Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow Persephone Hack

Review by Mike Finkelstein

It often feels like rom hack designers go out of their way to make the original games harder in the process of hacking. It's an understandable impulse based on the idea that people are coming to you version of the game after they've already beaten the vanilla edition. You have to give them some kind of hook to stick around and experience your version and the easiest way, presumably, is to up the challenge and make everything more difficult. At least then you can surprise people by just making things crazy hard.

An impulse that's followed less often, but can be even more rewarding, is to dig into the game itself and try to make an experience that's truly new. This can be more difficult, mind you -- it's easy to make things harder just by editing stats and putting enemy spam everywhere -- but by spending the time to craft a newer and deeper experience that plays against expectations the game can deliver on the true promise of rom hacks: to give players an experience outside the bounds of what the creators intended.

The Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow Persephone Hack does a great job of creating that wholly new experience. The idea of the hack is pretty simple: put the little ninja maid, Persephone, seen throughout the series into this game as the lead playable character. But instead of just doing a simple sprite hack and palette swap of the main character (which was the basic thrust of the Alucard Hack, Castlevania: Dawn of Symphony), this game goes so much further.

You'll notice little changes right away as you explore the same castle from Aria of Sorrow: Persephone doesn't control like Soma Cruz. Where that hero used traditional weapons that he poked and sung at enemies, Persephone kicks. She's a ninja maid, after all, so her primary attack is to go after every enemy in the game with her pair of very sensible heels. This dramatically changes the feel of the game has our heroine is an up-close and personally warrior. She doesn't get the luxury of large weapons (at least, not very many) so you'll spend most of the game in the faces of enemies, jabbing your foot into their guts.

The thing I liked is that, despite this change, the Persephone Hack never feels hard. Enemies aren't overly buffed to take way more damage from our warrior cleaner, and there isn't a lot of enemy spam to make the game overtly difficult. While some enemies are changed around, the game in general keeps their positions pretty close to vanilla. This means that you can use your general knowledge of the game to navigate this hack and focus instead on the joy of the experience.

And the experience of the Persephone Hack is a real joy. The fun starts early, when you notice that souls drop off enemies very quickly (because Luck in the game isn't just fixed but buffed out as well). This means you'll regularly get all kinds of new powers to use and can experiment in numerous ways with the souls you gain. Many souls are the same, or at least have the same functionality even if their sprites (and names) are changed. But some things have been changed a bit and it all starts with cats.

You'll get the Student Witch soul pretty early, although it's called "Mr. Truffles" here. It's an adorable name, and frankly Student Witch is one of the best early-game souls in Aria of Sorrow. But then you'll find another Truffles off a different enemy, this time with an elemental effect. And then another. And another. Quickly you realize that everything in this game, not only from the different heels that Persephone can find and wear (upgrading her attacks) but to all the souls, have some kind of twist to them that is specific to Persephone. This is her game and instead of just inserting her over Soma's adventure, the designer purposefully let our ninja maid shine.

The story has been customized to befit our heroine as well. Instead of leading Soma through the castle to prevent the rise of Dracula, our heroine (such as she could be called that) is on a quest set to her by Carmilla and Olrox to ensure the Dark Lord's resurrection. All the cut-scenes and interactions are changed to suit that story, and it does build really well over the course of the hack. Yes, Olrox is a little weird looking (being a simple recolor of Arikado), but in general it works really well. And, yes, there are some solid surprises along the way.

And I gotta admit, having a evil demon (as Persephone technically is) running around the castle killing beasts and stealing their souls makes way more sense than some of the other heroes I've seen inserted into the Sorrow games (see: Castlevania: Dawn of Dissonance). Everything in context really works here and it's clear that the designer took care to make this game work from the perspective of the lead girl.

Overall this was one of the best hacks I've seen in a while, especially from the perspective of how much fun I actually had. I'll take a hack like this over a "hard mode" hack any day of the week. If you're looking for a new fresh take on Aria of Sorrow, the Persephone Hack is absolutely something you need to play.