Aria of Sorrow is the lyrical subtitle that stamps the sequel to
Konami's Harmony of Dissonance, both titles in the Castlevania line of games. Sorrow is proof that a Castlevania title doesn't have to revolve around the storied Belmont family. Following Soma Cruz, the new protagonist, Sorrow takes place in the not too distant future when Cruz and his female companion, Mina, get stuck in Dracula's castle upon a solar eclipse. Dark daytime hours and even darker nighttimes gives great promise to this Gothic horror adventure.
The story begins in a state of distress. Cruz is in another one of those damned if you do, damned if you don't type of quests. He must go into the castle to get to the bottom of his situation and rescue his friend Mina. Unlike the Belmont family members, Cruz is outfitted with a short sword, which luckily isn't that short as it gives enough range to safely dispatch his foes without bringing him too close to harm. There is a lot of great action in the game. Foes will hurl themselves towards you while zombies, skeletons and all manners of the undead spring up in front of you and behind you as well. The pacing is excellent and you're never at a loss for action.
Some of the most traditional trappings of Castlevania return here.
Dracula's housekeepers continue to hide goodies amongst the candles.
Going once through a level never means going through it entirely. Some parts of the level will be blocked off because you lack a certain skill to access it. This brings us to the next topic: learning new skills.
Cruz, like all the other protagonists in Castlevania, is capable of learning new things. The system of doing so in Sorrow is to absorb the souls of your fallen enemies. Depending on the enemy, you'll either absorb the ability to shoot projectiles (this is somewhat like 2D shooters where you get a power-up), amass defensive/offensive enchantments and guardians and finally, learn new skills like dashes or the perennially popular double jump.
Similar to Rayman, or more specifically, like Castlevania itself, the double jump would enable you to backtrack to get extra bonuses or crucial items in a level. It entails a special button combination and as skills are learnt, you'll realize this is part of the tutorial process itself; fast becoming a trend in platform games. I do see a problem with this if you wish to replay the game from scratch. You'll lose all your abilities again but I think Konami is trying to capitalize on the "collectable" market. If you recall the reason behind the success of Pokemon or Monster Rancher, the facility to customize characters and collect the abilities to do was a big part of their raison d'etre. No doubt, this type of mentality doesn't hurt Sorrow.
Sorrow makes some incremental enhancements to Harmony of Dissonance. In its level design, it involves slightly less backtracking than its predecessor, which is a good thing. The backtracking is a good gimmick but one that was used too much, in my opinion, for the last title.
Sorrow also handles the new skills better by working with the button placements of the Game Boy Advance (SP and original), rather than working against it.
For all the features that are different, there is a two to one ratio of things that remained the same. Considering the high level of standard that Harmony of Dissonance set for the Game Boy Advance, that's undoubtedly a good thing. The graphics, for example, remain top notch from a technical standpoint. Animated backdrops, detailed interiors and moody Gothic motifs pervade throughout the innards of Dracula's lair. Unfortunately, there are precious few references to the 21st century date. Unlike the sophisticated vampires in the Blade movie franchise, these ones are highly content in using holy water, swords, whips, and yes, even candlelight. Ultimately, this is an aesthetic judgment. Sorrow continues to be a treat for the eye.
On the audio front, Sorrow doesn't disappoint either. I continue to hark on attention to detail when it comes to handheld titles. A typical PC or console game may have hundreds of sound effects. On a handheld title, which sometimes runs as long as the PC or console version, a few dozen effects isn't going to cut it. Sorrow puts in all the chimes and whistles where they need to be to keep this from becoming a morbidly silent game. The soundtrack wasn't something that compelled me to look for the MP3s, like Planescape: Torment or Square's Final Fantasy VII, but it was decent enough for a Game Boy Advance title and definitely did not tarnish the Castlevania name.
The 2D platform genre is one that holds its own on the Game Boy Advance, most probably because of the inherent hardware design. Elsewhere, it's sadly falling into a state of disuse as everyone and their dog begin converting everything into 3D polygonal objects. Sorrow is a very polished 2D platform game. But it is only a 2D platform game and is limited by the design and scope that this genre has to offer. From what I've seen so far in Sorrow and its predecessor, this attentive, almost meticulous craftwork put into Castlevania ought to be transferred to a mainstream console or even the PC; my own backhanded compliment to the developers.
With Harmony of Dissonance, you got your hands on a great Castlevania game for the Game Boy Advance. The futuristic setting in Sorrow offers the same but not much else except some new levels, a different character building system, all evolutionary, not revolutionary, features. If you missed out on playing Harmony of Dissonance, Sorrow is a great way to get re-introduced to Castlevania. If you played Harmony of Dissonance and wished you could play more, Sorrow is the perfect game for you.