The Castlevania retrospective continues! Well, this time around, it’s the year 2035, and you’re Soma Cruz, the cool teen reincarnation of Dracula. A welcome excuse to turn into a bat again! There’s actually a story this time, and I like it, too, even though every other character — including the legendary Alucard — spends the whole game doing basically nothing.
We’re still without X and Y buttons here, but Aria of Sorrow already feels like Castlevania’s Nintendo DS era. A lot of mechanics come together, sticking around for at least a few games: a reasonable backdash, a variety of primary weapons, and a ditching of the subweapons system, finally daring to mess with the heart-counter that was there since the NES, even though its inclusion hadn’t always made sense. I may be a little biased on that last front, as I always tend to hoard consumables for some ever-distant rainy day, even when I know it’s foolish. But Aria gives you back all your regular resources at the save point, and I like it: I think it’s better suited for meandering exploration.
Aria also manages to improve the visuals without sacrificing sound quality as its predecessor did, which might lead me to believe that it was just an excuse, but word is that the team redeveloped their audio tools for Aria and dedicated “more cartridge space and processor cycles” to sound. This might mean that it never draws quite as many big sprites and effects on screen at a given time — I never really noticed — but it’s impressive that it looks as good as it does, and falls more in line with the Metroid games on the system.
I love the new soul-gathering system: you basically go around obtaining every monster’s ability, as if catching Pokemon, and you equip these as magic spells and passive abilties. It’s hard to describe the joy of killing a “Kicker Skeleton” and stealing its flying kick move. But the execution is unnecessarily grindy. When I wrote about CotM, I mentioned that I was kind of okay with that grind — and I welcomed the opportunity to catch up on some podcasts — but rare items are enough for that, and there was a missed opportunity to do something more creative here than simply killing the same monster until its soul randomly shoots out. If it had taken the form of a thief skill, or a “Blue Magic” type of ability where Soma needs to be hit by the skill in question, it could have lead to some interesting puzzles where specific conditions had to be set up, like getting a monster to low health, or placing some kind of trap down that the monster has to attack, or anything else, because they really could have done whatever they wanted with this.
There’s a ring that boosts drop rates for souls, and because I didn’t have the money to buy it, I chose to wait until the end of the game to fill the gaps in my soul collection. This meant I missed my best chances to play with some fun-looking abilities. And some of the abilities I did have were too similar to each other, like Devil, Manticore, and Khali, where the only difference seemed to be cosmetic. Even so, as it stands, it’s a vast improvement over CotM’s card combination system, and I probably found actual use for 60-75% of them, which was far better than letting one spell carry me through the whole game, which is what happened during Harmony.
I used a variety of weapons, too. You’re not just looking for the biggest stat stick here. I didn’t use the heavier weapons like hammers, but I would alternate between typical horizontal swords and vertically swung broadswords as the situation demanded, or even switching to a sword of another element if the situation called for it. Though we’re not quite in the DS era in this regard — you still only have one attack button, and the single-screen interface makes it tedious to pause and check what an enemy is weak against — if I were fighting something that seemed to be taking many hits to die, I found that for the first time in the series, I was willing to make that change. Sometimes.
It’s the little things, too. I can pause the game without stopping the background music. I can time an attack to land just before I hit the ground to preserve my momentum, and cancel the end of a heavy attack’s animation with a backdash, which elevates the combat to a more interesting level. Suspend saves made their first appearance here, too.
It’s not a hard game, particularly, though you do see the return of extremely rude rooms with conveyor belts that lead into spikes and medusa heads that petrify you so you fall onto the conveyor belts, so all the ingredients are there. You also never get your constitution so high that you won’t take meaningful damage from spikes, which is a little mean, but just good design. On the whole, it’s probably a little easier than CotM, in part because you’re likely to overlevel while killing everything for its soul, but I suspect the diverse weaponry and spells also mean it just isn’t going to be as tight. (It also depends on whether a CotM player is willing to turn on the stationary heal spell and put the GBA down for a few minutes.)
Though it can annoying to switch between the power that makes you sink in water and the power that lets you stand on water, the use of water is far more creative than the barriers found in Dracula’s last two castles. Though you don’t get to wall-kick this time around, there’s generally more of a focus on movement than on finding the right keys for a series of bland doors, such as the ability that makes Soma fall very slowly, allowing him to extend the horizontal distance of a jump. I’m certain Aria has the best castle design of the GBA games.
Aria’s boss battles are inconsistent. Some were decent takes on classics, like Death. Many were immediately forgettable. Legion was standard, but the lead-up, featuring creepy clay dolls in the nearby chambers all collectively shuffling over to the boss room, was an amazing touch. Seeing as you’re Dracula, the final battle was probably doomed to be anticlimactic — a boring affair against a big skeletal mass with some orbs you need to shatter — but the penultimate boss is Julius Belmont, wielding Vampire Killer and all the usual subweapons, and it’s absolutely a cut above any fight in CotM or Harmony.
This time around, postgame content includes Hard mode and an actual New Game Plus. Who doesn’t love New Game Plus? It’s possible to kill at least one boss without getting its soul, in which case NG+ is a good way to get to 100%, but I managed to do it the first time around and already claimed the ultimate reward — a piece of equipment which gives Soma infinite MP — so even on Hard, NG+ would just be a way to bully all the monsters in the castle while constantly stopping time or making yourself literally invincible. If I had played this in 2003, I might have done it to get the exclusive NG+ weapons (such as Death’s scythe), but as of now I’d prefer not to linger.
There’s also a mode where you play as Julius Belmont. It’s a great idea, and he’s fun with his MP-based subweapons — he carries the holy water, axe, and cross at all times, instead of needing to find one to switch to it — but as with Maxim mode in Harmony, it’s been shoehorned into what’s supposed to be a progression-based game. I remember actually leveling up in the DS bonus modes, but Julius still doesn’t seem to here, and the first boss dies in about two hits. I think I’m good.