Review: Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (DS)

Genre: Action/Adventure
Platform: DS
Rating: T (Teen)
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Konami
Release Date: 10/04/2005

Hot off of the heels of the last portable Castlevania game (2003’s Aria of Sorrow), Konami gives us a fantastic sequel in the form of Dawn of Sorrow. Get it? “DS”? Yeah, I know. Cheesy. Thankfully, the rest of the game isn’t cheesy in the least…read on for blood, guts, and glory!


STORY

One year after the events of Aria of Sorrow, Soma Cruz is living out his life as normal as he can with his friend Mina Hakuba. But, of course, things have to get worse. A witch named Celia Fortner appears, saying that she wants to resurrect the lord of darkness (that would be Dracula). Soma doesn’t want anything to do with that, so he fights back her goons, and discovers that he still has the power to absorb enemy souls. He thought he had lost it, but apparently, the ability only manifests itself when he’s in danger. Genya Arikado (aka Alucard that name they can’t use or a certain IP’er gets larger royalty checks) explains all of this to him, and also sheds more light on the cult that Celia heads. They’re actually not a bunch of Dracula-worshippers; they’re a fanatical branch of the Church that believes that for God to be truly great, he must have an eternal enemy to fight. By resurrecting ol’ Drac, they’re proving their worth to God. Damn fundamentalists. Anyway, rather than just sitting around and letting the cult cause problems, Soma decides to be proactive and invade their castle to stop them. His old friends Hammer, Julius Belmont, and Yoko Belnades all come along, despite Soma’s protests.

DoS continues the great storyarc from Aria, and fleshes out the characters even more without feeling strained. Castlevania games have always had a strong plot, and DoS keeps the legacy going strong.

(Rating: 8/10)


GRAPHICS

DoS is currently the best-looking game on the DS, bar none. There’s very little fancy 3D or any of that, but the 2D engine used here is incredibly smooth. Reminds me of the ol’ Saturn days…but I digress. Soma and his enemies have many frames of animation, and everything looks incredibly lifelike as a result. Some sprites have been reused from previous GBA Castlevania games, but they’ve been updated with more fluid animation, and often different attacks altogether. The backgrounds are absolutely amazing, with multiple scrolling layers and incredible detail. Bosses are usually monstrous, and make use of powerful sprite rotation and zooming. DoS really has to be played to be believed!

The character portraits during story sequences are razor-sharp as well, though Castlevania purists may not like the new “anime” look that Soma and friends have taken on. Still, this is a matter of personal preferences, and has nothing to do with the stellar quality of the graphics overall.

(Rating: 10/10)


SOUND

The GBA Castlevania games had great musical scores (even the 8-bit-esque Harmony of Dissonance), but the gold standard for Castlevania music has always been the Playstation classic Symphony of the Night. Thankfully, with the DS’ great audio hardware, DoS gives SotN a serious run for its money in the music department. The tracks in DoS are fantastic, and each conveys the overall creepy gothic theme while still remaining different enough for each area of the castle. Sound effects sound better than ever, too. The various voices, howls, crashes, and weapon noises are nice and crisp, with only the barest hint of static or digitization.

(Rating: 9/10)


CONTROL & GAMEPLAY

DoS doesn’t screw with the Castlevania gameplay formula, and that’s a good thing. Sure, there’s new stuff here and there, but overall, DoS retains the elements that make the series such a popular one.

The basics are these: you explore the castle, fighting enemies and acquiring weapons and items as you go. When you acquire certain items and/or abilities, new areas of the castle become available to you (this type of gameplay was lifted from the Metroid series). There’s loads of hidden areas and multiple enemies to fight to keep you on your toes, so using the proper weapons and abilities is key. Enemies are everywhere, and they respawn each time you enter a room. This may seem rough, but it does help in the long run; the more you defeat, the faster you’ll level up and thus become stronger.

Soma can also equip tactical souls. These are acquired by defeating enemies, though you may not always get them; to ensure that you do, you may have to fight an enemy over and over again. There’s four kinds of souls: ability, bullet, guardian, and enchant. Ability souls are acquired from bosses, and are automatically activated; you don’t need to equip them. These souls give you special abilities (just like their name says), such as double-jumping. Bullet souls have to be equipped, and these let you fire off some type of projectile. A skeleton soul will let you toss bones, for example. Guardian souls allow you to do things like summon familiars or perform certain attacks, and enchant souls will raise one or more of your stats while its equipped. Bullet and guardian souls also use up your magic points (MP), but these points do recharge slowly over time.

Just in case that wasn’t enough, there’s another use for souls in DoS. Yoko Belnades has set up shop near the entrance to the castle, and she can fuse souls onto weapons in order to create more powerful ones. While finding some of the necessary souls is a real pain, it makes gaining stronger weapons much easier than running around and hoping to find one at random.

In case you’re wondering how DoS makes use of the DS’ unique hardware, I’ll explain. The action takes place on the bottom screen, and the castle map is displayed up top. (You can also have the top screen display Soma’s stats, if you wish.) The touch screen has a few uses, as well; you’ll often earn magic seals throughout the game, and these are necessary to open doors and finish off bosses. When a boss’ HP get close to zero, the seal will appear on the screen, and you’ll have a few seconds in which to draw it with the stylus. If you’re successful, the boss will be defeated and sealed away. If you fail, it’ll regain some HP and you’ll have to continue fighting. Each time you get a seal, you’ll see how to draw it, and you can practice drawing them as well via an option on the pause menu. The other use of the stylus is for breaking blocks; after beating a certain boss, you’ll gain this ability. Sometimes, you’ll see large ice-like blocks in your way; tapping them with the stylus will shatter them. Finally, once you gain the souls to summon familiars, you can tell them what enemies to attack by tapping them with the stylus.

To be honest, the use of the stylus can be a bit of a hassle; since you’re normally playing with the D-pad and buttons, quickly picking up the stylus to draw a seal or break blocks (especially when timing is required) can be annoying. Still, the use of the stylus isn’t needed constantly, and it’s not a big detraction from the rest of the game.

(Rating: 8/10)


REPLAYABILITY

Early Castlevania were a simple affair: beat Dracula, and you’re done. Lately, though, they’ve had a ton of extra quests and items for you to find, even after you’ve completed the “main” game. DoS falls into the same pattern, with unlockable modes (like Boss Rush and an option to play the entire game as Julius Belmont), hidden items, and over one hundred souls to find and experiment with. The main game can be easily finished in under 10 hours, but there’s enough extra content to keep the dedicated Castlevania fan busy for quite some time.

(Rating: 8/10)


BALANCE

DoS is a bit on the easy side as far as Castlevania games are concerned, but that doesn’t make it a cakewalk, especially for newbies. DoS can be unforgiving at times, but thankfully, learning to use all of Soma’s attacks and skills is rather intuitive, and there’s ample save points scattered throughout the castle.

(Rating: 8/10)


ORIGINALITY

Sure, it’s a sequel. But like Aria of Sorrow before it, DoS takes an interesting turn by not having Dracula as the antagonist. Konami’s already stated that they plan to have future handheld Castlevania games follow the “post-Dracula” storyline, while console versions will take place during Drac’s reign. The Soma tales really have breathed fresh air into the franchise.

(Rating: 7/10)


ADDICTIVENESS

This is a foregone conclusion: DoS is just as addictive as the games that have come before it (we’ll kindly forget the N64 ones, thanks). You’ll want to spend just a few more minutes to explore a nook of the castle you couldn’t reach before, or fight just one more boss, or find just one more soul…you get the idea. DoS really draws you in and refuses to let go, just like the vampires of yore. Blah!

(Rating: 8/10)


APPEAL

Castlevania is one of those series that just about every gamer loves. It was originally conceived as a way to get all of the “classic monsters” (Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman, Frankenstein’s monster, etc) into one game without being cheesy, and no one could’ve predicted the longevity of the series, nor its effect on gaming as a whole. Even when the series began copying Metroid‘s style gameplay with SotN, Castlevania kept going strong. As such, DoS will appeal to just about everyone. I really can’t see anyone “hating” this game, or the series in general…unless they’re one of those PC FPS diehards who live in their mom’s basement.

(Rating: 9/10)


MISCELLANEOUS

Just in case the regular game wasn’t enough for you, DoS features a Boss Rush mode (where you fight the game’s bosses in order), an option to play through again as Julius Belmont, and Wifi soul trading. Since nabbing every single soul in the game is quite a difficult feat, trading extras for ones you need with friends is a welcome addition. There’s a few other surprises, too, but I don’t want to spoil them for you…

(Rating: 8/10)


Final Scores:

Story: 8/10
Graphics: 10/10
Sound: 9/10
Control & Gameplay: 8/10
Replayability: 8/10
Balance: 8/10
Originality: 7/10
Addictiveness: 8/10
Appeal: 9/10
Miscellaneous: 8/10

Overall Score: 83/100
FINAL SCORE: 8.5 (GREAT!)