Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is the third and (as of this writing) most recent version of Castlevania for Game Boy Advance. You play the role of Soma Cruz who, along with his friend Mina Hakuba, decide to watch the first solar eclipse in a long time at the Hakuba Shrine that Minas family watches over. You pass out, and when you awake you find yourself in Draculas castle, coincidently located within the eclipse. It is here you start your adventure, looking for a way out, where you find that you have a special power - you can absorb the souls of the monsters you defeat, and gain their powers.
So what is this game like?
This game is a 2D action/adventure platform game with RPG elements in it. In some ways it is similar to other Castlevania games in that it takes place in Draculas castle with many of his minions inside to cause some trouble. In other ways, it is different. You do not play the part of a Belmont or an associate thereof, nor do you use a whip as your primary weapon. You can use a whole host of weapons, including knives, swords, axes, hammers, spears, brass knuckles, and even a handgun or two. The closest thing to a whip is the whip sword, but unfortunately it is not all that powerful as the game goes on. There are many magical powers you can gain access to. There are over 110 different souls available to collect, and each one gives Soma a specific power. Many of these are called Bullet souls which give you a specific attack power, similar to daggers, holy water, axe throws, etc. from other Castlevania games. Other souls are Guardian souls which allow you to transform into something else, gain defensive or offensive power, or other effects that take up magic points as long as they are active. Enchanted souls have enhancing effects like attribute bonuses, etc. Ability souls are the last type of soul, and when they are given to you Soma is given new abilities, like double jump, slide, etc. You can have one of each type of soul (except Ability souls, which are always on) active at a time. Soul harvesting (which is technically somewhat optional) plays an important part in this game. Soma gains new powers by gaining new souls; there is no other way. Many bosses give you a soul whenever you beat them, while most enemies give you theirs randomly whenever they are defeated. There are several items which help increase your chance of getting a soul upon killing a creature, including raising your luck which always makes a difference. Some harvesting is needed in order to get the best ending, and without a few in particular, you can miss important parts of the game. Even still, most of the time as you play you will randomly get some without too much effort; but if you put in the extra effort it really pays off. The castle houses a fairly large map with many secret areas. It feels slightly smaller than Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, but that may be in part because of the much faster pace of this game - you travel much more quickly. Movement in general is much more fluid as well. The controls are incredibly tight and respond exactly as you would expect them to. There is also a really nice New Game+ mode where you can restart the game, in a new Hard mode if you with, and you keep all of your equipment and non-plotline souls, though you restart at level 1 (which is not hard to regain with certain experience-granting items.) You can also unlock a Boss Rush mode where you can race through all of the bosses of the game, as well as a Julius mode where you can play as a Whip wielding hero, though he has no soul or item powers.
How are the Graphics?
The graphics in this game are quite good. They are also reasonably bright and very understandable even on the original Game Boy Advance screen. The animation is extremely fluid, and the monster graphics are excellent. Some monsters are larger than the screen, and still move very smoothly. Others take advantage of the Game Boy Advances pseudo-3D modes to make some very neat looking enemies. Some of the backgrounds of certain areas also use scrolling effects to make some rather engrossing environments. The weapons also each look noticeably different from each other, and have unique animations. For a 2D action platform game, you really could not want a whole lot more out of the graphics. The only nitpick I can think of is that Soma could have been more detailed, but that would only have been possible with a larger character. There is no real problem and it all works together pretty nicely.
How is the Sound and Music?
This is another area where this game does quite well. The sound effects work quite well and are very fitting, and the music is really good as well. I occasionally have found myself humming the tunes in between game sessions, and I enjoyed the music a lot. It adds an appropriate atmosphere to each area of the game. The sound effects are really great. There are occasional voices as well as clear, obvious weapon sounds that completely fit what they represent. Great job, here.
How appropriate is this game for Christians?
This is probably the area where this game falters the most. The setting in 2035, after Draculas defeat on 1999, in his castle. As such, you fight many nasty enemies, including lots of undead including Skeletons, Ghosts, Zombies, and other things of that nature. There are also Devils, Demons, Were-Wolfs and other Were creatures, Harpies, Gargoyles, Bats, and other things of this type. There are also a few exotic monsters like Golems, Succubus, and others. Though it certainly makes sense that Dracula would have evil things in his castle, and you are fighting against them, it is still inundated with dark things. There is also summoning which you can perform, and you can have familiars fight for you, which is another occult-like concept. Also some enemies which are female (Succubus, Lilith, Alura Une, and others) are almost certainly not clothed, but they are also fairly small on the screen. Nevertheless, it is pretty clear that they have lady-like curves. There are also some questionable symbols, including a Hexagram, though no Pentagrams, thankfully. There is also a world view issue. In this game, the main character has many dark powers. The game asserts that though the powers are dark in nature, it is the heart of the wielder who decides whether or not the powers will be used for evil. The character struggles gaining power over the evil inside and eventually conquers it and uses his powers to vanquish a source of evil. Though this is decent and good that he stays true to himself and uses his powers for good, we know that evil can only truly be defeated by good. It is difficult to say how big of a deal this really is, but it is certainly something to consider carefully. Appropriateness Breakdown: Violence/Blood/Gore: Killing non-human, fictional beings (-3.5 pts) Small Red Blotches or Drops = (-1 pt) No Gore. Foul Language/Sexual Dialogue: Swear Words Acceptable for Prime Time TV are used Once or Twice (-3 pts) No Sexual Dialogue or Innuendo. Nudity/Sexual Content: Full Frontal Nudity (-5 pts) (Though it is technically not frontal, it is still no clothes and does not leave much to the imagination.) No Sexual Content. Occult/Supernatural Game takes place in an environment that is filled with major occult references. (-5 pts) Borderline magic (hard to tell if occult) is used by player. (-3.5 pts) Cultural/Moral/Ethical There are no Cultural/Moral/Ethical issues here. Though some of the problems are not too surprising given the setting and all, it does not excuse the problems it does have with appropriateness for Christians. Other problems could have been avoided altogether and were not. Think very carefully before getting this game.
Overall & Conclusion
This is an extremely well made game that is a lot of fun to play, and yet it has some serious flaws. The dark setting may be very off-putting for some, and they should avoid this game outright. Others who are comfortable with the setting should still think twice about this as the other content really pushes the envelope. Though the ESRB has rated it Teen, I really think it is probably more appropriate for Mature adults who have thought through whether or not the game play (which is excellent) is worth some of the content provided.