There's a lot to like in Nintendo and Camelot Software's Golden Sun: Dark Dawn. The role-playing game is a proper sequel to the fan-favorite Game Boy Advance games, and it features an interesting story, impressive visuals, appealing gameplay, and flashes of charm. However, before you dive in, know that pacing issues and a lack of personality dull the shine on an otherwise great adventure.
Dark Dawn picks up 30 years after the events of the 2003 Game Boy Advance game Golden Sun: The Lost Age. The action is set in the fantastical, and flat, world of Weyard and explores the aftermath of the events that transpired in previous games. Despite the upbeat ending of the last game, "and they all lived happily ever after" doesn't quite apply to how things have turned out. While the world was saved from doom through the release of elemental energies known as alchemy, there have been consequences. You're cast in the role of Matthew, the son of two of the heroes from the GBA games, who, thanks to a chain of events on a fateful day, send the young hero on a journey to save the world just like his old man did. If you're not familiar with the original games, don't fret; key words and phrases in conversations can be clicked on to access information in an in-game encyclopedia for those who like their lore. However, if you have played the previous games, you'll be pleased to see a plethora of nods to the people, places, and events in the GBA titles, which adds some weight to the game's story. Longtime fans will also be pleased to see the game's not so subtle set up for a sequel at journey's end.
Golden Sun: Dark Dawn's structure follows the basic RPG template--explore the world, go to towns and meet people, and grow your traveling party up to eight while earning experience and increasing Matthew's level. Fortunately, the unique world and gameplay mechanics keep things interesting. You initially get around on foot, via a traditional world map, although as your access to Weyard opens up, you can hit the high seas in a boat. You encounter a diverse group of folks in your travels, including humans, mystical beings, and beastmen, all with unique problems that require you to lend a hand. The game mixes up its quest duties by tossing in some optional quests, such as playing courier for grandmother, that offer a change of pace from all the mandatory demands on your time.
Exploring Weyard, and dealing with the many hazards that creep up on you, is both fun and challenging. Matthew and all his companions possess psyenergy, which grants them special powers tied to one of Weyard's four elements: earth, wind, water, and fire. While these special abilities are especially useful in combat, they're also key to solving the many puzzles you encounter, which are brain-teasing highlights of your adventure. Many areas in the game require you to pay attention to your environment and use the appropriate psyenergy to help you navigate seemingly impassable areas. The move ability, for instance, lets you shift objects around, clearing paths for you or creating stepping stones in certain areas, while the grow ability lets you quickly raise plants from saplings into climbable ladders. As you get deeper into the game, you must use more of the abilities in tandem to solve multipart puzzles. Although there's a good amount of challenge in the game's puzzles, they're never too difficult. This becomes especially true when your party gains the insight ability, which offers clues on what you can interact with in an area.
Most of the psyenergy abilities are also handy in combat. However, elemental creatures called djinn are the real perks in a fight. You encounter, and possibly collect, more than 70 of the critters during the adventure. Each djinn is also aligned with one of the four elements and can be "set" to characters to enhance all their statistics as well as used in combat. Each djinn is capable of executing an offensive, defensive, or enhancing move in combat that is always useful in some way. Once you've used a djinn in combat, it shifts to a summoning state that lets you use it to perform powerful attacks that call mystic creatures in for a beatdown of your foes. Although it takes a bit of getting used to, the djinn system is very useful and keeps combat interesting. One thing to note about Dark Dawn's combat is that it makes use of the time-honored random encounter system that finds you jumped by foes while making your way around the world. Although this gets a bit irritating early on, you come across items that help you manage enemy encounters such as feathers to avoid fights and a special hat to encourage them.
Making your way around the world of Weyard is a pleasant experience overall thanks to Golden Sun: Dark Dawn's presentation, which ranks among the best on the DS. The visuals have brought the 2D world of the GBA games into full 3D on the DS to good effect. The world, the characters, and especially the attacks in combat look great. Psyenergy, djinn moves, and summons are visual highlights thanks to short cinematic sequences that add drama to the action. While the summon cinematics can get a little lengthy, you can hurry them along by skipping straight to the damage-dealing conclusion. The game's audio, which is light on voice, is very appealing and includes a variety of music tracks that get better as you get further in the game.
But for all its charm, there are some aspects of Golden Sun: Dark Dawn that dull its otherwise winning sheen. The game's localization is solid but inconsistent, with bland conversations and obligatory exposition mixing unevenly with flashes of the lively humor and sass seen in Nintendo's better RPG efforts. This inconsistency keeps Golden Sun from settling into a storytelling groove. In terms of pacing, Golden Sun is pretty deliberate which, given that you're looking at a 30-hour-plus quest, is both good and bad. While it's nice to have a meaty quest to undertake, some conversations go on a little too long. In addition, managing your inventory, psyenergy, and djinn can be cumbersome because of the game's menu system. The ability to use the DS touch screen is helpful but still doesn't quite cut it.
While it may never be considered a classic, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is certainly a DS RPG worth playing. The game's great visuals, solid gameplay, lengthy quest, and interesting story add up to a very solid experience. Longtime fans will be especially pleased to get the chance to adventure in Weyard again, while newcomers won't feel left out.