Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow Review

Developer/Publisher: Konami
Original Release: Game Boy Advance 2003
Also Available On: Wii U Virtual Console

Third time’s a charm! Out of the 3 GBA games, I think Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is the one where they finally got it right. Circle of the Moon wasn’t a bad game, but it certainly wasn’t anywhere near as good as the previous Castlevania, Symphony of the Night. Harmony of Dissonance was pretty bad, though. Aria of Sorrow feels like a game made by developers who learned a lot from HoD and are getting the most they can out of the GBA hardware. When people talk about the GBA and DS Castlevanias, two games always come up, Aria of Sorrow and its sequel, Dawn of Sorrow.

One of the coolest things about Aria of Sorrow is its story. It’s the second part of a 3 part saga, which concluded in Dawn of Sorrow. That’s pretty epic as far as Castlevania stories go. Tragically, we never got the prequel showing us how it all started in 1999. That’s when Julius Belmont and his companions (Maybe Yoko and Alucard) killed Dracula “once and for all”. Castlevania itself was sealed in a solar eclipse (don’t ask me how that works), and the Vampire Killer whip was left inside the castle to contain its power. Fast forward to 2035, the reincarnation of Dracula, Soma Cruz, and his friend, Mina, are sucked into an eclipse and end up in Castlevania. Inside, they find a few other people running around, including a Belnades mage, Yoko, and Alucard himself.

The gameplay in Aria of Sorrow is classic SotN. You explore an area, maybe see some places you can’t reach without a specific ability, find the next save point, fight a boss, get a new ability, and maybe talk with one of the other characters along the way. I think the castle layout is where AoS really shines. Everything flows together so well. It’s so much better designed than Harmony of Dissonance’s, which had a lot of dead ends and teleports in terrible locations. AoS has well-placed save points and teleports, and the teleports start becoming available very early on in the game, so I rarely felt like getting somewhere was a chore. I also like how it’s always obvious if you need a specific ability to reach a certain area, and how NPCs give you hints, so there’s isn’t a lot of aimless wandering around. The way you run into the other characters around the castle is also very SotN-like and feels very natural. I love how the story unfolds as you clear or reach new areas. That’s one thing AoS does even better than SotN.

The new gameplay system that sets AoS apart from the previous 3 Castlevanias is the Tactical Soul system. Tactical Souls is how this game does subweapons, transformations, special moves, stat boosts, and some abilities. You have a chance to get a soul from enemies when you kill them, and these souls power up the more of them you get. You get 3 slots for different types of souls; Bullet, Guardian, and Enchanted Souls. Bullet Souls are subweapons, Guardian Souls are on use abilities like the bat form, and Enchanted Souls are passive abilities and buffs. You can also unlock special perks with some combinations of powers. It’s much cooler than CotM’s cards or HoD’s elemental spell books. The only bad thing about it is having to go to the menu screen to switch souls out. There’s one area where you have to switch between the water walking and underwater walking soul a few times because they go in the same slot, and it gets kind of annoying.

Equipment and special abilities, like double jumps and slides, are still in this game too. There’s lots of fun and different things to play with, like giant broadswords, spears, knives, hammers, and even a whip sword. It's too bad that you get it early in the game, so it isn’t very strong. There is a Julius mode, though. There’s something for pretty much all Castlevania play styles in AoS.

Aria of Sorrow has the best graphics of all the GBA Castlevania games. There are some very plain looking backgrounds early in the game, but most are really nice and detailed, especially in the second half of the game. I especially love the famous staircase to Dracula’s throne room in the background of the boss battle against Death. That’s a very clever touch. The GBA’s 240 x 160 resolution kind of holds the graphics back, though. That’s even lower than the NES’ 256 x 240 resolution. It doesn’t matter if they reuse graphics from SotN and Rondo of Blood, it's never going to look as good as those games on a GBA because of its lower resolution. It’s still a really good looking GBA game, though.

The music in Aria of Sorrow is also the best of the GBA games. It’s not quite SotN good, or even SNES good, but the quality of the audio is greatly improved over Harmony of Dissonance. It doesn’t sound all distorted anymore. The composition of the songs themselves is also very good. Michiru Yamane and Sohiro Hokkai, who also worked on HoD, return here and they do an amazing job of keeping the Castlevania sound alive with both new songs and remixes. My favorite song is “Don’t Wait Until Night”, a remix of a song from the Haunted Castle arcade game which plays during one of the coolest boss battles in the game.

I don’t think Aria of Sorrow is as good as Symphony of the Night, but it’s close, and being close to being as good as one of the best games of all time is pretty amazing in my book. This is by far the best of the GBA Castlevanias, and one of the best Castlevanias of all time. It has some of the best music and graphics on GBA, a great castle design that flows extremely well, lots of fun gear and abilities to play with, and one of the best stories in the Castlevania series. It’s one of my favorite GBA games. A must play for all fans of Metroidvanias.