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Saturday, May 6, 2023

‘Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow’ Remains the Best “Sequel” to ‘Symphony of the Night’

After briefly flirting with the idea of a 3D Castlevania with the Nintendo 64, Konami decided to go back to the 2D well with the Game Boy Advance. And seeing as the “Metroidvania” style was still hot, it made sense for Konami to try and continue it. Disappointingly for some, neither of the first two GBA entries were quite able to approach the de facto Metroidvania in Symphony of the Night. With the third and final GBA entry, 2003’s Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, Konami appeared to finally get as close to Symphony as they could, despite the hardware limitations. That fact still remains true, two decades later.

Switching away from the traditional Castlevania story, Aria of Sorrow takes place in 2035 in Japan. Soma Cruz is an exchange student living near the Hakuba shrine. During a solar eclipse, Soma visits the Hakuba shrine with his childhood friend, Mina Hakuba. Suddenly, Soma and Mina are drawn into the eclipse, appearing at a mysterious castle. The two meet a government agent named Genya Arikado, who explains that they are in Dracula’s castle. After Arikado defeats a group of monsters that suddenly appears in front of the group, one of the monsters’ souls is absorbed by Soma. Arikado explains that Soma has the power to absorb the abilities of the monsters he kills. Arikado then tells Soma to enter the castle and go to “the Master’s chamber” in order for him and Mina to return home.

The turn from the familiar Castlevania story frees Aria from the constraints set up by the now well-trodden establishment. Admittedly, story was never really a big part of Castlevania games. But the idea that it’s someone new doing the vampire slaying in Soma, and the fact that Dracula is nowhere to be found, refreshes things much like what Symphony did. There are some pretty obvious tropes in Aria, such as Mina’s role. And it’s pretty blatant that Arikado is Alucard. The latter is included as fanservice, much like the mysterious J, who eventually is revealed as the required Belmont component for a Castlevania game in Julius Belmont. In fact, Julius recreates the famous encounter at the beginning of Symphony in one of the endings. It all ties into the idea of Aria taking inspiration from Symphony, but also tweaking things to stand on its own.

The obvious highlight for many Symphony fans was its gameplay. And as mentioned, the first two GBA games tried to capitalize on that aspect, but ended up falling short. Circle of the Moon had the exploration aspect, but largely veered in its own direction with the platforming that catered more towards the old-school Castlevanias. Meanwhile, Harmony of Dissonance veered in the other direction, and adhered too closely with Symphony that it offered little in variation. Once again, Koji Igarashi managed to find that sweet spot in the gameplay that took the best of what Symphony had to offer, but balanced it enough to create a unique take.

That unique take being the new Tactical Soul System, which condenses the relics mechanic of Symphony with the subweapons of traditional Castlevanias, while also offering up a collection mechanic. You have three categories of souls: Bullet (which replace the subweapons), Guardian (temporary defensive abilities you activate with the R Button), and Enchanted (which are passive skills). Along with those sets are Ability Souls, which function like the relics from Symphony. Each enemy has its own unique soul to collect, along with a rare weapon/item drop. Admittedly, those who detest grinding won’t find any respite here, but the drive to collect the 100 souls in the game, just to see what you get from having them activated, is a great incentive. Not to mention the fact that what ending you get also depends on the size of your collection, and the fact that you and a friend could trade souls with the GBA link cable.

Of course, you can’t call it a proper successor to Symphony of the Night if the castle exploration isn’t up to snuff. Thankfully, Aria is up to the task. Much like the TSS streamlining the magic system, the map in Aria of Sorrow streamlines where you have to go, and what you need to have, in order to unlock new areas. While it’s admittedly less open than Symphony, the result means you won’t walk into an area where you’re severely underpowered, making the game’s challenge a bit more even. This also means that you won’t end up wandering the castle aimlessly, wondering where you’re supposed to go next. You’ll still have plenty to explore, mind you, and with the need to repeatedly beat enemies to get their souls, it offsets the “restricted” nature when compared to Symphony.

Graphically, Aria replicates Ayami Kojima’s art style quite well, maintaining detail on the Game Boy Advance hardware with enough information in the background graphics that replicates the gothic feel of Symphony. Obviously, the GBA isn’t as powerful as the PlayStation. But compared to the barren and miniscule sprites in Circle of the Moon, and the more detailed but overly bright graphics of Harmony that bordered on garish, Aria finds that “just right” spot that looks and feels superior to the previous outings on the hardware. There are still a few palette swaps when it comes to the regular enemies, but there are fun ones like the Chronomage (basically the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland) that mix with the series’ standards that keep fans happy.

While the bosses in Aria aren’t quite as eclectic as one would hope, there are still some unique fights that help to distract from the familiar. A dramatic entrance by the giant Balore crushing the series’ staple Giant Bat before fighting you is a nice touch. As is the fight with the Headhunter, which draws inspiration from Return to Oz‘s Princess Mombi, and sees you fight her and her multiple heads.

It’s pretty much a given that a Castlevania game is going to have awesome music. And the returning Michiru Yamane doesn’t disappoint. “Castle Corridor” is an excellent opening track for when you first enter the castle, while “Clock Tower” is absolutely amazing in terms of its progression from what starts out as a quiet composition into a driving rock track. The soundtrack is the best of the GBA trilogy (certainly better than Harmony‘s), and despite having that that familiar GBA hiss and low-quality sampling, it’s easily up there with the best of the series.

Certainly, Aria of Sorrow isn’t perfect. To go along with the previously-mentioned qualms in the “restrictedness” when compared to Symphony and the hardware limitations, the TSS, while overall a novel idea that’s very much a welcome addition, but needs refinement. With 100 souls to collect, there’s understandably going to be a few duds. Some souls are much more useful than others, while there are souls that perform the same function with different graphics. You only really need two souls to complete the game, and even then, the Floater and Deep Seeker Ability Souls should have been combined into one. Having separate souls for navigating water, and having to switch between the two of them, is kind of annoying. The good news is that Igarashi was able to improve the mechanic in the sequel, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, as well as his spiritual successor to Symphony in Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night.

But in spite of the imperfect implementation of the TSS, Aria of Sorrow succeeds in bringing fans of the Metroidvania Castlevanias a game that’s as close to Symphony of the Night as you can get. The graphics, gameplay and music are all comparable to the 1997 classic, all of which are churned out by hardware that had no business trying to mimic what the PS1 had cranked out just six years earlier. What’s probably most satisfying for fans is that Aria still holds up all these years later, despite the age of the tech. It certainly won’t replace Symphony of the Night, but it’s definitely a worthy follow up for a classic.


The post ‘Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow’ Remains the Best “Sequel” to ‘Symphony of the Night’ appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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