Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow - Review

Laconic Dungeon-Crawler
By: Michael Beckett

Review Breakdown
   Battle System 6
   Interface 8
   Music & Sound 7
   Originality 6
   Story & Plot 5
   Localization 6
   Replay Value 8
   Visuals 8
   Difficulty Easy
   Completion Time 5-7 Hours  

The ability to absorb enemy abilities makes for some interesting situations.
The ability to absorb enemy abilities makes for some interesting situations.
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow

   Konami recently announced that it would be making a Castlevania game for the PlayStation 2, and that it would break with tradition by being fully polygonal 3D instead of animated 2D. Between that and the semi-futuristic theme of Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, Konami risks losing a great deal of their fan base. Gamers who were expecting another formulaic edition of Castlevania will be disappointed, because Aria of Sorrow has quite a few things that set it apart from its predecessors - somewhat more innovative combat, a setting shoved several decades into the future, and most importantly, a plot that doesn't entirely suck eggs.

   Of course, this doesn't mean Konami is leaving old fans in the dust. Combat, for instance, is still pretty much the same as it has always been. The 2D platformer layout returns as always, and despite the fact that our hero doesn't wield a whip, the way in which most of his swords function are operationally the same as the whip. In combat, as in many other aspects, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow mixes a bit of the new with a lot of the old. The player still collects special abilities in order to open up new areas of Dracula's castle, but most of the abilities are a mix of the moves obtained in Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance. For instance, early on in the game, Soma obtains the ability to do a backwards dash similar to Juste's from HoD.

   Players in AoS will gain new abilities by absorbing souls of the monsters they destroy (this is a little odd in places - as part of the mythology associated with Zombies, they aren't supposed to have souls, yet you still get an ability from them. Oh well). There are three separate kinds of souls - Bullet Souls, which will allow you to fire a projectile or other attack by pressing Up and B, Guardian Souls, which generate a continuous effect when you press the R button, and Enchanted Souls, which generate an ability or effect as soon as they are equipped. In general, these are acquired by destroying monsters, but there are some that will be found as a part of exploring Dracula's castle.

It's like reincarnation! Well, not really.
It's like reincarnation! Well, not really.

   The player will eventually gain a huge number of souls and abilities, which is why it's a good thing that the controls are all laid out intuitively. Switching souls in the middle of a fight can be aggravating, but there's nothing serious impeding control.

   The quality of the sound in Aria of Sorrow is a great deal better than it was in Harmony of Dissonance. Most of the static and scratchiness has been removed, and even the voice acting is intelligible, for the most part. The music returns to a time when Mega Man ruled the airwaves. Okay, not really, but it is freakishly reminiscent of some of the Mega Man X themes - probably an attempt to bring home the more futuristic setting. All in all, the sound is a vast improvement over the previous GBA games, and I'd like to see this upward trend continue. However, the inclusion of voice acting probably wasn't necessary. It wasn't translated, it takes up memory that could have been put to better use elsewhere, and it's hardly appropriate for a game with so unrealistic a tone.

   Castlevania has never been known for its innovation. While in AoS, the player is, for once, not out to kill Dracula. Of course, Soma isn't even a Belmont, a fact that may well alienate the die-hard Castlevania crowd even further. On the whole, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is a fairly original game. At least for a Castlevania title, anyway.

   Another place Castlevania games usually fall flat is in the storyline. The writers of Konami seem to have the idea of rescuing childhood friends stuck in their heads. For once, they manage to let go of their fascination with this idea, and the result is a fairly good story with an interesting cast of characters. However, none of them ever get particularly developed - the game is incredibly short - and there really isn't enough space for them to interact. If Konami had seen fit to enlarge the main game instead of sticking in umpteen billion special modes and unnecessary voice acting that takes up half the bloody cart, it could have been a really interesting story. Instead, the plot is meaningless and fairly background to the rest of the game. Just once, I'd like to see a Castlevania come up with a plot capable of standing on its own.

Soma's animation is extremely smooth.
Soma's animation is extremely smooth.

   Translation seemed fairly well done, but it's not like there was an unusually large amount of translating to be done. There were a few phrases that came off as weird, and conversation felt somewhat fractured. The small amounts of voice acting to be found were not translated, although this hurts Aria of Sorrow considerably less than it did Harmony of Dissonance due to it's setting - all or most of the characters are Japanese, and the game is set in Japan. I would have preferred a more complete translation, but on the whole, this isn't bad.

   In Aria of Sorrow, new modes open up after beating the game. You have the option to play as Julius, and to alter the level of difficulty. There is a Boss Rush mode similar to that found in HoD, as well as a New Game + feature. So, yes, one might say that AoS has a bit of replay value.

   Although Aria of Sorrow purports to have a new, 'futuristic' setting, I found very little beyond Soma's blue jeans to be 'futuristic'. In fact, nearly everything outside the clothing worn by some of the characters is very similar to the previous Castlevania titles. The game still has a very gothic flair, a feel enhanced by the character design. If Soma's last name is any indication, I believe he may be the first albino Spaniard ever in an RPG. While character design is by no means bad, it does seem a little off where nationality is concerned. If Mina is Japanese, why does she look not at all Asian? Where, exactly, is Yoko from? It's not a particularly big problem, and certainly not one that will keep people awake at night, but it is a problem. On the other hand, it appears that Konami has finally managed to get the contrast set properly. Dancing in the street shall now commence. Thank you.

   Aside from one or two of the boss fights, Aria of Sorrow is very easy. Healing is cheap and widely available, and Soma's level increases at something approaching Mach speed. Perhaps Aria of Sorrow's greatest problem is its length - the plot ends after only 5 to 7 hours of gameplay. Granted that there are multiple modes available after the ending, as well as multiple endings and characters, but only Soma gets a story. It's rather sad, really, as Aria of Sorrow's plot is by far the best of the three Castlevania games available on the GBA.

   Castlevania has always appealed to RPGamers with a more platformer frame of mind. Aria of Sorrow is quite possibly the best example of Castlevania on the GBA, with an extensive castle, huge replay value, and an interesting cast of characters. However, the player shouldn't expect a particularly long game, or any type of life-altering story. Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is something of a new direction for the Castlevania series, and Konami seems to be more and more willing to take risks with one of its most prominent franchises. Here's hoping one of those risks is a Castlevania with an engrossing plot. After playing Aria of Sorrow, I'm convinced Konami has it in them.

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