Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Game review: Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (NDS)

When I got my Nintendo DS, one of the first games I got with it was a Castlevania game, Dawn of Sorrow, and I haven't regretted it - it hasn't left my DS in weeks. (I also got New Super Mario Bros - cool, but I'm on this Castlevania kick; Spiderman 2 - it's Jen's and I'm not interested; and Polarium, this cracked-out puzzle game I don't get and may turn in for credit towards the next Castlevania game.)

I've been playing Castlevania games for years, but I'm not that big a fan. The first Castlevania was mediocre at best, and the third one wasn't much better. Maybe a graphical update. The second one, on the other hand - now, these were all for the original Nintendo - was a great game. It pretty much set the standard for the kind of adventure game I'd come to like. A game where the character can grow, with a customizable weapon set, enabling different playing styles to offer a slightly different experience. Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest was limited, but hey, this was late 80s. I didn't play the Game Boy Castlevania games, though due to the technological marvel that is Emulation, I may someday. I like to pretend the Nintendo 64 never happened and that all of Nintendo's systems (also forgetting Virtual Boy, everyone does) were good. (The jury's still out on the Wii.) And thus the Castlevania games on the N64 are also overlooked.

Then the Game Boy Advance came out, which received one Castlevania title: Aria of Sorrow. This was a great game as well, probably my favorite to be released on a Nintendo system. (The fan favorite is Symphony of the Night, which was on the Playstation. I can't say it's my favorite, but it's up there.) AoS was a pretty good game, but it changed what Castlevania was about. Rather than having a member of the Belmont clan going after Count Dracula (or Dracula's son Alucard, in Symphony), we met this guy named Soma Cruz who has the power to steal the souls of his enemies and use them as weapons or enhancements. The castle was different, but then again, it changes with every game. And the good-ole 80s feel was replaced with an Anime overhaul. I don't much care for the Anime aspect of the game, or Soma's love life or friendships - but I find that you can skip most of the plot, and it still makes for a fun game.

Dawn of Sorrow is much the same, a sequel to Aria of Sorrow. The name cleverly carries the initials DS, and it makes decent use of the DS' touch screen. Soma still steals souls, but to defeat a boss, you have to trace a symbol on the screen using the stylus. In some parts of the game, you can break blocks with the stylus. And as a purely cosmetic touch, you name your save file by writing your name or drawing something on the screen, much like signing for a credit card purchase at the supermarket.

I love how the religious right jumps on the popular games, whether there's anything wrong with them (Grand Theft Auto) or not (Dungeons & Dragons), but something like Dawn of Sorrow is overlooked. Let's see, from the point of view of a religious fanatic. (Also considering Nintendo's family-friendly reputation.) First, you kill enemies over and over until you get their soul. You hardly ever get it on the first try - some enemies it takes hours. The reward for collecting all the souls is a ring which continually draws energy from Chaos (which we could interpret as Hell). Basically infinite spellcasting. Second, to kill the more powerful enemies (except the last one) you have to draw sacriligious runes (not really, but it could be interpreted so). And if you get the second ending, you become the Dark Lord (they mean Dracula, but this could be interpreted as the Devil). So this is a pretty dark game for Nintendo (to be fair, they didn't make it - it's from Konami).

And no, as far as I know, the infamous "Konami Code" (Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A) doesn't work on any of the Castlevania games. I know it works on Life Force and Contra, but from time to time I try it on Konami's other titles, to no noticeable effect.

I love this game, though. It's a huge castle to explore, there are well over 100 different kinds of monsters to learn how to deal with, and there are a few side things to do. I already mentioned getting all the souls. You can also synthesize weapons by fusing souls with existing weapons to make new, better ones. (To make the best weapons, you have to synth boss souls, which can't be replaced - and therefore you can't get your Chaos Ring.) I mentioned that one ending has Soma becoming the Dark Lord. Doing so unlocks a new game, Julius Mode, where Julius Belmont has to go in after Soma and eventually defeat him. Fans say this mode is most like Castlevania 3. I've played it a little, and it's fun enough, but I prefer the main game. Also if you like a challenge, there's Boss Rush - fight the bosses one after the other. There are some cool prizes if you can do it in a short enough time. I won't mess with it until I've maxed my character to level 99.

There's a new Castlevania for the DS - Portrait of Ruin. It's got nothing to do with Soma, and I hear there's a heck of a lot more stuff to do - and it's harder. Dawn of Sorrow is too easy once you learn it. Oh, I know it's a spoiler, but the second to last boss is the easiest one in the game if you know the secret. One soul, Beur, has a fireball spinning around you. Max it out (get 9 Beur souls) and you get six fireballs. The boss, Abaddon, its main attack is to summon a swarm of locusts at you. With maxed Beur turned on, not a single one will hit Soma, and all Abaddon can do is run into Soma, and that doesn't do much damage. Pick a powerful weapon and go to town. Only the seal used to kill it is the hardest in the game, and if you fail, Abaddon gets more life. I got the seal on my 5th try, and still had a third of my magic and half my life, no potions used. That's pathetic. Even some of the bosses killed with the first couple seals will have you using at least one potion, unless you're really good.

If you have a DS, I can't recommend this game enough. 2, 3 years down the road I imagine it'll still be a favorite. I said before Symphony wasn't my favorite Castlevania title. Dawn of Sorrow isn't, either, but it's because I can't name just one. Simon's Quest for the classic gameplay (a Belmont going after Dracula), Symphony of the Night for the inverted castle (after you "beat" the game, a new castle is created which is basically the first one upside-down, and that's where Drac is), and Dawn of Sorrow for the soul system - it barely one-ups Aria of Sorrow - which, if you have that in when you start a Dawn of Sorrow game, you get a bonus item. Wish I still had it, it's still worth playing.

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