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RELEASE DATE (NA): October 5, 2005 GENRE: Platformer
// review by SoyBomb

You can't have a Castlevania game with a whip... or can you?

Ever since Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was released and nearly universal praise was given to its reinvention of the Castlevania formula, every 2D game since has followed that formula to the letter, opting for grandiose exploration over linear zombie whipping. Granted, the zombie element remains intact, but by the time Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (and subsequent DS outings) hit the shelves, I'm sure some gamers were wondering whether things were starting to get a little tired. Then again, if Mega Man can use the same gameplay elements and overall structure time and time again with endless love from the gaming community, why can't Castlevania do the same?

Set not in the past, but in the future (the year 2036 -- a reminder to myself to update that point when the year 2036 actually passes, if I am still alive and running the site), a man known as Soma Cruz appears with the realization that he is, in fact, a revived version of Dracula. Although his fate as Dracula's successor has been avoided thus far, he is still plagued and intrigued by Dracula's castle, especially now that new monsters have appeared thanks to the efforts of the enigmatic Celia Fortner. Celia, the head of a cult determined to raise the new dark lord, must be stopped, for her actions would plague the land. Her desire to kill Soma and release the dark soul within must also be quelled.

Do note that even if this game is only gracing the very small screen, it still packs as much adventure in as any other Castlevania title to date, so if you're concerned about a possible short length, fear not. The castle in this game is huge and a person could easily get lost in it, especially with its lack of linearity (you can go wherever you want whenever you like... IF you have the right tools to access the area); thankfully, the top screen, aside from acting as a means of seeing your character's status and statistics, can also be used to keep an eye on your castle map. I actually didn't even know I could check my status using the top screen and had the map on nearly the whole trip! The map is pretty small, considering how complicatedly large the castle layout is, but you shouldn't have much trouble discerning where you are amongst it all.

There IS something that separates this from classic Castlevania games of lore. Soma Cruz, not being of the Belmont bloodline (being, in fact, of the opposing bloodline) is unable to use the legendary Vampire Killer whip. Therefore, there are no whips to use in this game. "What? No whip?! This is madness! Lunacy, I tell you!" Yes, Soma is confined to playing with swords and axes and such. But what he lacks in whippery, he makes up in all the other abilities he can obtain. Throughout his travels, enemies will drop what the game calls "tactical souls": abilities that can be equipped and used as necessary (provided you have the necessary number of hearts to expend), be they projectiles and magical spells to use, creatures to summon, or even transformations (the bat transformation, known humorously as "Bat Company", is particularly useful for getting to those hard to reach places). In fact, you'll need many of these skills to progress through the game. Any tactical soul you receive from a boss fight should be paid extra attention to... Special tactical souls can also be equipped to give you stat boosts, such as in strength or defense. That's good.

Soma Cruz: Now with wings.
Try to count how many things are wrong with this.

But wait! Isn't this a DS game? Indeed, I answer to myself. So there should be some sort of touch screen capability, or else it really wouldn't be worth it. Well, indeed there is, minor though it may be. The touch screen serves two functions, one of which is fun, the other... not so fun. Fun: using a special ability to break certain types of blocks (mainly icy ones) with your stylus, providing new paths to areas previously undiscoverable. Not so fun: the Magic Seal feature. Once you have defeated a boss, you must trap him in a seal. A blue circle will appear on screen and you have to connect points quickly using the stylus in a pre-determined pattern. If you succeed, the boss will be defeated; if you fail in connecting the points in time, the boss will regain some health and you'll have to fight longer. The patterns are always learned beforehand, and there is a mode built in for practicing, but if the heat of battle, it's very difficult to be fighting for a while and then joltingly have to switch over to using the stylus, which you likely weren't holding due to awkwardness. But you'll need to be very speedy to get that pattern right. I think there should have either been some more leeway with this aspect, or better yet, it should not have existed in the first place.

The visuals in this game look pretty decent, especially for a portable title. I'd say the graphics are on par with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, a home console game. Many of the larger enemies move with a strangely Mode-7-ish quality, which I guess is to be expected. All of the castle's interior sections are elegant, though they show obvious signs of abandonment. The more natural settings, such as the outdoor winter scenes and the underground caves, also are illustrated well. If there's one thing I was particularly impressed with time and time again, it was when Soma would jump on a vehicle outdoors and some snow would fall off. It's that sort of detail that makes this game so enticing. That, and producer Koji Igarashi's continued obsession with putting different types of chairs around. On the same train of thought, there isn't as much voice acting in this iteration, but certain people make funny noises when appropriate. But enemies get their own variety of sound effects to wail and scream as required. The soundtrack is very quaint as well, composed by a pair of musicians with previous experience with the Castlevania series. It never sounds repetitive, sometimes maintaining a jazzier flair than one would expect.

Those familiar with Castlevania games from the past should know that this is hardly a cakewalk. Expect to invest some serious time into this one; between 15-20 hours should give you enough time to experience everything. That, combined with the multiple endings (three of them, only one being good), will provide an adequate amount of joy out of the Castlevania fan in all of us. Plus, completing different endings will unlock new bonuses, such as a harder difficulty setting, sound test, a "boss rush" mode designed solely for fighting bosses and nothing but, and a version of your quest in which you get to play as Julius Belmont, the only actual Belmont in the game (who can also recruit others to join him in the battle against evil). And of course, if you'd like to test your speed against a friend of choice, a multiplayer game in a predetermined level could whet your competitive appetite. But overall, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow is a testament to how the Castlevania franchise can keep going with the same formula while still feeling fresh. There may not be a whip involved, but if you liked the Castlevania games that came before this, Dawn of Sorrow will not disappoint, and it serves as a solid addition to the DS Library.

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