In Depth Review: Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow [GBA]
But there was a problem. While Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance were both great games (I recommended both), each of the two had a problem that wasn't present in the other. The same went with benefits. Example: the pretty, but dark visuals of the former were improved in the latter, at the "cost" of music quality. The controls in the former were a mixed bag but was offset by a great game system, while controlling your protagonist in the latter was swift and easy -- meanwhile I felt limited by the rather puny "spellbook" system.
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow with its hero, Soma Cruz (a non-Belmont), then, becomes the Castlevania that Gameboy Advance owners should have been blessed with in the first place. Or, at least, its core mechanics are what all of the next-gen portable Castlevanias should have been. Dare I say it, with its more inventive and involving system, it almost makes Harmony of Dissonance obsolete if not for the ... "thing"... (still don't want to spoil it) in that game that differentiated it from the others. (If you really must know what I'm referring to, mail me and I'll tell you. But it's a spoiler.)
The game succeeds visually. The best word to describe the graphics would be "sublime." They're not uber-brightened to the point that you know they're trying to make up for a past mistake, like in Harmony of Dissonance, but the coloring is just right so that you can still actually see the game in action in natural light. The animation is even more fluid than in Harmony, and there seems to be a larger variety of enemy art. They largely fall into pallette swaps, too, which isn't surprising, but on the whole it seems that you face many different types of opponents.
Weapon graphic variety is impressive as well, with blades and hammers running the gamut from small knives, brass knuckles, broadswords, absolutely humongous swords, spears, mallets, lances, cannons... you name it, they've (probably) got it. My personal favorite, visually, is the Balmung sword. The damn thing spans almost a quarter of the screen horizontally, is about as thick as Soma's torso, and looks like an oversized, thick Sai (three prongs). It's delicious. I recommend you try it.
The backdrops are also more detailed than ever on the portable, or even any 2D Castlevania not named Symphony of the Night. Dank bricks, ruined columns and the night sky peering out from holes in the walls line the Castle Corridor. Statues, paintings, curtains and the swirling clouds outside give a melancholy aura to the Inner Quarters. The Clock Tower is indescribable -- you have to see it for yourself. Aria of Sorrow's backgrounds are incredibly detailed to the point where these alone catapult the game to the top of the Castlevania 2D heap visually -- second only to Symphony.
It shouldn't come a surprise when I reveal this, but the audio is just as tasty as the visual. Aria continues the great track record of the portable Castlevanias when it comes to song-writing. After the brainfart that was the sound quality of Harmony's music, Circle's crystal clear instruments make a return in Aria to give the expectedly well-composed music the medium it deserves to be heard through. Following Harmony's lead, the soundtrack is comprised of completely original tunes rather than remixes of many classic ones (a la Circle), save for one special track near the end of the game. Overall, the tunes aren't as sweeping as Harmony's, but the very best tracks in this game are definitely better than the very best tracks on Harmony and even Circle. The creepy and downtrodden melody of the Waterways, the guitar-driven dynamic tune of the Castle Corridor, and the incredible Clock Tower theme are all some of the best Castlevania tunes written for the portable series.
There is much less to say about the sound effects, because they are their usual brilliant selves. You've heard the sounds from previous entries in the series before -- clattering candles, blood-curdling death cries, yelps and moans from succubuses and witches, the crashing of bony skeletons under Soma's weaponry. It all sounds crystal clear. Perhaps one difference is that there were a few more voice samples used in this game -- the characters you encounter throughout the story sometimes actually quip a word or two before the text-based dialogue begins. (One woman you encounter, for example, shouts out, "Hallo!") Soma has a few choice phrases which are rarely ever heard, but are there. There's nothing more to say about this; it's great as usual.
The final aesthetic piece that people will surely wonder about is the plot progression. To be sure, Circle's wasn't very exciting, and Harmony's wasn't very good period. Aria manages to amend this, too. By its nature, the game should probably feel different to players story-wise considering you're not controlling anyone tied to the Belmont bloodline in any way. Soma is just an exchange student who happened upon Drac's castle in an eclipse. Of course, knowing wacky game designers, nobody is ever "just somebody" -- there's something about Soma that he doesn't realize yet, and won't fully realize until near the end-game. What's that? What is it you ask? Play the damned game -- I won't spoil it for you. Along the way he'll meet some characters -- all seemingly harmless at first. The encounters are balanced, and always either explain something relevant, or provide you with an important event. Nothing is ever unnecessarily force-fed to you or inconsequential. Further, Soma's character is realized pretty well -- to some it'd seem like he's a sort of helpless, idiotic little bugger. But that's exactly what he is -- he doesn't know what's happening, and he doesn't understand why whatever is happening happens. All he knows is that he's some exchange student who now has to fight hordes of uglies, very capably I might add, and that for some reason he can absorb monsters' souls. How would you feel if you randomly walked into something like this? Of course, what's a videogame storyline without a plot twist? There is a pretty big one here, and that's all I'm saying. It should be enough for me to say that this story was handled in such a way that it's much more enjoyable than the stories of Circle or Harmony were.
It's strange how Konami would sometimes take steps back regarding the play control with this series, but thankfully it doesn't happen here. Not satisfied to simply give great graphics, sound and story, and then throw some generic gameplay in the mix, Konami has again provided a very fun experience -- one that I think was better in every way than the title's two predecessors on the GBA. Soma controls like Juste -- his movements are extremely fluid and his jumping is uber-controllable. His dashing is restricted -- he cannot dart back and forth as fast or as long as Juste did; in fact he can't even dash forward, and he must find a special Soul to let him reverse-dash. Perhaps this is all that is needed, because dashing backwards to dodge an enemy attack is more important anyway, and the castle -- as will be discussed later -- is actually somewhat smaller than the others. As usual, Soma levels up by collecting experience points from killing enemies. He has a hit-point meter to watch, as well as a magic meter. There is no heart meter, however; hearts collected from candles replenish the magic meter, as that is what is affected by anything not a melee weapon.
Soma really has an arsenal now. Nearly fifty weapons -- swords, spears, knives, etc. -- are at his disposal, scattered throughout the castle. As mentioned, they all sport different graphics, and more importantly different animations. This is key, because some weapons lash straight out, while others make a sweeping up-to-down arc in front of Soma. Some weapons have almost no range while others -- like the aforementioned Balmung -- have incredible range. They also have different speeds, and some magical attributes such as the ability to turn some weaker enemies to stone. Admittedly a few of the weapons are useless, but developers always see it fit to throw in a clunker or two just to confuse you. Who knows -- I merely sold them off.
In addition to the melee weapons, Soma has the ability to absorb the souls of defeated monsters. This is in fact the basis of the entire game, of everything that is not melee-based. Perhaps to the chagrin of many, but to my delight, Soma cannot use any of the traditional mystical weapons. That's right, no cross, no holy water. In their stead, the many different souls (both optional and not optional) give Soma the ability to mimic the abilities of the monsters they came from. Collecting a fishman's soul, for example, allows Soma to squirt a lethal stream of water from his fingertips (I'm so frightened -- hold me) almost the length of the screen. You can "equip" these many souls at will as well, breaking from the old style where you could only carry one weapon at a time, and had to find any weapon that you wanted within a candle. These souls are called "Bullet" souls and are basically your Up+B weapons. Yes, they're given a name because there are yet other kinds of souls that can be absorbed -- the second kind is attribute souls, which are inherent and don't require a button to activate. Some monsters don't give up a weapon soul, but instead a soul that somehow alters your statistics. The Minotaur soul, for example, increases your strength. The Undine soul, which is not an optional soul, allows you to walk on water. Third, there are the Guardian souls, activated by the R button, which serve other functions such as rotating shields and other such oddities. One of the non-optional ones transforms Soma into a bat, while another (optional) one brings out a monstrous contraption that sucks HP from enemies. Finally there are the Ability souls, which encompass things such as the double-jump, slide, and jump kick. These are the key ones -- along with some Guardian and Attribute Souls -- that give Soma the ability to further explore the castle.
Taking all of these souls into account, you can see that there are over a hundred different means of causing damage to enemies -- simply from your Melee weapons and Bullet souls alone. Some Guardian souls also result in damage. That's an intense amount of different armaments and abilities, but as the rate at which enemies give up optional souls is random, it's highly probable that you won't collect every single one of them unless you trade souls with a friend via the GBA link. Or, of course, you sit there for days and days on end fighting monsters. It's not as ridiculous as in Circle of the Moon, where you may never, ever get a card, because there are so many different souls in this game that collecting just half of them will still result in a significant gain. By contrast there were less than twenty cards to collect in Circle, and not all of them could even be combined to yield something useful.
The level design takes advantage of the different souls that you collect (or is it the other way around?) and is better prepared, in my opinion, than the previous two. Jumping abilities still encompass a lot of the progress, as well as sliding. But Konami has decided to play tricks with the water in this game, adding yet another dimension to the game's exploration feature, which is both refreshing and relieving. You don't know how exasperating it is to see that every single 2D exploration game out there is predicated on jumping abilities, perhaps out of the "limitation" of 2D. But this is an original step in another direction. Gaining the Undine and Skula souls lets you walk on top of and under, respectively, any bodies of water. And this is not just for a few screens -- this is for entire areas of the castle. Funny how adding just one or two different abilities can inject fresh blood into a game.
The castle looks a bit smaller than others, and this is reflected in the six-hour completion time I registered for the game. Granted, I only got 98.7 percent of the place, so I'm still missing something. But compared with the eleven- and eight-hour times I recorded for Circle and Harmony respectively, it's obvious that Aria is simply a shorter game from start to finish. It's a short play through for sure, but there's so much variety with the different souls that there's room for experimentation within your playthrough, or in secondary playthroughs. Plus there's the ability to play as, ehm, another character, and of course the now obligatory boss-rush mode. Plus, you've got to work to find the best of the three endings, like in Harmony. It feels more fluid too -- the intervals between gaining new abilities is relatively balanced, and the difficulty during combat is neither too easy or overly difficult. Oh, I died quite a few times, and I've barely made it to save points still breathing, as they're pretty spread out. But it's an easier job to handle than is Circle.
Admittedly though, sometimes I miss that hardcore difficulty. This is completely evident in the bosses, which are still -- for the most part -- pushovers. I only had trouble with a select few, and I have the shopkeeper to thank for supplying me with the many fine health tonics on his shelf. The bosses aren't quite as easy as those in Harmony, but this may seem so only because they apparently have more hit points and thusly take longer to beat. Yawn. While I'm griping, I would have perhaps liked the ability to grab onto ledges and crawl under tight spots from the start, although it's probably not "Castlevania" enough for some people. One of the Ability souls is completely useless (Super Jump), because by the time you collect it, you've already obtained a soul that does the a similar job (Giant Bat). I guess the only difference is that the Giant Bat soul drains MP at a vicious rate.
I'm also wondering when we are going to see a change in the style, or if we're ever going to see a return to or a variation of hard-core 2D point A-to-B action. Metroid kept the same core but managed to change enough, albeit to mildly disappointing results with Fusion (but amazing results with Prime). Konami can re-code the same core gameplay with slight improvements only so much before they start to put out almost the same exact game. This is why I've never enjoyed Mega Man 4, 5, and 6. After 3, it just couldn't get any better... or, Capcom just didn't want to do any better. Getting rid of the traditional sub-weapons and heart meter, and adding more than just jumping abilities were good steps. But there needs to be more.
Put all together, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is THE ideal Castlevania GBA game that is of explorative nature. It doesn't render the previous two obsolete, because Circle has that great DSS card system and Harmony has, again, that... uh... "thing" in the plot, but I could see how those previous two titles could be skipped and not missed if I had just played Aria first. It's just that good, and it's not just a great entry into the series, or a great entry for a portable game. It's pretty much an outstanding game overall, marred -- though heavily -- only by it's short play from beginning to end. If you had to choose only one Castlevania game -- scratch that, only one GBA game -- I'd say Aria of Sorrow is a contender up there with the Metroids and the Marios floating around for the system. That's bold, but I stand by it.
What Others Thought
The AnTiPoDe: 8.5 out of 10
"Although it is fine the way it is, I would have liked to see more of a likeness in gameplay to Symphony of the Night. Where Alucard had the ability to slash downward and wield two weapons, Soma can only attack horizontally and wield a single weapon. As a consolation, the variety of weapons does fill the gap that the lack of a diagonal attack creates. Fists and some swords attack horizontally, while other swords attack in an up-to-forward arc. Axes follow the same path. Spears attack in a down-to-forward arc. The gameplay overall is standard Castlevania style; tight controls, easy to pick up and play."
Mr. P's Castlevania Realm: 4.5 out of 5 Medusa Heads
"Aria of Sorrow is a game that surpasses expectations, mainly on the power of its story. This is fortunate, too, because if you take away the story, this is simply a beefed-up Harmony of Dissonance, another in what's becoming a long line of Symphony clones. Does it succeed in improving on the previous games' shortcomings? To an extent, yes--but there are only so many cosmetic changes you can make to hide the fact that there's really nothing new here. Even placing the game in the future, a once radical idea, didn't change a thing. It succeeds because the story and soul system supply Konami with some much-needed breathing room, but even they have to know by now that this formula has its limits."
GameSpot: 8.6 out of 10
"Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is at heart a very similar game to last year's Harmony of Dissonance and 2001's Circle of the Moon and that all three of these games bear more than a passing resemblance to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, a PlayStation game dating back to 1997. Granted, Symphony of the Night perfected an excellent formula for side-scrolling action adventure games--the fact that a game like Aria of Sorrow can get away with directly copying Symphony all these years later is proof that Symphony is a classic. More to the point, like the arch villain of the series, the Castlevania formula seems to be immortal. Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow will be familiar territory for fans of this long-standing series, but they'll love it anyway, and so will anyone looking for a great action game for the Game Boy Advance."
IGNGameboy: 9.3 out of 10
Aria of Sorrow takes what the development team built for Harmony of Dissonance, improves on the audio quality and bumps up the difficulty. The game may feature a drastic departure in storyline from previous games in the series, both on the GBA and on past consoles, but it's still Castlevania at its heart; and the game features some excellent, new ideas in gameplay that move the Castlevania franchise forward. The only real issue is in the game's length; just like the previous Castlevania adventures on the GBA, players can get the most basic ending in a single day. But the inclusion of new play mechanics, more specifically soul absorbing, increase the replay value significantly and keep the coveted 100% ending at a much further distance."
Game Informer: 9.25 out of 10
"Despite the absence of any significant innovation, Aria of Sorrow still manages to strengthen the series’ reputation. However, if Konami truly cares about this franchise, its next Castlevania project ought to make originality the number one priority."
"Konami keeps proving that Castlevania is one of the best video game series of all time, and that 2D is anything but dead ... Per usual, roaming around Dracula’s castle is an unending pleasure. Level design is of the highest caliber; the pacing is once again perfect; and I’m glad to see a wider variety of weapons."