Here at RetroCookie, I like to keep October dedicated to the Halloween spirit. I do this mostly because Anne has such an obsession with horror that if you wrote “Boo!” on a cardboard box she’d watch it for ninety minutes (two hours if you tell her you found it in an alley and try to pass it off as a true story), but I also recognize that video games, generally science-fiction or fantasy by design, also host a plethora of inspiring, interactive horror, that can inflict sensations and emotions via the interactive medium that movies simply can’t. So realizing I’ve given the Nintendo DS about as much attention lately as I’ve given my 10,000-steps-a-day exercise regimen, I thought I’d pick from the magnificent library it has to offer, and since I can’t let a Halloween season go by without writing about Castlevania (a tradition that dates all the way back to last year…as soon as this article posts), I thought, “What game could better embody all things horror and create the mood for ghosts and goblins and monsters and republicans than Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow?” As it turns out, many. Many other games.
Dawn of Sorrow picks up where the GBA installment, Aria of Sorrow, left off. Apparently, Konami liked the idea of sorrow. Because I can’t think of any emotion I’d rather feel when playing a game than crippling, unyielding sadness. If you missed that one, it took all the gloomy atmosphere, classic horror monsters, creepy crumbling castles and all things Transylvania, and replaced it with a flying labyrinth over a very Anime-esque Japan and Soma Cruz, a protagonist who dresses as though shopping for a European Men’s Carry-All. Soma discovers he carries the reincarnated soul of Count Dracula, and evil wants it back. Dawn of Sorrow begins as the leader of a bizarre cult accosts him on the streets of Japan. This post-modern Jim Jones doesn’t take kindly to the fact that Soma doesn’t want to share the evil with everyone else (Quick: What do you get when you combine a Democrat and a Republican?), and she brought two candidates for the position of Dark Lord who intend to murder him and take back the evil by force. But not until they give him the chance to gallivant through the castle, equipping himself with top-notch weapons and armor, leveling-up by slaying monsters, and recruiting the souls of his fallen enemies to invest him with their power. Because reasons.
Right from the get-go, Dawn of Sorrow gives off a Blues Brothers vibe, a sort of “Let’s get the gang back together for one last adventure” scenario. Immediately after the first monster rushes all the characters from Aria of Sorrow show up to let us know they haven’t gone anywhere. Hammer arrives to profit on impending doom, Julius Belmont pokes his head in trying not to look like the game should star him instead of Soma, and Arikado appears, pretending that by not wearing a cape and pronouncing his name with a Japanese accent, no one will know his true identity. Then the characters appear here and there throughout the game contributing bits of dialogue to what passes for a story.
That may sum up Dawn of Sorrow’s major flaw, right there; it tried to have a story. The original Castlevania games didn’t need any more plot than “Let’s go kill us some vampire!” And when Dracula’s Curse started introducing rudimentary dialogue, it only gave us enough to suggest an interesting back story behind the characters. All the charm in those games came from using familiar monsters as enemies and bosses. While the original game pit you against Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy, Medusa, and Dracula, Dawn of Sorrow gives you…some guys. Just some dudes. They have some minor powers, but nothing really interesting, and they go down fairly easily. Hardly something you’d expect from a candidate for the position of Supreme Vampiric Evil.
I might come off as overly harsh toward the game, but I actually really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, the aspects I enjoy make it play exactly like Aria of Sorrow, Symphony of the Night, and all other Metroid-vania games. You still romp through the same castle, looking for the same abilities, fighting the same generic monsters…in a way, Castlevania resembles porn. New material doesn’t necessarily make it better, and we still look for all the same parts we looked for before, but everything has a slightly different layout and position that keeps it interesting enough to spend three hours every night on it. So even though the story flounders like a school of mackerel dumped into a Taco Bell parking lot, the idea of dashing through the castle slaughtering monsters like Abraham Van Helsing turned into the Incredible Hulk still makes the game well worth playing.
I should note, though, that as a DS game, Konami felt obligated to include a touch mechanic. Every time you defeat a boss, you have to draw out a magical seal on the screen or the enemy will regenerate a set amount of HP and you’ll have to whittle it down again. This doesn’t really detract from the game, but I can’t honestly say it adds anything to game play either. It more feels like a token gesture, a feeble attempt at striving for praise from game developers, who just may end up humoring Konami like a child who brings home a picture that looks like the creation of a blind elephant with a crayon and suddenly wants to become a professional artist.
Dawn of Sorrow has one really cool aspect–which, apparently, they also included in Aria of Sorrow and I just missed–that lets you play as Julius Belmont if you meet the right conditions at the end of the game. Almost like Zelda’s second quest, this opens up access to an entire game with different mechanics. You control Belmont, the rightful protagonist of a Castlevania game, as he hunts down Soma, who has given in to his hate and joined the Dark Side of the Force. Rather than equipping souls, Julius has access to the traditional sub-weapons from the NES Castlevania games, and much like Dracula’s Curse, he can recruit sidekicks, including Alucard, who retains the same abilities he had in Castlevania 3. As soon as you find all the playable characters, you have access to all areas of the castle, and since you presumably learned the secrets and layout the first time through the game, you don’t have to spend as much time squinting over the tiny map with a high powered magnifying glass, looking for every spot you may have missed a door or a branching path. To balance this out, however, they removed all healing items, so it becomes a major grind, especially near the end of the game.
So maybe it doesn’t play as an homage to classic horror, and maybe it does just rehash an old Castlevania formula…which in turn rehashes the classic Metroid formula…which attempted to combine Mario and Zelda…and maybe I can’t say anything both original and positive about it. But…I forgot where I was going with this. Just enjoy the game. And happy October…I have a special edition planned in a few weeks, so look forward to that.