Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow Alter

Review by Mike Finkelstein

It should come as no surprise that there is a flourishing rom hack community around Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow. That game, considered to the the best of the Gameboy Advance offerings from the Castlevania series (even if I, personally, like Circle of the Moon better), is one fans revisit regularly, looking to change up, improve, or simply reinvent the adventure of Soma Cruz in 2035 AD.

The trick with most rom hacks, of course, is that they're made by ultra-fans of a game, and, as such, the first thing they usually want to add is difficulty. A whole lot of difficulty, really, leading many fan hacks to become "kaizo" hacks (named for the Super Mario Bros. hack, Kaizo Mario Bros., which drew its name from the Japanese word for "remodel"). These games tend to be ridiculously hard, to the point that most casual fans wouldn't want to bother with them. Finding a solid rom hack of a game that doesn't ratchet up the difficulty to an extreme can prove difficult. Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow Alter treads the balance nicely.

Alter does what the extra term in its name implies: it "alters" the original Aria of Sorrow. The hack preserves the plot of the original game, sticking fairly true to the original (while adjusting a few things late game to make the adventure flow a little more smoothly). FOr fans of the original title, the basics of this hack will seem familiar enough that you can find the same comfortable groove playing it that you had with the original titles.

But while the sense of familiarity will pervade your first few moments in the game, that will quickly shake itself off the second you get out of the opening hallways. What you'll realize, very quickly, is that nothing about the layout of the castle is the same. Instead of moving along the fmailiar passageways from the "Grand Hallway", into the "Merman Room", before hitting the "Outer Walls" and fighting against the giant Creaking Skull, Soma is pushed upwards, into a bit of the ramparts of the castle, before seeing some familiar rooms rearranged in different ways. You'll see passages that are the same, but everything you know about how the rooms connect, and where to go, has been greatly altered.

The general idea behind the rom hack, clearly, is to make something of a "Master Quest" for Aria of Sorrow. While the original title did have a "Hard Mode" included in it, that play through didn't change the actual castle at all, only throwing in a couple of extra items to reward playing the game again. Fans looking for something more, a true new challenge that leaves them guessing, need something more than that warmed over second mode. Alter easily rectifies this through the new construction of the castle, once again rewarding exploration as you discover all the new secrets this version of the castle has laying in wait.

It's not just that the castle has been rearranged; all kinds of new stuff has been included. Many passageways are now blocked by Iron Maidens (taken from Circle of the Moon, gating progress in a new way so that players will have many areas they have to pin in their mind for revisits later. This changes the flow of the castle and, again, alters what players might be expecting. But there are other surprises as well, from a Clock Tower that's completely paused until the player finds the switch to start it, up, to an Arena that's been completely gutted, changes instead into a new bonus area, the Death Arena, to reward truly skillful players.

The Death Arena is another idea borrowed from Circle of the Moon. Like in that game, Soma here is put through a series of passages with over-powered enemies. He won't be able to use his souls, so it's just the wits of the player, Soma's basic melee attacks, and whatever items they have in the bank that will carry them through. Of course, experience, and prizes at the end of the Death Arena, await a player skillful enough to get through, and just the challenge of this new area will keep many experienced pros coming back.

Really, the difficulty over all has been increased some. It's not up to kaizo levels, mind you, but whether in the Death Arena or exploring the main castle itself, you'll notice harder enemies showing up earlier, even to the point of enemies swapping out in early passages once Soma has unlocked later parts of the game (another thing borrowed from Circle of the Moon). It's the right level of difficulty, though, as even with this ratcheted up challenge it all still felt fair. Items and equipment were doled out at the right times, and I never felt like I was too weak to explore an area that was open to me. I just had to be mindful while I was in there, careful to find save points and conserve my health. I had to play it like it was a new, hard challenge, which is exactly what Alter presents.

Soma is slightly weaker in this version of the game, with less health (and some of his weapons have been adjusted to make them less "broken" as some were way over powered in the original title). But even with these changes the hack never feels unfair, just hard. Of course, if you want something more along the lines of "over powered hero destroys a castle", head into Julius mode. This bonus adventure reappears in the hack, but where Julius felt weak in the original game he's been beefed up in Alter, making his adventure more fun and exciting, and more fair, than it was originally. Thus, over all the game presents proper adjustments to both modes, really balancing everything out for hardcore fans.

Honestly, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow Alter presents a best of both worlds kind of adventure. It takes the elements of Circle of the Moon that worked so well and grafts them onto Aria of Sorrow, while rearranging the castle to keep fans, old and new, exploring all over again. It's about as good of a fan hack as I've ever seen and I marvel at the skill that was required to make all this happen. It's a solid, fun adventure that feels so good you might just be surprised it was made by a fan and not Konami. A true Master Quest it is, breathing new life into this GBA title.