Review by Tom Clark
Aria is a real word! Seriously, it is! I looked it up.....
It's an age old debate - which is the coolest: Pirates, Ninjas or Vampires?? Pirates have cool boats, and they have Johnny Depp flying their flag (so to speak), but they have terrible dress sense, and you always get the impression that they probably smell quite bad. Ninjas dress fashionably - the 'one-piece black pyjamas with matching headgear' will be next Summer's look, I tell you now, but their people skills are kinda lacking. They just aren't very talkative. And vampires? Vampires have the whole 'seducing nubile young maidens' thing down to a fine art, which automatically earns them respect. Jack Bauer used to be a vampire. Also cool. They 'party all day and sleep all night', apparently, which endears them to all the university students. It's just a shame that they're so damn pasty. Well, Aria of Sorrow on the GBA won't solve this debate, but it is the finest vampire-themed game to grace the system so far, which is cool in itself.
The CastleVania series is one of the longest running and most revered out there. Unofficially starting life on the unforgettable MSX Home Computer in 1986 under the title Vampire Killer, before adopting the familiar CastleVania name and setting up home on the NES a year later, the series was famed for it's side scrolling, vampire whipping platform action. Along the way it has ventured into a third dimension a few times, with mixed success (the N64 version is crap, the PS2 version isn't too bad), it has adapted with the times, taking on more RPG like elements to compliment the platforming, and it has graced more consoles and handheld systems than you can shake a sharpened stick at. And now it's on the GBA, for the third time. The first two forays onto Ninty's latest 'Boy Wonder (Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance) were both very able efforts, but neither could quite be considered timeless classics. Aria of Sorrow improves on these two, but is it improvement enough to warrant your hard-earned a third time??
In a break from the norm for the CastleVania franchise, Aria of Sorrow is set in the future. In the year 2035 to be precise. However, the plot begins long before that, back in 1999. A brave troop of vampire hunters have penetrated Dracula's castle, and have forced a final confrontation with the immortal vampire. They defeat Dracula once and for all - killing him for a final time (they hope), and trapping his castle, which exists in a dimension all of it's own, inside a lunar eclipse. Now, in 2035, another eclipse is due, this time in Japan, and teenager Soma Cruz and his friend Mina Hakuba are on their way to an ancient shrine to view the event. Meanwhile, Yoko Belnades and her associate, the spooky and familiar looking Genya Arikado are sent by the Church to investigate rumours the Dracula is to be reborn. As the eclipse sends Japan into darkness, these four are pulled in to Dracula's castle, along with the mysterious Graham Jones, a cult leader who predicts that the world is due to end in 2035. With the eclipse drowning Japan in it's shadow, an ancient evil is waiting to be reborn; the destinies of these individuals will meet; and once again the time will come for a hero to brave Dracula's castle in a last ditch attempt to stop his rebirth. . .
As plots go, this is easily the very best in the CastleVania series. There are many memorable characters roaming the castle grounds - Soma (the main protagonist in the game) and the barmy Graham being the most interesting. What's more, there are plenty of plot twists thrown in to the mix - some of them I saw coming, to be honest, but some of them genuinely did surprise me. The plots in the CastleVania games are often quite similar to each other, and often end up being rather uninspiring and predictable as a result, but this game really doesn't fall into that trap - it feels fresh and exciting - not bad for the latest in a series that has been going steadily for seventeen years..... There are a few moments when things get a little too bizarre - a soldier, who was dispatched to the shrine and also finds himself trapped in the castle, lays aside his military past to set up a shop.... it 's a little wacky really, and makes you wonder why they didn't just introduce a peddler or merchant who got sucked into the castle instead.... But other than these little touches, it all feels as logical as a plot about an ancient evil residing in a castle that is trapped in an eclipse can be. The scripting, too, is really quite able for the most part, although there are a few moments when you wonder whether something is getting lost in translation - Yoko 'teasing' Soma while they stand in the middle of Dracula's castle, discussing a maniac that wants them dead, for instance, doesn't sit too well. The only real disappointment with the plot is that more isn't made of the futuristic setting. I'm not asking for lasers or lightsabers as weapons - that would just feel out of place - but when you get down to it, there is nothing to really show that this game is set in the future other than the fact that the game tells you that it is. Since the fact that it's set in a different time to the rest of the titles in the franchise was one of the first pieces of information to be released about the game, it just smacks ever so slightly of gimmick-ness.
The gameplay in Aria of Sorrow follows the formula that was established in the Playstation CastleVania game 'Symphony of the Night', and which carried on through the first two GBA games. Rather than splitting the castle into separate 'levels' for Soma to battle his way through, the whole castle is open to you at the start - you are free to explore as you like. While this is initially a fantastic all daunting task, it soon becomes apparent that there is still quite a rigid structure to how you play through the game - certain areas of the castle cannot be accessed without a special skill, such as the ability to slide through small gaps, to double-jump, or to walk on water. Since these powers can't be gained until you've completed certain areas of the castle, it gives your quest more focus and direction. This is a good system because although, for all intents and purposes, you still are playing through various levels (you need to complete one section of the castle to get access to the next), the fact that the levels are hidden within the game's free-roaming structure, and the fact that you can backtrack thoughout the whole castle whenever you like (and indeed are encouraged to do so, in order to find special items that you couldn't have found without the skills you acquired after your first time through) affords this game a more 'epic' feel, which aids the atmosphere of the game no end.
As with the previous two CastleVania games on the GBA, your character can 'level up' in an RPG-like fashion. Every enemy that you defeat grants you a certain number of 'experience points'. Gain enough of these and Soma gets stronger - his stats for areas such as strength, intelligence, luck and such increase, his maximum health increases, and his magic points (which are used for many sub-attacks, as well as for some of the special moves) increase. In addition to this, the different weapons, armour or accessories that you equip Soma with can effect his stat points - some may strengthen his defence but leave his physical attacks lacking, some may leave him as strong as one of those dudes in the circus with a leopard skin leotard and a handlebar 'tache, but leave him as vulnerable as a contestant on Junior Stars In Their Eyes - the key to success in this game lies in getting the balance right. Admittedly the system in this game is not as complex or as in depth as those found in most RPGs, but that just makes it more accessible - a good thing considering that Aria of Sorrow is first and foremost an action game. Konami have struck it just right - there are enough statistics, experience points and pieces of equipment to tinker with to afford this game more depth than other platform or action games on the GBA, but it's not enough to alienate people who want little more than a simple battle against the forces of the night.
While the basic structure of Aria of Sorrow may be the same as the previous CastleVania games, there is a significant new feature on display here. While previous titles gave you different sub-weapons to fight with, allowing you to carry only one at a time, here things are done differently. Killing an enemy can, if you are lucky, allow you to capture it's soul. The souls of different enemies have different effects - some grant you abilities such as granting you temporary flight; some increase your attributes in key areas; some provide you with various attacks (which, admittedly, are just like the sub-weapons from previous titles), and what's more, while you can only have one from each of these three categories equipped at any one time, unlike the sub-weapons that you carried in previous games you can keep all of your souls in your inventory, swapping them at your leisure. You can even trade souls with other players via the link cable. Pokemon has a lot to answer for....
As good as all this is (and it is good), and as interesting as the new features are, it still all plays in a similar vein (vein? Get it?) to the previous entries in the series. It does it better than both Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance, granted, but if you've already purchased and completed those two, you may wish to seriously consider whether you feel willing to spend yet more money to run around another evil castle, dispatching similar enemies to those you've already killed. If you've not played the other two (and sales suggests that that's probably a few of you) then this game is a definite must, but if you have played them (or even just one) then be warned....
Graphically this game is far better than both of the previous efforts. Circle of the Moon's dark and gloomy graphics were the subject of a lot of abuse, whereas Harmony of Dissonance went a little too far the other way - enemies often got lost on the brightly coloured backdrops. Here, though, the balance is just right. Everything is easy to make out, and is very well defined. Character models are quite small and thin-looking, but are still superb and detailed - some of the enemies actually manage to look intensely creepy, even a little scary (thinking about the 'butchers' here), which is very impressive given the size of the screen they are presented on. The backgrounds, too, are rather impressive - there are some stunning clouds in view outside the castle, and the impression that the castle is actually in another dimension within the eclipse is really carried through quite admirably.
The sound, too, manages to impress. From the rousing, pumping opening score it is immediately clear that the music on display here is a big improvement on the slightly-too-jaunty tunes playing through Harmony of Dissonance. Aria of Sorrow is filled with tunes that manage to be quite atmospheric and tense, complimenting the atmosphere very well indeed (it's even better when you listen through headphones). Sound effects, too, are more than adequate. There are a few exceptions (Yoko's 'hello' when she speaks to Soma sounds more like an evil Teletubby than anything else - this is a sound effect that is creepy for the wrong reasons!), but on the whole it is very well presented. It must be said, though, that the first GBA CastleVania title still just about has the edge on the aural front - nothing has come close to the 'creaking door effect when you first begin Circle of the Moon.
Ultimately this is by far the best of the three GBA CastleVania games (and comes close to being the best in the whole series!) - the soul system is good, the plot is really involving, and genuinely surprising at times, and the level design is top class. Throw in some rock hard bosses and it's clear to see that this is a quality title. But it's just too damn similar in style to make it a must buy for anyone who has the two that came before it. It just does the same things, even if it does do them better. So long as you're prepared to pay for the same again, then I heartily recommend it, though. And, be honest, can you really resist a game that has a weapon called the ''Bastard Sword''? Thought not.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
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