the first problem Dawn of Sorrow has. The hyper-detailed gothic artwork of Ayami Kojima is gone. Instead, the heroes and villains are depicted in a horrid, bright, Pokemon-fan friendly US-Anime style. It’s a poor move by Konami who, in a clear attempt to create characters that would appeal to a wider audience, sacrifice the beautiful look that their fan base has enjoyed for years. However, if the game is fantastic, this is nothing but a minor flaw.
An hour in, everything is very familiar. Playing as Soma Cruz, star of the previous GBA title Aria of Sorrow, you embark on another epic quest, this time to stop an evil cult from resurrecting the King of Darkness - and rising from the dead, it would appear – Dracula. As a direct sequel, it contains the same core gameplay mechanic – Souls. As you travel around the labyrinth-like castle, you will find souls or have enemies randomly drop them. Each one allows Soma to use a certain new skill, usually one used by the enemy that yielded the soul. The effects vary from simple attacks to new manoeuvres to get past certain obstacles, leading to some back and forth wandering. The fact that the second screen is used to permanently display the map is a masterstroke, allowing for simple exploration into new areas. Graphically, this isn’t much more of a step up from the GBA title, barring a few 3D special effects used sporadically.
Play on for a few more hours and things change slightly. The soul system is second nature, now using the handy system that allows you to configure two soul “setups” to switch between depending on the situation. You will have uncovered a good chunk of the map and will have began using the “create a weapon” feature, trading certain souls to upgrade the weapons you find available in the shop. The wonderful soundtrack will already be worming its way into your head and stating its squatter’s rights as you hum them for days. You will have also beaten a few bosses, and discovered that the games main innovation regarding the touchscreen is one of the most utter annoyance - The ‘seal’ system.
To defeat each boss, after first tracking them down in the huge castle, learning and skilfully avoiding their attacks and then chipping away slowly at their health, you must ‘seal’ them to finish the job. Once their energy hits zero, you must draw one of the increasingly complex seals onto the touchscreen in a split second time window. If you fail, due to not being quick enough or simply bodging up drawing the seal completely, the boss has a slight health charge and the battle continues. So, after a hard fought struggle you finally finish off the gigantic beast that stands before you, only you couldn’t transition between fast paced button pressing to accurate stylus drawing fast enough, maybe because you merely have normal human hands, giving it just enough health back for it to splatter poor Soma Cruz across the room in which it dwells.
It’s an innovation for innovation’s sake, completely breaking the flow of the Castlevania series’ famed boss encounters just to get some use from the touchscreen, no matter how unnecessary and bolted on in feels. It’s a feature which, very nearly, caused several DS/wall meetings.
All is not lost however. Mercifully, it doesn’t detract from how utterly wonderful this game can be. Keep playing. Play for a few more hours.
You’ve now uncovered most of the map, with only secret rooms and the final areas to go. You’ve built up a giant selection of souls and collecting the final rare ones is all you exist for, as you dash around the castle, which you now know better than your own home. You won’t stop until you achieve that hallowed 100% score and you’ve been sat on your toilet for hours now, still playing.
The classic Castlevania magic is still there, and once it gets you, the game becomes an obsessive compulsive’s worst nightmare. For the rest of us, it’s an adventure game dream. Uncovering the entire map and locating all the souls is only the start. Being able to play through the entire game again as Julius Belmont, armed only with a whip, much like the original Castlevania platformers, is inspired. Hard mode also offers a new challenge and boss rush mode, unlockable upon completion of the game is an addictive time attack. There is also a fairly rudimentary multiplayer mode, where you can fill a room full of enemies encountered in the single player adventure for your friends to fight their way through. It keeps on giving.
Most people who consider themselves ‘game fans’ constantly demand innovation from developers, but what for? Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow suffers in its attempt to utilize the new technology at hand, resorting to the gimmicky use of the touchscreen that Nintendo have so far done an excellent job in avoiding, but it truly shines when it’s classic heritage shows through – great games such as Symphony of the Night, Harmony of Dissonance and even Super Metroid.
Innovation is overrated. Isn’t it enough to just be a great game? Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow is one of them.