How Metroidvania is it? Perfect Fit. As it should, Aria of Sorrow switches up the Symphony of the Night formula with some new mechanics, but other than that it obeys the Metroidvania formula perfectly.
Primary Challenge: Melee Combat
Time to beat: ~8 hours
Review Info: This game was played via the Wii U Virtual Console
Buy Castlevania Aria of Sorrow if you like…
- Castlevania Lore
- Large complex castles
- Immense variety of Powers to play with
- Ayami Kojima's Art
- Grinding to get new abilities
▼ Review continues below ▼
Handheld games are so often designed around the concept of cashing in on brand recognition with a bite-sized but inferior version of their console counterparts. With Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance, it’s pretty easy to pass off any issues that it has due to the limitations of the hardware. Apparently making excuses is complete nonsense though, because Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow not only stands on its own, but it is also arguably the best Metroidvania-style Castlevania game ever made.
At the center of this claim of course is the design of the castle itself. It is very similar to Symphony of the Night, specifically in that it leads you straight through its middle before sending you off various directions. Perhaps because of the cartridge space limitations, it doesn’t feel like any part of this castle is wasted. So much of the castle is relevant to your quest to discover Dracula, and while it is chock full of secrets – including an entire section that is optional – each of those secrets still feel relevant toward your power progression. If there was any moment where I felt so completely lost that I was frustrated, I can’t remember it. This is especially significant because, due to the nature of the genre, exploration frustration is generally an accepted sacrifice to have a more open world.
Contributing to Aria of Sorrow’s ability to pull off rewarding level design is its “Tactics Soul” system, unique to the new series protagonist Soma Cruz. Mysteriously Soma is capable of dominating the souls of Dracula’s minions, giving him some measure of their power. For the player, this means you can get a “Bullet Soul” which let’s you perform an attack such as throwing axes, breathing fire, or casting a projectile spell. Or, you could get a “Guardian Soul” that you activate and it persistently consumes mana, letting you summon a shake and bake version of Star Platinum, or letting you transform into the monster itself. Some monsters also give you passive effects as “Enchanted Souls”, the simplest of which just raise specific stats. Each of soul is organized into one of these three types, and as you collect more abilities your ability to customize Soma increases, giving you many options to approach difficult situations – or break the game entirely. The Tactical Soul system makes it so even finding just a single enemy in a dead-end room can be a reward unto itself. In addition, since the souls drop based on RNG, killing enemies as you backtrack through the castle feels more rewarding as the skinner box pleasure whispers in the back of your mind that each kill is the chance to get to see another power.
Of course, as soon as I mention that word “RNG” or the phrase “Random Drop” my own personal red flags are raised. Any mechanic that encourages a player to repeat a mundane task over and over again for no other reason than to achieve a randomly generated variable loses its value pretty quickly. There’s no argument for any intrinsic value, and any “fun” value is eliminated pretty quickly for a lot of players depending on their tolerance level for this kind of thing – usually being replaced by the flavorless vice of addiction. Indeed, every single enemy in Aria of Sorrow has a random drop, and because of a completion reward that gives you infinite mana, it’s even desirable to catch them all. Completionists who hate losing time to long periods of bad luck will likely hate this system and therefore the game itself.
Tactical Soul therefore can be looked at as a negative thing, however, another way to look at it, and the way I choose to look at it, is that the random nature of the drops increases the variety of each playthrough. This serves to benefit replay value as well as forcing the player to use their ingenuity to adapt to what powers they have. As long as you don’t get locked into grinding every single soul, each fresh play through could net you completely different powers, and if you’re not hung up on being able to use your chosen strategy, you could be forced to find new and fun ways to defeat the game’s various bosses. There are only three instances where grinding powers is absolutely required to see all the game has to offer (besides the aforementioned infinite mana chaos ring.) One of those three instances doesn’t require that you have a specific power, just an ability of a specific category, meaning if you’re lucky (and I was) you could end up with any of them before you get to the obstacle you have to pass. Having to grind out two powers does degrade the value of the replay argument a little bit, but at least for my experience it’s a small enough grievance to give it a pass since I think the game benefits from the randomness more than its hurt by it. As you traverse the castle it’s fun to try new abilities all the time, especially as enemies become otherwise less interesting to fight as they inevitably always do in these level-up Igavania games. But for bosses, that’s when the Tactics Soul system really shines.
Assuming you’re not stocking up on potions, there’s a decent challenge to be offered by game’s bosses, which are at the best the series has seen yet. A few classic Symphony of the Night bosses are here to be found, but instead of just rehashing the fights all over again they play on your expectations a bit and subvert them. There was one boss where I literally said “Oh, not this boring guy again”, and then immediately I was treated to a scene that made me laugh out loud when the fight was turned upside down. I feel like the bar for bosses has been raised to pretty impossible standards these days with the likes of Hollow Knight and Environmental Station Alpha, but as far as RPG style Castlevania bosses go, Aria of Sorrow represents the plateau of what the Igavania games were able to achieve. As with Symphony of the Night, what you bring into the fight is just as important as your skill, but thanks to the variety of abilities you have the process is so much more interesting. If you’re ever having a hard time – besides just banking up healing items – you can start cycling through your different spells until you find one that just clicks with the foe you’re facing, allowing you to feel clever as you figure out the boss’ “puzzle.” Not that some Bullet-Souls aren’t better than others – I for one saw a lot of blue Valkyrie butt in my playthrough.
I think that one of my favorite things about Aria of Sorrow is just how interesting a character Soma Cruz is. I think that both he and Alucard with their darker origins present a greater potential for meaningful character exploration that can’t really be achieved with the “born righteous” Belmonts. Without going into too many spoilers, this game really centers entirely around Soma, and the nature of Darkness in the Castlevania universe in general, raising a lot of interesting questions that deserve to be explored further. While I don’t think the game ever cashes in on the setup, it’s surely a great topic of discussion that fans can chat back and forth on, which is one of the best gifts any video game story can give. It’d have been a shame if Soma’s story ended with Aria of Sorrow; and for better or worse it didn’t. But talking about the achievements and disappointments of Dawn of Sorrow is a discussion for another day.
To conclude my review of Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, this game the exemplary follow-up to Symphony of the Night, and while I think the Tactical Soul system might rub some people the wrong way, I think that the title is still the #2 must play of the Igavania games. I personally like it more than Symphony, even if the music and graphics aren’t quite as good. If the Igavania games appeal to you at all, find some way to play this, and if you haven’t played any Igavania games, this is a fantastic place to start.
Bosses and Enemies all have improved patterns, and your character is given a plethora of interesting ways to deal with them
Platforming is generally simple in the Castlevania games, and Aria of Sorrow is no different
The only problem with Aria of Sorrow's castle is that there just isn't enough of it.
Not a focus - no puzzles stick out as memorable
The premise is fantastic but it's all presented with a simplistic directness - which is appropriate for a video game
The weird blue outline has been removed from the main character and the castle is just as gorgeous as the previous two Igavania games
The Gameboy Advance holds back what would be a list of fantastic tunes
The Tactical Soul system could potentially make each playthrough completely different - though many players will likely stick with New Game+