Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow NIGHTMARE

Review by Mike Finkelstein

As I have noted before, I think that when creators put a ton of work into making a new gaming experience on top of an old game (a detailed rom hack), also making that game into a "hard mode" ruins the fun of the experience. There's joy to be had from seeing Maria and Richter wandering a version of Portrait or follow Juste as he explores Dawn but it would be nice to see all that work without having to struggle through kaizo enemies and traps as well. If you want that, why not put out an additional patch for "Hard Mode" as well.

That being said, there is a general trend in hacking to make "kaizo" hacks, and if the whole goal is simply to take the vanilla game and add a hard mode, that in and of itself isn't something that should be discounted. Your goal is to make your patch for the vanilla game to just make everything harder, and while I might not find that fun that's at least an initiative I can respect. And that's the initiative taken by ikusatatsu_ushiromiya with their hack, Dawn of Sorrow NIGHTMARE.

As the name implies, NIGHTMARE is a "Nightmare Mode" for Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow. "Nightmare" is a game mode found in many other games and genres (the earliest example I can think of was the nightmare-level difficulty from the original Doom, although I'm sure other gamers could think of examples that stretch even further back). The point of Nightmare is to provide the hardest experience possible for gamers that have already seen it all and done everything in the easier modes of the game. Generally a Nightmare mode will buff the difficulty by simply beefing up the enemies, although additional enemies could be added, and extra traps could be added in as well to catch the player off guard.

Dawn of Sorrow NIGHTMARE essentially does all that. While the castle hasn't been modified drastically (although we'll touch upon that in a bit), this adventure will play out largely the way you'd expect from the vanilla Dawn of Sorrow -- same story, same progression through the game, same goals and requirement. What's changed, primarily, are the enemies: they are tougher, stronger, and they are certainly much more prevalent than in the base Dawn experience.

Okay, so yes, trying to get through this game with bats and skeletons early on that can deal 50 damage is kind of insane. Anyone just wandering in to see what this is all about likely would immediately set their controllers down (or maybe throw them) when the first trash mobs send you back to the beginning of the game before you can even reach your first check point. The enemies are stupid, their placement is stupid, and everything about this hack is made almost like a dare. The creator clearly is daring people to even try to get through it and most simply will not.

At the same time, though, the experience almost feels like a parody of kaizo hacks. The first time you see a line (literal conga line) of bats spawn in, you can't help but laugh. And then when you're scaling the Clock Tower and reach a room absolutely jam packed with spawning medusa heads it's frankly hard to be mad. It's ridiculous, really, and while some of these over-packed rooms can be difficult, if not impossible to navigate, it's still funny enough to make you want to try. "This is so stupid," I found myself saying more than once.

Most rooms in the game have been packed full of enemies, often just multiplying how many spawn in a room from just a couple to nearly a dozen. Does it change the way you really handle rooms? Well, in a way: in most hacks I'll try to kill whatever I come across, especially if the scaling of enemies is at or near vanilla. With NIGHTMARE, though, I found I looked for ways around all the enemies instead of going through them (or, at least, I went through them via damage boosting). Many rooms, even with all the enemies, weren't really harder just a little more taxing to figure out. It's almost like a puzzle, just with far more damage.

Many of the boss fights have been tweaked as well. Early bosses have been adjusted via traps, like fire pillars, to hedge in the player and make them work with less space. The bosses themselves have often been made faster (as well as stringer and beefier), turning these encounters into frenetic marathons. Sometimes it's too much, but knowing their patterns and finding the right ways to dodge their faster attacks generally can carry the day. But then the hackster upped things a notch by having many bosses spawn in twice. Do you really want to fight double-Rahab, or double-Zephyr, or double-Paranoia? These boss fights are ridiculous, and it's only by luck and good planning that you'll even have a chance to get through these battles.

That being said, at a certain point the hack simply stops trying to be a hard mode anymore. It was after double-Paranoia, once you've navigated the Mine that leads to the end game, that the hack basically stops being all that hard. If I had to guess I'd bet the hacker didn't think anyone would make it that far -- double-Paranoia is a real gate-keeper, so while there will be the occasional enemy that has been added, or a boss that's been buffed a little, it's nothing like you'd expect from the mid-game.

That, more than anything, is the biggest disappointment for the game: after cranking things up so far I really expected the final zone to provide challenge to such a ridiculous degree that to have it play conservative, even a little safe, basically ruined the fun. The hack was such a challenge in the mid-game that the end-game feels almost too easy, in a way, and I really wanted more. I'd worked my way this far into it so why the sudden drop-off?

I don't think most people will ever get to the end of this hack; honestly, just seeing that this is a kaizo Nightmare hack will probably turn most players away. But for those that do jump in there are a lot of stupid and ridiculous changes that at least make it feel like the designer was in on the joke the whole time. It's amusing, and even fun in places, even while the game just stupidly ridiculous. Come for the mid-game and to see all the ways the designer tried to make this as ridiculous as possible. Just don't expect to be challenged if you make it all the way to the end.