I consider myself an old school gamer. I have every Sega and Nintendo system set up and ready to play in my living room (besides the N64 DD, I said old school, not rich). I am a huge 2D enthusiast, I lament its demise and rue the day 3D took center stage (which was an excellent movie, by the way). I also loved Symphony of the Night. I really wanted to like Dawn of Sorrow more than I do.
Gameplay is the same as it has been for nearly a decade; your character navigates Dracula’s absurdly designed castle corridors and fights progressively more deadly monsters who sit around discussing the pros and cons of no longer having flesh while waiting for intruders. Like in Symphony of the Night and the games that followed, you collect weapons and equipment through your travels, and an inordinate number of mushrooms. It’s still fun to find new gear, but none of the items in Dawn of Sorrow are as cool as the armor is SotN that got better as you covered ground. Anyone else scotch tape their PSX controller before leaving for school?
Soul collecting is a nice inclusion to the series. After defeating an enemy, you have a chance to absorb their soul (tip: shouting “your soul is mine!” into the mic unlocks the secret character Ermac). Once you have a soul, you can equip it and it will allow you to perform a special attack or modify your stats. Additional souls from the same enemy often power up the original soul’s effects. Konami did a decent job of making different souls solve different problems, but there are still too many souls that just cause damage. This means a good half of them you’ll never use. And nothing pisses Jesus off more than someone stealing souls and not even using them.
Leveling your souls and your character is a lot of fun. I’m not sure of a game that was made worse by including an RPG like level progression (it could’ve saved Shaq Fu). The game can be quite difficult, so it provides excuse to level for an hour or two here and there. I really appreciate that the level design is not entirely linear. Most of the time you know where to go, but now and then there are a few choices. Being allowed to explore as you desire is fun. Although, I did get stuck briefly a few times. Pay attention to what those souls do, they’re important.
The bosses are still a treat, but a lot of the standard enemies just feel old (I want to fight sassy, young mummies!). It makes sense to battle skeletons throwing femurs in an arc in the lord of darkness’s castle, but we’ve been doing that since the first Castlevania. The next time Dracula finds himself resurrected by some cult, he desperately needs to spend some time designing new guardians for his castle (which is never the same twice. Part of being the lord of darkness is having multiple summer castles.)
The DS’s extra screen is used to display the map and soul information, which is actually a convenient if lame use. The touch screen is used to draw seals and to break blocks. Drawing seals is sort of silly but can be mildly rewarding. Mastering the last seal felt good and if I were in high school I’d probably draw it on desks and lockers, right under the Megadeth logo. Breaking blocks with the stylus is just stupid, though. It’s used two or three times in the whole game and is very clearly an attempt to pretend the game uses the DS’s features.
The plot is utter nonsense. There may be 18 Castlevania fans who actually give a shit about the cheesy, convoluted story to these games, but I haven’t met any of them and assume they all think they’re vampires (it’s a made up medical problem, you don’t need blood). I think it builds on the last few GBA games, but who knows (besides Dracula himself. The lord of darkness knows all). Symphony of the Night had a stupid plot, but the basics worked. You were the son of Dracula, and you were off to slay him. Poorly acted and written, but simple enough to get behind. Curse of Darkness is about a cult reviving the lord of the dance (the whole world will suffer in his effeminate wake) and a nancy boy named Soma who was once evil or something or other. Whatever.
The anime style is dumbed down and nowhere near as pretty as the Symphony of the Night. Word on the street is Konami did this to appeal to the children who support Nintendo and it seems that may be the case. It’s a shame, Castlevania is one of the few games that actually should keep a dark appearance (Zelda was never dark, stop pretending it was). The music is only decent, and sometimes it straight out sucks. Some of the tunes sound like they’re lounge inspired, or even better, elevator inspired. The original Castlevania has a better soundtrack.
Ultimately, Dawn of Sorrow is worth playing. It is a lot of fun, but can’t live up to its roots. If you loved SotN, then play and enjoy DoS. If you only liked the PSX game, you may not find much to like with this new DS title. I can only hope the 2D portion of the series doesn’t continue on its path of diminishing returns, because I really don’t like the 3D ones.