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Which Console Did You Buy/Receive Over The Holidays?

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Game Profile
Game Boy
Konami TYO
GENRE: Action
May 07, 2003
Castlevania: Rondo of Blood

Castlevania Puzzle: Encore of the Night

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

Castlevania: Harmony of Despair

More in this Series
 Written by Ilan Mejer  on January 30, 2003

First Impressions: Konami loves Nintendo's Gameboy Advance, and for that, we must love Konami! Prepare to be spellbound yet again this year, hopefully.

Another year, another Castlevania. While a good fifteen months separated the Castlevania GBA debut of Circle of the Moon and last year's Harmony of Dissonance, fans of the series can expect the next iteration only eight months after the last. Castlevania ? Aria of Sorrow is currently being completed by Konami. Specifically, it isbeing developed by the team led by Symphony of the Night (PS One) and Harmony of Dissonance's creator, Koji Igarashi. Indeed, the recently debuted game was demonstrated as a fully playable build, and in English at that. Perhaps it is Igarashi's dream to turn Castlevania into a cash cow serial on current handhelds. Whatever the motive, he claims that Aria of Sorrow and Harmony of Dissonance were in development simultaneously. This would explain the technical similarities, particularly in the game's graphics and artistic style.

Interestingly enough, Aria takes place in the future, the year 2035 to be exact. Soma Cruz, a student, and his friend Mina travel to Transylvania in order to witness the millennium's first total solar eclipse. Unbeknownst to them, well before their births back in 1999, a Belmont heir entered Dracula's evil castle and not only defeated the master vampire's intended resurrection, but also managed to seal his powers and domain to the then ongoing solar eclipse. Soma Cruz and Mina, who have no connection to the mystical Belmont bloodlines, are rendered unconscious sometime during the imminent eclipse, and awaken in a castle seemingly ripped out of Transylvania's ancient myths.

Though the characters and back-story to Aria of Sorrow are a distinct departure from the Castlevania norm, the actual gameplay is comfortably familiar. Apparently, Aria utilizes an optimized version of the Harmony game engine. From a technological standpoint, this means that we will behold graphics and animation on par, if not improved from the beauty that Harmony offered on the GBA last September. However, despite the near-future setting, the art style utilized in Aria is essentially identical to that of the last few Castlevania games, all the way back to 1996's Symphony of the Night. You will not be seeing any bazooka-wielding skeletal warriors or jet pack-toting zombies in this title. It bears mentioning that Igarashi noted the high level of criticism that Harmony of Dissonance's unimpressive sound technology garnered, and has taken steps to render Aria's soundtrack in a more hi-fi manner, without the sacrifices he claimed were necessary with Harmony.

So, what will make those that have played through Symphony, Circle, and Harmony countless times before return once again to the similarly Metroid-inspired gameplay offered up in Aria? For one, by removing a Belmont hero from the character list, Igarashi was able to implement Symphony's more expanded inventory and equipment system. Soma, like Alucard centuries before, will be wielding a variety of weapons from swords, to daggers, even maces. Unlike Nathan Graves or Juste Belmont from Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance (respectively), Soma will not be wielding the more classic and limiting Vampire Killer whip. Sure to return are the meaty sets of armors, shields, bracers, relics and countless expendable items to collect, equip, and utilize.

It has been confirmed that Soma will retain Alucard and Juste's ability to dash backwards out of danger with the tap of a shoulder button. However, unlike Juste, he will not be able to dash forward into an attack, which was a bit unbalancing as far as difficulty was concerned. Furthermore, Konami has not opted to bring back Circle's DSS card-based magic system, and since Soma is not an heir of Juste's magical blood, neither will he be able to utilize Juste's spellbooks and Spell Fusion system. Even the classic Castlevania sub weapons and very likely the hearts that fueled them will have faded from the fore in this recent iteration of the franchise. Interestingly enough, Soma has the unique ability to perceive and absorb the souls of defeated enemies in order to augment his abilities, perhaps not unlike Nintendo's Samus Aran in Metroid Fusion.

Certain enemies (approximately 100 different ones, in all) will randomly release a soul when defeated, which when collected will allow Soma to utilize its innate abilities, at the cost of magic points. While some of the soul powers will most likely merely replace the missing sub weapons and magical abilities, others will act as the major relics that can grant Soma access to new areas of the maps, such as the Dash, Slide, and Double Jump. Since some players may not have the tenacity or patience to collect all 100 or so souls Konami has included an option to connect two cartridges via link cable and trade souls. This collection and trading gameplay is not unlike that devised by the Pokemon franchise, and should be a welcome addition to handheld Castlevania games. Hopefully, trading of rare equipment and items would also be allowed, though no such feature has been announced. Presumably, and not unlike Pokemon, there will be barriers that restrict Soma from using over-powerful soul abilities traded to him too early into the quest.

Final Thoughts
While I greatly appreciated last year's Harmony of Dissonance, I felt it did not live up to the classic it was inspired by, Symphony of the Night. Nor did it acquire the distinction and challenge that its predecessor, Circle of the Moon, managed to attain as a magnificent GBA launch title. Fortunately, Aria of Sorrow seems set to expand on Harmony's gameplay, perhaps enough so that it will even match (or hopefully) surpass that of Symphony of the Night, all the while introducing yet another new gameplay quirk. I only hope that the soul collecting magic system will prove to be more balanced and better developed than either the DSS or Spell Fusion systems that preceded it. Finally, one thing that Aria of Sorrow needs desperately, perhaps almost as much as a total revamp of its sound processes, is a significant boost in the longevity and difficulty departments.

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