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Developer:
Konami
Publisher: Konami
Platform: Nintendo DS
Release Date: October 04, 2005

by Ryan Summerlin





Released just in time for Halloween, Konami's latest installment in the Castlevania series is rife with chills, thrills, and a suspense-driven aura guaranteed to please all you creatures of the night, and beneath its foul, putrid flesh is an intense battle system the likes of which should become the standard for future action-RPGs released for next-gen handhelds.


Japanese high-school student Soma Cruz is the central character of this grim epic. He's got a noble yet badass attitude and devilish good looks that linger in every schoolgirl's fantasies. He also happens to be the reincarnate Count Dracula, and possesses the power to steal and control the souls of monsters. A macabre cult, led by the mysterious witch Celia Fortner, is hell-bent on reawakening their beloved count, but Soma has no intentions of becoming their so-called lord of darkness. With a little help from his friends, he infiltrates Dracula's castle in the hopes of stopping Celia. Of course, Celia's minions aren't going to make it easy for him.


While exploring the vast side-scrolling areas of the castle, Soma will pick up and use a wide variety of weapons: knives, maces, axes, boomerangs, katanas, rapiers, knuckles, whips, swords, bigger swords, and even pistols (just to name a few), each with different attack characteristics unique to that class of weapon. Soma will also exercise his power of dominance to reap the souls of his foes and use them to unleash all manner of magic spells. Some spells attack your enemies with projectiles of various sorts, some guard you from damage or provide cover fire, and some are just plain weird. A magic skull-shaped vacuum cleaner? A skeleton-borne rickshaw that carries you safely across spikes? Magically producing a tray of delicious curry? Dawn of Sorrow makes it so.


The soul system is deep, but remarkably simple to set up and use, and the sheer variety of souls and their effects is staggering, considering there are about 130 enemy types in this game with only a few "recycled" enemy models. You can even capture the souls of boss monsters, which grant you awesome new abilities such as turning into a bat or freezing time. You can also visit a special shop that lets you fuse souls to your weapons, which usually increases their power dramatically. A weapon from any given class can be upgraded at least 10 times, and each one is fully animated and looks beautiful in motion, something rare in 2D games of any variety. High-level weapons come with fun effects; one high-level greatsword in particular, the Claimh Solais, combines the awesome power of Zelda: The Wind Waker's Light Arrows to blink virtually any foe out of existence with the arcane might and unbridled glee of swinging around a piece of steel bigger than yourself. Quite satisfying for a weaponphile such as myself.


While Dawn of Sorrow has an excellent real-time side-scrolling battle system at it's core, it's also pleasingly fleshed out. The plot is dark, suspenseful, and twists at all the right moments. And if the game seems to end abruptly, keep playing, you got one of the game's "bad endings." The unlockable Julius Mode, available after beating the game or seeing a particular bad ending, explores what might happen if our intrepid Soma Cruz had turned to the dark side, and features 3 switchable characters who are merely supporting actors in the standard story. The dialogue in every cutscene is top-notch and the writing is high-caliber. The game's music is nothing to rave about--the same repetitive classical piano melodies and organ fare that are the benchmark of the Castlevania series--but it does a good job of keeping the musty, haunted vibe going. The graphics, however, are easily the best 2D pixel artistry yet seen on the DS. Dawn of Sorrow has a strong anime aesthetic in a sense that, even when the animations aren't exactly butter-smooth (though they are more often than not), the level of detail is incredible.


There is but one nagging qualm I have with Dawn of Sorrow: the Magic Seal system. In an effort to incorporate more DS-exclusive functions into the gameplay, Konami tacked on a system which forces you to precisely draw a geometric design on the touch screen the split-second before delivering the death-blow to a boss. You'll see a warning flash, then have about 7 seconds to grab for the stylus in the back of your DS and draw the required design. If you get it right, the boss is banished forever to the gap between dimensions (or wherever bosses go when they die.) Screw it up and you'll have to survive another round with whoever/whatever you were fighting. Remembering how to draw the seals isn't hard (the Pause screen has an option for practicing Magic Seals,) but the actual act of drawing them is. If you stop the stylus, pick it up too early, try to draw too fast, or deviate from a predetermined path by just a pixel or so, the seal will break. Extremely frustrating, especially if you quaffed your last Potion and survived by the skin of your teeth just to get a pass-or-fail chance at doodling a geometric squiggle. Ironically, the game's unlockable Boss Rush mode draws seals for you, which highlights that the Magic Seal system is unnecessary.


I also would have liked the map to show Save Rooms in unfamiliar areas, or at least seen some sort of sign that said "Save Room, This Way!" or something. Backtracking to save your precious progress and experience while exploring new areas is a pain, but you can make it with either a ton of patience or a $15 player's guide.


I have never been at all a fan of gore, but the Castlevania series has always been one exception I'm willing to make. As zombie-killers go, Castlevania stays relatively tame and easy to stomach, just slightly more hardcore than any given episode of Inuyasha. And though some of the enemies (particularly bosses) are freaky, bizarre amalgamations of flesh and bone, you don't lose sleep or your lunch over them. To my surprise, Dawn of Sorrow struck all the right chords and never hit a sour note. It's deep, it's gorgeous, but most of all, it's a fun excuse to smack the tar out of stuff. I'm not ready to call this game an absolute must-have for the DS, but it's tight enough that if you're a DS owner and an RPG fan, you just can't go wrong with Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow.


Final Grade: 93%




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