Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is a rather curious case of a game that showcases a large pile of problems, but that still comes out somewhat well of an evaluation; the reason for that is relatively simple: most of its issues only arise due to inevitable comparisons to its predecessors
Released for the Game Boy Advance in 2001 and 2003, Golden Sun and Golden Sun: The Lost Age are undeniable landmarks within the Nintendo canon. After all, even though the company ventured into the RPG genre both before and after the publishing of that saga, they did so safely supported by the strength of one of their established franchises: namely, Mario. With Golden Sun, however, not only did the company choose to abandon that comfort zone, but they also – in the absence of the quirkiness provided by the Mushroom Kingdom – opted to push for the creation of an RPG quest that stuck closer to the style’s traditions. As such, Golden Sun may not be an entirely pioneering movement by Nintendo, but it certainly felt like a step towards an uncharted direction.
Surely, Golden Sun was not produced by Nintendo itself, since its development was handled by subsidiary Camelot, but given the proximity between the companies it is nigh impossible not to look at the series as a traditional RPG that carries the always valuable Nintendo stamp. And anyone who went through those games is bound to confirm that the company’s unique signature can be found beyond the box art and the credits, because both Golden Sun and The Lost Age were immensely successful in respecting staples of the genre while adding smart touches to its often stiff framework.
Since each game starred a party of heroes that, entangled in the very same story, tried to achieve opposing goals, the saga blurred the lines between who was wrong and who was right, constructing in the process a pair of games that felt like two halves of the same epic whole. Additionally, via small gameplay tweaks, traditional – and somewhat dull – RPG quirks were rocked to the core: the excessively linear progression was exploded by an overworld that at times made Golden Sun play like an open-ended adventure game; the different scenarios, which in conventional RPGs are usually nothing but places where random enemy encounters take place, were filled with interactive puzzles of occasionally high intricacy; and the battles, although not as inventive, gained value on account of the highly customizable moveset of the characters.
The original Golden Sun duo, therefore, absolutely hit the mark in integrating – for the first time ever – the Nintendo mark and quality into an RPG of standard constitution. Because of that, when the time came for the franchise to turn the corner into a more powerful system, expectations were naturally high. If Golden Sun and The Lost Age were big, their Nintendo DS successor, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn, was at least going to be bigger: a larger world was practically a given; more open-ended exploration was a natural consequence; equally intricate puzzles were obviously expected; the potential for an even more epic storyline was certainly on the table; and advancements in the battle system as well as in general gameplay could be easily unearthed thanks to the system’s special capabilities.
Sadly, where Golden Sun and The Lost Age undoubtedly achieved their goal of creating a Nintendo branded traditional RPG, Dark Dawn fails in its objective of pushing the franchise forward in any significant way. More harmful than that, though, is the fact that Dark Dawn does not even come off as stale, because in order for that to be true, it would need to have a scope that is as considerable as that of its predecessors. Unfortunately, the game does not even reach that threshold, emerging instead as a step back that only reaches the level of a good experience due to the strength of the characteristics it naturally inherited from the titles that preceded it.
As a good attempt to tie its plot to the Game Boy Advance titles, Dark Dawn opens by showing both Isaac and Garet – who were among the many heroes of Golden Sun and The Lost Age – spending time with their respective sons, Matthew and Tyrell. Thirty years have passed since the ending of the last game, in which the power of Alchemy was brought back to the world of Weyward in order to stop its imminent destruction. Now, Isaac and Garet live in a cabin by Mt. Aleph, a location that was intimately connected to the events of the first two games and, as the duo believes, ought to still house some secrets related to Alchemy. Given reaching Mt. Aleph is currently impossible on foot, Isaac and Garet keep a Soarwing, a device invented by their friend, Ivan, and that will let them reach the peak in case of any strange event.
Unfortunately, Tyrell, who is as bull-headed as his father, decides to take the Soarwing for a ride even though he is strongly advised not to do so. Jumping from the top of the cabin, he quickly loses control of the device and falls into the nearby forest, which happens to be brimming with ominous physical anomalies related to Alchemy. After being rescued, Isaac and Garet realize the Soarwing is broken and that the only way to fix it goes through acquiring the feather of a very rare bird, which is an essential component of the device. As a way to teach the kids a lesson, Isaac convinces Garet to let them go on a quest to retrieve the material. Consequently, Matthew and Tyrell depart accompanied by the equally young Karis, who is the daughter of Ivan and happened to be visiting when the incident took place.
As one will probably correctly assume, plucking a feather out of a bird – as rare as it may be – would be a rather disappointing main goal for an RPG adventure that lasts between twenty and thirty hours. Thankfully, despite its failure to match its predecessors, being centered on a silly objective is not among the problems of Dark Dawn, because although that is certainly what is in the heroes’ minds as they depart, they are soon pulled into a far more dangerous and significant scheme, which happens to be somewhat related to what their parents achieved thirty years in the past. The story of Dark Dawn, however, does not come unscathed out of a scrutinizing analysis.
The plot undoubtedly has strong points. For starters, in a touch of originality that was also present in Golden Sun and The Lost Age, it unfolds as a series of unfortunate events: unlucky breaks constantly lead the characters away form whatever it is they are trying to do at the moment, and these detours put them in the middle of a bunch of interesting situations. Furthermore, Dark Dawn nicely nods to the rich trove of personages of its predecessors by making both major and minor characters either reappear or be mentioned by name, a move which will naturally trigger pleasant nostalgic feelings in those that went through the Game Boy Advance titles. Finally, the script is backed up by a world with rich lore that is inhabited by dozens of likable figures with nice stories.
Yet, the plot has simply too many issues: the reasoning behind the antagonists’ actions is not clarified, which makes the scheme that powers the game’s script be one foggy mess; the role the protagonists play and the way they are pulled into the machinations of the bad guys is flimsy to say the least because it ultimately feels nothing at all would have happened if Isaac had not sent them out in the first place; the script does not gain significant steam until more than fifteen hours of gameplay have elapsed; and, as a nitpick, the characters from previous titles could have been used more effectively, and some physical absences, like those of Felix and Jenna, are disappointing.
In gameplay matters, the constitution of Dark Dawn is quite similar to that of its prequels. Weyward is a vast land filled with villages, towns, mountains, caves, forests, islands, and all sorts of explorable environments. And although this is by all means the same world that housed the quests of Golden Sun and The Lost Age, Camelot is able to redesign it completely, therefore making it feel fresh even to veterans of the saga. The reason behind that is not merely the need to make a new world for a new game, as the reshape is tied – instead – to the Golden Sun event that concluded The Lost Age. Due to its force, which regenerated the power of Alchemy, the land was ripped and suffered major geographical alterations that even had multiple peoples relocating to new spots. Because of that, the Weyward of Dark Dawn is completely distinct from the one of the Game Boy Advance duo.
Progressing through that world, though, is not all that different. Major locations that can be entered appear on the map as scaled-down models, and Isaac can lead his party between these sites by simply walking from one to the other. As it happened in Golden Sun and The Lost Age, the map is not fully accessible from the start, since the heroes can be locked into a limited region due to geographic obstacles or simply because a cave – or any other setting – that needs to be traversed to get to a new portion of the world cannot be cleared at that moment. Still, save for very early in the quest, players will always have more than one option when it comes to deciding where to go, and the fact the world map essentially demands and allows for plenty of exploration, offering some optional locations as well as having no markers indicating where major goals are, gives Dark Dawn the undertones of an adventure game where it is up to heroes to figure out where they need to go to.
Naturally, thanks to dialogues, there are always clues regarding what the next destination of the party should be. Still, Dark Dawn has at least a couple of moments when, pleasantly, the game will leave that matter open and force exploration; furthermore, to those who like some non-linearity, one of the adventure’s last goals, which concerns picking up the pieces of a legendary armor, will have Isaac and friends doing that task in whatever order they see fit. This alluring openness is one of the factors that made Golden Sun and The Lost Age shine so brightly. Unfortunately, in Dark Dawn, even though it is obviously present, that characteristic is just not so strong.
That problem does not stem from size. It would certainly be nice to see a larger Weyward that took advantage of the superior hardware of the Nintendo DS, but having a world that is about as big as the one from Golden Sun and The Lost Age is still satisfying. The issue is that Dark Dawn, suddenly eager to drink from JRPG traditions, is a bit too restrictive. Firstly, the game has a bunch of moments that work as points of no return, meaning that once they are triggered, players will simply never be able to come back to the part of the world they are in. Additionally, almost none of the portions existing between these major events are too large, which restricts exploration. Finally, to make matters worse, a couple of areas are totally linear.
It goes without saying that this approach to progression is harmful to one of the essential characteristics of the Golden Sun saga: freedom. It feels like the Weyward of Dark Dawn is given to players in slices, and some of these vanish completely once they are dealt with. It is true that, towards the ending of the quest, the party will gain access to a ship and to a vast portion of open space with a lot of secrets. But this is a classic example of too little too late: by then, large pieces of the world are lost forever; moreover, the acquiring of the vessel only happens close to the twenty-hour mark.
Within the scenarios themselves, Dark Dawn steps away from RPG conventions with the support of the magic powers of its protagonists. Matthew and his partners are Adepts, which means that they are able to channel Alchemy into multiple spells, and although most of these only come into play inside battles, the heroes also have plenty of powers that affect the environment that surrounds them. The characters can move blocks, cause vines to grow, shoot fireballs, make it rain, freeze water, crush rocks, control wind, grapple towards distant pillars, read minds, and so forth.
What is interesting about these powers is that, combined with the branching nature of the scenarios, they allow Dark Dawn – like its predecessors – to have locations that call for a mixture of exploration and puzzle solving, which is far more meaningful gameplay than the usual RPG proceedings of walking through an area and fighting the occasional random battle. Be it in wild landscapes or villages, all parts of Dark Dawn’s world are filled with opportunities for players to put those skills to use, sometimes simply to advance the story and every once in a while to uncover extra rewards like powerful weapons, unique pieces of armor, items that permanently increase the stats of characters, and other valuable assets.
It is definitely an interesting trait, and Dark Dawn deploys it well. However, on this particular front, the problem – once again – stems from how the game simply fails to build on what was already in place. First of all, most abilities that can be used when exploring locations are not new; and those that are do not rank as significant or inventive. Moreover, a few skills that could have been the base of interesting gameplay segments (such as Track, which allows the party to see the trail left by certain smells) are not explored to their full extent. The biggest issue, though, comes in how Dark Dawn takes a pretty basic approach when it comes to the puzzles it presents.
Surely, both Golden Sun and The Lost Age had a huge share of simplistic riddles that were easy to figure out and an excess of block-pushing conundrums. Yet, besides adding a unique twist to the exploration segments and allowing developers to build scenarios that were more intricate than the norm, these riddles eventually culminated in a bunch of dungeons that were sometimes so mind-bending in their structure and puzzles that comparing them to the mazes of The Legend of Zelda series was far from being an exaggeration. They were that good, that smart, and that engaging. Dark Dawn, contrarily, never rises to that level. Yes, the game has more than a handful of dungeons filled with puzzles, but with one notable exception, they are either too simple, too linear, or too short. As such, the game – differently from Golden Sun and The Lost Age – does not fully capitalize on its mechanics.
Unlike it happens in plot, world map exploration, and puzzles, when it comes to battles Dark Dawn has no visible retread, since – on what is a natural choice – combats remain exactly the same. Undoubtedly, the absence of any evolution can itself be pointed out as a shortcoming, but the fact of the matter is that the battle system worked in the past and continues to click in Dark Dawn. In this specific area, the Golden Sun franchise takes a straightforward road which turns out to be rather surprising considering it goes against tradition in its other major gameplay components. Consequently, battles in the world of Weyward are simple turn-based affairs where every member of the party can choose to attack, defend, deploy magic, or use an item; as far as these aspects are concerned, the sole twist comes in how all spells have their own area of effect, with those that hit multiple foes often landing larger blows in enemies that are positioned towards the middle of the rival party.
That basic approach, though, does not stop the franchise from throwing a curveball into the mix, and this is where the creatures known as Djinn come in. In total, Dark Dawn features seventy-two of these beings, and they are equally divided into game’s four elements: Venus (Earth), Mars (Fire), Jupiter (Wind), and Mercury (Water). Even though some Djinn are acquired naturally as the story goes along, most are entirely optional, usually found tucked away behind puzzles and, in some special cases, as random encounters in specific portions of the world map. Given how useful they are in the battlefield, the Djinn might as well be considered the most important collectible asset of the Golden Sun franchise.
These creatures can be equipped to any character, and although all members of the party are Adepts of a specific element, there is no rule forcing a protagonist specialized in Mercury magic to only use Djinn of that kind, for example. In fact, the only limitation that exists when it comes to spreading the beings around the party is that no character can have two more Djinn than any other, meaning they must be equally distributed among the heroes. As Djinn are equipped, Matthew and his friends will gain stat bonuses and even change classes, which might in turn cause them to lose a few magic skills while gaining others. Those quirks alone, especially the boost in stats, should be incentive enough for everyone to track down as many of these creatures as possible. Their largest effect, though, is felt when battles are actually unfolding.
Every Djinn is tied to a specific move, and when they are summoned, they will perform it: whether it is delivering a hit, dealing damage whilst causing some special stat-altering side-effect, healing the party, potentially reviving a party member, among others. Therefore, when determining which character gets which Djinn, players are in a way customizing a huge slice of the moveset of the protagonists. Once they are used, Djinn temporarily go into standby mode, a brief period during which they cannot be employed again and, worse yet, when the bonuses they provide are taken away from the character.
It may seem like a major downside, but standby Djinn are extremely valuable thanks to how they can be used to perform summons: magical attacks of massive scale that have a member of the party using a specified number of standby Djinn to call forth a major entity from a vast pantheon that includes specially powerful beings that can only be accessed after their optional summoning tablets have been found out in the world.
In spite of how the Djinn bring an alluring level of customization as well as risk and reward to what would otherwise be bland skirmishes, combats are yet another point in which Dark Dawn exhibits a few problems. The first is that battles are too easy, rarely bringing players to verge of a Game Over screen and indicating that more extensive balancing work should have been conducted. The second, meanwhile, is that there is a clear shortage of boss battles: there are dungeons that end, important items that are acquired, and major turning points that are overcome without having the party go face to face with a uniquely mighty enemy. Considering these types of encounters are meant to push players to using all of their strategic resources and powerful magical moves, this absolutely weird scarcity of boss battles, when paired with the overall easiness of the regular enemies, means Dark Dawn, disappointingly, seldom puts the protagonists in a truly tight spot that tests their limits and deeply uses all features the battles have to offer – with the exception being perhaps the final combat of the game and a few optional mazes that can be reached once the main story is finished.
In technical matters, Dark Dawn is a bit more solid. Its tridimensional models, with large heads and eyes, are charming, fitting right into the franchise’s colorful aesthetic. Simultaneously, its scenarios are among the system’s best examples of 3-D landscapes. As for its soundtrack, it may not be remarkable, but it does its job with competence. Given the Nintendo DS does not exactly excel in tridimensional visuals while the Game Boy Advance was masterful in the 2-D realm, it is arguable Dark Dawn does not look as good as its stunning predecessors, and some may even claim it would have been better if the game had stuck to the gorgeous 2-D art style of the saga, making punctual graphical improvements to take advantage of the more advanced hardware. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that Dark Dawn looks pretty good.
All in all, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is a rather curious case of a game that showcases a large pile of problems but that still comes out well of an evaluation. The reason for that is relatively simple: most of its issues only arise due to inevitable comparisons to its predecessors, which cause many of its key gameplay elements to come off as retreads instead of steps forward. Ultimately, when standing on their own, the title’s individual mechanics actually make up for a pretty solid RPG experience. Undoubtedly, even without drawing parallels to the original Golden Sun and The Lost Age, Dark Dawn has problems: namely, its plot has holes, its bosses are not sufficiently numerous, and its battles are too easy. But other than those, its issues only emerge when the prequels are considered, which explains why – in general – the game was somewhat well-received by critics while being looked down on by the fanbase.
There is no doubt Golden Sun: Dark Dawn could have been better. Its Game Boy Advance predecessors were landmarks for the system and for Nintendo on account of their impressive quality and of the fact they gave the company a traditional RPG franchise to call its own. And better yet, the saga uniquely tackled the conventional role-playing gameplay by introducing degrees of puzzle solving and exploration that at times made it interestingly flirt with the adventure genre. Golden Sun: Dark Dawn certainly carries those characteristics, meaning it is a good game. However, playing it is bound to be slightly bitter thanks to how, rather than pushing the franchise forward, the title shockingly tones down on puzzles and exploration while making a few notable mistakes that were not present in the prequels. For that reason, the third installment of the Golden Sun franchise is only truly recommended to fans, since everyone else is better off going for the superior Game Boy Advance epics.