Review by horror_spooky

Reviewed: 03/14/16

The Best Castlevania on GBA

Recently, I have taken it upon myself to play through the GBA Castlevania games. I found them to be pretty great, but lacking compared to the DS entries Dawn of Sorrow and Order of Ecclesia. Aria of Sorrow, on the other hand, is an absolute masterpiece and easily the best Castlevania GBA game, and one of the best Game Boy Advance games period.

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is actually the predecessor to Dawn of Sorrow. Since I played Dawn of Sorrow first, I already knew of this game's big twist, but that didn't ruin the experience for me at all. The story is still interesting and has intriguing characters, but the horrendous dialogue makes it the least satisfying part of the experience anyway. The story is just an excuse to partake in the brilliantly designed gameplay, so knowing full well the fate of the characters before going in didn't really mar the experience for me.

The game stars Soma, who winds up stuck in Dracula's castle. Immediately, Soma realizes that he has a special ability to absorb the souls of monsters he kills, and therefore obtain their powers and abilities. This gimmick replaces the sub weapons from the previous Castlevania GBA games, and has Soma utilizing a wide range of unique attacks acquired from the game's many different enemies.

To be frank, I love this gameplay mechanic. It's always thrilling when Soma successfully absorbs a soul, as oftentimes the powers are all very unique and significantly improve the game. The souls Soma is able to absorb range from offensive souls, to ones that are used to traverse the environment better (for example, one soul allows Soma to transform into a bat) to ones that are more passive in nature. Soma can have one soul from each category equipped at any time, and figuring out which soul combinations work best for you is one of the more satisfying experiences in the game.

Even though combat in the game relies heavily on using souls, Soma also has access to a variety of standard weapons. These include swords, spears, a gun, and more, all of which can either be found lying around in the castle or purchased from the shop. The weapons all have their pros and cons, and finding which style of combat fits best for you is just as fun as experimenting with the different souls that Soma has at his disposal.

Soma can also collect a wide variety of armor to improve his stats. Unlike previous Castlevania GBAs where magic and sub weapon hearts were separated, Aria of Sorrow collects those abilities under a single green meter, which makes managing them much easier. It also makes the game less confusing overall, as players only have to worry about their health bar and their mana bar, instead of dealing with three separate meters at one time.

Soma will use his abilities and weapons against the castle's many different enemy types, which all require different strategies to effectively deal with. The game has an exhausting amount of different enemies that players will encounter, and battling with them is great fun. Aria of Sorrow ups the gore factor from the previous games, so zombies are torn apart by sword slashes and splashes of blood land on the castle floors. The sound effects make the combat very satisfying overall, and it also makes breaking things in the environment fund to do as well.

That's a good thing, because players will be spending a lot of time killing enemies and breaking stuff. Doing this will give players XP that will level up Soma, who becomes an absolute powerhouse by the end of the game, and it also gives them chances to collect more gear and cash. The cash can be spent at the shop to purchase potions and other weapons, but be careful, as for some reason the game lets you sell items that you have equipped. This was something that I complained about in Dawn of Sorrow as well, and I am left scratching my head as to why the developers would even include this at all.

That aside, the game is truly well designed, with one of the best Metroidvania overworlds to explore that I have ever experienced. The environments are varied, and the areas of the castle all feel distinct from one another with their unique personalities. There is a sense of non-linearity to the game, too, because players can literally stumble upon bosses that they have no hope of beating just yet, which encourages one to backtrack and explore the castle more thoroughly.

The bosses, by the way, are magnificent, and some of the best that the series has ever offered. Some of them are a little too familiar, as Castlevania does tend to recycle boss encounters, but they are all fun to fight. The bosses all offer a decent challenge as well, so when they're finally defeated, one feels a genuine sense of accomplishment.

Part of the reason why the boss fights are so great is due to the game's superb visuals. Whereas the previous Castlevania GBA games had some graphical oddities, Aria of Sorrow nails the visual presentation and pulls it off flawlessly, bringing to the table one of the best looking GBA games there is. The enemy designs and animations are impressive, as are the animations attached to Soma. The bosses are intimidating and highly detailed, making each one a true visual treat.

Aria of Sorrow's presentation is high quality when it comes to the game's atmospheric soundtrack as well. The tunes blend well with the demonic imagery to create an unsettling Gothic vibe, and work to provide one of the most purely engrossing experiences available on the Game Boy Advance.

In terms of replayability, Aria of Sorrow is no slouch in that department either. Players can trade souls with other players that have the game (an ultimately pointless feature as it is not difficult to acquire souls in the least), and beating the game once unlocks a fun Boss Rush mode. Furthermore, players can also replay the game in New Game+, and play it again under a harder difficulty setting. If that weren't enough, there are three different endings to see, and plenty of other secrets stashed away in Aria of Sorrow, making it one of the most fully-featured GBA games that I have personally ever come across.

When all is said and done, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow for the Game Boy Advance is very nearly a perfect game. If the dialogue wasn't so atrocious and a couple of gameplay elements were tweaked, I would have awarded it the ever elusive perfect score. It is probably my favorite GBA game that I have played to date though, and highly recommend it to anyone with the system.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Product Release: Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (US, 05/06/03)

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