Castlevania was a platforming classic with a darker edge to it dating back to the original Nintendo Entertainment System. While it never caught fire quite like other platform series of the time like Mega Man or Super Mario Bros. it did have a decent following. As technology moved forward the series started to lose it’s way with several botched attempts at bringing the 2D platforming series into 3D gaming. The Playstation classic Symphony of Night set the new standard, borrowing liberally from the Metroid franchise, and created a mold that has not been greatly changed since. The series has been primarily relegated to handheld gaming systems, and Dawn of Sorrow was the first entry for Nintendo’s DS system.
Dawn of Sorrow is a direct follow up to Aria of Sorrow which was released on the Gameboy Advance. Set one year after the events of that game, players take control of Soma Cruz. Soma is the reincarnation of Dracula himself however in the previous game he had managed to gain control over the dark soul within himself. However there are those out there who are not prepared to just leave things as they are. A Dracula worshiping cult confront Soma and make it clear to him that unless he goes to their castle and faces their trials that they will go after his girlfriend Mina. Feeling as though he has little choice Soma goes to the castle (which bears a pretty strong resemblance to Dracula’s castle from the last game, though is not an exact copy) where he hopes to defeat the cult and lay Dracula’s soul to rest once and for all.
Dawn of Sorrow mixes a number of different elements into it’s game-play. At it’s heart it is an action platforming game, as the 2D entries in the series have always been. Soma battles an impressively large array of varied monsters while working to explore every nook and cranny of the castle. In terms of Soma himself, the way he becomes more powerful over the course of the game is much more in line with traditional role playing game elements. Soma himself can gain levels to become more powerful through experience he gains when he defeats enemies. He can also acquire or purchase more powerful weapons. The weapons are a great way for each player to find something that fits their play style. Axes are very powerful but the attack is slow. There are thrown weapons and even guns to take out enemies from a distance but they aren’t very powerful. And there are swords and daggers for fast up close attacks of middling strength.
The main key to Soma’s growth is the acquisition of souls. Whenever a player defeats a monster there is a chance that Soma may collect that monster’s soul. These souls serve several purposes, the primary one is being a new ability for Soma. The affects of souls vary, from allowing Soma to fire projectiles to summoning monsters to assist him to simply boosting his stats. Soma can carry up to nine of any given soul and in most cases the effects become stronger the closer he gets to that maximum. Souls can also be infused into certain weapons to create even more powerful items than can be bought or found. Soul collecting can become a big draw to keep playing the game even after defeating the final boss, for those who aren’t full satisfied until they’ve found everything.
Dawn of Sorrow plays very smoothly. The controls are tight, as is a requirement for any good platforming game. The mix of weapons and souls really allows for a high level of customization where players can find just the right combination of abilities to suit them. The variety of enemies is also especially impressive. There are very few re-skinned copies of earlier enemies, most enemies are a whole new challenge for the player to tackle and figure out how to best defeat. The boss battles are well handled, varying between large bosses that fill up the screen and more nimble foes the same size as Soma.
Ultimately while Dawn of Sorrow is an enjoyable game it does little to step things up from the previous Gameboy Advance entry in the Castlevania series. The game doesn’t do much to take advantage of the duel screens, basically using the top screen either as a map or way to see Soma’s current stats. While the map is helpful to have up the whole time it doesn’t do much to make this feel like something new. This entry also has an especially weak story, even by the rather lowly standards of this series. Thankfully Castlevania has never really been about the story or the characters. However since the game is made up mostly of exploration and is not really story driven many gamers will find one or two occasions where they really just don’t know where to go next. These points where there’s little option but to just comb over every inch of the castle are tedious. Moments like these are likely unintended but that doesn’t make them any less frustrating.
Dawn of Sorrow does little more than maintain the status quo of the Castlevania series. However when the general formula is as solid as this it’s hard to fault the developers for sticking with what works. The game is a sure fire good time for any fan of the series or this style of game in general. However in the end it does little to transcend it’s roots.