No game publisher has released more games on the DSiWare service than Gameloft. And while the company has received a wide range of review scores among their various DSiWare releases, no one can argue that they've brought some quality games to the service in the short time it's existed. Soul of Darkness marks their 20th DSiWare release, and while the game obviously borrows heavily from the Castlevania series, it still manages to offer up enough new twists to help it stand out from the crowd somewhat.
If you've ever played a Castlevania game, you should immediately feel right at home with Soul of Darkness. You're going to platform and hack your way through level after level, battling enemies with your spears and using your magic to help you navigate the game's tricky levels. While most of the levels are fairly linear in design, they do offer up enough exploration to keep you guessing, not to mention some areas where you'll really have to put your thinking caps on in order to keep progressing.
You begin the game with a Fire Spear and as you work your way through the game's many levels, you'll begin picking up purple soul shards that can be used to level up your weapon. You can even determine which aspects of the weapon to level up such as its Combo power or even its level of magical capability. The more shards you collect, the more you can upgrade the weapon at the end of each level. As you progress through the game you'll eventually be given an Ice Spear to compliment your Fire Spear. This Ice Spear also has its own unique magical powers that will be needed in order to traverse some of the trickier areas you'll come upon throughout the game. You can even use the shoulder buttons to switch between the two on the fly if necessary.
Another interesting twist in navigating the levels is the ability to transform into a special creature. Each of these creatures also has its own special move set which will be needed at times to get through certain challenging sections of the game. You'll generally be given a button prompt when the time comes to make use of them and they're all fully explained as you acquire new ones during your travels.
At the end of most levels you'll have to face off with the traditional boss fight and this is where the game becomes even more playable. Not only are the bosses extremely well crafted, but their patterns are equally impressive. Each boss has a specific pattern and its up to you to figure it out and exploit it. Once you've dispatched of the boss, you'll move on to the next level and be given the opportunity to upgrade your spear once again.
The play controls in Soul of Darkness are nearly as smooth as those found in the DS Castlevania releases and at times offer up even more versatility in their execution. Even the level designs are very well laid out and give you plenty of opportunities to take on enemies, not to mention use your problem-solving skills to figure out how to keep progressing through them. The game also does a nice job of keeping things challenging without making the experience overly frustrating by allowing you to start at the last checkpoint you passed through when you're character dies. While this might prove to make the game a bit too easy for seasoned platforming fans, it's quite a refreshing feature for a game of this nature and only adds to the high level of fun the game offers up.
As if nailing the gameplay wasn't enough, the developers also managed to put some serious time and effort into the audio/visual package and it certainly doesn't disappoint. Not only are the orchestrated musical tracks phenomenal, but the wide array of visuals that go along with them are equally stunning. This game certainly doesn't look or sound like a DSiWare release and it's impossible to not be impressed with how much the developers were able to squeeze into such a small file size. At the very least, it's easily one of the most impressive musical and visual presentations the service has seen to date.
If you're going to create a clone of a game, you might as well make sure it's a great one and Gameloft have done just that. Taking many of the enjoyable visual, musical, and gameplay aspects of the DS Castlevania releases, the game molds together an absolutely terrific platforming experience that's not only extremely playable, but also wildly enjoyable as well. Sure it's a bit more condensed and linear, but this helps it function more efficiently as the DSiWare release it is. It goes without saying that if you're even the slightest bit a Castlevania fan, you absolutely have to take this wonderful title for a spin. In all honesty, the game would be a bargain at twice its 500 Nintendo Points price tag.