Review by Relle
I can't seem to stop playing this game...
Way back when, the only Castlevania game I ever played was the NES game Simon's Quest. The RPG aspects appealed to my Whore Sense and the game itself was action-packed and very challenging. While the series has evolved beyond the original games, I missed a good chunk of the series until Castlevania: Circle of the Moon. With a Metroid-like game progression, RPG-ish level-up system and enough magic spells for any situation, it rekindled my love of Dracula-slaying. A year later, Harmony of Dissonnance thoroughly killed any liking I had of the series. The whole system just seemed off to me, and it didn't have that sense of fun. Cut to a 2003 with Aria of Sorrow, and I'm back to loving it again. I don't know whether it's the weapons, the awesome powers, or the bigass monsters, but I seem to be playing this game over and over again.
I gotta get Dracula's interior decorator. Seriously, the same castle changes from game to game, yet the castle itself remains mostly the same. This game's much brighter overall than Circle of the Moon, so those without a GBASP won't have to hold a light bulb up to the screen in order to play. Another improvement is the animation of the main character. Circle of the Moon had what, two or three frames of animation? Soma, on the other hand, is very fluid, moving with a purpose. The various spells and powers he can use are impressive to see, let alone use against the forces of darkness. The enemies are an excellent use of the GBA's sprite abilities, ranging from the tiny Fleamen to the HUGE Armor creatures. It's all very fluid, with a sweet framerate that shows just how far sprites can go.
While the music isn't outstanding, it is fun to listen to while you hack and slash your way through Dracula's castle. The sound effects are what you might expect. Jumping, slashing, various grunting and yelling when you're hit, but what I really have to give credit to is the voices. Yeah, there's some voicework in this game, though sparse. Not only that, but it's in Japanese. While it's only a word or two here and there, it's a real treat for anyone who can understand it.
I'm not entirely sure why this game's so damn appealing. It could be the huge range of weapons. It could be the spells and abilities. It could be the huge castle to explore. It could be the fact that it has a level-up system that tickles my RPG Whore Sense. Or it could be all of the above.
So here's the meat and potatoes of it. You're Soma Cruz, a Japanese high school fur-coat-wearing bishounen who visits a shrine with his girlfriend during a solar eclipse. Suddenly you're both sucked into the eclipse and land in Dracula's castle! While the story may not seem like much at first, it's actually much more developed than most, if not all, of the previous Castlevania titles. During the course of the game you'll meet with various people in parts of the castle who will fill you in on bits and pieces of the backstory and current events within the castle. Previous Castlevania fans will find a lot of clues as to a certain character hidden in the dialogue, but if you don't get it, it's still a good read.
The game mechanics are a fair departure from games of Castlevania Past. You can once again equip various armors and accessories to boost your defense and other stats, but something new here are the weapons. Soma doesn't use a whip, but rather knives, swords, spears, and all manner of deathly instruments. Hell, you can even use Death's scythe! These weapons are all scattered throughout the castle and aside from their attack power, they have other factors such as size, range and attack speed. Even if a certain weapon is more powerful than your current one, if it swings like a rusty gate, you might not want to use it. Some weapons are straight-up tools of blood-inducing violence, but others, like the elemental swords, are fun to watch as they spray a shower of flames, venom or ice toward the enemy.
The soul system is a tweaking of Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance's magic system. Rather than spellbooks, you can randomly acquire the souls of monsters, then use their weapons against them. There's a soul for every monster and then some, with powers that fit the original owner. Red souls are your Up+B weapons, which replace the old holy water, axes, boomerangs, etc. Blue souls are activated with the R button and can range from barriers and summoning a familiar to transforming into various monsters. Yellow souls are sort of the 'accessory' souls, most of which boost your stats or give you immunities from status effects. The red and blue souls drain your MP, which restores itself naturally instead of using hearts. There are also gray souls, which are your basic powers such as double jump, sliding, and the very fun mega-jump. Those ability souls are protected by some big, bad and very brutal bosses who will squish you into paste if you're not careful.
The castle itself is fairly intimidating at first, but unlike Harmony of Dissonance, it's very accessible. My sense of direction, even in video games, is pretty bad, but you could name an area in Aria of Sorrow and I could find it pretty easily. Okay, most of that is due to the in-game map, but really, it's put together really well. Plus each area is distinctive, from the Chapel to the Clock Tower to the rather ominous-sounding and rather yellow Forbidden Area. Getting 100% of the map is a challenge in and of itself, since there are plenty of secret rooms and hidden passages, many of which with powerful weapons and armor.
While the main game takes around 6-8 hours to beat (less if you're using a walkthrough) there's a boss rush mode to challenge you, hidden weapons to find, and Konami's version of a New Game+, in which you can keep all the souls and items you got in your last game and play through in either normal or the unlockable Hard mode. Besides trying to get 100% of the map, there are plenty of hidden weapons and armor to find and a lot of souls to collect. If you're any kind of Castlevania fan, you'll love this game.
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
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