Review by SethBlizzard

Reviewed: 03/04/14 | Updated: 07/10/14

Soma-gical

Right from the premise, I had my reserves about Aria of Sorrow. The forces of evil have hitherto been bested by trained vampire hunters, whose strength and resilience have been outright superhuman. This time around, however, a teenager – albeit one with mysterious supernatural powers – can more than hold his own against them. The Belmonts have been fighting evil for centuries, and now we're supposed to believe that a young man, who didn't even know anything about the aforementioned history or that Dracula was anything other than a fairytale, can survive against the vicious beatings of evil's minions?

After making it to the end of the game, those criticisms were cast firmly to the back of my mind. Whereas the first two Castlevania games for the Game Boy Advance both felt like they were just trying to emulate Symphony of the Night, and in all the wrong ways, Aria of Sorrow stands tall as its own game with its own rules and spirit. Speaking of which...

Spirits, or rather Souls, are the name of the game. As coincidental as Soma Cruz's visit to Castlevania seems to be, there's definitely more to it than that, considering that he happens to harbour the power to steal the souls of foes he defeats and use them as weapons. The basic platforming style of Castlevania is still here, more specifically that of the semi free-roaming of Symphony of the Night and the two preceding GBA Castlevanias. If you were never in love with the Vampire Killer whip in this play style, Aria of Sorrow is reason to rejoice, for Soma follows the philosophy that the sword is mightier than the whip. On his journey through the castle of evil, he can find all sorts of swords and other weapons, touching on the best parts of playing Symphony of the Night. However, his subweapon system is quite different, in that there are none. Instead, he collects the souls of certain foes he defeats (this seems to happen at random, though Luck stats probably have something to do with the frequency). Depending on the soul equipped, he can perform variations on the axe-hurling and knife-throwing we're all familiar with, but in a way characteristic for this game. Moreover, the classic Castlevania stable of collectable hearts this time work as Magic Power energy instead of ammo.

There are four different types of Souls. One type is more useful for attacking, and this is where the weapon-throwing comes in. However, another type affects how you interact with the landscape. Soma Cruz is the first Castlevania hero not to automatically sink like a stone when submerged in water. In fact, in order to get him to the bottom – as you will want – you need to equip a certain Soul to do so. These kinds of game-making Souls, the most coveted being Ability Souls, are usually given to you after you defeat a certain boss. Instead of locked doors all over the place like in Harmony of Dissonance, the abilities you gain from your Souls will see your ever-expanding passage through the castle. Even your attack Souls are abundant – it's not uncommon to encounter the same Soul twice – so you will never run into the Circle of the Moon scenario of feeling that the game only gives you useful items when it feels like it. Speaking of useful items, you can get all sorts of additional helpful items to fill your inventory, like the numerous health items and the many variations of armour.

You have a blast on your adventure through Dracula's castle. Aria of Sorrow is on a whole other level than Circle of the Moon or Harmony of Dissonance. For one thing, it's structured excellently – you will seldom find yourself becoming stuck because you didn't do the one thing you had to do to succeed. It's even better told; your health appears on your screen with numbers again instead of the mere life bar, making it easier to keep up with how much damage you take. Everything is so comfortable. The selectable warp points is a particularly excellent feature, so you no longer have to shuffle through them like before (when you couldn't even get to them sometimes, like in Harmony of Dissonance). Finally, the game controls wonderfully. Soma responds to the lightest touch of the D-pad, and so has earned himself bragging rights over the two GBA Belmont boys.

The bosses are excellent, and quite varied. Some of the most memorable ones are Balore and the Headhunter, both of which are tremendously fun as well as challenging. Don't worry, your fan favourites are here, like the Minotaurs and werewolves, but they're mostly on lackey service now, and doing a good job at it. Speaking of which, the enemy roster in Aria of Sorrow is to be commended. There are enemies of all shapes and sizes here, from huge beasts to ghosts of servant girls. There is wonderful synergy at work here, and your Beastiary is accessible from the pause screen, an enemy's file becoming available when you defeat at least one. Your aesthetic senses get a good run, too. Aria of Sorrow is a beautiful game; the scenery is gorgeous, with both a foreground, middle and background. Not only are there great touches like lightning flashing, the environments themselves are endlessly idiosyncratic and memorable. The characters are all very eye-catching, especially the bosses. It doesn't hurt that the music is composed by Michiru Yamane. Her name alone is a quality sign right there, and she delivers. The soundtrack is quite excellent, and suffers from neither of the previous two games' rehashing or tinny sound quality. Aria of Sorrow's music is spectacular and emulates actual instruments quite well in its range of diverse, captivating melodies. They exude great atmosphere and many are quite catchy – curiously, the opening area music is among the least impressive examples I can name. There are even voice clips, and the game doesn't even try to hide its Japanese roots with them as almost all are in Japanese.

Perhaps there is no need to hide it, as Soma enters the castle through a solar eclipse in Japan. You see, Aria of Sorrow turns the premise of Castlevania on its head, not least with its jump several centuries into the future – a future which, at the time of this being written, is still the future! The story is very deep and well-told. At first, neither you or Soma have a clue what's going on, but as you meet more characters, the story becomes infinitely more layered. You meet many friendly and not-so-friendly characters on your journey, one of the most prominent being a savvy, goateed man calling himself J. Just like in Harmony of Dissonance, you won't get the full ending unless you really go all out to get everything out of the castle. Unlike in Harmony of Dissonance, though, I was not jaded when I realized this; I absolutely HAD to find out how to get through that mysterious doorway (those who have played the game will know which one I mean), and to find out what happened to your friend J. The game must have done something right to make me want more, just when it was teasing me that it was all over. And when you piece together the clues that you discover the game has given you and go the distance, oh boy. I regret that I knew in beforehand of the reverse castle in Symphony of the Night, because I can imagine that discovering Aria of Sorrow's big “reveal” felt something like that. Safe to say, it puts a very unexpected and delightful twist on what we've expected from Castlevania up to this point. The stakes are raised on a level we've never seen before.

There is something special about Aria of Sorrow. Capturing the best of the arguably-dubbed Metroidvania series in portable form, it's loads more fun to play than either of its two predecessors. Soma's swords are most enjoyable to discover and use (just wait until you get the Laevatain), the music is excellent and the story puts a great twist on Dracula's presence in Castlevania with one of the most unique final bosses I have ever played. I am not surprised in the least that Aria of Sorrow spawned a sequel on the DS, for it is without question the best of the appropriately-dubbed Aria of Sorrow trilogy.

Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Product Release: Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (EU, 05/09/03)

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