Players: 1 Player Game | Release Date: 05/06/03 | Genre: Action/RPG
I have a secret I need to let you in on. I never really cared for the Castlevania series much... Before everyone jumps all over me--allow me to explain. The first incarnation of the series on the NES never really grabbed me... however, I fell in love with Castlevania 2: Belmont's Quest because of all the RPG elements in it. I never really found much to enjoy in the Castlevania world until the greatest 2D game of all time--and PlayStation classic--Castlevania Symphony of the Night was released. This game brought just the right mix of action, adventure, and RPG elements to the table and created a classic that numerous games have tried to imitate since it was released in 1997. The list of games that have attempted to copy the formula found in Symphony of the Night includes Castlevania Circle of the Moon, Castlevania Harmony of Dissonance, and now Castlevania Aria of Sorrow. Each of these three GBA titles has done a pretty good job of converting the "magical SotN" formula on to the tiny GBA screen. But each of them have had their faults. Circle of the Moon was entirely too dark to play unless you had an Afterburner mod installed in your GBA or purchased a GBA SP. Also, the game was one of the hardest titles in the series. Harmony of Dissonance was entirely too easy and lacked the "magical SotN" feel. It was much easier to see than Circle of the Moon. Now we finally have a new GBA incarnation in the series. Aria of Sorrow is the closest we have come to Symphony of the Night since it was released in 1997. By combining the right mix of challenge, action, and RPG features, we are looking at the best handheld Castlevania game ever created.
Instead of using a whip as the primary weapon, as is the case with most Castlevania titles, the hero of Aria of Sorrow, Soma Cruz, uses a variety of weapons like daggers, brass knuckles, swords, hammers, etc. While you begin with a simple dagger, as you progress through the many maze-like halls of Dracula's mansion, you will randomly get "drops" from enemies you destroy. These drops can include money, accessories, armor, or weapons. However, every enemy has their own set of "drops" that can be found. After you fight an enemy over and over, and start getting some drops, you can look at a list in your menu screen that will show you the monsters you have fought against and the items they drop. If you don't know what they drop, a series of question marks will appear in its place. At a point in the game, players can take money collected and purchase weapons, armor, accessories, and potions from a shopkeeper. So be sure to save up those pennies!
Also, as you are fighting enemies, you will randomly capture their soul. This is a new feature for Castlevania Aria of Sorrow that allows the players to learn the skills a monster uses. For example, you may run across a bat that uses a sonic blast attack on you. If you keep fighting them over and over, you will eventually capture their skill and be able to use it. A listing of all skills a monster has can be found on the same enemy list I spoke about above. This will help be a guide for you if you are trying to capture every skill in the game and don't remember if you already have captured a particular enemies skill. Be warned though--this is very time consuming and not necessary to complete the game. However, you may find that some skills are helpful in getting passed some of the most challenges bosses.
The gameplay will be very familiar to fans of the series. For those of you who haven't played a Castlevania game before, you take your character and defeat the enemies on the screen by using your weapons or magical abilities while navigating through Dracula's Castle. Along the way, you will run into dead-ends, bosses that fill up the screen, and areas that can only be reached by obtaining special abilities. Some things have changed in Aria of Sorrow though. Abilities like quickly moving backwards, sliding underneath objects, and double jumping must all be earned by defeating bosses. However, they will be given to you as a "soul steal ability;" much like what you get from fighting other enemies in the game. Certain abilities use magic points. You can replenish your magic meter by letting it slowly fill back up, going to a save point, or collecting hearts. Other abilities that offer stat bonuses are always on and do not use up any magic points. Besides this, the gameplay is very close to the other GBA titles and SotN. Suma Cruz runs, jumps, kills, gains levels, and hopes to stop the impending doom of Dracula.
There is a good mix of difficulty without making the game too tough. However, I was able to make it almost the entire way through Dracula's castle before running into any problems. That said, there were several bosses I was up against that I beat "by the skin of my teeth" without dying. Once a player dies, you must return to your last save. But there is a new save feature called the Sleep Mode. Since this is a handheld game and you may need to turn it off immediately, players can select the sleep mode from their menu. This will create a one-time use save. When you turn the game back on, you may continue where you ended previously. The "sleep mode save" will be erased so you won't be able to abuse it.
The biggest drawback to Aria of Sorrow is the short amount of gameplay. While there is a ton of replay value to be found, the game will take roughly about ten hours to beat... not nearly the length of SotN. That said, this is the best incarnation of the series on the GBA and whether you are a fan of the Castlevania franchise or are just looking for a new action game on the GBA--this is the title to get. The only thing better than Aria of Sorrow would be to get a handheld version of Symphony of the Night...