Original release date: 2003
While I’ve enjoyed many of the older Castlevania games, the series fell into the trap of retreading the same thing over and over with minimal changes. Super Castlevania felt like the ultimate culmination of the NES games, utilizing what was good about them while minimizing the archaic baggage that made them a chore to get through. None of the games that came after Super Castlevania were bad, but they didn’t do much to innovate or improve off of Super Castlevania, and most just feel like variations of the same thing.
Then came Symphony of the Night. While the story and characters weren’t very different from the other Castlevania games, the gameplay saw massive changes. Instead of a linear sequence of levels, the game featured a far more open ended structure, with a large world map and a great deal of exploration instead of just combat. It, along with Super Metroid pioneered a new genre that became known as “Metroidvania.” This new gameplay structure breathed new life into Castlevania, and while this formula would also eventually become stale, it allowed for the creation of several other phenomenal games. One of which was Aria of Sorrow.
On the surface Aria of Sorrow looks very similar to Symphony of the Night, but it actually does a fair amount to stand on its own. The first major difference is in the story and the setting. The game takes place inside of Dracula’s castle, but unlike the medieval setting most of the games have, the story is set in the future, specifically the year 2035. And the main antagonist isn’t actually Dracula. The game reveals that Dracula was destroyed for good in 1999, but that the time has come when someone else will inherit his powers and become the new dark lord, and much of the game’s plot revolves around figuring out who will inherit Dracula’s powers.
The story is not the focus of the game, it never has been for this series. But the story elements that are present are quite good. The story is easy to follow, and the way it subverts and rearranges the typical Castlevania tropes is quite clever, and provides an experience that is both familiar and fresh. The characters, though basic, are all likeable, and they undergo a bit more growth than the characters in most Castlevania games.
Gameplay wise Aria of Sorrow is very similar to Symphony of the Night. You start off having access to only part of the castle, and you have to defeat enemies and acquire tools that enable you to unlock more areas of the castle.
One of the biggest changes Aria of Sorrow brings is in the Soul collecting system. Whenever you defeat a monster, you have a small chance of absorbing its soul, and gaining a new ability from it. This adds a lot of variety and replayability to the game, as the different souls offer different ways of overcoming obstacles, and aside from certain souls that are required to continue, you never know which soul you’ll get next.
But while the Soul system is overall quite good, it does have its problems. Some souls are much more useful than others, and there isn’t really any way to get use out of souls you don’t need. It’s also possible to get duplicates of the same soul, which exacerbates this issue.
Another problem is that a lot of the souls are rather redundant, and the way the souls are organized could have been simplified more. For example, there are two souls you obtain that are required to complete the game. One lets you walk on water, while the other lets you walk under water. The problem is that you can’t use both at the same time, you have to constantly switch back and forth between the two as necessary, which becomes really tedious. It’s the same issue with the water temple from Ocarina of Time, and Aria of Sorrow should have come up with a better way of organizing some of its souls. A more elegant solution would be to just make both souls an automatic ability once the player obtains them, allowing the player to both walk on water and underwater without having to sift through a menu every single time they want to switch from one to the other. And while that is probably the biggest issue when it comes to the souls system, there are a few other souls that could have been implemented more elegantly than they were.
Beyond that, the overall flow of the game is quite good, and getting from one side of the castle to the other is noticeably less tedious than in Symphony of the Night, which had a number of overly long hallways. The gameplay is fun and engaging, even on subsequent playthroughs, and the detailed sprites and environments are extremely nice to look at.
One thing that bothered me was that the game shows what percentage of the map you’ve explored at all times, which kind of takes away some of the mystery of the castle, and the game would have been a little better without it. And while the game is overall excellent, the ending is rather anticlimactic. And before you ask, both of them.
But while suffering from a few shortcomings, Aria of Sorrow more than makes up for them with what it does right. It takes many classic elements from both the linear and metroidvania Castlevanias that came before it, while still offering its own unique spin to the franchise. Like many Game boy Advance games, it’s aged remarkably well, and is right up there with Symphony of the Night in terms of sheer creativity and quality. If you’re a fan of Castlevania, you should definitely check it out if you haven’t already.
How well it holds up 4/4
Personal Enjoyment 5/5
Overall quality 9/10
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