I have a confession to make; I had never played a Castlevania game other than the NES installments until recently, when I picked up Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow. But hey, I enjoyed the 8-bit games enough, and this one has a really cool name. Sad to say, Aria of Sorrow involved no singing whatsoever, and I only approached sorrow somewhat at the beginning of this sentence when I said, “Sad to say.” I noticed some angry characters, some scheming characters, and some characters completely devoid of any emotion or motivating force at all, but no one felt even a little down, even at the mortal wounding of one of the NPCs. So the title may have misled a little; the Venture Bros. proved that you can call yourself “The Monarch,” but if you dress yourself and your henchmen in butterfly costumes, your intended intimidation will fall drastically short.
But titles mean very little, so why not dig into the game itself? The player takes control of Soma Cruz, a young boy whose fur-trimmed coat suggests his mother would have preferred a girl, and whose name suggests his father hoped for an iced tea or a bowl of instant ramen or something. Soma and his female companion, Mina Hakuba–whose name may or may not irrelevantly suggest “Mina Harker”–intend to watch an eclipse, but end up in Dracula’s castle instead. “How?” you might ask. Well, I might ask it too. They encounter Genya Arikado, a poor transliteration for “Alucard,” proving once again that the Japanese can’t imagine a wittier or more clever thing than spelling Dracula’s name backwards. They never do this with anyone else. Tnomleb Nomis didn’t struggle against Asudem, Nietsneknarf and the Repaer Mirg in the first game. Why, WHY must we always spell Dracula backwards?
Anyway, Arikado tells Soma he possesses a dark power, which apparently inspires him to wander through a castle filled with monsters. In between the action, he runs into a large cast of characters who almost never interact with each other, only appear two or three times, and have virtually no effect on the story at all. First you meet Graham Jones. “Hi, I’m a missionary,” he says. Then Yoko Belnades says, “Don’t trust Graham!” And of course the next time you meet him, Soma cries loudly in lament, “Why! You were so friendly to me!” A member of the Belmont clan–the real Castlevania protagonists–appears to tell you of a mystical whip with the power to defeat Dracula, after which he vanishes from the game and you hear no further word from him until your next playthrough. Finally, Soma also encounters an American who came to the Hakuba shrine to sell weapons without the least awareness of the irony or satire he portrays. Then you fight either Graham or the reincarnation of Dracula–the game leaves that up to the imagination–and Arikado appears once more to tell you to click your heels together three times to warp you and Mina–who by this point has had less effect on the course of events than the font on the title screen–off to safety.
Although I intend to argue that the gameplay makes AoS worth playing, I feel I need to point out how they ruined a potentially good game by trying to introduce a written story. Remember the original game? How Simon began by walking up to the gate with the silhouette of the castle in the distance, and how the iron bars swing open to beckon him inside? That definitely set a strong atmosphere. Remember the detail of the backgrounds? Torn curtains, cracked bricks, crumbling stairs? Remember the bosses? The Giant Bat, Frankenstein, the Mummies, Death, and Dracula himself? These guys worked because the players already knew everything about them. We recognized them and they instantly evoked images of stories and horrors we already knew. And the entire game told this story with no more than the five words that explained the menu.
Aria of Sorrow doesn’t live up to that level of design. Some enemies and one or two bosses might make cameos, but if anything, they rely on previous knowledge of the series. Some areas have very intricate backgrounds, but not all of them, and the dull colors of the Game Boy Advance don’t jump out at you like the vibrant NES color scheme, which pits deep-blue backgrounds against the complementary orange of Simon’s sprites. If anything, the script dumbs down the effect, making it into more of an inane, B-Rated, anime-style story, rather than “Castlevania,” a game that stands on its own reputation.
However, I don’t intend to argue that the game fails to entertain. You just may have to focus on the gameplay elements rather than the script that crawled out of the trash of a third-grade English class. Here, the game actual improves on the original. If we establish the analogy that Simon Belmont handles like a sluggish, poorly maintained Model-T with only a few drops of gas left, then I can describe Soma Cruz as the Delorean from Back to the Future. Exploration and character advancement incorporates Metroid-style abilities, obtained usually by picking up an item after a boss fight. By the end of the game, Soma can double jump, high jump, slide, float, backdash, and even turn into a bat, all features that allow him to reach new areas for more exploration.
The game uses an RPG experience system, allowing the character to level up after defeating enough enemies, and equip weapons, armor, and accessories found or bought in the castle. Furthermore, Soma’s dark powers–as the game so poorly explains–allow him to literally beat enemies to death with their own souls. Replacing the secondary weapon mechanic, he can equip absorbed souls to use enemy abilities against them. The player retains souls for the duration of the game, but carry the drawback that since you obtain so many of them, it can take some time to figure out a boss’s weakness, and by then you may have used up your MP. Potions and other items, as fitting for Castlevania, haven’t really decided if they actually want to join the game, and you’ll encounter them sparsely; mostly, you’ll have to buy them.
While I seem to have written a great deal more about the lack of quality in the story than I have about the virtues of the actual gameplay, keep in mind that very little of this game actually requires you to follow along with the characters and their hopes and dreams and wishes on rainbows. In fact, I got through the entire game without really understanding…well, anything. The game succeeds at providing a fast-paced combat, and while combat and level grinding could theoretically get tedious, Castlevania knows when to quit. I needed less than five hours, even with grinding, to finish the game. Aria of Sorrow knows about its issues, but covers them up by knowing when to quit. Not exactly a stunning endorsement of the game, I know, but for someone interested in either Castlevania or action-horror games, and even to some extend RPG fans, AoS provides a decent enough experience.