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Retro Runback: Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow
2020-08-13 12:57:59

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is a 2D side-scrolling Metroidvania title. Developed by Konami and released in 2003, this title was produced by Koji Igarashi (IGA) who was renowned for the 1997 hit, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Featuring the artistic talent of Ayami Kojima, and music by Michiru Yamane, this title brought the Symphony team together for another experience on Game Boy Advance.

With that being said, I recently beat Aria of Sorrow for over the dozenth time. As my favorite Game Boy Advance game, I wanted to go back and play it to see how well it’s aged. In today’s era, IGA released Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, the spiritual successor to his Castlevania titles. Therefore, I figured I would return to celebrate one of his best works and see how it stacks up with his latest endeavor.

Story

Aria of Sorrow takes place in 2035 and is set decades after the final defeat of Dracula in 1999. When college student Soma Cruz vanishes from the Hakuba Shrine, he appears at the entrance of Dracula’s Castle. Caught in a solar eclipse, he is greeted by his childhood friend, Mina, and the mysterious Genya Arikado. The latter brought Soma to the castle to discover the truth behind his soul-stealing powers.

The title introduces several characters which include both friendly and hostile faces. Perhaps the most pressing thing about Aria is that it is not your traditional “end Dracula’s reign” game. In fact, Aria of Sorrow may have perhaps the biggest twist in the series’ history.

Aria of Sorrow brings together the new protagonist, Soma, Yoko Belnades, a descendant of Sypha Belnades from Castlevania III, the Belmonts, and Dracula’s son, Alucard, together to help stop Dracula’s evil once more. As Soma, you will venture through the castle in order to uncover the truth behind your powers. Plus Aria of Sorrow features multiple endings including a particularly engaging Bad Ending. For a 2D Metroidvania title, it features an astounding plot.

Audiovisual

Konami released Aria of Sorrow mere months after Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance. While the latter featured bright, colorful visuals, Konami sacrificed the audio quality. While Harmony of Dissonance had wonderful melodies, composed by Yamane, it could only handle playing 8-bit chiptune music. Aria of Sorrow managed to not only feature gorgeous visuals but did so without downscaling the sound quality.

Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance (2002)

In Aria of Sorrow, the animations stand out wonderfully. Soma’s coat animates well with his movements while enemies engage him with various attacks. Plus the Soul system offers creative animations for each of your abilities.

Perhaps the excel point of Aria’s visuals include its gorgeous background decor. Each area wonderfully separates itself from the others and looks beautiful, majestic, and gothic. You will certainly appreciate the background pseudo-lighting effects as well.

If you enjoy strong gaming soundtracks, Aria of Sorrow delivers in spades. Michiru Yamane’s soundtrack stands strong to include “Castle Corridor,” “Heart of Fire,” and features subtle remixes of “Cross Your Heart” and “Bloody Tears.” One of my favorites includes “You’re Not Alone” which plays near the game’s ending.

Gameplay

Aria of Sorrow follows the side-scrolling Metroidvania formula set forth by its predecessors. The game encourages you to explore as you fill in your map, break hidden walls, and gain abilities to open up new areas. You can double-jump, transform, slide, and even fly as a Bat.

Combat involves hacking and slashing while equipping new weapons. You can use swords, lances, knuckles, and even firearms. Despite setting itself apart with the use of Guns, the long-range weapons feel remarkably apropos.

Perhaps the most pressing and significant part of the gameplay involves the Souls mechanic. As Soma wields the Power of Dominance, he can absorb the soul of any enemy he defeats. Similar to the Persona series, each soul comes with different abilities. You can equip up to three at a time to configure various combinations.

Between the souls and weapons, players can use a variety of combinations to play in their own style. This mechanic opened up the door to the Glyph system used in Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia as well as the Shards used in Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night.

Extras

After beating Aria of Sorrow, you unlock Boss Rush Mode, Hard Mode, New Game+, and Julius Mode. Boss Rush mode lets you fight against all of the bosses in the game. Clearing within various time limits grants you powerful weapons, such as Excalibur and Positron Rifle.

Unlocking Hard Mode allows you to play with or without a new file if you so choose. New Game Plus will carry over all except a few souls to your next playthrough. Players seeking a challenge can also input NOUSE and NOSOUL to restrict the use of items and souls, respectively. Furthermore, New Game Plus also allows players to discover new weapons not seen in the first playthrough. Clearing the map 100% also features extra dialogue in the ending.

Finally, Julius Mode continues the tradition of unlocking a character to play through the game as them. In this case, players can use Julius Belmont who uses MP for sub-weapons. Julius comes armed with the Vampire Killer whip, a super jump, and a teleport-dash that resembles Akuma’s from Street Fighter. He’s fun to play and quite powerful. Unfortunately, as per tradition with IGA’s extra character modes, I wish they added dialogue to move the story forward.

How does it fare today?

Koji Igarashi released Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night in 2019. The side-scrolling Metroidvania title featured the spiritual successor to his Castlevania titles. When Konami underwent their worst years, and rebooted Castlevania as Lords of Shadow, IGA left to form his own studio, ArtPlay.

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night (2019)

Bloodstained offers much of the charm you could expect from Castlevania. It features similar gameplay and progression. The side-scrolling gameplay and exploration, and epic boss battles feature series’ hallmarks. Plus it even recently added Zangetsu Mode which echoes the second character mode of IGAvanias.

However, I don’t think its visual polish ever got better than a lighting upgrade before its release. Even in HD, the game looked fairly standard to me. Despite a visual facelift prior to release, I still never found myself impressed with Bloodstained’s visuals as much as I did with Aria of Sorrow’s sprite work.

Plus some parts of the game weren’t properly utilized. If you needed to swim underwater, you found the ability through progression in Aria. Bloodstained makes you kill a random water enemy to gain the swimming ability and I feel that was one of the pacing issues I had with it.

However, I do recommend Bloodstained for any Metroidvania fan. Anyone wanting a callback to IGA’s best games will find plenty of love and polish in Bloodstained. Overall, though, while Aria of Sorrow is one of best IGA’s games, Bloodstained does well on its own as a Metroidvania side-scroller.

Final Thoughts

My only gripe with Aria of Sorrow is that it’s a bit short. To this date, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is still the longest game largely thanks to the Inverted Castle. Moreover, it was developed on the PlayStation which held more memory than the GBA. Despite this, Aria of Sorrow is a clean, polished adventure from start to finish. Plus, Aria of Sorrow rewards players with an incentive to beat the game more than once.

The Soul System remains one of the best gameplay mechanics ever introduced. I love being able to combine and customize which abilities I can use. Projectiles, support skills, and passive abilities were all organized easily and user-friendly.

The variety also gave life to endless combinations and I enjoyed getting to pick and choose what to use. Plus the weapon system went a step above Symphony of the Night’s. Greatswords were much larger and the weapons offered much more variety.

Overall, Aria of Sorrow just felt like a nice, complete package. It was a polished, near-perfect little game that I’ve come back to for over 15 years. It’s my favorite title on the Game Boy Advance and one I recommend today. However, with the exception of the Wii U eShop release, Aria of Sorrow was never released outside of the Game Boy Advance. Despite this, I highly recommend Aria of Sorrow. If you enjoy side-scrollers and Metroidvanias, track this game down. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I do.

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