Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow Review

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Graphics: 9.5
Sound : 9.0
Gameplay : 9.5
Multiplayer : 8.5
Overall : 9.2
Review by John K.
It’s been more than 15 years since we enjoyed the first Castlevania game. Over the years Konami’s prize series has appeared on just about all the major console and handheld systems ever produced. In 1998 Castlevania made the switch from 2D to 3D on the Nintendo 64 but—though impressive—the series’ true charm still lay in its 2D-platform roots. The latest series installment, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow is the first Castlevania release to appear on the new Nintendo DS, and it provides a welcome return to the realm of 2D. And even though Dawn of Sorrow doesn’t take advantage of the DS’s impressive 3D capabilities, it’s definitely the best 2D Castlevania game to date.

Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow takes place shortly after the close of Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow—unlike the title may suggest. Players take the role of Soma Cruz, the young heroic fellow that Aria of Sorrow fans may remember. A year after Soma’s escape, a mysterious priestess named Celia attacks him. Celia is part of a new cult trying to resurrect Dracula, and since Soma already interfered with a similar plan once before, they decide to eliminate him immediately. Naturally, Soma withstands the attack and forces Celia and her cult into retreat, but Soma isn’t content with that result and pursues Celia to stop her resurrection of Dracula.

Soma has the power to absorb an enemy’s abilities once defeated, so throughout the game Soma will gain more and more abilities. Like any of the previous Castlevania games, Soma will be ‘level 1’ at the beginning of the adventure, but can gain experience and level up as the game progresses. His standard-issue, relatively weak, dagger and armor are also replaced many times by procuring better equipment along the way. When Soma levels up, his attack, defense, strength, constitution, intelligence, and luck stats also increase automatically, making him stronger with each level up secured.

The game’s design is very much like predecessor Aria of Sorrow—or any Castlevania game for that matter. The game is set across one giant level, being that of the nefarious cult’s hideout. Players must successfully navigate Soma through the hideout, while facing all kinds of strange creatures at every turn. For most of the game players will be traveling through the various levels, slashing enemies in their path, but there are also a few worthy puzzles to solve too. The big addition in Dawn of Sorrow is the use of ‘magic seals’. These seals utilize the DS’s touch-screen function for drawing a special icon, which opens certain doors or defeats bosses. Magic seals are spread throughout the levels, and once Soma finds them, he then holds the key to eventually defeating the level-specific boss. Once a boss is close to death, the magic seal icon appears on screen and players must redraw the particular seal they found during that level. Switching from the normal D-Pad and button layout to tracing lines on the Touch Screen can be a bit confusing and disorienting, but fortunately the drawn lines don’t have to be perfectly traced. This margin for error is handy because players can also opt to forego the stylus in favor of tracing the seal with their finger, or the DS thumb strap. The magic seal designs will increase progressively in difficulty as the game unfolds, but this interaction aspect still exists as a novel addition that uses at least one of the DS’s splendid features.

Like in Aria of Sorrow, when monsters are defeated they occasionally give up their souls. As mentioned before, Soma can absorb these souls, which makes him stronger. Souls can carry different properties of value, be it a new attack or the ability to spawn the defeated enemy to aid you. Some souls can even be fused with certain weapons, making them even more powerful. Later in the game, players will get the ability to have two different set-ups of armor, abilities, and weapons that can be switched with the ‘X’ button. This is very handy, since sometimes players will need a fast but less powerful weapon along with certain abilities, and at other times a stronger weapon with a completely different set of abilities. There are over a hundred different monsters in the game, some of which are quite rare. Collecting all the souls will therefore be quite a task, but an entertaining one because of the great abilities they bring with them.

The upper screen of the DS is used to continuously display the navigational map throughout the game, which initially seems like a waste of a whole screen, but established players of the Castlevania series will know just how much the map is needed. Having the map constantly displayed is much more advantageous in terms of flow and immersion than pausing the game, studying the map screen, and then resuming play. Another reason for having the top screen always display the map is that players will have to find their way through the huge castle entirely on their own. There are no helpful indicators for where to go next, or even in which direction, so players will have to walk around the castle a lot to find their way. The map therefore proves crucial when roaming because paths already trodden can easily be seen, which significantly decreases the time spent blindly searching. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean players won’t find themselves searching around to figure out where to head to next, because it’s still quite a task to successfully find the next location. Dead ends help a bit in the process, but not much. Defeated enemies re-spawn pretty quickly—reappearing as soon as they’re outside the visible screen area—making the hunt for new locations even more difficult. The cult’s hideout is split into various level parts, each having its own theme. The surroundings are beautifully designed with, for example, a forest area, garden, a cavern, and more.

The biggest difference between Dawn of Sorrow and previous handheld Castlevania games on the Game Boy Advance is the power that the DS offers. Through the DS, Dawn of Sorrow offers beautiful level backgrounds and amazingly smooth animation. The effects in the game are breathtaking and sometimes even suggest a more 3D feeling. The monsters are also superbly designed, though not especially original—most of them already known from previous Castlevania games. The monsters differ in size and some even take up most of the screen, giving an impressive feeling of size difference between them and Soma. Each monster has its own unique way of passing to the hereafter too. For instance, defeated zombies crumble to the ground, while giant birds explode and leave a few feathers floating down afterward. All the different visual effects and animations truly make Dawn of Sorrow come to life. The level of detail produced by the engine and the graphics make this particular series iteration stand out from its predecessors, while also making it the best-looking Castlevania game to date.

Music and sound effects are also astonishing. The DS’s stereo speakers (as opposed to the mono speaker on the Game Boy Advance) make the music emerge much clearer and more vividly. Odd as it may sound, the game’s musical style is grim yet also strangely upbeat at the same time, which fits perfectly amid the atmospheric action and adventure. The sound effects are clear, descriptive, and to the point, which is exactly as you would want them to be conveyed. A quick-slashing and immediate sword feels totally different from that of a slowly swung and powerfully heavy mace. Conversely, Soma’s grunts of attack and absorbed damage are perhaps a little lower in quality, but on the whole the aural department certainly stand its ground.

Added extras in Dawn of Sorrow are the ability to trade souls (like in Aria of Sorrow), and the multiplayer mode where players race against one another in a castle. Trading souls is especially interesting, since the game has so many to collect. The first attempt at a multiplayer mode emerges well enough for being just that: a first try. It’s not breathtaking, but can be entertaining for a while.

Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow doesn’t offer many new features over the previous Castlevania games, but that’s what makes the ongoing series so great. Konami keeps honing and improving what they’ve already established and don’t try to add unnecessary features that players don’t really want (except a gimmick or two like the touch screen Magic Seals). Whether you’ve repeatedly played through the Castlevania catalogue since the first game, or never before, Dawn of Sorrow is both a fabulous series ambassador and also one of the best Nintendo DS titles available.