Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (GBA) Review

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Quick Review 

~Review by tankMage (August 2020)

Score: A

Pros

-Fun mix of exploration and platforming 

-Soma has a ton of abilities

-Plenty of secrets and unlockable content

-Some of the best graphics and music on the Game Boy Advance

Cons

-Poorly balanced gameplay

-Some items and Souls are filler

Full Review

The triumphant return of Metroidvania.

Over a decade ago I got myself a Nintendo DS and went on a Metroidvania binge. Of course, one of the games I played was Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow for the Gameboy Advance. At the time, I really didn’t appreciate it, because I had already played just about every other Metroidvania there is in a short span of time. Coming back to this title years later and really sitting down with it made me see it in a new light, especially after playing other GBA games and seeing what the little system could do. To put it briefly, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is one of the reasons you should own a GBA or at least emulate it.

On a side note, this review was delayed for several months after I completed the game due to a certain pandemic that shall go unnamed. Said pandemic kept me busy for weeks and I nearly forgot to finish this review. In fact, I was unable to complete the walkthrough I was working on for this game and will probably have to revisit it someday. Anyway, this review may have some mistakes in it, because I’m largely working off of memory, so uh, sorry.

Hmmmm…what’s going on here?

Story 

Aria of Sorrow takes place in the year 2035, over three decades after the final defeat of Dracula. The protagonist, Soma Cruz, and his friend Mina are sucked into Drac’s infamous castle while visiting a shrine during a solar eclipse. Soma meets a mysterious man named Genya Arikado at the castle entrance and soon learns that he has the power to absorb the souls of the monsters that inhabit the castle. With no other way to get back home, Soma sets out to uncover the mystery behind the reappearance of Castlevania.

As usual, I won’t go into detail about the story to avoid spoilers; trust me, there are some big surprises in this game. Overall, the story is pretty good for a Castlevania game, but it’s nothing to write home about outside of a few plot twists. To be honest, I’m glad the devs didn’t bog the action down with long cutscenes and endless pages of dialogue. What we have in terms of narrative is just enough to get the player invested in the game, even if it’s rather bare bones and predictable at times.

Graphics

People with SNES and PS1 nostalgia will love the way Aria of Sorrow looks. It looks a lot like a Super Nintendo platformer, but has an artistic style similar to that of Symphony of the Night. Consequently, there are few GBA games that compare with this one aside from some of Nintendo’s releases and Square’s Final Fantasy ports. 

The settings and backgrounds look great thanks to a lot of attention to detail, especially some of the later areas in the game. Konami also put a lot of work into monster designs. Many familiar enemies from the series make an appearance along with some imaginative new creatures. Then there are the dozens of soul abilities Soma learns which all have their own animations. Some of the soul abilities, like Valkyrie, were quite impressive. Last, but not least, Soma’s weapons have a lot of cool sprites and animations that make them look unique.

It’s hard to complain about this game’s graphical quality unless you ignore the fact that it was made for a handheld with a screen smaller than that of the average smartphone. However, many of the areas weren’t very original despite their detail and often felt like rehashes of those from earlier games. There was also a bit of sprite and tile recycling that stole some of the thunder from the end game.

They crammed a lot of big bosses into the GBA’s little screen.

Gameplay

You’ll have a hard time putting this game down if you enjoy action RPGs. This is in part thanks to the “Tactical Soul System” that allows the hero to learn the abilities of the monsters in Aria of Sorrow. The Tactical Soul System grants the player new powers when Soma kills bosses and enemies, though the chances of obtaining a soul from a regular enemy are random and often quite low. There are four types of souls: Bullet, Guardian, Enchanted, and Ability. Bullet Souls let Soma use a special attack, Guardian Souls usually allow you to summon a friendly monster, Enchanted Souls grant you a passive stat bonus, and Ability Souls allow Soma to perform special actions.

Soma can equip one soul from each category with the exception of Ability Souls which remain active once acquired. Collecting the souls and finding combinations you like the most is a lot of fun. There’s also over a hundred of them to collect, so this game will keep completionists busy. Unfortunately, it can be really hard to get a soul to drop and most of my time was spent farming souls rather than exploring the castle. Some of the souls are also highly similar to one another, but this was probably done to make sure more casual players would be happy with Soma’s powers.

The game itself plays a lot like Metroid. Players can choose from multiple routes through the castle, but will need certain abilities to get past obstacles. On the way, Soma will find a variety of weapons and armor, fight bosses, and discover secrets hidden in breakable walls. Soma will also gain experience levels that will boost his attack power, HP, and defense as he defeats enemies. Beating the final boss will unlock a new difficulty mode. There’s also a boss rush mode and one that allows you to play as a secret character.

Overall, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow feels more tightly constructed than its predecessor, Symphony of the Night (and Simon’s Quest if you want to go really far back) but it’s also less open than SotN and lacks some of its energy. However, it’s still a great game by itself and is a bit better balanced than some of the Metroidvania titles that came before and after it. It also has enough content to keep most players busy for days or even weeks, which isn’t bad considering the fact that it’s only a few megabytes in size.

Nice map ya got there…it would be a shame if someone EXPLORED it!

User Interface

The controls work great, but the menus get a bit tedious at times. While it’s easy enough to navigate the item and soul menus, it’s often necessary to change souls in order to reach certain areas. Opening the soul menu and searching for what you need starts to get annoying after a few dozen times. Maybe having sets of souls the player could arrange would have helped, but what’s done is done.

Music and Sound

Overall the music and sound effects are really good. They also have that 16-Bit style that made the GBA feel so nostalgic, while being new at the same time. I can’t say the music is as catchy as that of classic Castlevania, though it does have its moments.

Final Thoughts

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is a great game, especially considering the fact that it came out on the GBA, which seemed to get a lot of shovelware. It’s also the second best of the handheld Metroidvania games in my opinion. However, it lacks the spontaneity and frenetic creativity of its progenitor for better or worse.

Recommendations

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is a must-play for any fan of the Gameboy Advance.

This Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow review is property of RetroMaggedon.com, ©2020

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