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Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow Review

Aria of Sorrow came out in 2003 for the Gameboy Advance, which meant that there was a new Castlevania game happening every year for awhile, just like in the good old days. This time around you take the role of Soma Cruz, who finds himself in a mysterious castle (obviously) after meeting a well-dressed dude named Arikado. He also discovers that a dark power has been awakened in him: the power to rule. That is, quite obviously, not a good thing, but in Soma’s youthful naivete he doesn’t seem to realize it. He explores the castle, encountering a similarly powered Graham, and eventually discovers that he’s Dracula’s reincarnation, after Dracula was finally slain for good back in 1999. Then he confronts the powers of Chaos and basically says screw you, I don’t want to be the dark lord. Good for him!

Soma, like his pre-incarnated son, mostly wields swords. Unlike Alucard, he has a much wider range of options, however. His swords vary a lot more in terms of attack arcs and speed, but the real treat here is the new over-head swinging two handed beasts. They make short work of most enemies, but the enemies themselves never stop feeling threatening because of it: it just gives you a very good way to deal with most of their abilities. Especially the enemies that come from overhead, which there are in no short supply. Plus, the slow swing arc and the fact that it starts pretty far from directly in front of you leave a lot of open time for you to get hit, so they don’t feel completely broken. Soma can also bring three different sub-abilities at a time, though one is a passive bonus and you don’t get a lot of good options for the other. He has a huge range of subweapon replacing “souls” which all do wildly different things and are almost all useful in some circumstance—but like I said, the available weapon options sort of make the different arcs moot. It’s good for covering different spots, but the souls usually end up as being your burst damage, rather than utility. It was a move started way back in Rondo, which I mentioned at the time, but is only finally really being encoded here. All this basically just goes toward Aria having a very different feel from its predecessors in exploratory-focused Castlevanias, which is great, since after the bland feeling of Harmony, I’m very open for a change of pace. The enemies feel a lot more like Rondo than they did in the other games, as well. They move fast and hit hard, and successful clearing of the Castle Dracula is all about approaching them correctly, a feat which is made all the nicer by Soma probably being the easiest Castlevania character to control, ever. The kid has basically no weight in the air. He controls like a goddamn dream. It’s a far cry from what we had back in the original games, but again, the question isn’t whether one control style is better than the other, but that they both suit their games. Aria’s controls are basically perfect for the design of the game. It also lets the bosses pull a lot of crazy stuff without ever feeling like you died illegitimately—perhaps even moreso than Rondo.

The game has the same style of gating as Circle of the Moon, where all the things that let you progress to new areas of the castle are abilities rather than just random boring items or keys like in Harmony. Also like in Symphony, a few of the bosses and areas are optional and there’s a secret area of the game available after the main story, which this time takes the form of an eery, black and white chaotic mish-mash of different areas you’ve been to. It’s neat because you don’t really know what to expect next, and to drive home the “chaotic” nature of the area, there’s no map. I guess it’s kind of unfair to compare it to Symphony’s inverted castle, since not only is it a really small portion of the game, but the inverted castle is something I doubt the series will ever be able to top. This succeeds by not attempting to be the same thing, which is nice. The bosses also have a big variety—some of them are big dudes, but some of them are regular sized enemies that are more mobile, and a few of them are really more like areas. None of the bosses really feel similar. Also, all but one of the bosses are new, instead of being rehashes. It teases a fight with the big vampire bat (which is in almost every game in the whole flippin series) but it’s just a joke. The game seems to be self-aware that it’s focused mostly on new content, so that’s nice.

Of course, at this point in the series there isn’t a lot of new things to say. Aria is ultimately another game in the exploratory style of Castlevanias, and along with its direct sequel, will likely be one of the last for awhile, since Portrait of Ruin sees the return of a more linear, level-based style. It doesn’t really hold the game back unless you make it, since it’s still fun and the exploration elements still feel very good. You can fault it for being “more of the same” if you really want, but I think it’s kind of an empty argument. Is there really anything wrong with being more of the same? Especially since Aria does provide a host of new experiences, and only really shares the basic framework. No one faults Castlevania III for being highly similar in execution to Castlevania I, right? Unlike Harmony, the elements that are similar to Symphony actually benefit the experience. The castle is full of life, and exploring is fun because of it, unlike Harmony. You also get a bunch of options for exploring it quickly, and rarely have to retread the same empty rooms repeatedly. Aria shares a lot of what makes Symphony good, but is different enough from Symphony to warrant its existence, and different enough that it’s good for distinct reasons.

One of those interesting reasons is because it has a very different curve of character progression from the other metroidvania style games in the series. Alucard basically only gets statistical increases in his weapons and armor. The elemental attributes do affect things, but not to an extent that you’d really notice, or to an extent that really matters, since some swords are so statistically superior to others. The weapons themselves also all have about the same range. His spells are available to him from the start, and he mainly progresses in terms of abilities with things that are related to his transformation. The most pivotal ability he gains that effect both battle and traversing areas is the double jump, which you get remarkably early. But Soma is actually denied the double jump for quite awhile, and a lot of the souls are all about getting around. Soma’s main weapons, the overhead swinging swords, and his different souls further differentiate the second-to-second gameplay from Symphony’s or Harmony’s.

The statistics of the weapons aren’t the end-all be-all, either. When comparing the strongest weapons, the elemental types are actually relevant. The best weapon, the Claimh Solais, is a giant cross-shaped sword alight with holy fire, but the penultimate boss is actually resistant to holy. It’s far better to fight him with a weaker weapon that also has a different attack arc. It may seem minor, but it does a lot to making the experience of that fight very different from others: it changes your abilities without really forcing you to go down a level in strength. The Claimh Solais’s huge attack arc and quick speed also make it feel a lot more powerful than the other similar weapons, instead of just being a statistical upgrade. Not only do your numbers increase, but everything about the way you attack gets better. It feels more powerful and better to use because of that, not because of the bigger numbers. In a game that actually employs avatar progression, this enhanced feeling makes it all the sweeter. You don’t have to get stuck for a full minute in a room with a strong enemy, since you can lay waste to him easier. Your reward is basically not really that things become easier (which is in itself entirely legitimate since you found the strong weapons on your own by exploring the castle) but that things become quicker and less trivial. The enemy’s attacks are still the same and the final few bosses tend to hurt, so the fight itself isn’t easier to perform. It just removes some of the punishment for making mistakes, but you’re still gonna die if you make too many. I mean, sure, you can grind up to a high level and then just tank bosses and chug potions, but potions are kind of expensive and you can only carry a limited supply. Soma not only starts out weaker than Alucard, but ends up being stronger and more capable in some ways, which makes the theming of getting Dracula’s powers more potent.

The story itself is actually pretty nice, now that I mention it. It’s simple, and a lot of the dialogue is really hokey, but it’s at least more important and interesting than the abysmal writing of Harmony of Dissonance. Something as subtle as Soma’s portrait looking enraged after his true powers awaken is surprisingly effective. But, it’s not really important.

I can understand people thinking Aria of Sorrow is too much of a rehash of Symphony of the Night, but I don’t really see how that’s a bad thing. Plus, they’re probably thinking of Harmony of Dissonance. Ultimately, what matters isn’t that Aria is too similar or dissimilar to other games—except as, you know, determining whether or not you’ll like it based on previous experiences—but that the game works on its own, within its own cold castle walls. Personally, I think not only does it work, but it excels at what it does. It may be more of the same in some ways, but its differences aren’t really something you can write off, and it’s still a good game anyway. I’ll give it an 8 out of 10. I recommend it for people who enjoyed Symphony or the similar games and would like a different taste of what that experience can offer. I also recommend a replay to people who are tempted to write it off because of it being a rehash.

Unfortunately I don’t have time right now to give a full review to Dawn of Sorrow, the game’s direct sequel. I’ll sum up the basics of what I would say, though: the game is really, extremely similar to Aria, but it’s still fun. The graphics are taken up and the game feel is probably overall better than Aria’s. If anything, I’d say the main thing that makes Dawn of Sorrow unique is Julius mode, where you play Julius Belmont come to kill Soma after succumbing to his dark powers and becoming Dracula. It has the same hot swapping between characters that Castlevania III offered, but this time you can be Yoko, who is basically like CV3’s Sypha, or Alucard, with most of his Symphony abilities intact. You can traverse most of the castle as any of the three, so you can play as only one if you really want, but their abilities are all fairly unique and better suited for different things. Dawn of Sorrow also has a bigger variety of souls, which is nice for replay value, and is a bit more balanced in general, referring both to items and the difficulty curve. I think I prefer Aria, though, mostly because the bosses are better designed and more fun to fight, but also because I greatly prefer the darker art style. The cuter, softer route that Dawn of Sorrow took just doesn’t really suit the tone of Castlevania.

1 Comment

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  1. Happy says
    December 31, 2013, 6:31 PM

    I chceekd a chat I chceekd a chat room and yeah. It has been fixed .But, a new glitch has taken it’s place. Apperently, you can go through the game with alucards starting weapons without seeing Death and I DON’T mean by using the luck bonus method. When you enter the room where you first meet Death, go back into the room with the Wargs. wait for a few seconds (Until the music stops) and go back into the room and Death won’t be there. This method is even more effective than the one using the luck bones.


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