The Castlevania franchise has been around since the NES generation. Fans of the series have played gems such as Simon’s Quest, Symphony of the Night and Circle of the Moon. Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow takes the popular series onto a somewhat different path, but still retains that great gothic atmosphere we’ve all come to know and love. Set in the future year 2035, Soma Cruz is about to bear witness to the first solar eclipse of the 21st century. But all of a sudden he blacks out while climbing an unusually long staircase and wakes up in a mysterious location. Somehow he’s ended up in some kind of castle, and it’s up to him to figure out how to get out, while interacting with a number of NPCs. Taking control of Soma Cruz, you must navigate the treacherous nooks and crannies of the castle, doing battle with some of the most ferocious monsters we’ve seen yet.
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow as stated is set in the future. Strangely this has absolutely no effect on the overall experience of the game nor the look. Apparently, Dracula isn’t too much of a home renovator, as there is absolutely no indication of a futuristic atmosphere in his castle. Don’t expect this to be some sort of space station castle, even though it actually is floating in mid-air. But even so, while the futuristic time period isn’t displayed in the castle, it looks great as it always has. Dracula’s home is simply huge and carries with it all the trademark special areas. There are the main halls, the cemetery, various tower-like places and so on and so forth. If you’ve played previous Castlevanias, you should have no problem recognizing the normal look of the castle.
With the actual castle comes rather nicely detailed environments and the fear captivating minions of Dracula. Many areas of the game are very impressive to the eye, sporting some very nice lighting effects and really delivering the feel of the Castlevania franchise.. Unfortunately, some of the areas you visit weren’t given much attention in terms of overall look, so the backgrounds won’t look nearly as impressive as others. This applies mostly to some of the lower parts of the castle, with the middle and upper ones showcasing a lot more elaboration with how they are presented.
But even though some areas of the castle may not look all that great, the monsters definitely make up for that. Aria of Sorrow sports over 100 enemies for you to encounter. A good number of them may very well return from previous franchise iterations. Mermen, Skeletons, Mudmen and various others make an impressive display of looking new while retaining a nostalgic feel. Then you have some brand new, and rather freaky monsters to square off with. You have giant flaming skulls, a number of different weapons wielding knights and some that are just plain gruesome. All of the monsters look incredible, and it’s amazing how much detail is put into some of them. Sometimes you may think you’re looking at a more advanced video game system when seeing some of the monsters, including bosses. They all move with fluid and pretty realistic animation, even if their stupidity is there as always to allow for an easy kill. But then again when have non-human enemies ever been highly intelligent?
The monsters in Aria of Sorrow also play a bigger role, and that’s not just allowing you to kill them. Soma Cruz has the rather unique ability to collect the souls of enemies he kills. Speaking of “he”, though, Soma strangely looks like a female character at first, which begs you to wonder what Konami was up to when designing him. But nevertheless, he is a male with very female-like looks to him, but can still very much kick butt. Basically at any time throughout the game, if you defeat an enemy and are strong enough, you have a chance of taking their soul. Now you shouldn’t expect to have this happen frequently, as some enemies aren’t quite so willing to “let go of themselves”. But these souls are critical to the game, as you get all your main abilities from them. Enemy souls are comprised of the abilities those enemies actually perform against you, and once you collect them, you can do the same right back. For instance, taking down a Bat and getting its soul will allow you to attack your enemies with supersonic waves.
The soul system also takes the gameplay one step further to make it that much more enjoyable. There are actually four different types for you to collect, and each brings something unique to the battlefront. You have your Bullet Souls, which are red. These souls allow you to fire off projectiles to harm your enemies, such as an array of fireballs while consuming your magic. Blue souls are Guardian souls, and these will create some kind of magic effect on you until your magic would run out. Enchanted souls are yellow, and their very convenient function is to affect Soma’s body in some way while not consuming magic. Finally, you have Ability souls, of which there are six in the game, and they are simply special abilities for Soma to do that won’t consume magic either. They are mainly used to help Soma access some parts of the castle previously unapproachable. Soma’s slide attack that allows him to navigate tight spaces is an example.
The classic gameplay of Castlevania has also returned in Aria of Sorrow, but given a rather unique twist. No longer will you be utilizing one standard whip of sorts that can be modified in various ways. That’s pretty much gone save one whip weapon you can find. Aria of Sorrow has Soma using all kinds of different weapons that you actually find throughout the castle yourself, as well as being able to buy at a shop later on in the game. Some will be primarily using swords and various spear weapons to battle Dracula’s minions. Now of course not every weapon will be a sword or spear, you can also find hammers and daggers too, but they won’t be as common. What can be strange though, is you will end up finding a lot of weapons and other equipment that won’t exactly be helpful, as there are only a few really good weapons in the game. The same deals with armour and accessories, but more often they will be a bit more helpful in boosting your stats.
Speaking of stats, Aria of Sorrow is another Castlevania iteration that features a light RPG feel. Some can indeed level up, and that’s how in turn your stats are upgraded. When you access your menu, you will see your total experience as well as the experience needed for the next level. Depending on how much of the game you actually want to complete, you may get anywhere from level 40 to 50 or even higher. You won’t have to worry about levelling up either, as it will be a naturally gradual process. You’ll never have to just go around the castle fighting enemies just to gain that much needed extra couple levels to progress. The journey you will go through will have you do that enough, so you will get your level ups as needed.
Really the strangest aspect of Aria of Sorrow is your health and magic regeneration. You would think that collecting hearts from enemies and the various lamps or lights you can destroy would replenish your HP (hit points). That’s not the case, as hearts in the game actually replenish your magic. Also being idle in combat will replenish your magic, but that isn’t nearly as helpful. The only way to actually restore your health is by either using a potion that you found or bought or using one of the game’s many save points. Save points will actually fully regenerate your health and magic, so that is a nice perk of doing battle with so many enemies. Often you will find yourself getting beaten to a pulp by big groups of enemies or the tougher bosses, so those save points are an absolute blessing. Also scattered throughout the castle are Teleportation Points. There is a hefty amount, and they are quite convenient. Basically, they can be used to transport from one transport point to another in the castle. So if you don’t feel like navigating the whole castle by foot to get to an area of interest, simply use a nearby transport point.
Another strong point of the game that has always been a focal point of Castlevania is the music and sounds. Now granted it all depends on your individual likeness, because some may like the music in Circle of the Moon better than in this game. Aria of Sorrow and CoTM both feature great music, so it all depends on your tastes. But all that matters is that AoS does have great music, and it really does. You have your generic gothic themes, as well as the ones geared more for a suspenseful feel during the course of action. There really aren’t too many fast-paced themes which is a little disappointing, but none of the action in the game ever gets insanely intense, so it’s understandable. The boss music is definitely of the best in the game, and thankfully there is a good number that you will end up fighting. The music and the fight itself will make most of them memorable too. The music played during the fight with Death is especially catchy, which is fitting since the battle itself is so tough. The giant scythe that guy carries just makes you wince in pain because you can almost feel what it would be like to be slashed with it yourself. He definitely is a big challenge in the game too, and while it can get frustrating, the end result is very rewarding.
Aria of Sorrow also sports a very good amount of replay value. While the story isn’t exactly an elaborate one, it’s a very entertaining one to experience. So that by itself is a great bring back feature to make you want to play the game just to beat it at least. It also has multiple endings, and while the best ending isn’t exactly hard to figure out how to get, it’s a blast to witness. If you get the much more disappointing ending like I did at first, you will probably end up feeling rather gripped by there not being much to it. If you do get the best ending, however, you will be treated to a little extra in-game action, as well as a very nice ending sequence which starts the premise to Dawn of Sorrow. Collecting all the souls is definitely no easy task either. That basically requires you to grab at least one soul from over 100 enemies in the game, and that’s obviously a rather daunting objective. If you want to achieve that lofty goal, look at a minimum of five more hours of gameplay time. Another nice feature for the souls in AoS is the Soul Trade. If you have a GBA link cable and a friend who plays the game too, you can actually trade souls with each other. So if you have a soul that he doesn’t and vice versa, what better way to get what you need than by trading?
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is both new and old. Old on the level that it utilizes the best features the franchise has had to offer for years while mixing new gameplay elements to make it that much more entertaining. Even though some may say the battling of all these monsters while doing all the backtracking you have to do is repetitive, it just isn’t boring to play. The action is constant, and so is the fun. It’s definitely one of the best GBA titles out there, as it borrows a little bit of the quality from Symphony of the Night and delivers a fresh experience that any Castlevania fan can easily fall in love with. While everything about the game isn’t remarkable, enough of it is to make the game very much worth any kind of money. It’s a very good looking game with lots of great detail, and hearing that awesome gothic music in the background while delivering pain to Dracula’s men is not something to pass up. Simply put, you won’t have any sorrow playing this game, so if you’re a Castlevania fan, get it.