How Metroidvania is it? Perfect Fit. While it introduces a few more puzzle-like elements to the game, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow follows the same pattern as Aria of Sorrow.
Primary Challenge: Melee Combat
Time to beat: ~7 hours
Review Info: I played Castlevania Dawn of Sorrow on the Nintendo 3DS using an original North American Release DS cartridge.
Buy Castlevania Dawn of Sorrow if you like…
- Castlevania Aria of Sorrow
- A wide variety of enemies each with unique powers
- Large Complex Castle with Puzzle Elements
- Touchscreen controls
- Anime Art
▼ Review continues below ▼
I will be talking about the events of Aria of Sorrow in this review. Dawn of Sorrow spoils that game right at the beginning as well. If you haven’t played Aria of Sorrow and don’t want to be spoiled, stop reading this review (and don’t play Dawn of Sorrow either.)
Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow was my first Igavania after playing Symphony of the Night, and even after playing the other to DS Castlevania games, I regarded it as my favorite Igavana for the longest time. In this most recent experience however, my mind has changed slightly for reasons I’ll soon outline – but don’t let that deter you from considering it your favorite. Dawn of Sorrow is in so many ways an exemplary entry into the Castlevania legacy. Quibbling over “Which of these bests is the bestest?” is almost pointless, but here I go doing it anyway.
Soma Cruz is back, now with a beautiful graphical facelift and music on par with the quality of Symphony of the Night. Backgrounds, monsters, and spell effects are now more detailed than ever, it’s just a small shame that for this unique direct sequel Castlevania they couldn’t keep a consistent artstyle between the two. I don’t hate or even dislike the Anime look that they decided to go with for Dawn of Sorrow – the new art is good – but after playing Aria of Sorrow it is a bit jarring to see all of the same characters with fluffier hair and sparkly eyes, especially since in my opinion the original art was excellent. The feel of the game is a little less dark – perhaps intentionally – partly because of this artstyle, but also because the characters you’ll be talking to the most seem more obsessed with romantic pursuits than the demon summoning cultists that you’re investigating. Again, I don’t hate the direction they went with Dawn of Sorrow, it’s just not the direction I’d like to have seen for this particular Castlevania plot line, but more on the plot later.
With Soma Cruz back, so is the tactical soul system from Aria of Sorrow, but with some important improvements. Previously if you wanted to change up your strategy you had to slowly enter the pause menu and equip each power individually. Thanks to a new “Doppleganger Soul” and more buttons to play with on the Nintendo DS, that’s no longer the case. You can have two completely different equipment sets and swap between them on the fly with the press of a button. This means for the spells you only cast to get past an ability gate, you can just keep them on the second equipment page. Or, you can set up a slow hard hitting strategy on one page, and then a fast, sword-based strategy on the second, allowing you to switch quickly in a boss fight – and it’s actually useful to do that for a few bosses. Not every Nintendo DS button is utilized wisely though – Soma also has a sort of critical hit button where he consumes a chunk of mana and swings whatever weapon he’s using with a shining boost. Since all of your powers use the same mana pool, I almost never found myself using the critical hit attack in lieu of the many bullet souls at my disposal. With three equipped powers potentially draining from this pool, it behaves as a sort of millstone on making the customization any more complex than it was in Aria.
The mana pool isn’t the only thing weighing down the new improvements though; the RNG wiles that the Tactical Soul system brought to the game previously have also been dialed up to 11. Now, not only do all enemies drop a power of interest, but now the souls stack on themselves. This means that if you collect more of the same type of soul your spell will be that much more powerful – rather than them all simply scaling off of your intelligence stat. On one hand this makes it more interesting to find duplicate souls, and they were able to eliminate some of the samey Enchantment Souls, like the varying degrees of souls that raised your CON stat. Now your CON stat soul simply comes from a single monster that you have to catch multiple times. On the other hand, this means more grinding, and it means the souls that are at full power with only one capture will get a little more presence on a normal speed playthrough (Here’s looking at you Mandragora – which isn’t nearly as interesting to listen to or look at as the Blue Valkyrie.)
I think the thing that really brings down the changed soul system for me is the new synthesis system. Not only can you stack your monster souls for more powerful effects, but they’re also required for upgrading your weapons to their most powerful forms. I’ve heard the argument that this is good because it gives the player the option to choose the weapon type they like best and use the synthesis system to upgrade that chosen path. But I will respectfully disagree with that as a benefit – you still have to grind to get what you want. The biggest offense this brings though is dialing down the rewards of exploring the castle. You still get armor and rings, but you don’t get to enjoy the one-off fun weapons like the Whip Sword unless you specifically try to get it – and with more powerful weapons to choose from, the extra effort for what is ultimately a novelty feels more like a waste of time than a special exploration treat. This is my opinion of course, but I’d much rather find my Claimh Solais Sword from gaining access to a secret part of the castle than from walking back and forth between two screens until I’ve caught all the Pokémon I need to smash into my junky great sword and upgrade it. Heck, I’d even rather just get the sword as a drop like with the Crissagrim in SOTN, and eliminate the middleman.
The castle itself also feels a bit weaker this time around. It’s still far above the average for your typical Metroidvania game, but not quite as good as Aria of Sorrow. I’ve played Dawn of Sorrow before, I even grinded out the Chaos Ring back in the day, and I still found myself completely stumped on which passageway I was supposed to take next. Usually the normal course is to look for unentered doorways on the map, but it happened twice that where I was supposed to go was wedged between two hallways I had already visited, making it difficult to spot the progress point on the tiny DS screen. This of course happened by complete accident, so my experience might not be shared with other players, but there are some other less-than-ideal design choices in my opinion, like constantly having to visit the central area with its plodding music, or having to climb a tower twice because a boss forces you to return to the bottom.
The Tactical Soul system plays into some of these castle issues as well. In the previous game, in order to explore all of the castle, you only really needed three monster souls that you obtained at random. In Dawn you need at least five, and the reasons for this aren’t as intuitive or story driven as before; four of these souls literally just unlock doors with arbitrary pictures of the monster in question on them. I didn’t have to spend too much time grinding for the souls necessary to see the game’s true ending, but there’s one section of the castle that I’m pretty sure requires the Skeleton Ape soul, but I didn’t see it this time because after 15 minutes of trying to get what I needed, I decided it wasn’t really worth it to me.
Even without all the optional stuff I skipped, the bosses are thankfully just as high quality as they were in Aria of Sorrow, and with a little skill I was able to make up for my lacking arsenal – I may have even had a little more fun playing this way. Every boss has a trick, and not necessarily just the usual responding to telegraphs. I still found myself switching my tactical souls to match the challenges – I even used some more niche souls I wouldn’t have otherwise used to make up for the souls I wasn’t grinding for. At the end of boss fights they added a touchscreen gimmick that I could have done without, but then again the tensions of having to beat a precision-based trial after barely squeaking by on a difficult boss made defeating them that much sweeter (but also that much more frustrating when I failed a speed drawing test in the middle of my action platformer). Sadly the game ends on something of a sour note as the true final boss is slightly disappointing, and doesn’t even have the story impact to buoy it up.
Instead of Dracula’s Castle, you’re investigating a compound owned by a bunch of demon summoning cultists who are such miserable piles of filth that they’re obsessed with resurrecting the Dark Lord. They of course want Soma because he is Dracula, but our main antagonists are a couple of stooges that the Cultist Leader picked out as potential secondary candidates for Dracula’s Body. The setup here is great, I think, and there’s even a part where you can fail and play as Julious Belmont in the obligatory secondary character mode – but this time with an actual story path! Failing is the most interesting part of the story though, because the other Dark Lord candidates are too stupid to be considered a legitimate threat. Graham Jones from the first game also wasn’t particularly interesting, but he was at least mostly successful in his plans, and more importantly he wasn’t really the game’s main villain. In Dawn of Sorrow the potential for exploring the people of Castlevania is completely squandered outside of what was already explored in the first game. In fact, after meeting the only three people outside of our main cast of heroes, I pretty much agree with Dracula’s words from the beginning of Symphony of the Night. I could probably write a more full analysis – complete with spoilers – on how disappointed I was with the narrative of Dawn of Sorrow as a follow up to Aria, but it’ll suffice to say that it was disappointing to me.
The story still does its job, however, and besides the hiccups I mentioned that bring down my own personal opinion, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow is still a top notch Igavania game that Metroidvania fans should definitely seek out and play. To me, Soma Cruz is one of the most interesting characters in Castlevania canon, and of all the games to get a direct sequel I’m glad it happened with Aria of Sorrow. However, because the story potential was somewhat squandered, the game almost feels like the middle entry in a trilogy. I can only dream of Konami repenting of their capitalistic elder exploiting ways and letting Koji Igarashi come back one more time to fully realize Soma Cruz for a final hoorah, but for now we’ve still got two of the best Metroidvania games ever made to enjoy. More realistically, let’s all hope that Konami will port these games to more relevant systems, but in the meantime if you can afford to get a hold of them, I still highly recommend it.
As good as its predecessor with a few control upgrades being balanced out with some easiier bosses overall
Platforming in Castlevania Games is generally about getting from point A to point B with little trouble besides the enemies
The focus for Soma's Growth is tilted further towards grinding enemies over finding rewards. The castle is still excellent
Some interesting puzzle rooms can be found throughout the castle, including an entire section that lets you change the castle layout
A pretty big disappointment with the potential built up from Castlevania Aria of Sorrow, with the bad ending being more interesting than the canon one
Pixel art is as good as it ever is, and the anime artstyle is a matter of preference
Without the limitations of the Gameboy Advance, the quality of music is almost back to where it was with Symphony of the Night
Puzzle Elements get a little tedious on subsequent playthroughs, otherwise the Tactical Soul system is as fun as it was previous to experiment with