Review: Castlevania: Aria Of Sorrow (Game Boy Advance)

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow
Genre: Platform Action RPG
Platform: Gameboy Advance
ESRB Rating: Teen (Animated Blood, Violence)
Publisher: Konami
Release Date: 5/7/2003

The Castlevania franchise has been one of the most popular and prolific series to date. Spanning many different consoles, the series has had quite a few titles and they range from incredible, to downright horrible.

While many people remember the original Castlevania, most don’t know about the actual start of the series. It was a game called Vampire Killer and was released only in Japan for the MSX Computer System, and while the graphics were basically the same as the first Castlevania game, the gameplay was much less linear. Despite that, when Konami released the actual first Castlevania game (which was called Akujajo Dracula in Japan), it was what we all remember it as: a linear side scrolling platformer where you had a whip and special weapons. It was a big hit, to say the least.

Konami realized that they had a winner on their hands, so they started producing more. Next was Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, which was a radical departure from the first Castlevania, but actually had elements that have become a mainstay in more recent games in the series. That is to say, it was the first to feature RPG elements. Sadly, even though it is a personal favorite of mine, the game was not popular, so for Castlevania III, they went back to their roots more. But this time, you could change to different player characters. In addition to your Belmont vampire hunter, you had a pirate/thief, a magician, and even a vampire. Yes, this was the first appearance of Dracula’s son.

They continued to crank out game after game in the series. Super Castlevania IV for the SNES, Dracula X: Rondo of Blood (which was the first to have a “musical” title) for the PC Engine (TurboGrafix 16) in Japan, Bloodlines for the Genesis, and Dracula X (which was essentially a remake of Rondo, but with major differences) for the SNES. All games were popular, but Konami decided to take it to a whole new level for their first foray into 32-bit.

With the release of Symphony of the Night (Nocturne in the Moonlight in Japan), Konami had decided to take all the elements from previous games and throw them in a pot, along with a dash of Metroid, and made one of the greatest gaming experiences ever. The game played looked and played like Castlevania, but it also had huge RPG elements, such as leveling up and gaining new weapons and armor for your character. That character was none other than Dracula’s son, who had returned to kill his dear old dad. With these RPG elements and exploration along the lines of Metroid (where you may get a new ability and come back to a previously explored area to open the way for a new area entirely), it’s no wonder that most people regard Symphony of the Night as the best game in the series. Sadly, though it was released on both the Playstation and the Saturn, the latter version is regarded as the superior one, and it was only released in Japan.
Then Konami wanted to jump into the 3D world for their release for the Nintendo 64, which was creatively titled Castlevania 64. As most people have heard, it was a failure on all accounts, and the follow up, Legacy of Darkness, was not much better. This got Konami worried, because it was two massive failures in one of their greatest franchises. So what did they do? They went back to what worked.

When the Gameboy Advance came out, Konami made Circle of the Moon and later, Harmony of Dissonance (which is actually the first Castlevania game to be called Castlevania in Japan, as well as the US), both of which went back to the formula that SOTN made so popular, and they put back the musical titles too. After COTM they promised a new title for the PS2, but then made HOD, and of course re-promised to make a PS2 game. Well, they lied on that account too, and made the game this review is about: Aria of Sorrow. This will be the last one for the GBA for a while though, because they have announced Lament of Innocence, which will be another 3D game. It’s not out yet, so I can’t comment on it, but I just hope they played some Vagrant Story before putting it together.

Now, with that out of the way, we’ll finally get to the proverbial meat and potatoes. The biggest question we’ll have to look at is: how does the game stack up to the previous two GBA games, or better yet, Symphony of the Night?

The year is 2035 and the place is Japan. The main character is Soma Cruz, a young man with long white hair. Soma and his friend Mina make their way up a tall staircase to visit an ancient shrine and to watch the eclipse that is about to begin. Soma comments that staircase is much longer than it seemed last time he ascended it, and when they reach the top, they both collapse, only to awaken at the entrance of Dracula’s castle.

It turns out that Dracula was actually killed (like, completely and totally) in 1999, and at that time, his castle was sealed in the eclipse. Now that there is another eclipse, a few people have managed to make their way to the castle, some with the intention of inheriting Dracula’s power, and others with the intention of stopping the power from being inherited. There are quite a few characters you’ll meet up with, and who knows which is friend and which is foe? All you know is that you have to make it to the throne room to get you and Mina the hell out of the castle and to make it back home.

It’s pretty safe to say that this game is the game most like Symphony of the Night in just about every aspect. You explore the castle, fight enemies, and get power ups that allow you to explore new areas. You have a map available to track where you’ve been and to see which places you have yet to go, and just like previous games, you can break open walls to reveal secret areas.

As with the recent GOOD Castlevania games, you gain experience and level up, which increases your stats. Unlike SOTN, there is more of a limit to what you can equip on your character. In this one, you have a slot for a weapon, one for armor, and one for and accessory. Most the weapons are melee (and most of those are swords, though there are axes and hammers), but there are a few guns. I know, I know, there shouldn’t be guns in a Castlevania game, but fortunately, those are few and far between. Armor is typically simple body armor, but there are also some cloaks. And accessories comprise capes, pendants and charms.

The primary gameplay difference between this game and the previous ones is the way you use special abilities. In this game, they come in the form of souls. See, Soma has the ability to absorb the souls of monsters he defeats. Any monster you fight can potentially drop a soul for you to absorb. Each soul has a special ability, and there are 3 different types of souls: Bullet Souls: which basically allow you to fire projectiles, and replaces the standard special weapons (Holy Water and the like), Guardian Souls: which will protect you in some way or give you a certain triggered ability by pressing R, and Enchanted Souls: which work all the time that you have them equipped. You are allowed to have one of each type of soul to be equipped at all time, which makes it a very strategic affair.

There are also 6 ability souls to be found, which work like most of the abilities in SOTN. They just basically have an on/off switch, and examples of this are the backwards dash with L and the double jump.

Overall, the gameplay is at least as good as, if not better than, Symphony of the Night. The soul system is a lot of fun (more on fun later) and gives a nice strategic element to the game, since you can have quite a few different combinations. The only real gripe that I could think of is that there aren’t enough save points, but typically there is one right before a boss, so it’s not that bad.

Since this is, of course, a GBA game, the graphics are rated accordingly. If it were on the PS2, it’d be a different story, but despite that, the graphics are of a quality that you could easily see on the Playstation. Granted, it doesn’t quite have the detail it would on a Playstation, it crams as much detail as possible onto the small screen. For the enemies, all are very highly details, and the larger bosses look simply amazing. In addition, when you’re speaking to other people, it will show a large character portrait, which is exquisitely detailed and is probably some of the best sprite artwork I’ve ever seen.

Character design is excellent too, because none of the people you meet look a like. Granted, there are only like 10 people, but still it’s nice to see that they all look unique. There are a vast amount of colors used in all areas, and all of them help set the mood and fit well with the environment.

I only have one extremely minor gripe, and that’s only because everything else is so good. My complaint is that I would have preferred if Soma’s outfit changed when you change armor. One of my favorite details about SOTN was that when you equipped a new cape, it looked different, but there is nothing like that in this game. Soma wears a black shirt and jeans, with an UGLY white trench coat, and even a small outfit change (like losing the coat) would make a world of difference.

The music in this game is simply excellent, but then again, what would you expect from a Castlevania game? As Alex Lucard has alluded to, the Castlevania series has been one of the few series to have consistently good music, even if the games suck. The different tracks set the tone and mood for any particular area, and they do so perfectly. It’s the type of music that you may not pay attention to, but you’ll sure as hell notice it if you turn the volume down. The instruments they emulate with the midi are so good that you’ll be wondering how the f*ck they did that.

The sounds that are made are pretty standard Castlevania sounds, like the HAH when attacking and the OOH when hit. Nothing you haven’t heard before. But what DID surprise me is the voice acting. YES, there is voice acting in the game. Not much, but typically when you talk to someone, they’ll say something aloud. It may be only a sentence, but it’s something. Too bad it’s in Japanese, because then maybe I’d be able to understand it. One nice thing is that they include a sound mode on the start menu where you can listen to all the different music and voices.

Fun Factor
It goes without saying that since this is a Castlevania game, it is fun. What makes it fun is the whole exploration aspect. I love these games because when you play it, you’ll eventually LEARN the layout of the castle, and then if you need to go to a certain place, you know exactly where it is. It’s kinda like driving in a way. You know you’re supposed to go from point A to point B, and you have to figure out the quickest way to get there. The mini-map and abundant warp points make this task much easier.

There are also the RPG aspects, which you know I love. It’s very enjoyable to go and fight enemies, and hope they drop a really cool item. But the true fun in the game comes from the Soul system. It’s a lot like Pokemon in a way, because while it’s not necessary to catch ’em all, it extends the life of the game and allows you get some items that you wouldn’t otherwise get. Besides, isn’t it fun just to collect stuff?

Another nice thing is the shop. Though there was a shop in SOTN, you could only sell gems, but this shop allows you to sell weapons and stuff you pick up. Plus, you can buy some weapons or armor before you could get them in the game. Other things of note include multiple endings, a new game + type of thing where you get to start a new game, but keep all your existing weapons and souls (I’m always a sucker for those) and a hard mode, which has several items not available in normal. There’s also a boss rush, where your goal is to beat each of the game’s bosses in succession in a short amount of time. If you beat it quick enough, you can get this game’s version of the Crissaegram, my favorite sword from SOTN!

Gameplay: 9
Graphics: 9
Sound: 9.5
Fun Factor: 9.5

Short Attention Span Summary
This game is easily one of the best games out there for the GBA right now, and would have a happy home in anyone’s collection. I’d have to say that if you like the Castlevania or Metroid series, then you’ll like this game too. And if you’ve never played a Castlevania game, play this one, because it’s easier than some of the other ones, and it’s a good starting point. After you play this, get Symphony of the Night, because it’s just a hair better than this, but that’s only due to the hardware. So give this game a whirl, you won’t regret it.