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SummaryJust as good as Castlevania games gets
The GoodI haven't played any Castlevania games that came out after Super Castlevania IV, so I really didn't know how they were at all. I found a used copy of Castlevania : Aria of Sorrow, and a friend told me that it was very good, so I picked it up. I was quite surprised that this game is really not much like Castlevania games I've played on the NES and Super NES, except that's it's a platformer and that it's a very good game.
The gameplay of this game is fantastic. You can level up and equip different weapons like you can in action RPGs, effectively making this game an platformer-RPG. I've tried many platformer-RPG games on the NES, including Faxanadu, Zelda II : The Adventure of Link, The Battle of Olympus, and of course Castlevania II : Simon's Quest. However all of them make me feel lost after 5-10 minutes of gameplay and as following a walkthrough isn't really fun, I've assumed the platformer-RPG genre was just not a good formula. Fortunately, Castlevania : Aria of Sorrow proved me the exact opposite.
Controls are easy and responsive, playing this game is just as fun as playing any other platformer (as opposed to games mentioned above). You can equip weapons with different response speed and range, allowing you a wide range of strategy against you opponents. Is it better to equip a slow weapon but that is powerful or to equip a weaker and more short-ranger, but much faster weapon ? Also, each enemy in the game has a low probability to release a soul when defeated. You are then able to equip 3 different kind of souls, attack, support and "implicit" souls at a time. Collecting them will allow you to use enemie's attack against other enemies, which is cool, and allow you to perform a very wide range of various moves. In order to progress the story, you must find special abilities which will for example allow you to jump higher in order to access new areas, etc...
You take the control of a guy named Soma Cruz that is the weirdest hero ever. He looks like a girl, have a weird name and looks more like a bad guy than a hero. Although he's the protagonist of this game, he's not a Belmont clan guy by the way. The game happens in September 2035 and you are teleported in the inside of a solar eclipse (in fact a solar eclipse is actually predicted in Japan for that date), inside the castle of Dracula (don't ask me what it does inside of an eclipse). You only goal is to exit. Of course there isn't a story as developed as in true RPGs, but it's definitely a decently developed story for a platformer.
The graphics of the game are really among the best I've seen on the GBA. Sprites are very detailed and animated, you can see the cape of the main character flowing into the wind. There is a lot of transparency effects, and background is very detailed. It basically proof that 2D doesn't mean outdated graphics.
The music of the game is excellent and varied, sometimes upbeat/fast-paced and sometimes slow and melancholic. Each level have a music that suits it well. Unlike the majority of GBA games, sound effects are very well done as well. You get some voice acting (in Japanese) from enemies and you can really hear the bones of your enemies falling apart when you defeat them. The protagonist also randomly hurls when attacking which sounds great. It's one of the rare GBA games that made full use of the sound hardware.
Finally the difficulty is just right, the game really isn't hard but when entering a new harder area you'll probably loose a couple of times before finding the first save point where you can recover. After that you can just level up if you have trouble, so the game isn't really hard, but it's not too easy either. You can carry healing items and use them during boss fight if you want, but sometimes you'll be saying "I'll retry to beat that boss this time conserving healing items for when I'll really need them". You can unlock an "oldscool mode" where you play as another protagonist which this time have the classical whip, cross, axe and holy water as weapons, and where you get rid of the story scenes and RPG elements of the game (levels, items, etc...). You still don't have the crappy jump control of NES Castlevania games, fortunately.
The BadThe only thing I can possibly think is that the game is a bit short. After beating the game normally you can unlock new modes, but still beating the whole game in all modes adds up to 12-15 hours in total even if you level up a lot and try to discover each tiny corner of the game, which is quite short by modern standards.