Pros: Finally, a true spiritual successor to Symphony of the Night
Cons: EGM was right - Soma has a distressingly femenine appearence
The Bottom Line: It's "Metroidvania!" Need I say more?
Youve gotta love Konamis newfound affinity for musical terms. It makes their Castlevania series seem just that much more ominous. Symphony of the Night sounds much more interesting than something like Alucards Quest. Then there are Harmony of Dissonance, Aria of Sorrow, and the upcoming Lament of Innocence. Not that most Castlevania regulars these days mind the musical titles, though - its like Cat Stevens once sang, if you want to sing out, sing out. Well, most gamers have been singing joyous praises about Konami ever since they came up with the Metroidvania game structure. The Metroidvania structure is obviously a game structure resembling Metroid: No levels, just unreachable areas. Other than the game structure, though, the Metroidvania titles actually have very little in common with each other. Each game has a different magic system, a different story, and a different leading character.
Ever since the Metroidvania structure changed the way gamers play their Castlevania titles, the people at Konami have been hard-pressed to come up with a title which could top the original Metroidvania game, Symphony of the Night. And theyve tried, theyve tried really hard. The effort is apparent in Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance, as both are great games. However, its Aria of Sorrow which will fit the bill as a spiritual successor to Symphony.
The most ballyhooed fact about Aria of Sorrow is its setting: Aria is the first Castlevania game set in the future. This should have been more interesting, but when the designers thought to set it in the future, they meant the NEAR future. 2035 is the time, and its a year Im sure many of us will be around to see. So if you buy Aria expecting to see a machine-ruled Castlevania, well, I guess thats why Konami chose to use the word Sorrow, as an apology to people who were expecting such a setting. No big laser cannons, no robotic Dracula, no swarms of giant magic robots. Nothing which you would see on Futurama, which is really kind of disappointing since Konami could have really run wild. The only partially futuristic element - and its more of a present element, really - which exists in Castlevanias newest form is a handgun, which has so far been elusive to the Baron. I guess Konami decided they werent going to risk alienating too many fanboys. So Castlevania vets need not worry, their old gothic castle setting is still being used. In fact, given the story, its really hard to say it isnt appropriate. Ill explain the story when the right time comes.
The right time has just come. First of all, it seems the legendary vampire-busting Belmont clan has NOT completely dissapated. There is a Belmont walking around somewhere in the game, although hes just a supporting character. There is also a Belnades in the game - Castlevania vets may remember the name from Castlevania 3, in which a woman called Sypha Belnades helped Trevor Belmont dispose of Dracula. Aria of Sorrow has isnt about her, either. Nope, Aria makes you step into the shoes of a high school foriegn exchange student living in Japan, Soma Cruz. Upon an impending solar eclipse, Soma and his good friend Mina Hakuba walk into a temple with strong ties to Japanese mythology to get a better view. Once they reach the temple, they black out and wake up in Draculas castle. After Soma wanders for a bit, he eventually finds out what happened: (Dare I say it and make all the fanboys angry?) Dracula is DEAD! I mean, hes really, truly, completely dead! I dont mean UNdead, I mean DEAD! It seems Draculas latest resurrection was scheduled to take place in 1999, but the people of Transylvania just got fed up with his bullying and ganged up on him. They trapped his castle inside a solar eclipse which was taking place at the time, thus destroying it. Apparently Castlevania is like air to Dracula, because he got destroyed right along with it. So, just like that, POOF! No more Dracula.
Or so it would probably seem to the people down in Transylvania. In actuality, while Ol Pointy Teeth is indeed dead, Castlevania wasnt destroyed at all. It was just trapped in the eclipse. And now Soma and Mina are also trapped in an eclipse, and therefore inside of Castlevania. Soma finds he is endowed with some new powers which he didnt ask for, and doesnt want. So now he wants to get himself and Mina out of the castle ASAP, because there is another person wandering around who claims to be the inheritor of Draculas power, and his thirst for it is such that he wont 1-take no for an answer, and 2-stop any short of killing Soma to make sure he gets what he believes is rightfully his.
In keeping with the classic Metroidvania tradition, the designers made Soma move up in levels in lieu of the game. Soma comes complete with statistics which can go up or down, depending on his weapon, armor, special item and soul power (which Ill get to explaining.) This means Aria of Sorrow is, like its brethren, like an rpg. As he moves throughout the castle slaughtering Draculas master-less minions, he gains a number of points. When he obtains enough points, he moves up a level, which makes him stronger, gives him more life and more magic points. Konami seems to have found a sound balance difficulty in the leveling up process. It takes just the right amount of experience to level up, and enemies all give off just the right amount of experience points. It took Konami long enough to get it right: Symphony of the Night made leveling up a sometimes excrutiatingly slow process, and in Circle of the Moon, required experience skyrocketed way too high way too early.
The most parallel element between Symphony and Aria is probably the main characters choice of weapon. While past Castlevania heroes walked around smacking Drac with a whip, both Alucard and Soma use a weapon which, given the vampire legends Ive read, is much better for vamp hunting: A sword. Unlike Alucard, though, Soma doesnt get to start with the very best items the game has to offer only to get robbed of them just after the kickoff. Soma starts out with a wimpy, dinky, short-ranged little knife, and Death (who IS still very much alive... Uh, undead... Er, IS Death undead? I mean, just because he takes lives for a living...) probably doesnt consider the fully human Soma much of a threat, because he doesnt bother to come and steal his knife. Just like in Symphony, the different weapons Soma picks up have different rates of how fast he can swing them. Bigger, more powerful weapons which can be found or purchased too early in the game are likely to be clunky and slow. The difference between Alucard and Soma is Somas lack of an extra hand. Soma doesnt bother with any kind of shield or extra weapon, so your only form of 100 percent defense in Aria is flight.
Thanks to the new Tactical Soul system, flight will sometimes be literal. The tactical soul system is probably comprised of all those powers Soma doesnt want, but you and Soma will probably have a disagreement about it. If you dont take any souls, you have no chance at beating the game. The souls give you nice little abilities which make Somas escape from Castlevania much easier. Some of these souls are found scattered throughout the castle, and these are like the new items in Metroid: They give you the abilities youll need to progress. Among them are the abilities to walk on water, double jump, and change into a bat. However, most of the souls youll find are merely little niceties given up by defeated foes, and they hold a wide variety of unnecessary but useful functions. One of these abilities lets you see where the hidden passages are. Some give you different kinds of helpers in battle. A lot of them are there to replace the traditional Castlevania sub-weapons, which have been ditched. After playing around with a few of these nice abilities, though, youll forget those sub-weapons ever existed - with things like a laser, poison claws, and a spinning, bladed disc, the Aria sub-weapons are vastly more fun than the old things like holy water, daggers, and axes.
Since the soul weapons are used through a system of magic points, the candles are still in the game, giving off magic recharges in the old way - hearts. I find it strange that hearts recharge magic instead of energy, especially since your magic supply replenishes itself very slowly. I guess a consistent life recharge would have made the game too easy. Anyhow, you get those hearts in the old-fashioned Castlevania way, by hitting candles. Candles also give off a bit of currency. Instead of impatiently waiting for the enemies to drop needed items, you get to pick up money dropped by candles. Theres some other dude lost in the castle, a salesman, and hell go right to the entrance when you find him to sell you stuff. So when youre about to face a big boss battle, you can transport back to the entrance via a network of teleporters (you finally get to decide where you want to go) and stock up on potions.
Unfortunately, you wont always need potions to win a boss fight. While Aria of Sorrow is leagues harder than Symphony of the Night, it isnt as difficult as Circle of the Moon, either. While the challenge falls somewhere between the two games, it unfortunately leans more toward the difficulty of Symphony. The enemies have a real hard time overwhelming you, and you wont have too much trouble cracking boss patterns. Sure, a boss here, a boss there will give you an occaisional fit, but few of these guys have the power to introduce you to the Game Over screen. Much of Arias replay value comes through collecting hard-to-find souls, finding hidden passages, and seeing some really cool scenes between Soma and the various characters he interacts with. Theres a good seven hours of playtime in Aria, not counting all the hidden stuff that Castlevania buffs will be obsessed with finding in order to get the full completion. Add it all to multiple endings, and you get a game which will keep you busy for awhile.
Since there are so many Tactical Souls in the game to collect, you may have trouble finding them all - especially since monsters carrying more powerful souls will rarely drop them. This is when a function called the Soul Exchange comes into play. The Souls Exchange is an innovative scheme which allows you to trade captured souls with friends via the Game Link Cable. I can say no more on this subject, since I lack two essential things for getting it to work - a Game Link Cable and a friend who owns a Game Boy Advance.
The graphics in Aria of Sorrow are some of the best seen on the Game Boy Advance. First of all, theyre much brighter than the ultra-dark graphics in Circle of the Moon, so your chances of ever being killed by an unseen nothing have been drastically reduced. And while Circles Nathan Graves was a stiff, blocky sprite, Soma moves with a fluidity similar to Alucards from Symphony. He swings his arms while he runs, and his coat flaps in the breeze. The enemies are also pretty fluid, although some of them seem to be missing animation frames. The backgrounds are huge, epic, and very beautiful and eerie. Some of the foreground sprites even look rendered 3d, most notably a boss which is a giant face with two giant hands which move around the screen trying to smoosh you. Many of Somas weapons even have distinct looks.
Its an Aria of sound in a game called Aria! Its a crappy cliche, I know, and its probably been done to death. But you cant deny the haunting audio score. While it is excellent, though, it still doesnt come close to the bar set by Symphony of the Night, container of one of the all-time great video game soundtracks. Arias score gets a little repetitive after awhile, and there isnt enough variety in the musical scores to keep you interested. The sounds dont even come close to replicating Symphonys outstanding audio flashes. The quality of the sounds is very 16-bit, but the Game Boy Advance is a 32-bit console. So while the sounds are actually fitting, they just dont sound very appropriate.
Konami developed a reputation for producing absolutely flawless controls for their Metroidvania games, and Aria is no exception. First of all, even with everything which can go on onscreen at once, slowdown is nonexistant. Soma lacks a dash move, something which was present in both Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance, but he moves at such a brisk pace it doesnt matter. He also commands a very high and very controllable jump. Since he uses a sword, it doesnt take forever to pull off an attack - this was a problem in Circle, because you had no control while attacking, and the whip took more than enough time for another enemy to sneak up on you. Attacks in Aria are very quick, so bad guy multitudes wont bother you much. And the Tactical Souls are all very easy to use.
Is Aria as good as Symphony? Well, I gave Symphony a perfect score, and I wont be doing that for Aria. But Aria, aside from being a really, really good handheld game, succeeds Symphony in many ways which we havent seen since the classic PlayStation title. It probably takes the cake as my favorite handheld game. And how often do I ever use the word favorite?
In the year 2035, the citizens of Japan eagerly await the first full solar eclipse of the twenty-first century. A young high school exchange student by the name of Soma Cruz ventures to Habuka Shrine to witness the spectacle. Upon entering the gates of the shrine, Soma and his friend Mina are transported to the very doorsteps of a foreboding castle. Players assume the role of Soma on a quest to unravel the mystery of Castlevania.