Released: May 6, 2003 (Game Boy Advance); Oct. 23, 2014 (WiiU)
Developer/Publisher: Konami Computer Entertainment, Tokyo
Platforms: Game Boy Advance, WiiU Virtual Console
Genre(s): action-adventure, RPG, metroidvania
Producer: Koji Igarashi
Aria of Sorrow is the final installment in a trio of Castlevania games released for the Game Boy Advance (or GBA) in the early 2000s. Preceeded by Circle of the Moon and considered to be the definitive GBA Castlevania game, it is said to the best out of the three.
Even though I have not played the other two games ( . . .yet . . .) I can certainly understand why Aria of Sorrow was received to positively back in 2003. When I first started playing, it wasn’t very long before I found myself completely immersed. I played for about two and a half hours without even realizing it. I think that’s just how it is whenever I get my hands on a metroidvania-style game; they are my absolute favorite type of game in existence. I love them even more than RPGs.
The features kept me playing through this game to the very end are the very ones that drew me ever deeper into the first game of this type I ever played: Metroid Prime. I can still remember the kinds of questions that were running through my head as I played:
What it that I need to do in this place?
What’s in all those rooms that I can’t get to yet?
What kinds of new weapons/items/abilities am I gonna find on this journey?
How much of an unstoppable killing machine will I become before everything is said and done?
Aria‘s story is a bit of a departure from your average Castlevania affair. It takes place in the year 2035 in Tokyo, Japan. And instead of playing as one of the Belmonts or Richters (or even Alucard), you get a completely new character by the name of Soma Cruz. I bet that the Castlevania fans of the early 2000s were all like, “Who the heck is this dude and why does he look like Alucard from Symphony of the Night? Come on, now. We’re all thinking it. I mean, look at him and then look at the Son of Dracula over here. That same white hair, that same pale skin . . .they really look like they could be related, don’t they?
Aria of Sorrow opens with Soma living in Japan as an exchange student near the Hakuba Shrine. During a solar eclipse, the first one of the 21st century, he visits the shrine with his childhood friend Mina Hakuba. Suddenly they, along with several other people are drawn into said eclipse where the powers of the infamous Dracula himself lie sealed. You see, the Belmont Clan finally managed to destroy him for good back in 1999. They were the ones both his castle and his powers within the eclipse in the first place and I seriously want a game about how all of that went down. I wonder if that is what one of the preceeding GBA titles was about.
Getting back to the story, it seems that all involved have been summoned to the castle because of a prophesy that states that Dracula’s reincarnation would return to it in 2035 to inherit his powers. Wonder who it could possibly be. Soma’s been killing monsters, absorbing their souls, and and using their powers. Yep, putting all my money on him.
Aria of Sorrow is, at its core, an action-RPG which makes it heavily combat oriented. There’s hardly a moment that goes by when you’re not defending yourself from a gaggle of ghouls. Every kind of creature you can imagine stalks the halls of Drac’s shockingly immense castle from the Hanging Gardens to the Underground Resevoir. I had no idea how huge this place was when I started out in this game. There’s also critters that you would never imagine a million years. I’m talking about cockatrices, a manticore or two and the skeletons that kick you, shoot laser beams, and . . .throw curry???
Constantly getting harassed by monsters isn’t all that bad, though. They can drop some pretty useful items: armor, weapons, and accessories you can either keep or sell to the weird guy in front of the castle. More about that in a sec. You get experience points from every single monster you defeat which you need to level up and increase your character stats. It’s a good idea to level up as much as possible throughout your quest. Otherwise, you WILL be getting your pixelated butt handed to you on a regular basis. Also, allow for some strategic level grinding before particularly difficult boss fights.
Everything gets harder and harder the deeper you venture into the castle. Tougher enemies, crazier bosses, and new obstacles that will stop you dead in your tracks and make you scratch your head and wonder, “ What the heck am I supposed to do about this?!” Thankfully, you’ll regularly find better equipment and defeating bosses nets you crucial abilities that just make it all so much easier.
The monsters you’re almost always fighting drop red soul orbs every so often that let you use their powers in battle. They are divided into three categories: the ones you can attack with (RED), active (YELLOW), and passive (BLUE). Together they are known as the Tactical Soul System and I have no idea is my classification of it is correct. It was never really explained at all in-game.
Dracula’s Flippin’ Castle
It’s flippin’ huge!I had absolutely no idea just how huge this place would turn out to be. It easily rivals the world maps of both Super Metroid and Symphony of the Night. It may even surpass them. I am seriously questioning whether or not Dracula’s castle could be considered its own world within a world. It is divided up into many different areas: Main Corridor, Dance Hall, Clock Tower, etc. There are more but I can’t recall them all. There are secret rooms passages everywhere so exploration is a vital part of the gameplay. And since Aria of Sorrow is a metroidvania type of game, backtracking is a must.
Strangely, backtracking is one of the aspects I actually enjoy about this kind of game. I find it satisfying to return to an area, effortlessly destroy the enemies that gave me such a hard time, and then find something entirely new using a new skill or weapon I found along the way. This is exactly why I got sucked into every Metroid game I’ve ever played. This Castlevania game was no different.
Aria of Sorrow was exactly the kind of gaming experience I was looking for when I rediscovered it on my long-neglected e-shop wishlist. I honestly can’t even begin to remember exactly why I put it there or what possessed me to download it out of the blue the way that I did. And thank goodness I did. I would have missed out on something truly special . . .AGAIN. (I never had a GBA back in the early 2000s. Awful, isn’t it?) Playing this game was one hell of a way to be formally introduced to this series. Now I truly understand why it was/still is seen as the defining title of the GBA Trio by both critics and fans alike. Aria has the best visuals, gameplay, and the most interesting deviations from the ‘tradional’ storyline. It introduces an all-new character with such cool powers, something I don’t think happens very often when it comes to these games.