Konami's Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is the third and final Castlevania title for the GBA, and arguably the strongest. A departure from the typical period drama involving the extended and ever-complicated Belmont clan, Aria of Sorrow introduces new characters and mythology into the series while also building on what has made Castlevania such a beloved franchise. Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is the strongest of the Castlevania GBA games, and deserves a spot in any Wii U owner's library.
Instead of playing a Belmont, gamers are introduced to new protagonist Soma Cruz, a teenage exchange student studying in Japan in 2035. On the evening of a solar eclipse, Soma visits a shrine with his longtime friend, Mina, and after a strange supernatural event the two find themselves in a mysterious castle that is likely the former home of Dracula, who was killed in 1999. Soma travels the castle, slowly learning of a dark prophecy involving Dracula's successor, meeting several curious characters along the way.
Aria of Sorrow's story is compelling, clever and offers enough twists and turns to keep players guessing. Fans of the Belmonts may be disappointed that an unrelated character has taken the reins, but as the story unfolds it becomes clear that Soma is very much a part of the series' complex mythos. There is a strong emphasis on characterization and personality throughout, with characters feeling more fleshed out than ever before. It's come a long way from the often-bland archetypes and simplistic story of Circle of the Moon.
While the story introduces a slew of new characters and unfamiliar faces, the gameplay in Aria of Sorrow remains consistent with the rest of the GBA games. Players will platform and fight their way through a sprawling castle, picking up equipment, gaining experience points and finding upgrades that help them reach previously inaccessible areas. The platforming feels more precise than ever, with very few unfair sequences, and the RPG elements are simple but refined. One significant change is that Soma is not a slayer and therefore doesn't have a whip; instead, he can wield swords, axes and other weapons that are found throughout the game. It's a bit jarring at first, especially for those who have played previous games in the series, but ultimately feels like the right choice and makes for interesting strategy. A hammer, for example, may be strong but heavy, causing Soma's attacks to be slower.
The largest and most important addition to Aria of Sorrow's gameplay is the Tactical Soul system, which gives the player new powers and abilities. Soma has the ability to absorb the souls of defeated enemies, which he can then equip for different uses — some effects give him a sub-weapon, while some will grant special magic powers and abilities. There is great variety in the Tactical Soul system, and we enjoyed experimenting with collected souls; souls can be equipped and activated manually and using them consumes magic points, except for Enchant souls, which give Soma special abilities to traverse previously inaccessible areas and are always activated unless turned off by the player.
The visuals in Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow are exemplary. Every character is full of detail and smoothly animated, while the castle is full of colour and varied environments. On the Wii U GamePad, particularly, the game is beautifully crisp. The psychedelic blinking and strobe effects from Harmony of Dissonance are gone, but it's clear from Aria of Sorrow that there is no reason for the flashiness now, since the game's artists have clearly mastered the limitations of the screen. The audio has been vastly improved from Harmony of Dissonance's primitive soundtrack, with superior music and sound effects.
The main game can be completed in about the same amount of time as the other GBA Castlevania games, and should give players a challenge. There are additional modes to play through, including a Hard mode, a boss rush and other special modes that won't be spoiled here, so as not to ruin the story for anyone.
Thanks to the Virtual Console and eShop, the notion the Wii U has a dearth of quality content is quickly becoming obsolete. Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow closes out a strong trilogy of games that are exciting, challenging and fun, providing hours of play. Aria of Sorrow is particularly good for series newcomers, as it eases players into the series' lore and game mechanics. As the strongest Castlevania entry on the GBA, it earns an easy recommendation.