Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (GBA) Review

After a long break its time to complete our look at the GBA Castlevania games with Aria of Sorrow, finally mine after the recently released “Castlevania Advance Collection”. A lot of people site Aria as their favourite Castlevania of all time and it’s not hard to see why, its certainly the closest any game’s come to capturing the fun and freedom of Symphony of the Night. So let’s finally take a look at it!

Background:

Hmmm… a giant skull with eyeball worms coming out of it. Fair enough.

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow was released in May 2003 across all major regions, with one or two days difference here and there. It was surprisingly unpopular in Japan but a massive hit in the US, securing a very rare direct sequel on the Nintendo DS titled “Dawn of Sorrow”.

It was re-released on the PS4, XBOX ONE, Switch and PC on September 23rd 2021 as part of the Castlevania: Advance Collection that also featured the two previous GBA games in Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance, plus the SNES game Dracula X (not sure if I’ll get round to that…)

Gameplay:

Summoning the Soul of Valkyrie to slice Lilith in half! … Or turn her into fire, I guess. As all Castlevania enemies do!

The gameplay is a traditional “Metroidvania” that this series is perhaps best known for, that being the gameplay is a 2D action platformer whereby you slowly uncover a large map and are allowed to freely backtrack to older areas to access new paths using newly unlocked abilities. It also still retains all the RPG elements like levelling up via experience points giving you more Health and Magic and collecting new armour and potions via enemy drops and an in-game shop. What’s more is that unlike the previous two entries that saw the return of a protagonist wielding a whip our new protagonist Soma can switch weapons and pick up / buy new ones, ranging from a slow heavy axe to a fast sword to even a handgun, much like Symphony of the Night’s protagonist Alucard (minus the handgun).

The big new system in Aria of Sorrow is the “Tactical Soul” system where you absorb the souls of defeated enemies that you can then use for yourself. They’re rare drops much like the cards in Circle of the Moon and fit into three categories: Bullet, Guardian, and Enchant, or offensive, protective and status buffs (with a few exceptions, like some Guardian souls are actually Familiars you can keep around you that will attack enemies), and you can only have one of each soul active at one time. Also much like the Cards from Circle of the Moon it can be very addictive to try and collect them all, not that I actually did in the end (some of them are just stupidly rare and don’t really do anything helpful…) but it’s a very fun system. There are also “Ability souls” but they’re just your classic post-boss permanent new abilities that you can use to access new areas that are a staple of the sub-genre.

Yeah, no. F*ck this.

Also I have to mention how this is very much the “Goldilocks” game of the GBA trilogy as it’s perfectly balanced between sometimes challenging but still always fun unlike Circle of the Moon being at times frustratingly difficult while Harmony of Dissonance was extremely easy the whole way through.

There are a couple of bonus modes unlocked after you beat the game once: New Game Plus (as per usual you start a new game but with your level, equipment and souls carrying over from your previous play through), Boss Rush (… a Boss Rush) and Julius Mode, where you can play through the game as Julius Belmont, complete with the whip and traditional side weapons of his ancestors!

Graphics and Sound:

This seems somewhat unfair…

Being mildly OCD I did recomplete the two previous games before finally getting to this and the difference graphically is very clear. Gone are the blurry sprites with thick borders, gone are muddy and grey backgrounds, all replaced with very visually pleasing new sprites and artwork. Even some of the standard monsters have been completely redrawn for the far-better. Obviously its still not Symphony of the Night level good, the GBA still wasn’t PS1 level, but they really get the job done.

Sound is also a noticeable upgrade, Harmony of Dissonance is really the odd one out of the GBA trilogy in terms of background music as Aria of Sorrow is up there with Circle of the Moon and even SotN. Some really catchy and/or atmospheric tunes, and the soundeffects are pleasing to the ear as well. Aria is visually and audibly a great game, no doubt.

Story:

Look at those eyebrows, there’s no way he’s not evil!

In 1999 Dracula was defeated once and for all by Julius Belmont, his powers and castle sealed in a solar eclipse and only a prophecy of Dracula’s reincarnation arriving to claim the Dark Lord’s power left hanging in the air.

In 2035 transfer student Soma Cruz walks to the Hakuba Shrine in Japan with his childhood friend Mina in order to view the solar eclipse when the pair suddenly find themselves outside the entrance to Dracula’s castle. They meet Alucard (who has decided to go with the rather unimaginative alias of “Genya Arikado”) who shows Soma that he has the ability to not only attack the demonic creatures inhabiting the place but absorb their souls, adding that if Soma wants to rescue Mina and himself then he better pop into the castle and get killing, well, not in those words, but that’s the gist! During his early travels Soma runs into Missionary Graham Jones, an ex-army man named Hammer (who decides to open up a shop and sell you his old weapons), Yoko Belnades of the famous magic-wielding Belnades clan, and a mysterious amnesiac simply named “J”.

*Story spoilers in the next paragraph!*

As Soma proceeds deeper in the castle he soon becomes aware of a few things: first that Graham Jones is actually evil and wishes to inherit the powers of Dracula because he believes the fact he was born on the day the count died makes him the ideal candidate, second that HE is actually the reincarnation of Dracula and is due to inherit all of the Count’s powers, and third that “J” is actually Julius Belmont, who soon believes he may have no choice but to kill Soma if he becomes the next Dracula. Soma defeats Graham and bests Julius in battle, then asks the latter to kill him if he should be unable to control the dark power. Soma soon travels to an alternate dimension called the Chaotic Realm and confronts the very source of Chaos that governs the power he now inherits and defeats it, becoming the reincarnation of Dracula but retaining his good personality.  The castle once again crumbles and is sealed behind the eclipse and Soma, Mina, Alucard, Yoko, Hammer and Julius all return home…

*Story spoilers are now over!*

Overall it’s an enjoyable story with a likeable, if not EXTREMELY NAÏVE protagonist. That being said I still can’t believe Dracula’s final defeat was done off-screen! After all the times we’ve controlled a character to defeat him and his final end is just referenced as having already happened. Crazy…

Thoughts Now:

The showdown with Julius was without a doubt the hardest part of the game. It took many a retry, let me tell you, it’s no wonder he’s the one who finally destroyed Dracula!

Aria of Sorrow is a great example of the “Metroidvania” sub-genre and just a great game in general. While I wouldn’t say for me it surpasses Symphony like some feel I can see why it’s so often down to one or the other (with a few picking one of the DS games as well, to be fair…) It has the right balance of challenge, good sprite work and a great soundtrack. What else do you need for a good couple of nights in?

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