Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow
Review by Mike Finkelstein
The Game Boy Advance was home to back-to-back-to-back sequels to the Castlevania series. Preceeded by Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance, Aria of Sorrow showed that while the dynamic exploration and adventure gameplay of Symphony of the Night were now going to be the main games of the Castlevania series -- the action/platformers of the old series were the rare-breed now, and the old-school gamers were going to have the adjust to a new age of Castlevania.
In the year 2035, a mysterious castle appears. Some suspected it was Dracula's castle, but that demonic structure had been sealed away in an eclipse in 1999, and there was no way it could have returned. At the same time, a student, Soma Cruz, found himself at the castle with no clue why he was there. A battle immediately ensues, and when Soma defeats the monsters, he happens to collect one of their souls. A dark gentleman, Genya Arikado, comes to tell him that Soma is special (although not why he's special). To solve the mystery of why the castle has appeared, why Soma is at the castle, and why he can collect souls, he'll have to adventure through Dracula's castle, finding clues, defeating monsters, and working to save the day... and his own soul in the process.
Aria of Sorrow, in many ways, proves to be the most improved clone of Symphony of the Night, as much as that means. As a player, if you've played through Symphony, there isn't a lot new. Everything is just polished, improved, and perfected.
For starters, Soma plays a lot like Alucard from Symphony. Partly this could be because Konami was catering to the fans. Circle deviated enough from the Symphony of the Night, with a whip-wielder, higher difficulty, and a very different magic system. Harmony tried to meet a middle ground between the games that came before, but also ended up too easy, too boring, and not much to look or listen to. With Aria, Konami released a game that was truly a Symphony clone.
Thus, like Alucard, Soma goes through the castle collecting weapons, armor, items, and magic abilities (all the usual abilities appear, including a double-jump and the ability to turn into a bat). Soma moves a lot like Alucard, fights almost exactly like Alucard, and in most every way is just like Alucard except for a white trenchcoat instead of a black cape. For those looking for another Symphony, this is probably the first Castlevania to give them exactly what they want. For others, like this reviewer, the lack of originality hurts the fun of the game.
One nice change from Alucard is the "Soul System". As briefly touched upon above, Soma will collect the souls of monsters as he kills them. The souls will appear at random (and sometimes it's a very rare "drop" in the game), and will give Soma different functions he can assign, from "thrown" attacks (red souls, assigned to the standard sub-weapon key-press, up plus b), to special powers (blue souls), and latent abilities (yellow souls). Finding a combination you like takes a little trial and error, and there are a lot of souls to collect and choose from.
Sadly, while there are a lot of options to choose from, you'll probably end up picking the same set of souls for most of your exploration, only changing them out when (a) the situation needs it (as specific places need you to use specific souls), or (b) when you find a soul that words as an appropriate upgrade to what you already were using. No matter how many souls you collect, there's no natural "leveling" of the souls you use, no upgrading a soul to give it a more powerful effect. And there are plenty of souls that seem relatively useless (almost like they were included to increase the number of souls Konami could claim were in the game, without much thought to how well some of these souls would actually function). So while the systems seems to have a lot of depth, it actually ends up relatively shallow.
On the flip-side, while Soma isn't the most creative or deep hero to play as, the castle is pretty varied and interesting. Of course, there are the usual stages to find, like an "Underground Waterway", a "Clock Tower", and a "Castle Keep" (although the person you're expecting isn't lurking in that final area). Graphically, these areas are still brighter looking than in Circle of the Moon (to compensate for the lack of a back-lit screen in the Game Boy Advance), but it's not as drab and grey as Harmony of Sorrow. Personally, I still prefer the art-style of Circle, but there's a lot to like about Aria of Sorrow and the graphics should please most Castlevania fans.
The audio for the game doesn't show nearly the variety, though. While the soundtrack is pretty, there aren't a whole lot of new tunes. In fact, for most people, only one song will really stand out (and end up in various playlists): "Cross of Fire", which is actually a remix of the song from Haunted Castle. Those who know the Castlevania series will be disappointed in the lack of old and new songs. All things considered, though, the soundtrack is functional, if not great, and certainly not distracting.
Those who can get into the game, and don't mind a shallow magic system, will find a pretty interesting story. Figuring who Soma is and why he's special lends a decent mystery to the game, and while it's not hard to see where the plot is going, it's still interesting and engaging. Plus, once you've played through the game, you can play through again, either in the "New Game+" mode, "Hard Mode", or both at once. New Game+ lets you replay the game with all your items and souls already collected in your inventory. Hard Mode is just as it sounds, a harder version of the same game. Honestly, after playing through the game once, I only played a little of the way into Hard Mode+ before I got distracted by the other bonus mode.
And whooo, what a fun mode it is: one of the special characters in the game, J (short for Julius) plays entirely different than Soma, and while his story has as much depth as Richter Belmont in Symphony (as in, not at all), J is just so much fun to play as you can't help but want to play through the whole game with him (I did, and it was an absolute blast). Of course, if J doesn't thrill you, there is also a "Boss Rush" mode (just like every Boss Rush, you can fight all the bosses, one after another, in a race against the clock). There's a lot of variety in the modes, but your experience with the modes may vary.
So where does that leave us? While Aria of Sorrow has an engaging plot and interesting characters, the gameplay isn't varied, and functionally isn't all that different from Symphony of the Night. And yet, unlike other games, the extra character bonus mode is exciting and fun (if shallow, I'll grant that). In this reviewer's opinion, Aria of Sorrow is a good game, with just enough flaws (and samey-ness) about it to hold it back from being great.