Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow - Staff Retroview  

An Entrancing Aria
by Bryan Boulette

15-20 Hours


Rating definitions 

   The year is 2035, and a young exchange student in Japan named Soma Cruz is visiting his friend Mina at the Hakuba Shrine in order to celebrate the eclipse. But as he climbs the stairs leading to the shrine, something seems odd -- the steps ascend higher than normal, and the air itself is strange. Then Soma awakens to find himself not in the Hakuba Shrine as he had expected, but rather in a mysterious castle. Mina is there, as is a stranger, who identifies himself as Genya Arikado, and tells Soma that if he and Mina ever hope to escape, Soma must explore the castle and discover its secrets.

   The castle is, unsurprisingly, Dracula's Castle, and Soma quickly learns that he possesses a strange power which comes alive in the castle's confines. He can absorb the very souls of the monsters he kills. That power, Genya tells him, is the power to rule over monsters, and it's the key to getting out. So Soma sets out to cover every inch of the evil place, drawing upon his newfound strengths to save himself and his friend. So begins the final struggle against Dracula on the Gameboy Advance, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow.

Full Moon Rising Full Moon Rising

   Castlevania games -- even the Castlevania RPGs, such as Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance -- rarely excel in the terms of their stories. While the RPGs in the series bucked that trend, adding in NPCs, character backgrounds and personalities to the various heroes, the final result has always been the same: a strong hero must overcome the pitfalls, minions, and monsters of Castlevania to take down Vlad Tepes himself. They're fairly straightforward affairs.

   Aria of Sorrow largely changes that, providing much more depth to the story and to the villains. While wandering Dracula's Castle, Soma will encounter an amnesiac man who hopes the castle can restore his memories, a missionary for the church, a soldier separated from his division, and an aristocratic man who seems to know Soma. The game interjects cutscenes as Soma reaches different areas of the castle, and these cutscenes will elaborate on the motivations of the various characters for coming to the castle, the nature of the place and how it came to be tied into the eclipse, and what it all means for Soma Cruz and his friend Mina.

   While Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow's story will never be mistaken for that of a true traditional RPG epic, it's still a fun and original tale that never gets boring and adds a lot of good subtext to the ongoing action. The development team also deserves kudos for breaking out of the standard Castlevania mold in some fairly surprising ways.

When 80's Bands Attack When 80's Bands Attack

   The gameplay is one hundred percent solid. All of the game's controls are fluid, smooth, and simple; controlling the responsive Soma is a snap, making any worries about the game's minimal platforming elements moot. It's never a hurdle getting him to do what you want. The menu screen is simply laid out in an efficiently organized scheme so that, too, is a snap to use, allowing the player to quickly access it and then get back into the action.

   As for the action itself, it's hard to find any complaints with the well designed battle system. As Soma kills enemies, he gains experience, and upon reaching enough experience, he'll level up. He has the basic stats, including HP, MP, strength, constitution, intelligence, and luck, and these stats will all increase upon a level up. As he explores, he'll also find weapons, armor, and accessories to equip, as well as items, like potions, to use.

   But the most important system is the soul system. Killing enemies will often yield their souls to Soma, which allows him to utilize the monsters' powers. Souls come in three types: weapon, utility, effect, and ability. Weapon souls replace the standard Castlevania special attacks (like the cross and holy water), and give Soma a wide arsenal of offensive abilities to use -- anything from generating blasts of water to hurling a mystical katana. Utility souls allow Soma to generate an effect for as long as he wants, but the effect will drain MP as long as it's active. The most fun of these is easily the Giant Bat soul, which allows Soma to transform into a bat and fly around.

   Effect souls give Soma an ever-active effect. Many of these will increase his stats, but some will confer special abilities like walking on water (or sinking to the bottom of water). Soma can only have one soul of each of the three above types equipped at any given time, requiring the player to properly manage his collection of souls to find the right one for any given situation, and to think of the different ways the souls can combine for new effects.

   The last type, ability souls, Soma won't get from enemies at all, but from strategically placed pedestals throughout the castle. These give Soma new abilities to use, like back-dashing, double jumping, sliding, or high jumping. It's impossible to explore too deeply without these abilities. These souls are the only abilities where Soma can have all of them active at the same time.

   The gameplay is addictively fun, of the hard to stop playing variety. It never offers much of a challenge, though -- only one section of the castle proved difficult for me, and a couple of bosses. "When in doubt, gain some more levels" is an effective mantra for the game, but it's seldom necessary. The gameplay's value comes not from its difficulty, but its simplistic fun, whether it's the rapid and responsive combat system or the joy of exploring the huge castle.

   Aria of Sorrow offers considerable replay value. The game has multiple endings, a second, hidden character once Soma has beaten the game, and a New Game + mode that allows Soma to carry over his souls and items while starting the story over. It also allows for a Hard Mode, for anyone that wishes for a more challenging experience than Normal Mode.

   Graphically, Castlevania excels. All of the sprites have their own distinctive looks, and they look good. Soma himself is outstanding -- his sprite always looks great dashing, jumping, and swinging swords. The artwork in the game is lovely, with an acute eye for detail, which is most readily apparent in the castle itself. Every section of the castle (and there are many) has its own appearance, artistic style, and so forth. The backgrounds are wonderful to look at, and attention is paid even to the smallest details. For instance, each section of the castle has a different sort of lighting. Minor touches like that add a lot to a game.

   The music isn't the best heard on the GBA, but it's still pretty good. Composed by Michiru Yamane (Suikoden III), the music attempts to bring as much aural distinctiveness to each section of Castlevania as the graphics and artwork do. It largely accomplishes this, and sounds good doing it. While playing the game, I enjoyed listening to the songs and their catchy melodies, but it's not the sort of music that sticks with a player after shutting the game off.

   There is also limited voice acting, in the form of grunts and shouts as Soma performs certain tasks. I felt that this detracted from the game more than added to it; after the five-hundredth time hearing Soma release the same grunt of pain, it made me want to shut down the sound on by GBA, which means I wouldn't even get to hear the catchy and entertaining music. It's a distraction that I hope the developers avoid in the future, or at least implement in a better manner.

   Despite some minor flaws, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow gets just about everything right that it can, with an inventive story, addictive gameplay, and beautiful graphics. It easily stands out as one of the Gameboy Advance's finest RPG offerings.

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