Malik (10/12/05)

Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrows (DS)

From Konami

The DS has been pretty barren in terms of games. In fact, this handheld is nearly a year old (just a month and a half to go), with only a couple of arguable "must have" titles...and even fewer "must have games" (sorry, but Nintendogs is not really a game, nor is anything else that involves actively cleaning up poop from a virtual defecation machine). Some would vote for Kirby, which is fine for the fans of the typical "kiddy" games of Nintendo. Some could vote for Advance Wars: DS, assuming you like hardcore strategy. However, no game has really covered a very wide audience appeal that could bring in hardcore gamers and the fans of lighter fare. 

Well, that may have finally changed. After almost a year of feeling like I threw away my hard earned money on the neat but useless DS, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrows has arrived. This title promises to bring the classical feel of the GBA and Playstation Castlevania games, but to give a little bit of the dual screen innovation that Nintendo so loves to show off. So, ultimately, when a game is being built from such a powerful and impressive franchise as the Metroid-like Castlevania games have established, can anything really go wrong? With a system like the DS, that is really starved for a fun game, and with how even a clone of a prior hit would be well received, will Konami be able to strike gold like few other third party developers have with the DS? 


This is one of the few Castlevania games (with Symphony of the Night being the other one) that is an immediate sequel of a prior Castlevania. They are all sequels, but by immediate I mean it takes place in the same generation of characters (since most Castlevania games take place a full century after the last). So, some of this is covered also by Aria of Sorrows (GBA), which took place a year earlier. 

In 1999, Dracula was defeated by Julius Belmont. He wasn't just beaten into another long slumber. Dracula was finally finished off. So, a couple of decade later, Soma, the hero of both this game and Aria, during an eclipse, is pulled into an ancient castle. That castle, naturally, would be Dracula's castle. Soma was born on the day of Dracula's defeat, and thus he inherited some of the dark lord's powers. Namely, Soma had the power to consume and control the souls of the monsters he defeated in the castle. 

So, over the period of time that takes place in AoS, Soma met a few wacky friends (or acquaintances...since some of these people were less than friendly), including Julius, the last descendant of the Belmont line, and Yoko Belnades (a descendant of a mage who traveled with Trevor Belmont in Castlevania 3). He also fought off his destiny to become the new dark lord...a new Dracula. It seemed that all was well. 

However, a year later, Soma and Mina (his dear friend...who is, in juvenile fashion, hinted as his girlfriend in the plot) are accosted one day by Celia. Soon Soma learns that Celia is trying to resurrect the power of darkness that was once Dracula. So, naturally curious about what is going on and if he could stop this revival of evil, Soma (against the wishes of Mina and the enigmatic Genya...don't even ask who he is, since the game fails to make his point clear until the bad ending is played out) heads to where Dracula's castle has reappeared. 

The story is somewhat standard and doesn't go into deep detail, overall. However, in the end, each NPS you encounter manages to have enough dialogue to show that they are individuals with their own motivations. While the plot is not as drawn out as it was in SotN, there is still enough to feel like this game is more than a simple excuse for Soma to run through a castle with his powers to control the souls of monsters. However, if you're looking for something deep, like you'd find in an RPG, you will be disappointed. Ultimately, the plot may not be stellar, but it is definitely adequate and well suited for a Castlevania game. 

Game Play 

For the most part, this is very much like AoS and SotN. The game is made up of a free roaming exploration mode with a fair number of hidden areas and hidden items to acquire. As you explore, you will find new abilities and items that will open new chunks of the castle to explore. At all times, you will have the ability to travel back to old areas to look for missed items, blah, blah. It's familiar to any person who's played a recent Castlevania or Metroid title. 

Also, your character has the standard set of RPG elements. As you slay your enemies, you will gain experience that will count towards level ups. When you gain a level, you will gain more HP (health) and MP (used for using captured souls). Also, like with most RPGs, you will find new equipment and items as you explore. You will be able to use these to make your character better in terms of offense, defense, luck (used to find more items from fallen foes), intelligence (boosts the power of your equipped souls), etc. It should be quite familiar and good for past Castlevania fans. 

Also, the controls are still quite similar to those of AoS, SotN, or Harmony of Dissonance. You have your basic jump and attack options, you move with your d-pad, and you can activate some special abilities with your shoulder buttons. Beyond that, you now have two attack buttons. One will allow you to make normal offensive strikes, while the other (assuming you have enough MP...otherwise it serves like the first offense button) will perform a special attack. This special will be based on your currently equipped weapon. For example, if you are using a katana then you will make an extra swipe, if you use an axe you will make a powerful descending attack, and so forth. The controls are simple enough to appeal to anyone, but still highly functional. 

The only truly new control you will encounter on the standard buttons and d-pad are the doppelganger ability. Once you find this soul, you will be able to select two sets of equipment and souls at once. With a simple press of the y button, you will switch between the equipment sets. This way you could have, for example, one set for quicker travel and a second set for battles (or one set with a quick weapon and the other set with a slow and heavy hitting weapon). 

Also, back from the prior Castlevania games, you will access to shops in the game. There are two different shops. The first one will include the option to buy and sell weapons, armors, accessories, and items. After the first 20% of the game, you can count on only using this shop to sell items and to buy potions. The selection never gets updated after this point. The other shop will let you fuse your acquired souls with weapons to create upgraded versions. For example, if you have an axe and the soul of an axe armor, you can combine them (with no money involved) into a battle axe. This is the only real way to get the most powerful weapons of the game. 

Also, for no real purpose, there's the ability to "free souls" in the weapon upgrade shop. This will let you remove some souls from your inventory. There is absolutely no reason to do all. You gain nothing, unless you want the "fun" of re-acquiring these released souls. This is one of the few down points of the game, since many players will feel like experimenting with this function, only to lose out on their souls. Plus, to make matters worse, there's no description of this in the instructions. Way to overlook this, Konami. 

So, the main feature of this game, like it was with AoS, is your ability to collect souls. Each monster will have a rank of 1-3 stars on how easily it will drop a soul. As you kill this monster, it will have a chance of surrendering this soul to you. You can collect up to 9 of any soul (or item) in this game. Some souls, when used, will become more powerful according to the number of them you currently possess (having 9 will max out the power on any soul). This can mean anything from a more powerful attack to a longer ranged attack. 

The souls will come down to three (plus one) classes and you can equip one of each class at a time. There are the "bullet" type, which are activated by hitting up and attack at the same time. They will usually release a projectile of some sort, and will consume MP. There are the the L button souls. Typically these are you movement powers (turn into a bat, fall slower, summon an ark to ride upon, etc) and they will consume MP as they are used. These are typically the ones that open new areas of the game. Lastly, there are the souls that are always functional, but don't use MP. These will usually be simple stat bonuses (like a small bonus to your strength...or a sizable bonus if you have 9 of said soul). The last class is called "abilities" and they are special souls. These ones will all always be in effect. They don't cost MP and include basic game abilities like double jumps and the previously mentioned doppelganger. 

So, the only thing that stands out as really "new" in this title is the dual screen abilities. Most of these are pretty nice. For example, as you play on the bottom screen, the top screen can be swapped between a map and a status screen (including stats on the monster you last attacked) with a press of the select button. This is definitely a step up from how one would often have to check the map (pausing the actual game) on the normal screen on the past Metroid-style Castlevania games. This type of ability is actually what I think the DS was designed for. 

The other features of the DS abilities come from a misguided attempt at forcing the touch screen onto players. This comes in two main forms (you can use it to select menu options, draw your save game icon, and select a warp point from a teleportation room, but this is not even worth mentioning). The first is a non-annoying, but ultimately useless, ability to destroy certain blocks with the stylus. These blocks only exist in a few rooms and will have no real effect on the game play. 

The other touch feature is one of the worst DS game features I've yet to see. When you explore, you will find five different "Magic Seals". These are basically giant symbols that appear on the touch screen. They will unlock doors to boss rooms (which require no effort from the player), like a key would. Then, as you fight the boss, you will go through the standard "deal damage and don't get too much dealt to you" scenario. Once the boss is out of HP, the symbol will show up on the screen...incomplete. Now, you must draw the missing part of the symbol, exactly as the game previously showed you to draw it, in one fluid line, in a limited amount of time. This starts easy with a simple line with a single bend in it. Later, you will have to draw lines with 9 or so angles to them. Now, when you fail your first time (and you will fail...a lot), the boss comes back to life with ~25% of it's HP. Then when you kill it again, you have to draw the symbol again. Every time you fail, the boss comes back. 

This is not a good feature on it's own, but when you consider how sweaty your hands will be (thus you will smudge your screen to hell), and how you may have fought a hard enough fight that adrenaline will get your hands shaking, you will understand how frustrating this will be. Plus, since the game will let you practice at any time, you would think this shouldn't be too bad...? Well, in reality, the practice mode is far less picky than the real deal. For example, the last boss symbol you must draw; I get about 80% success rate in practice when trying this symbol (even during the boss fight), but I only end up with about a 1% chance of success during the real deal. This feature has nothing to do with Castlevania, and it only serves to force the touch screen upon the gamer. Why can't a DS game just be based off of two screens and not be a forced attempt to use the touch feature? 

So, while Castlevania DS is a solid Castlevania title, and it has the same elements we have come to know and love since SotN, there are some failings. While most parts of the game are nothing short of amazing, and the top screen is a wonderful addition, the touch screen only serves to hamper the experience. If there was no required touch screen usage in this game, it would be nearly perfect from the game play perspective, but with the Magic Seals...well, you'll enjoy playing this game up to the final boss, but you will hate it when you're done...assuming you can draw the final symbol. 


For those familiar with SotN, then the visuals will look quite familiar. For those less aware, the visuals are on par with how a PSX side-view 2D action game would look. The level of detail is on par with what one should expect from a DS game. That is, to say, they are better than the GBA Castlevania games looked, hands down. 

The majority of the visuals will not really make anyone's jaw drop open in amazement, but that is not a bad thing. It's hard to really give praise to something with this type of visuals, since the greatest compliment that can be given, and how I feel about this game is; the visuals are clean, the objects are easily discernable, and you will never be left in doubt of what the visuals being displayed are. There is nothing breath-taking, like how Super Mario 64 gave an amazing feature of the first truly 3D handheld game, but there is nothing to be left desired for that is not present. 

The only thing lacking from this game that could have easily been included is some sort of cut-scene visuals. For example, SotN had a nice intro while the story was shown in text on the screen at the start of the game. It would have been nice to have a recap of AoS with this style of display. However, in the end, this would not have really given anything that is really "needed" in the game. 


This is a mixed bag. For the most part, the music is nicely Castlevania. The same haunting style of music, with a blending of techno/electronica and classical makes a nice transition to the DS. The music is a definite step up from the sounds of the GBA Castlevania games. 

Also, there is not much to detail in terms of voices. This is, simply put, because there are almost no voiceovers. There is an occasional "hey!" type of voice, but this occurs so infrequently that it doesn't warrant a mention. 

The sound effects are what really make the bulk of the game. Sadly, while most effects sound nice, some are outright annoying. While the swinging of a weapon is wonderfully portrayed in audio, some of the common sounds will get on your nerves. In particular, I'm think of the cat sounds that are made when you kill a witch. It's actually a nice sound...the first time you hear it. However, the over-use of these more annoying sounds will leave some people dreading the fact that you will keep fighting these same sound generating creatures over and over again. 

At the end of the day, the sounds are great. The music is amazing, the lack of voices is not missed, and the sound effects are sharp and clear. However, Konami should have done something about the annoying and overused sounds (especially the howling of a killed witch/cat). 


At it's core, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrows is a solid Castlevania game. It is also, without a doubt, the first wide appeal solid title for the DS. With the classical GBA Castlevania feel (as first seen with SotN), Castlevania: DS has a familiar and addictive game play style, with a minor (but still deep enough to serve it's purpose) plot to guide this thing. Plus, with the DS technology, we are able to have a good level of quality in the visuals and audio, and we even get a few added conveniences that have never seen the light of day in a Castlevania title before (like having a map or status screen at the ready while still in the action of the unpaused game). In fact, if the game was halted at this point, the game would have been nearly an example of perfection.

Sadly, the touch screen of the DS is not something that many developers will try to deny. This is where Castlevania: DS, as well as many other DS games, make a fatal mistake. Luckily, despite the error (let's call it what it is...stupidity) of making the player draw lame symbols on the screen to defeat a boss (art skill and combat shouldn't have to cross in this lame of a format...ever), the game is still enjoyable. At least it's enjoyable until the final few minutes. When the final boss won't die due to the hyper-sensitive nature of the touch recognition system, many players who love the series, but don't necessarily love touch technology, will probably share the same feelings of anger and frustration that broke my own enjoyment for this game. So, in the end, while you'll enjoy playing this game, you will hate it when it's over. I have to give Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrows a 8.25 out of 10. If the touch screen was not incorporated in this game, I could have easily had given it a 9.5...sigh...such a minor and short term problem that causes such a large headache...