A fun side effect of writing about games, even on an amateur level, is that one ends up reflecting and researching on games a bit deeper and thus getting to know more about them than if they just hop from game to game. I originally planned to open this review by talking about the early days of the DS and PSP, how despite the DS being the best selling (and arguably best) portable in history, the two portables being presented in 2004 left audiences puzzled as to what Nintendo was thinking, and why anyone would want that quirky thing instead of the much slicker PSP. That's because I believed that to be the cause for Konami opting to play it safe and make the first DS Castlevania a sequel -- an assumption which proved incorrect.

No, Iga was pretty much sold on the DS from the start, and Aria of Sorrow's great sales on a Nintendo platform sealed the deal on the DS as the host for the next portable entry in the Castlevania series. As for why make a direct sequel, in particular, that is owed to Iga knowing that he and his team had accomplished something special with Aria, both in terms of storyline and gameplay. Iga truly loves the soul system from that game, and that would become even more evident years later, with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, but I digress.

As a direct sequel to Aria, Dawn of Sorrow might get criticised for being a rethreading of known ground, but the fact of the matter is, it's rethreading some damn solid ground. Most of what I mention in my Aria of Sorrow review applies to its sequel as well, from the robust gameplay systems to the beautiful sprite art. There are some areas in which Dawn attempts to stand out from its prequel, some of which are successful, some of which, not so much.

Immediately apparent from the cover of the game is that the art style for character art was changed, moving away from Ayami Kojima's (gorgeous) character portraits to... somewhat generic anime art. This change is said to be a result of demographics, with portable gamers being mainly children and, as such, it making sense to use character art that appealed more to that age group. Unfortunately, none of us happened to be in the room when that decision was taken to loudly point out that Aria was a success among that very demographic and that aging down the brand identity so suddenly might be a bad idea, so this is what we got stuck with.

It's not that the character art is terrible -- it reminds me of Rondo, which also used anime art and is still widely beloved by the fanbase -- but Dawn is trying to tell a story from a handicapped position and nailing the gothic horror vibes right from the cover would have helped its case by a lot. See, the position of a sequel to a work that was never written in a way to have one is a difficult one: the big twists have already happened and characters have experienced their respective growths, so what do we work with to make a new story?

(Incidentally, Dawn opens by spoiling the big twist in Aria, so absolutely play Aria first if you can.)

What immediately springs to mind are those Disney direct-to-VHS sequels that were mostly pretty forgettable, when not antithetical to the original work, as that's absolutely the vibe one gets when one mischievous gang of troublemakers shows up in the opening in Dawn to oppose Soma and his crew. The generic cartoon aesthetic makes for a poor first impression even though the storyline is actually quite competent and, for a game ostensibly marketed at children, it shows some rather dark imagery.

The idea is that, with Dracula being forever gone, a cult forms from people that desire a new Dark Lord, and a few of its head figures step forward as candidates to fill the power vacuula. They decide to have a go at Soma, attacking him and his girlfriend when the two are hanging out in town, and our boy doesn't take too kindly to that, setting out in pursuit of the group, pulling the whole crew from Aria in with him. What follows is a metroidvania romp just like Aria, which has Soma claiming monsters' souls as he brings down the Dark Lord wannabes.

Where Dawn successfully improves on Aria is in quality of life features as well as better tuning. On the former front, Soma can now use two different equipment sets that can be swapped at the press of the X button, a very welcome feature as it switching souls without entering the menu, thus letting the player adapt to each situation faster. The game also makes good use of the DS's top screen, displaying either the castle map or a screen with Soma's and enemy's stats. While having the map always visible is a godsend in this genre, having enemy info readily available is great when farming souls, as it does exactly the same thing the gadget from the Advance Collection does in Aria.

As for tuning, weapons have been rebalanced, emphasizing their variety. There's even a system through which, by imbuing weapons with certain souls, they can be upgraded, a nice addition that unfortunately ends up underutilized due to the rarity of some of the souls it requires. Having a use for excess souls, however, is a nice thought, and again I point to Bloodstained as the unofficial successor to Dawn, with Iga further refining this idea in that game.

Incidentally, while Aria already had souls that powered up with their count, Dawn brings this feature to the forefront explicitly calling it the Soul Level -- this is also a key feature in Bloodstained, where it exists for all souls-- uh, all shards. Souls have also been retooled in Dawn: while a lot of them are reskins from those from Aria, there are a handful of interesting new additions to the roster, and the player can expect to work with different toolsets than the ones the prequel gives. Of note is that late game souls are absolutely stacked, making them really gratifying to use.

And they have to be, because the best part of Dawn is its extremely challenging bosses. Aria's were great, but Dawn takes it to a new level: every boss is a unique enemy with a carefully crafted moveset, and their hits are extremely punishing. Even when spamming items, playing sloppily ultimately ends up in Soma getting overwhelmed, so instead, the player is expected to learn each tell and carefully avoid each attack. The magic seal mechanic is the cherry on top, forcing the player to remain vigilant for the prompt while adding flavor to finishing off the boss.

(Admittedly, if playing on an emulator, magic seals are an absolutely cursed mechanic, practically serving as an accidental form of anti-piracy . In that case, use the mod that removes them from the game.)

But is it better than Aria? Probably not: it will never be able to count on the simplicity and novelty factor that that game presented. However, even if it doesn't surpass its predecessor, it is a thoroughly enjoyable game that proudly stands at its prequel's side. Fans of Aria willing to look past a horrid first impression will find themselves a fiercely challenging game that brings back many of the original's boons.

Reviewed on Mar 31, 2024


3 months ago

Lovely review that outlines everything that made Dawn of Sorrow the landmark title in the franchise that it truly was, paving the way for its successors on the DS. It's, by no means, my favourite game in the franchise, but the GBA/DS titles always feel like the franchise's peak and I wouldn't have minded if they just pumped a new one of those out every year or two.

3 months ago

@PsychoWerefox Thank you, that's very kind of you to say. Yes, it's surprising how little use Konami made of such a good formula.

3 months ago

@Lucca202 Interests were shifting and Japanese publishers were trying to emulate the then success of Western games, especially since Castlevania sold better in the West than Japan. Lords of Shadow became the new focus and Koji Igarashi was slowly phased out of development for the franchise until he inevitably quit.

Honestly, if Konami just went back to this formula, they'd print money. I'm sure the Castlevania Advance Collection did pretty well and they'd do just as good with a DS collection as well.