The end of the 16-bit era also marked the end of the linear, unforgiving, “Classic” (or as some would say, “True”) Castlevania games. With Symphony of the Night, Castlevania was reborn as a more open-ended, Metroid-esque platformer with light RPG elements; thus beginning the age of the “Metroidvania” platforming genre.
If you’re like me, then you completely missed pretty much every Castlevania game when they were originally released and only just started playing them recently. If you’re also like me, then you quickly latched onto Aria of Sorrow for the Game Boy Advance and beat it within a week. (a personal record) Of course, if you’re unlike me and actually a cool person then you played Aria of Sorrow when it first came out in 2003 and already know what I’m going to say. Since this is my review however, I’m just going to say it anyway: Aria of Sorrow is an absolute delight to play, save for a few very minor annoyances.
Aria of Sorrow is in every way, shape and form, a Metroidvania game and borrows mechanics and style liberally from critically acclaimed Symphony of the Night. One twist to the Castlevania formula this time though (that doesn’t come from the game’s intriguing plot) is that you aren’t playing as a Belmont or even a Morris, Lecarde, Belnades, or Renard. Instead you play as some American schoolboy (who looks suspiciously Japanese) whose name, Soma Cruz, sounds more like a brand of designer blue jeans. If that wasn’t enough of a diversion from the series, School Jeans has the power to absorb any demon’s soul after defeat and copy its abilities, taking cues from Mega Man and Kirby. This “Tactical Soul” system as it’s called, lets you equip nearly any combination of three different soul types that function similarly to sub-weapons. This opens up a whole layer of combat strategy and world traversal with souls that slow your fall, let you walk on water, stop time, summon familiars or attack with all manner of demon-based projectiles. Unfortunately, it also opens up a world of Pokemon-esque “gotta catch em all” grinding since you only have a slight chance (percentage will vary demon to demon) of absorbing a demon’s soul after killing it. Despite this, the game is mechanically a Castlevania game that plays nearly identically to Symphony of the Night; or if you haven’t played that game, really, really good.
Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest was technically the first Castlevania game to experiment with more open-ended, non-linear, “Metroidvania” level design but Symphony of the Night perfected it. Aria of Sorrow follows suit with a new open, non-linear incarnation of Dracula’s castle. Granted, you are funneled to a certain degree down specific paths early on. It’s not until later in the game when you start acquiring more abilities and souls, does the castle open up and allow you to explore and find your own path. While the game doesn’t really tell you where to go at any given point, it does do a good job of subtly guiding you through each area to the next. And if you ever find yourself wandering around like a zombie with his head chopped off, the map is pretty good at showing you half explored areas or doors you haven’t gone through yet.
Artistically, the game is very appealing. Character models are all definitely Japanese style but not over-the-top, simplistic Anime (unlike later games in the series) Enemy and boss designs are fantastic with only a handful of “palette-swap” enemies. The areas and rooms themselves while containing your classic dance hall, conservatory, dungeon, underground tunnel and tower areas, are cleverly laid out with lots of nooks, crannies and shortcuts to explore. Plus the backgrounds are drab and detailed enough to still be visually interesting even if a bit clichéd.
Castlevania has always been known for two things: brutal difficulty and awesome music. And Dracula. And a whip. And flying Medusa heads. So five things. Castlevania Aria of Sorrow delivers spectacularly on most of those things.
Difficulty-wise I would call Aria adequately challenging, especially at first. Though it’s nowhere near as unforgivingly difficult as many of its predecessors. Save points & warp points are fairly frequent (if sometimes randomly placed) and it’s pretty easy to stock up on various potions and weapons. Boss fights are probably the biggest difficulty weakness as most are fought in narrow corridors and require little strategy apart from attack, dodge back, attack, dodge back, rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat.
The music is great and varied and even includes a few classic remixes. The whip is noticeably absent, (unless you play “Julius Belmont mode” after you beat the game) though there is a “whip-sword” you get fairly early on that’s pretty awesome. And if you were one who loved the flying Medusa heads, well they make their glorious, infinite-respawning comeback in several of the vertical and horizontal shafts; there are even green ones that will really ruin your day by turning you to stone if you touch them.
Aria of Sorrow is Castlevania game through and through and a great starting point if you’ve never played the series before. Sadly, until Nintendo and Konami wake up and decide to rerelease the game on the Virtual Console, you’ll be stuck with emulation or bargain hunting for the original cart. *As if on cue, after the original publication/writing of this review, Nintendo and Konami have finally released Aria of Sorrow on the WiiU’s Virtual Console service for a reasonable $8. If you are a fan of platformer, Castlevania or just really good games, then you owe it to yourself to pick this one up.
Side note: I also found the story to be fairly interesting, especially the big “twist” at the end. Kind of unexpected, if a little silly, and predates the big Lords of Shadow’s twist by a wide margin. The dialog unfortunately is often poorly written and sometimes downright silly.
*This has been a Slowpoke.Review*