Thursday, May 6, 2010

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow

Platform:  Game Boy Advance
Developer:  Konami
Released:  2003
Genre:  Metroidvania (Action Adventure)

The Game
During an eclipse in the year 2035, Soma Cruz and Mina Hark- er, Hakuba get sucked into Dracula's castle.  Finding themselves trapped, Mina stays by the entrance while Soma explores the building, trying to find a way out.  He meets several people tied to the mystery of the castle along the way, begins to display powers he never knew he had, and gets inexorably drawn into a dark destiny that's been waiting for him his whole life.

Aria of Sorrow is the second GBA Castlevania made by the folks who created Symphony of the Night, and it is the third and last Castlevania game made for the GBA overall.  It has a sequel, Dawn of Sorrow, which was made for the DS.

The Characters
Soma Cruz is our protagonist, ladies and gentlemen.  He's your typical white-haired Japanese pretty boy type, but he still manages to be a pretty interesting character for all that.  He's got the powers, the destiny, and the dark secret that even he doesn't know, which all gives him some pretty decent inner and outer conflicts.

Mina Harkne- dangit, did it again, I mean Mina Hakuba is his childhood friend (there seem to be a lot of those in Castlevania) and one of the keepers of the shrine from which the two of them get transported to the castle.  She spends most of her time giving hints (provided by one of the other characters) and healing Soma when he stops by to see her at the castle's entrance.  Basic two-dimensional support character.

Graham Jones is the primary antagonist for most of the game.  He tries to buddy up with Soma at first, but once he realizes that the younger man is absorbing the powers of the castle's monsters, he gets ticked.  Why?  Because he was born on the day that Dracula was last defeated (supposedly forever) back in 1999, and he intends to be the one to absorb all those powers, as well as the very essence of Dracula in the hopes of becoming Dracula himself.  He's kind of a jerk for the rest of the game, but even then he's pretty affable, since he believes his ascension is inevitable and that Soma is a minor speed bump at most on the path to his destiny.

Then there are a few minor characters wandering around . . .

Yoko Belnades is a member of the church who meets up with Soma a few times to encourage him and help keep him focused.  Genya Arikado is a dapper man in a suit who provides Soma with information about the castle, mostly by passing along hints through Mina.  He's also Alucard, Dracula's son.  I'm not really spoiling anything there . . . very early in the game, Yoko (I think it was Yoko, anyway) nearly calls him Alucard before correcting herself.  The shortly named J is an amnesiac wandering around the castle.  The only thing he's certain of is that he has some connection with what's going on, and he's right.

And then . . . there's Hammer.

Hammer is quite possibly one of the worst human beings in existence.  He's an American Army guy that was ordered to go to Mina's shrine, but once he gets trapped in Dracula's castle, he almost immediately abandons his ill-defined mission and decides to start selling crap that he's found to Soma for a profit.  So to start off with, he's a greedy wuss.  And he's also something of a stingy greedy wuss, since everything he sells is swords and spears and the like.  You're an army guy, dude!  Where's your machine gun?!  Your grenades?!  I'll buy 'em all!  Sure, I might need some sort of magic sword when I'm fighting Dracula Jones or whatever, but when I use the single Handgun in the game, it seems to perforate the regular monsters just fine!  Hell, the Zombie Soldiers throw grenades!  What, you couldn't find any extra grenades to sell me?!

And to cap off his being a useless greedy wuss, he's also got rape face.  I'm gonna show you a picture to prove it, but don't look too long or he might steal your soul . . .

There is absolutely nothing about that expression that doesn't say "YOU GOAN GET RAPED".  And yes, I know that might be profiling or whatever, but after Yoko gets injured and has to sit out the rest of the game unconscious at the main gate where Hammer's set up his shop, he asks Soma about her and says that she's his "type".  Yes, Hammer.  I'm quite sure that the unconscious woman who has a nasty knife wound is definitely your type, you sick fuck.

Sweet Jebus.

The Writing
Okay, I'm gonna go ahead and say the story is good.  Betrayal, dark destinies, good vs. evil, some enemies become friends and some friends become enemies, blah blah blah.  But it all seems to move so fast.  It might be a translation thing, I dunno and I'm quite willing to believe that's all there is to it, but a lot of the characters just seem to jump to certain (correct) conclusions pretty damn quick.  At one point, one of the characters asks Soma if he knows anything about "the predictions".  Exactly that.  Absolutely no clue as to exactly which predictions out of the millions or billions that have been made in the past, or even which of the lesser but still substantial numbers of very famous predictions made.  But Soma automatically divines that they mean the future insights of Nostradamus and is told "Exactly!".

And this sort of thing happens several times throughout the game, to the point where I started to believe that everyone in the castle had somehow gained either telepathic or precognitive powers.  A minor thing, but annoying nonetheless.

The Gameplay
Soma is sloooooooow, ohmigaw he is slow.  Not so slow that it's frustrating or annoying, really, but still slow enough that I noticed it almost constantly.  He doesn't get a proper dash maneuver until almost the very end of the game, so most of the time I was walking every damn where.  Fortunately, there are portals spaced somewhat evenly throughout the castle, allowing quick and easy transport from one area to another.  Also fortunately, his lack of speed doesn't adversely affect the combat for the most part.

I like the weapons system of Aria.  The Vampire Killer whip is cool, don't get me wrong.  But after playing around with nothing but that whip in Harmony of Dissonance, it felt good to get a nice variety of weapons to choose from.  Soma gets to choose from hammers (powerful but slow), spears (swung from underneath), and two kinds of swords (stabbing straight out and swinging down from above), as well as a nice selection of specialty weapons that work in various ways, such as the Whip Sword (acts like a whip, natch) and the Handgun (which shoots things from a distance, also natch).  The spears and hammers annoyed the hell out of me, so I stuck mostly to the swords which, thankfully, were the most plentiful weapon type in the game.

While I liked the weapons and most other aspects of the game's combat, I'm kind of on the fence about the soul system.  Much of Soma's abilities come from absorbing the randomly dropped souls of the monsters he kills.  There are three types, those being Red (one-shot attack abilities, activated like subweapons in other Castlevanias), Blue (sustained abilities, with a mixed bag of results covering attacks, defense, and movement), and Yellow (support abilities).  While I certainly like the depth of the system, allowing you to have a wide variety of power combination, I don't like that circumstances in the game often force you to change these abilities on the fly.  I don't know about anyone else, but I feel that if you end up spending as much or even more time in your menu screen switching out abilities as you do fighting monsters and, y'know, actually playing the game, there might be a small problem with the way the system is set up.

The Challenge
Aria of Sorrow sits right on the good side of frustratingly difficult for me.  There were a few times when I started to get truly annoyed at the cheap shit that kept getting thrown at me (the Disc Armors, green Medusa Heads, and most of the flying enemies were especially nasty about this), but overall I found the game to be decently challenging, especially after the slaughterously easy Harmony of Dissonance.  I found myself having to actually come up with different sets of tactics for each new monster I faced . . . hell, the fact that I had to come up with tactics to take any of the monsters out is in itself pretty cool, and points to good AI programming.  They weren't just buffing up monsters later in the game with more HP and MP, they were actually giving them unique abilities and behaviors that I had to take into account in order to get ahead.

So kudos on that!

The Graphics
It may be just me, but it looks like this game took a step back from Harmony in the graphics department, especially in the lighting effects of the lamps, candelabras, and the like.  There's also a few odd bits here and there that I noticed, such as the wavy fog cutting off oddly at walls.  As a trade-off, the character models - which was one of the few things I faulted Harmony on in the graphics department - have been much improved.  Soma isn't surrounded by a neon blue aura, his walk cycles make it look like he's moving with a goldurn purpose, and everyone actually appears like they belong in a Game Boy Advance game.  I really think-

GAH!  Jeez, okay, that's one graphic I definitely could have done without.

The Music
I decided to actually try and pay attention to the music for this game, and I found it very easy to do here, 'cause I like it!  If I was the type to buy soundtracks to things, I might possibly someday perhaps consider maybe buying the AoS soundtrack.

The Bottom Line
Yah, I complained about a few things, but they were mostly minor.  Overall I feel that this is a good and definitely very solid game.  Played once, would play again.

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