Some may claim Dawn of Sorrow is too similar to Aria of Sorrow, and that is quite fair, because, yes, it is a mere continuation of what was achieved in that Game Boy Advance title; however, that does not mean the greatness in design that tends to permeate the Castlevania series is absent
There was a clear progression in the trio of Castlevania games released for the Game Boy Advance. Circle of the Moon was a bit uncertain, as if Konami was not totally confident the grand gameplay of Symphony of the Night could be properly translated into a handheld. Harmony of Dissonance shook off that insecurity and dared to build a double castle structure that showed portable systems of the time could certainly handle an elevated level of complexity. And Aria of Sorrow worked as a fine culmination of that journey when it dialed down on the labyrinthine web of its predecessor a little bit, but introduced a smart gameplay mechanic as well as pleasant quality of life improvements that made it the definitive Castlevania experience of the Game Boy Advance and one of the franchise’s finest entries.
As the saga turned the page to land on the Nintendo DS, therefore, Konami had gained quite a lot of knowledge about the process of bringing Castlevania to a handheld. More significantly than that, the company also seemed very aware of what had clicked and what had failed during that journey, because as the title of the property’s first dual-screen endeavor implies, the studio knew that Aria of Sorrow had been an absolute hit. As such, Dawn of Sorrow not just drinks strongly from that source, but also works as a direct sequence to the story its chronological prequel had told.
In Dawn of Sorrow, Soma Cruz returns, and when players get an initial glimpse of the character, life seems pretty good to him, as he is hanging out on a peaceful city street with his friend, Mina. Soma has not forgotten the events of Aria of Sorrow, in which he discovered he was none other than the reincarnation of Dracula and proceeded to deny his fate by stopping his true awakening from happening. However, he firmly believes the powers he holds have disappeared since the conclusion of those events. Suddenly, though, he is attacked by a mysterious woman who unleashes a horde of monsters on Mina and him; fighting for survival, he defeats the creatures and finds out, much to his shock, that he can still absorb their souls.
After that occurrence, it does not take long for the hero from Aria of Sorrow to be thrown into yet another journey inside the same Dracula’s Castle that had abruptly emerged out of a solar eclipse in that game. With a clan of villains trying to find another way to reignite the powers of the Dark Lord, Soma – despite the warnings of those who had helped him on the previous quest – takes it upon himself to stop that evil plan from unfolding since he feels the fact he did not fulfill his destiny is directly responsible for this new threat. And so, one more chapter in the Castlevania series begins.
The first important point to make about Dawn of Sorrow is that even though, from a location perspective, the Dracula’s Castle seen in this effort is the same as the one from Aria of Sorrow, they are not equal in nature. Be it via sinister powers shifting the structure completely as the years went by or through the simple game design necessity of bringing a new explorable world to the table, there is no feeling of repetition to be found here for those who played Aria of Sorrow.
Repetition, however, is pretty present in how this is another addition to the group of Castlevania titles that employ the nonlinear progression inaugurated within the franchise by Symphony of the Night; in simpler terms, this is very much a Metroidvania. Consequently, gameplay mostly concerns going around a large castle that is put together like a labyrinth in order to slowly acquire new abilities that will let Soma access areas he has not yet been to. And to nobody’s surprise, walking the twisted halls of the building are a wild assortment of enemies of haunted design (dancing ghosts, demented clowns, witches, succubi, sentient dolls, walking suits of armor, werewolves, and more) that when defeated produce experience points that help Soma level up and become strong enough to face mightier foes and bosses.
There is an argument to be made that, perhaps, after three handheld titles following that exact same formula, Konami could have worked towards shaking it all up a little bit. But the truth is that Dawn of Sorrow has what fans of the property want: a complicated map to figure out; a decent story that adds to the series’ lore; a bunch of epic boss battles; multiple endings that are unlocked according to how one decides to tackle the final portion of the game; dozens of enemy types to be killed; a good amount of backtracking; a grand Gothic soundtrack with a lot of remarkable tunes; improved graphics (including 3-D effects on some of the scenario elements) on account of the superior hardware; and a satisfying degree of challenge.
To those looking for a simpler Metroidvania experience, Dawn of Sorrow may not be the place where they will find it. Yes, despite the title’s nonlinear progression, the individual areas of the castle respect a very specific pattern: after acquiring an ability, players will be able to enter a new location; they will fight their way through complicated halls; reach a save point; and then fight a nearby boss that will be guarding an additional skill, therefore sending Soma to look for yet another undiscovered place that can now be entered.
This cycle is an especially engaging gameplay loop due to the fact all areas of the castle only have one save room and one warp room. What this ultimately means is that, with every new location, there will be a challenge to get to those points of relief alive, and this task can be quite daunting not just because enemies have particular behaviors that need to be learned with care, but also because the game happens to put those foes in tricky – yet fair – positions while also deploying traps from time to time. As a consequence of that nature, in a way, Dawn of Sorrow plays like a series of levels that are reached from the same overarching maze, which is as simple as Metroidvania efforts can get.
However, there is a specific characteristic that makes Dawn of Sorrow trickier than the average member of the genre. As usual for Castlevania standards, the game will never tell players where the ability they have just found can be used: there are no tips, no helping hands, and certainly no markers. The villains themselves, when setting up battles with the protagonist, will be awfully vague about where they are, often mentioning general locations such as the top or the center of the castle. Consequently, unless the gamer in question has an excellent memory to remember where all rooms with blocked passages are, there will be a lot of walking around going on so that the next accessible area can be uncovered.
Anyone who either prefers the guided exploration of many modern Metroidvanias or simply does not enjoy the process of getting lost will possibly not like what Dawn of Sorrow offers. Nevertheless, its lack of direction is not a flaw, but a marvelous feature that highlights the process of discovery, allows players to put the castle together little by little as they would do with a puzzle, and sets the spotlight on a world that is simply very well-designed, letting it speak for itself. Moreover, as it happened with its prequel, Dawn of Sorrow boosts that package a little further by being pretty good at defusing instances of frustration.
Even those who do not like getting lost will at least be able to see roaming the castle is not completely unproductive: firstly, because doing so will let them kill enemies over and over again, hence making Soma earn some sweet levels; secondly, because the place is packed with optional rooms that hold valuable treasure, like pieces of equipment as well as gold; and thirdly, because downed foes also happen to drop cash, which can be incredibly valuable since the only way to restore health in the game is by purchasing potions at the shop located by the castle’s entrance and close to a rather practical warp room.
In addition, the whole process of trying to make it past hordes of bad guys in order to reach the save point and the boss of a location does not quite rank as frustrating either; sure, especially towards the end of the game, repeated attempts will be needed so one can get to those coveted spots, but most players will find solace in the feeling they are slowly progressing by learning enemy patterns a bit better with every attempt.
As the sequel to Aria of Sorrow and as a game that has the same protagonist, Dawn of Sorrow is also notable among other Castlevania games thanks to the concept of souls. Since he is the reincarnation of Dracula, Soma has the capacity to absorb the spirit of the enemies he kills: in the case of foes that are plentiful around the castle, it is a matter of chance plus the luck stat; and in relation to bosses, their soul is guaranteed to be acquired once the battle is finished. Souls come in four types and one of each can be active at any time: Bullet Souls are magical attacks, like throwing a bone; Guardian Souls are skills that can be quickly turned on and off, such as temporarily becoming a bat; Enchanted Souls do not consume magical power and work like pieces of equipment, usually adding a bonus to one of Soma’s stats while they are active; and Ability Souls are permanent skills, such as double jumping or swimming underwater.
Once more, souls bring to Dawn of Sorrow the same benefits they delivered to Aria of Sorrow. Effectively, they give Soma two extra magic skills (Bullet Souls and Guardian Souls) that can be customized by players, which in addition to the numerous weapon types that are available give plenty of room for experimentation. Furthermore, nearly every boss has one or two souls that make achieving victory much easier against them, which adds an element of strategy to these major combats. Finally, those looking for full completion will want to obtain all souls. It is true that, in this case, the fact there is a random nature in their appearance can make the goal a bit boring, since it will involve some grinding. However, it all boils down to the simple task of finding a room where the bad guy is, killing it, walking out, moving back in so it respawns, and doing it all again a few extra times until luck strikes.
Since much of what it does had already been executed by Aria of Sorrow, developers behind Dawn of Sorrow must have felt pressure to deliver something entirely new. And it is in this attempt at novelty that the game stumbles on its sole major blunder. For a franchise with a well-established traditional gameplay such as Castlevania, the perspective of having to find use to the very unique capabilities of the Nintendo DS must have been quite daunting. As far as the dual screens go, Konami did a wonderful job by keeping it all as simple as possible: the top screen is actually reserved, at all times, to display a map of the castle. Considering that pausing to access that feature was a constant part of the gameplay of Dawn of Sorrow’s predecessors, this basic addition could not really have been better.
The issue here actually comes down to the touch commands. Dawn of Sorrow really did not have to use them, but it chooses to do that. There is an ability Soma obtains that has players tapping the screen to break blocks, which feels tacked on, but it is used so little it does not do much harm. The real problem is found in the Magic Seals. According to the game’s lore, the bosses that have been put in Dracula’s castle this time around are protected by a stronger spell that requires an extra action so it can be broken, allowing the beasts to then be banished for good. In practical terms, what that means is that once they deliver the final blow on bosses, players will have to draw a symbol on the screen to defeat them. If the move is not performed successfully, the boss will actually regain a little bit of health, forcing Soma to attack some more just so he can take another shot at pulling off the Magic Seal.
The troubles here are many. For starters, when one begins drawing, a timer starts ticking; if it runs out, tough luck. Moreover, if players screw up a single line, failure will also come. At last, to make matters worse, the Magic Seals (which can be practiced from the menu) actually have to be memorized, because the motions necessary to create them are not shown when the final hit is delivered. In total, the game has five Magic Seals of increasing complexity, and as bosses get stronger, the harder-to-draw symbols are required to banish them. Needless to say, even though the tolerance regarding time and mistakes is decent, it is not uncommon to be thrown back into a brutal fight just because the Magic Seal did not meet the requirements. And when that leads to death, frustration is inevitable.
Dawn of Sorrow has a few other problems. The requirements to reach its different endings are a bit too obscure. There are a few room designs that are more frustrating than challenging. The anime aesthetic given to its characters does not go along with its otherwise Gothic spirit, even though that clash is really only seen when there is dialogue – which is not often. And although its shops are located close to a warp point, it would have been better if there were more of them spread around the castle, especially since potions are so important. Yet, none of those really compare to the major design blunder of the Magic Seals.
As anger-inducing as they may be, though, Magic Seals are not enough to stop Dawn of Sorrow from being easy to recommend to just about everybody with a love for Castlevania. And anyone who takes a bite is bound to find plenty of content. On its own, the game’s main adventure should last about ten hours, and it can be extended if one is looking either for full completion or for the very best ending. Additionally, Dawn of Sorrow also has a mode in which the quest can be replayed as Julius Belmont, elevating the difficulty level in a number of ways; and the surprising goodness of the Enemy Set Mode, in which players get to create their own Castlevania mini-mazes and even tackle them alongside friends to see who gets to the end more quickly.
Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow is very far from being revolutionary or groundbreaking. After the three adventures of the franchise released for the Game Boy Advance, the quest it presents is essentially a repackaging of the same nonlinear gameplay featured in these titles. However, the effort greatly benefits from the lessons Konami learned when they decided to create handheld takes on the majestic scope of Symphony of the Night. Because of that, Dawn of Sorrow has the natural edge born out of experience: it knows quite well what has worked and what has failed, and by strongly sticking to the ideas of its prequel – Aria of Sorrow – it stylishly continues the story told in that greatly acclaimed title.
Some may claim Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow is excessively similar to Aria of Sorrow, and that is quite fair. In fact, the only truly new idea that Konami produces for this installment – the Magic Seals – ends up being nothing but a considerable design blunder. Yet, the base upon which the game is built is just too strong to crack. A gauntlet of monsters and labyrinthine halls, Dracula’s Castle remains a joy to be explored, and each of its areas plays like a challenging series of combats and navigation challenges. Moreover, the fact the protagonist can permanently acquire the powers of the foes he defeats leads his moveset to be incredibly customizable, adding a strategic degree to both regular combats and boss battles that makes the saga’s traditionally cool encounters against wicked creatures even more alluring. And with these weapons in place, Dawn of Sorrow could never have really failed. Because, yes, it may be a mere continuation of what was achieved in Aria of Sorrow, but that does not mean the greatness in design that tends to permeate the Castlevania series is absent.