Anatomy of a So-called DS Masterpiece

User Rating: 8.4 | Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow DS
Anatomy of a So-called DS Masterpiece

This review may be a bit premature, but I wasn’t sure when I’d finally get around to toying with the various unlockables in the game. So, I’m pressing on. Herein lie the ramblings of GeekyDad (myself) pertaining to…

Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow
Developed and published by Konami
Released 2005
Rated T (teen)
Genre: Action / Adventure
Platform: Nintendo DS

Prior to purchasing it, I’ll admit I wasn’t terribly impressed by the look of this game. I couldn’t help but feel that it was not very distinguishable as anything that couldn’t have been done on the GBA; and for the most part, I haven’t really changed my mind about that. Sure, it’s a bit more polished in the graphics and sound area (definitely the sound), and there’s the nifty ability to keep tabs on your map location via the top screen. But other features, such as the touch-screen usage, are little more than an excuse for the game to be on the DS platform in the first place – something the game’s producer, Koji Igarashi (or Iga), pretty much confirmed in a recent interview with Nintendo Power.

That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with the game. It’s relatively short compared to today’s standards, but overall it’s a very worthy addition to my growing collection of DS titles.

Story: As I understand it, Dawn of Sorrow (DoS) takes place one year after where Aria of Sorrow (a previous Castlevania title released on the GBA) left off. Soma, the main playable character, has a special ability in that he can sometimes gain dominance over the souls of his defeated enemies. But wait, who are Soma’s enemies? Well, Celia Fortner, the head of some cult, is the main villain in DoS. But even after playing the story mode through in its entirety, I still can’t claim to understand fully why they were after Soma in the first place…something to do with gaining the power of the “Dark Lord” (Dracula, I presume?). Anyway, Soma decides to take the battle to Celia. He enters a castle (which is quite huge!) and proceeds to hack, slash and bash everything in his way.

There is a short interlude with some of the main characters in the very beginning of the game and a few small story segments throughout, but all-in-all the game’s pretty light on dialogue. However, it’s got enough to get you going and get you through; and it doesn’t take long for one to realize that this is not a video game that relies heavily on story content. It’s a video game in the truest sense, what many of us might refer to as “old school.” So, you get what you need in order to have an excuse to engage in the actual gameplay, but little more.

Gameplay: Even the meanest, nastiest, fleshiest ghouls and monsters have a soul; heck, even the tombstones have souls in DoS – who’da thunk it!? But this game wouldn’t be the huge hit that it is / was without the souls. With every enemy Soma defeats, there is a chance that he will gain dominance over its soul; when he does, he acquires some unique skill / power. Some powers (perhaps most) grow in strength when Soma dominates more of that particular type of soul. He can retain 9 of any type of soul at any given time throughout the game, though bosses, of course, can only be obtained once. Souls will not only help you to accumulate a large arsenal of skills, but they can also be used to make more powerful weapons. As might be evident thus far, soul hunting is a huge part of this game’s appeal and replay value. There are many, many enemies to encounter, and you’ll find yourself coming back repeatedly to familiar areas in hopes of nabbing that oh-so-elusive soul.

I can’t think of a button on the DS that’s not utilized in some way throughout the duration of the game, and gameplay never gets boring – well, occasionally when you’re farming for souls… But even the touch screen gets a little tread on it from time to time. At the end of most boss battles, you will need to seal that enemy’s soul in order to finish it off. To do so, you will have to first weaken the boss and then when it’s on its last leg a rune screen will appear; you must then draw a certain pattern quickly and correctly in order to completely vanquish the foe. The rune patterns are acquired beforehand, and you are always given the opportunity to practice them thoroughly. In addition, there are a few scant instances in which you will need to use the stylus to break blocks of ice in order to progress to where it is you need to go (I know what you’re thinking, trust me…).

Presentation: I wanna take a quick second (well, maybe not quick…) to make a couple of comments regarding the game’s presentation. To start, I was a little disappointed with the manual. It’s in black & white, which seems to be the policy with Konami at least as it pertains to DS games. But cheapness aside, it completely lacks any type of status legend for determining what graphic symbols match up with what status effects. In that I mean, it would describe how some monsters could be weak against “bash,” but never shows you (either in the manual or in the game, at least that I could discover) which graphic symbol represented “bash.” With a total of 11 status effects (or as the manual calls them, “damage types”), that’s a lot missing. To make matters worse, the manual – from what I was to later learn from other players during forum discussion – confuses when a monster is strong or weak against a certain status effect; the manual states that an “O” marking on a particular status effect indicates that the monster is immune and an “X” marking indicates that the monster is weak against that particular status effect – in actuality it’s the opposite. Further, the manual never tells the player how certain stats, such as “Strength” and “Constitution” affect Soma. In games like Warcraft 3: TFT, strength determines the hero’s hit points, and there is no constitution stat. So with the various interpretations of certain types of stats in different video games, there is no clear inference that the player should be able to make. The game makers could have offered a more complete description of each of these aspects of both Soma and the creatures he encounters. These are important mistakes / omissions that I’m surprised never showed up in any of the professional reviews that I read about the game.

Luckily, I can say that the in-game presentation was – for the most part – pretty stellar. Selection screens are easy to navigate through and offer all the info you’d want on-hand; and though perhaps a seemingly small thing, being able to keep a map of the castle up on the top screen at all times makes negotiating your way a whole lot easier and more convenient than if you had to stop to check it every 2 seconds. All-in-all, the gameplay, graphics, music, as well as other elements of Dawn of Sorrow generally come together in a way that makes for a top-notch gaming package.

There is one more minor detail I want to also make mention of though: The opening animation only comes on if you let the game sit for a while (maybe 2 or 3 minutes, or whatever). For me, it would have made more sense to have it come on right after the opening credits, i.e. “Licensed by Nintendo,” “Published by Konami…” – roll opening animation. I know it’s perhaps a petty grievance, but it’s something that’s noticeably out of place to me, so I wanted to throw it out there. Anyway, moving on…

Graphics: Maybe I didn’t go into excruciating detail where the gameplay is concerned, but, for me, the graphics of DoS play a rather large role in how the game handles. It’s a 2D side-scroller of sorts, although the backgrounds are done pseudo-3D, ala the old Disney cartoons; and they’re really quite beautiful to behold. Soma and all the monsters in the game are sprites, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, I’m perhaps in the minority when it comes to my overall feelings about the visuals in DoS. I think the appearance of most of the monsters is really cool, but their movements are clumsy looking. More importantly, playing Soma feels a bit “clunky.” I never knew before playing this game what people meant when they used that word in reference to a video game, but now I do. That’s not to say that the controls are bad or that there’s a delay in Soma’s response upon engaging any of the buttons, but it just lacks a tightness that you would hope to accompany the wealth of other gameplay aspects that make up the overall experience. I said it in my preview of the game and I’ll say it again: I’d leave the backgrounds the way they are (and maybe even the monsters despite their silly appearances during battle), but it’s perhaps time for the main playable character of the series – with respect to Castlevania games on the DS – to move into polygons. Iga, check out what they’ve done with New Super Mario Bros. – it looks and plays great! Diehards of the series (and sprite artwork) will perhaps think I’m mad (and who’s to say you’re wrong), but that’s just my take on it – amateur that I am.

Sound: There’s not a single part of a single theme in this game that sounds original. But, boy, is it perfect! It truly is. Some of the music is downright “camp” in the 1st degree, and I love that. I sometimes go back to certain areas of the castle just so I can make Soma dance to whatever funky music happens to be playing there – which by the way, Soma loves to dance – try him sometime. Creature sounds are creepy and squishy. Yeah, squishy; sometimes when you hack a certain enemy down he / she / it makes a “schquisssssh” sound. Seriously though, sound effects are pretty nicely done, and the entire audio package is first-rate. However, there are instances (upon entering either vendor – who shall remain unnamed here in this review) when one theme cuts right off and into another with utter abruptness, and it’s really quite a mood killer. It might seem like another small thing to point out, but with so many other things done right in the game it makes itself a glaring issue.

Fun Factor: What’s this all about? Well, I said many good things about the game, but I also focused on some aspects of it that perhaps left me disappointed or desiring more. But more important than anything else that I could say about DoS would be to tell you whether or not it’s actually any fun. Well, to tell you the truth it’s one of those games that’s just plain addicting. I mean, until I finally finished the story mode I couldn’t put the game away. Every free moment I had I was playing DoS; I was either busy trying to collect some soul I needed to complete a particular task, or snooping around the castle for hidden rooms. Of course, after finishing the game there are some fun unlockables to tinker with as well. Perhaps most notably is the Julius Mode. Julius is a main non-playable character (good guy) in the game, and upon final completion of the story mode you can then go on to play as him in a somewhat repeated version of the game. There are new characters, however, and I believe (from what others have told me, having not completed Julius Mode yet myself) a new final boss. Also, Julius plays differently than Soma, and overall the experience can feel quite new. There’s also a Boss Rush mode and a place where you can go back and listen to all the little themes and sounds that were present throughout the game. Lastly, there’s a limited multiplayer (local wireless / multi-cart) offering as well; castle settings can be customized to create a kind of 1 vs. 1 race; and you can also trade souls with other DoS-game owners.

I said “final completion of the story mode.” There are different ways that the game can end, and that too offers another bonafide element of replay value to the game. I can’t say that I’ve gone back to the game much myself since ultimately completing the story mode, but it’s definitely a game that I will revisit from time to time. It’s got an old-school classic feel to it, and is akin to those seminal arcade favorites that I used to just pour mounds of quarters into. So despite any shortcomings I feel it might have, I have to give DoS mad props for sheer fun.

Conclusion: Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow is rated T for teen, and rightfully so. There’s plenty of blood. But it’s also very campy – at least I interpret it that way – and if you’ve got a good sense of humor and are up for some addictive-side-scrolling fun, then this game is likely a good candidate for your DS library (if, of course, you are of the proper age). I feel it was somewhat overrated by the gaming press in general, and it’s not the perfect game many seem to contend it to be; but it’s a great game nonetheless. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading my little rap on this title, and as always…

Happy gaming!

-GD

The Breakdown:

Presentation: The manual is in black & white and lacks clear explanations of some of the topics mentioned therein; noticeably missing is a complete status legend. But the in-game presentation, i.e. the selection screens and set-up of the game, are really first-rate. Navigating through the various options is quick and painless, and everything is easily accessible. -7.5

Story: There’s a basic premise that allows you to say, “Okay, sure let’s do this,” but not a whole lot of dialogue throughout. The ending, however, has a nice twist thrown in, but ultimately leaves off like the end of an episode of Scooby Doo. -7

Gameplay / Fun Factor: It’s not a perfect game – don’t be fooled – but it’s still a great game – an addictive game. There’s tons to do and discover, and many reasons to come back. There was a lot that Konami crammed into this title, and the soul system was a true winner. -9

Graphics: They sure are “purty.” But with the DS screens being relatively small, you can’t really appreciate the hand-drawn art all that well. The character & enemy movements seem kind of unnatural and dated, and unfortunately affect the gameplay in a way that make me use the word “clunky”; and you don’t want me using that word! I’m torn in that I still agree that the 2D representations are beautiful, but feel that more could have (and perhaps should have) been done considering the console that this game is on. -7.5

Sound: Nothing original here – you’ve heard it all before. But it suits this game to a tee. Good sound effects to boot. -8.5

Final Score: 8.5 (Great!)