A haunting quest that is fun and engaging through the entirety of its run, and a culmination of a three-year cycle that produced a trio of appealing Castlevania games
A culmination. That is what Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow feels like. As the third installment of the franchise released in as many years for the Game Boy Advance, the game emerges as the end of a process that saw Konami slowly fine-tuning the variables of their Gothic series until they reached a product that is devoid of considerable flaws and balanced in pretty much every single one of its facets. Where Circle of the Moon translated – to a handheld console – the non-linear gameplay introduced in the Playstation classic Symphony of the Night and Harmony of Dissonance expanded upon those pillars by boldly betting on a pair of overlapping castles, Aria of Sorrow embraces the best of both worlds while leaving behind the traits that hampered, to different degrees, those efforts and executing improvements of its own.
From the former, it borrows the simpler, yet still daunting, map structure; at the same time, from the latter, it takes both the cosmetic enhancements that were implemented as well as its more sober approach to difficulty. The outcome is a work that although certainly not quite as masterful as Symphony of the Night, ends up being a very respectful portable representation of that game’s excellence.
More importantly, though, Aria of Sorrow is ultimately a joy to play through. Its visuals, a gigantic evolution from the brown tones that dominated Circle of the Moon, display in colors, pixels, and art the very best of what the system had to offer, with great animations and plenty of scenarios that find a pleasant middle-ground between dark realism and foreboding surrealism. Its music, a noteworthy leap forward in relation to the disappointing quality of the tunes presented in Harmony of Dissonance, strikes all the right haunting notes in terms of composition and also of clear reproduction via the Game Boy Advance’s speakers.
Furthermore, and undoubtedly having a very significant influence over the enjoyment gamers are bound to get out of the quest, Aria of Sorrow gets the small details of its design right, as its save points are plentiful and always sitting right beside boss rooms; and its warping zones are equally bountiful and well-placed. As such, going into Aria of Sorrow is not just coming into touch with the non-linear progression one expects to find in the Castlevania efforts that followed Symphony of the Night, but also tackling an adventure that has no visibly frustrating elements standing in its way.
Aria of Sorrow concentrates on the story of Soma Cruz, a transfer student living in Japan. When the game begins, he visits the Hakuba shrine in order to witness a solar eclipse in the company of Mina Hakuba, his childhood friend and daughter of the local priest. As he gets to the top of the stairs that lead to the place, though, the phenomenon occurs and he is transported to Dracula’s castle, which had been sealed alongside its master inside the eclipse in 1999, thirty-six years before Aria of Sorrow’s events. Soma, then, starts a journey to find a way out of the cursed building. However, as the game progresses and various other mysterious characters are encountered, players get to learn more about why the young man was suddenly magically taken to where he is, and how it all ties up with Dracula’s previous defeat.
It is in its plot, in fact, that Aria of Sorrow finds one of its few minor issues. Like it happens in most Castlevania entries, the script never gets a whole lot of screen time, since the game’s starting and ending cutscenes as well as all dialogues that happen as the adventure goes along are brief interludes that punctuate the real meat of the title; that is, its gameplay. However satisfying that approach may usually be inside the context of the franchise, though, in Aria of Sorrow such minimalism is slightly problematic. And that is because it feels like Aria of Sorrow tries to encompass a bit too much for a game with so little writing. There are way too many characters involved in the story that has Soma as its protagonist, and it is easy to walk away with the impression that either some of these folks were not fully developed enough for players to truly care about them or, in the cases where they do gain some background, their growth was not done with enough substance.
In its gameplay, however, Aria of Sorrow is excellent nearly all the way trough. It abandons the occasionally overwhelming dual castles of Harmony of Dissonance for one huge keep, and it leaves gamers to their own luck by handing Soma Cruz a basic starting weapon and indirectly telling the character it is entirely up to him to find his path through the maze that is the count’s manor. Therefore, in usual Metroidvania fashion, players have to walk a whole lot, deal with the numerous demons that lurk in the corridors of the place, and slowly uncover the full extent of the game’s pleasantly big map. Unsurprisingly, Soma must do so by finding new abilities – such as a double jump and sliding – and employing them to reach places that, previously, could not be accessed.
Like Circle of the Moon, Aria of Sorrow is – inside that non-linearity – usually straightforward: getting a new skill will almost invariably open up a different area of the castle, and when getting to the end of that recently unlocked zone Soma will get yet another new ability. Consequently, due to that cycle, while those who seek full completion will have to return to previously cleared regions to locate optional items once Soma learns a move, players who just want to get to watch the ending will have no need to go back to those areas once the ability they hold has been acquired.
Despite that simplicity, Aria of Sorrow still packs a punch when it comes to challenging players to figure out where to go; it is just that getting totally lost is not as common as it was in Harmony of Dissonance, and the excellent placement of its many warp points reduces the incidence of backtracking long distances through dangerous territory. This greater maturity in design also permeates other components of the game. In its essence, the RPG facet of Aria of Sorrow is the same one as that of its predecessors; in other words, upon defeating enemies, Soma gains experience points, which allow him to level up and have his stats increased every once in a while.
Still, punctual enhancements take Aria of Sorrow to a level of its own. For starters, the merchant, which sells potions, antidotes, and all sorts of equipment, was – in Harmony of Dissonance – located in places that were too hard to reach and that demanded a great deal of walking; here, he is in a fixed position right next to a warp point, allowing players to visit him without too much effort.
Even more significant is the fact Aria of Sorrow gives gamers a massive degree of freedom to customize Soma. As usual, it is possible to change the armor and accessory he is wearing, which brings boosts to his stats as well as various secondary effects. The notable changes, however, are elsewhere. Firstly, they are in the weapons the protagonist can carry. Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance improved their heroes’ whip by letting players tack on magic (in the case of the former) and stones (in the case of the latter) onto it, which did not do much in terms of how the combat tools behaved.
In Aria of Sorrow, meanwhile, there is a delightful variety to the weapons Soma finds around the castle or purchases from the merchant. There are knives that allow for fast stabbing but that have a short reach; whips powered up with magic; massive swords that land huge blows but are quite slow; and far more, adding a elasticity to how one can approach battles that simply does not exist in the entries that preceded it.
Yet, as far as customization goes, Aria of Sorrow boasts a trait that is more impressive, and that also winds up serving as the element that defines it and makes it so remarkable: its Tactical Soul system. Soma, for plot-related reasons, has the unique ability to absorb the soul of the enemies he kills. And when doing so he is able to equip them for his own gain. All of the game’s foes produce such souls, which means that Aria of Sorrow has over one hundred of those.
It is a stunning number that signals astounding flexibility, and it grows even more flooring because these souls fall into three categories. Bullet Souls, which are red, replicate the main offensive move of the monster that yielded them and are used to attack. Enchant Souls, which are yellow, are continuously active, and provide everything from the increase of some of Soma’s stats to added skills, such as walking on water. Finally, Guardian Souls, which are blue, support magical powers that last for shorter periods of time, including transforming into a bat and many attack spells.
As a consequence, at any time, players can have three souls – one of each kind – equipped. That gameplay addition works on many levels. It replaces sub-weapons with assets that are not just more varied (given Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance only had a handful of those) but also permanent, since Soma carries his collection of souls at all times with him and can switch between all of them seamlessly. Moreover, it brings a new sort of challenge to those who look for full completion, because Aria of Sorrow keeps a bestiary listing all foes that have been encountered and whether or not their soul has been acquired.
The game is, therefore, blessed with an alluring gotta-catch-them-all mentality that will certainly draw many players in, and developers take advantage of that feature by creating a dozen or so creatures that are hard to find, as they lurk in distant corners of the castle that will only be accessed by those that put great effort into combing through the entire place. Sure, given souls that stem from regular enemies are only dropped at random rates, there will be some grinding involved in the process of collecting all of them; nevertheless, the sidequest remains both adventurous and attractive due to its distinctive nature.
On a more negative side, the game’s focus on the gathering of souls causes Aria of Sorrow to leave behind the health, magic, and heart upgrades that were present in Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance. That is an absence that will likely disappoint some gamers, as collecting these boosts could easily have coexisted with the soul mechanic, but it is ultimately hard to complain about the value Aria of Sorrow and its eight-hour quest hold. The game has three endings, and two of them (unlocked if the fake last boss is defeated while carrying specific souls that are hinted at in three books found around the castle) feature a completely different final segment that has an extra area and also expands upon the story.
Additionally, when the quest is beaten once, four new gameplay options are made available: a boss rush; a new game plus, where one can restart the adventure from scratch while keeping all collected souls; a hard mode; and a mode where players take control of a character that cannot use items or soul. The last two alternatives will be particularly interesting to more extreme Castlevania players, given Aria of Sorrow – in its regular state – does not present a high level of difficulty.
Thanks to localized improvements that work towards reducing both frustration and excessive backtracking, and due to a team of developers that knew how to look at the past in order to learn from mistakes that had been previously made, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow guarantees its place as the finest entry of the franchise for the Game Boy Advance. In addition, by implementing a very creative system of spells and magic that turn the soul of its many enemies into collectible and usable assets, the game carves out not only a personality of its own, but also a very noble place inside the long-running franchise of vampire hunters. Through those means, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is recommendable without reservation, for even though it does hold a few points that could have been smoothed out, it is a haunting quest that is fun and engaging through the entirety of its run, and a culmination of a three-year cycle that produced a trio of appealing Castlevania games.