Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow Hands-On: A Fresh Bite

We plunge headfirst into a nearly final build of Konami's latest handheld vampire-slaying simulator.

Konami may again be bringing its 3D Castlevania series to the PS2 and Xbox with the upcoming Curse of Darkness, but that doesn't mean the company has forgotten about the series' hardcore 2D fanbase. We've gotten our hands on a nearly final English build of Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow for the Nintendo DS and have given its initial areas a once-over to see how well it'll meet the expectations of the faithful. Based on our experience with the first couple of sections, we're confident in saying that the latest bloodthirsty romp from Koji Igarashi and friends is holding the handheld Castlevania series' standard high.

All the positive stuff we said about Dawn of Sorrow back at the Electronic Entertainment Expo still holds. As a brief refresher, this is a direct sequel to the previous handheld Castlevania, Aria of Sorrow on the Game Boy Advance. You'll again take control of Soma Cruz, the onetime reincarnation of Dracula and hero of the last game, as he enters Dracula's castle to fight a twisted cult bent on slaying him so they can resurrect the prince of darkness and visit unspeakable evil upon the world. Yeah, it's complicated. At least you'll have some help from the friendly characters like Yoko Belnades, Genya Arikado, and Julius Belmont, who will offer aid through items, upgrades, or just moral support.

We've managed to uncover a little more of the storyline as we've plowed into the game. Dracula can't come back because Soma, who's his rightful heir, already refused the demonic transformation. So while Soma lives, nobody else can become Dracula's vessel, which is obviously causing some problems for the bad guys. In the second area, we ran into several members of the evil cult, two of whom are candidates vying to become the next reincarnation of ol' Drac. There was a slightly amusing rivalry between the two, so it seems that aside from all the dramatic world-in-peril heft of the storyline, there will be a little humor thrown in.

As usual, the only way to prevent Dracula's return is to slay legions of his undead followers.

The mechanics of the game will be instantly familiar to anyone who's played one of the GBA Castlevanias. You traverse the myriad passageways of the castle, periodically gaining new powers that will let you reach unexplored areas and upgrading your equipment and strength as you go. Konami has clearly laid some more coats of polish on Dawn of Sorrow since we last saw it. There are now more weapons and items scattered around the world, and we noted a couple of new environmental puzzles as well, such as finding a hidden switch to drain the water from one area so we could navigate through it to a previously submerged door. Of course, as is the norm for games of this type, many areas won't be accessible until you find the right power-up item

The tactical soul system is one of the most important combat mechanics in Dawn of Sorrow. It lets you gain new powers in three separate categories--attack, support, and passive effect--from enemies that you've slain. We've seen a few more of the tactical souls in action now, and some of them are pretty imaginative, to say the least. The witch gives up an attack power that actually has you hurling black cats who run along the ground, dealing damage to any enemies they come across as they head off the screen. The ghost support ability lets you spawn a ghostly flying orb from your body that you can then control to explore inaccessible areas--though you'll leave Soma open to attack while you do. These varied powers are available just in the first section of the game, so we're interested to see what some of the more obscure tactical souls can do later on.

Konami has implemented the game's shops in this new build, so we got to see how the weapon augmentation system will work. Essentially, you'll be able to collect a surplus of tactical souls, and then you can combine the extras you have with certain weapons to create new weapons. This has obvious benefits, since you can significantly boost the properties of a given weapon by turning it into a more advanced one. But the downside here is that you'll lose the tactical soul you bind to a weapon, so you won't have its power to use in combat anymore. But at least you can go back out and kill the required enemy over and over until you pick up the soul again.

Some of the boss characters will require you to use the stylus at the right time to paint a "magic seal" on the screen.

Though Dawn of Sorrow's 2D presentation is quite similar to that of the GBA Castlevanias, the game nonetheless uses the DS's power in subtle ways to enhance the visuals. We've already noted the greater number of frames of animation present in Soma's movements, not to mention the polygonal elements and extensive parallax scrolling in the backgrounds. But now we've seen a boss character big enough to take up just about the entirety of the screen (and he hit as hard as expected). Other minor graphical effects are present that help give the game a little extra charm. For instance, we encountered one tall, Frankenstein's monster-like enemy who used sprite rotation to keel right over on his back when we killed him. None of these tricks are mind-blowing by themselves, but they do add up to enhance the presentation nicely.

Dawn of Sorrow isn't slated for release until early October, but the build we've been playing seems like it might as well hit store shelves any old time. From what we've seen so far, the game offers the same core action that you've come to know and love in past 2D Castlevanias, while taking advantage of the DS's unique abilities in some interesting ways. We'll bring you more on Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow as soon as we can.

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