My very first foray into the Castlevania series was as a young teenager, purchasing a grubby second-hand GBA cart with only the series iconic title barely legible on the sticker. A tear obscured several letters, including the subtitle in its entirety. This was during a time when I didn't have ready access to the internet, and so for a long time I had no idea what the game was actually called. For a long time I could only refer to it as 'Castlevania GBA', and had no knowledge of other titles on the platform.
This was not Aria of Sorrow, but the first Castlevania game for the GBA: Circle of the Moon, released in 2001. It must have been 10 or more years since I played it, but even back then it had a dated old-school feel to it. The colouring, while not unpleasant, was somewhat dull. The controls, while fully functional, were not as fluid as Castlevania titles I would play later on. Knowing now that it was released during the console's early days, all this makes sense. It turned out that this title was also not developed by the team that was usually in charge of the more modern Castlevanias (Symphony of the Night onwards). Regardless, the game was a huge success, especially for the series, selling over a million copies. And while I would later place a few Castlevania games over it, I enjoyed it enough to want to play more games in the series.
Along with positive reviews, it led to me getting Dawn of Sorrow on the DS, which I absolutely adored at the time. I would later regard its budget-anime art style as rather inferior compared to that of the rest of the games, but back then I viewed the opening animated cutscene as gorgeous - a wonder on the DS. In every other aspect, I enjoyed it more than Circle of the Moon. The graphics were brighter, more vibrant. It had a booming, catchy soundtrack. And the controls were much crisper. No need to double-tap on the d-pad to start running, you could hit speed as soon as you landed on the ground, and move more freely in the air. It made the combat feel fast-paced and engaging.
And that wasn't all. The game's gimmick, the tactical soul system, was more immediately accessible and appealing than the DSS card system in Circle of the Moon. Monsters you destroy will sometimes leave their soul behind for you to absorb, obtaining their powers. This aspect of the game seemed really cool to me, and it still is. You also had access to different main weapons, not just the whip. The characters were likable and varied in their design, whereas in Circle of the Moon they were barely a focus.
The story had more of a presence. You played as Soma Cruz, the reincarnation of Dracula, who has to stop cult leader Celia Fortner and her lieutenants from killing him and establishing a new dark lord. Meanwhile, Soma has to fight off the pull of the dark power inside him, because while he is technically Dracula he doesn't want to assume the role of the bad guy and give up his humanity. Circle of the Moon is pretty much the find-Dracula-and-then-kill-him affair and not much more than that, although it is interesting that you have a rival that appears randomly throughout the game and makes you wonder about what it's going to lead up to.
You may be wondering what this has to do with Aria of Sorrow, but I felt like I needed this background to the core of the review. I only played Aria after I had played so many other Castlevania games, including a few that have come after it and build on what it did. I now know that Dawn of Sorrow followed the same formula, tactical soul system and all, just with added bells and whistles. Order of Ecclesia, the last DS game in the series, though quite different and more linear than other Castlevanias at the time, features a basically refined version of the tactical soul system, and like Soma Cruz the heroine in this game can equip a wide array of main weapons. And it has the same fluid movement that makes these newer games such a joy to play.
But it's the similarities to these newer games - especially Dawn of Sorrow - that kind of dulled my experience with Aria. Dawn of Sorrow is not only very similar (think Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2), but to my memory is also a slight improvement. The graphics and sound are superior too, especially the latter. Granted, the GBA is notorious for its relatively poor sound quality unlike comparable systems such as the SNES, but the actual compositions in Aria are somewhat lacklustre compared to those in Dawn. Meanwhile, the Pokemon games show that the GBA is still capable of beautiful and tuneful music despite hardware limitations.
However, I know that if I played Aria of Sorrow back then, right after Circle of the Moon or in its place, I would have adored it as I did Dawn of Sorrow for all the same reasons. For the joy of the movement, the fiendish difficulty and variety thanks to all the weapons and soul powers, the cool characters, story and aesthetic. One thing Aria definitely has over Dawn is the beautiful gothic art style more typical of the series, which lends each character a uniqueness and charm to their design, as opposed to the generic anime art style in Dawn. To be fair I really didn't mind the anime style too much, but I imagine the change came about in an attempt to broaden the series' appeal since it had been flagging for some time. I don't think it worked nearly as well as it did for the 3DS Fire Emblem games, and the series' art would return to its gothic roots in Order of Ecclesia.
Like in Dawn, the story in Aria follows Soma Cruz, who until the true ending of the game is unaware that he is Dracula-reincarnate. This is technically a spoiler, but it is heavily implied throughout the game, even the earlier segments, so it's not much of a surprise. If you've read about the game before or played Dawn of Sorrow, it's likely not going to be a surprise at all. Soma and his friend Mina are transported to Dracula's castle, and are told they have to find a way to escape because it's dangerous to stay there for too long. Along the way he meets a number of mysterious characters - some good, some bad - who have come to the castle because of the prophecy surrounding Dracula's reincarnation.
The exploration in Aria was very satisfying. There is no hand-holding when it comes to finding out where to go next. Abilities that allow you to go to a previously inaccessible area are dotted around the castle and tend to be found after you beat a boss, but you are not given any clues as to where to go next. But unless you are playing the game in very infrequent sittings, you will probably remember parts of the game where a newly acquired ability will help you progress. Sometimes this will just lead to a new item, such as a weapon or piece of armour, which isn't a bad thing. Especially if you're not a Castlevania veteran, because the boost these bits of equipment give can really help out.
This game can be difficult with a heavy focus on combat, and I haven't even tried out the hard mode yet. I tried to play some sections while watching youtube videos but I found I needed to give the game my full attention to stop a ridiculous string of deaths and a frustrating trek back from the last save point. While I enjoy the difficulty - it wouldn't be Castlevania without it - I felt as if there were too few save points. Or at least that finding them in a pinch was annoying. The castle maps you pick up along the way give no indication as to where they are. That might have been a welcome inclusion, because on so many occasions I spent so much time exploring an area (or maybe even two) only to get whittled down by a slew of enemies and desperately needing a save room to heal - and then I die and lose all that progress, despite probably unknowingly passing one. Of course, you may not agree with me if you're a more patient and tactical kind of player or simply just a lot better at the game than I was.
Thankfully, boss rooms are always right next to save points. You'll want to challenge them at full health and with a save to fall back on, because some of them will take one or more deaths until you suss out their attack patterns and learn how to respond adequately. It was during these battles that I experimented with different weapons and soul abilities the most. Sometimes I opted for a weapon with a greater reach over a stronger one for safer attacks, or I swapped out a general-use projectile for more niche weapons such as a mine that deals continuous damage to ensnare grounded and slow-moving bosses. It was fun finding out new strategies and effective weapon/soul combinations.
Overall, Aria of Sorrow is still a decent game, but would I say it's essential to play it? No, not really. Not unless you were a big fan of the series, or if you're craving more similar action after finishing Dawn of Sorrow. While I said Aria should get credit for paving the way for the aforementioned game and then later titles such as Order of Ecclesia, Dawn is similar enough and arguably better. You would not go wrong with playing whichever one you can get more easily get, and why not play the one that generally looks and sounds better? Aria was near enough a classic game in its time and was criminally overshadowed by other 2D sidescrollers such as Metroid Fusion and Zero Mission, but times move on. Still, it's a neat game, and along with Dawn it's a good entry-level title for new players.