Due to Harmony of Dissonance being released before Igarashi’s next project, he had the chance to look at the criticisms it got and learn what needed to be improved upon. Even if this next entry was to take a different route with its own unique setup, he still wished for it to have the feel of the Castlevania franchise and be well received. Surprisingly, he ended up creating the best metroidvania at that point and one that I would argue is better than Symphony of the Night; Aria of Sorrow!
Why are you leaving after a nice chat?
Set in Japan 2035, we follow the exchange student and the playable character, Soma Cruz, visiting the Hakuba shrine with his classmate and the last caretaker of this holy place, Mina Hakuba, in order to see the first eclipse of this century. Upon witnessing this beautiful event though, the world turns black and the duo wakes up at the doorsteps of a chateau. Here, they are approached by a man named Genya Arikado who informs them that this is in fact Dracula’s home.
However, before he can elaborate upon what is going on, they are all ambushed by monsters. Soma helps out by taking one foe out and notices that he absorbed its powers. Arikado tells the young student that he must enter the master’s chamber in order to understand what just happened, though he cannot help you more for now as he has his own task to complete. Bit of a sudden and vague excuse, but you honestly have no other choice but to venture further inside the palace.
Not really since Symphony of the Night and Legacy of Darkness have the series had much focus on a story, making it fascinating to see another attempt at providing one here. Sure, there were rivalries and comraderies sprinkled in the previous GBA entries and some neat lore in the GB titles, but now regular conversation segments are back to do more than merely give the hero a reason to move forward.
Throughout this journey, you will meet multiple characters such as a descendant of the Belnades who try their best to be supportive and the strange man named J struggling with amnesia. All are engaging to interact with since it is hard to know whom you should trust or be suspicious of, creating a lovely uncomfortable atmosphere. Unless you know the lore that is, but with how the dialogues are subtle without being unnaturally so, this feels more like a reward for fans who paid attention in the previous games.
Additionally, the plot is also tied in well with Nostradamus’s prediction of “the big evil lord in 1999” and the solar eclipse in Eastern Europe the same year, due to the fact that Dracula has finally been sealed away according to this instalment. This is also interestingly linked to the protagonist’s ability to possess dark powers to give questions of whether he will use these forces only for chaotic destructions or if they can be utilized for good too? I adore this, as this mystery will lead to some intriguing speculations and a minor twist at the end that is a neat one.
Regrettably, the main problem with this tale is the same one that plagued Symphony of the Night. People will abruptly meet you, chat for a bit, and then you leave each other. This is still a sloppy and almost random form of storytelling that is quite stationary. It especially hurts when Soma is actually showcasing distress and seeking help, making these vague conversations build larger barriers with whom he should have put his faith in. This even functioned better in the mentioned PS1 classic where Alucard knew of his father’s wrath, sheltered himself from human interactions, and was uncertain about this young girl he occasionally encountered, creating at least a believable setup.
Yet, Aria of Sorrow still stands strong due to the memorable cast of characters wanting to aid each other despite being uncertain of anyone’s motives, creating a great mystery that in turn gives a solid driving force to uncover the truth and explore this chateau. The plot also never tries to be grander than what it is, making it easy to enjoy with the different endings creating fun theories of what could have happened if the wrong decisions were made.
Story Score: 7/10
It is probably not surprising that this is another metroidvania taking place inside Dracula’s home, equivalent to the other GBA instalments. However, Iga and his team have made plenty of smart choices to make this the definitive Castlevania experience so far and a possible contender for one of the best in its genre. First off, the playable avatar can equip one weapon, armour for his torso, and accessory each, providing a simple overview that makes sure you are not swamped by what you can hold.
Luckily, there is a massive abundance of tools to choose from for taking on the count’s horde, and all are completely unique from one another. For example; the combat knife can cause plenty of hits in a fast manner at a pitiful range, while the spear deals good damage at a solid distance yet is slow. Some of these can also have elemental aspects to them, like a sword that freezes adversaries. Even the defensive attires can offer diverse strengths such as better resistance against fire or affect other stats, with the accessories similarly affecting your playstyle.
Surprisingly, the customizations do not stop there. Due to how Soma can absorb every single monster’s soul, he can use these for one of three specific functions depending on their colour. Red ones are various sub-weapons like javelins and water guns, blue provides special abilities such as slow descent and casting fireball shield, and yellow ones give passive effects that can include status boosts and letting you walk on water. This means that there are a ton of experimentations here, both for finding your preferred setup and for dealing with situations you are up against. Since what kind of forces you get also rely on your own discoveries, I will keep spoilers to a minimum.
Enemies drop their souls and items at random, with the stronger tools being hidden by fiercer foes late in the game. This is a great design for not making you overpowered and still having each run be unique. Additionally, the removal of a heart counter for sub-weapons makes it so all absorbed actions cost MP from your autofilling mana bar to be used, hence balanced management of your spells will be important. Money can also be found from exploring or vanquishing opponents, which you can buy equipment, potions for regaining magic or health, and drinks to negate illnesses with. Although the rewards for killing the adversaries are fantastic, their diverse offensive and defensive moves are what keep me fighting them.
Minotaurs swinging their axes, skeletons throwing bones, and valkyrie warriors divebombing toward you, are just some of the huge assortment of monsters to deal with, making sure all of Soma’s abilities will be significant supports. Also, due to how varied these encounters are, finding the best strategies to annihilate them will be important, which can either come from discovering their main weakness or reading their patterns carefully. This especially goes for the bosses, as they are all exhilarating to take on. Here, you will be tested in learning when to dodge and when to attack, while keeping your head cool for any unforeseen situation. Be it the fast and frantic manticore or the giant golem who will pack a punch, all are tremendous challenges that never come off as unfair!
Actually, that is another thing this entry does tremendously well: the difficulty curve and making sure all of your strengths are useful, including your back dodge that you get soon after the beginning and jumping for avoiding hazards. Even having your stats increased automatically by levelling up from defeating the dark creatures is balanced, as there is no need to grind in this instalment thanks to the wonderfully designed enemies testing your skills first and foremost. You are always progressing through this journey in an engaging and demanding way, with the rooms for saving being spread out evenly. This frankly leads to what I have yet to talk about in this metroidvania: exploration.
There are plenty of areas to uncover, but none are forgettable because of their tons of small secrets and quirks, making it possible to figure out what you need to do in order to progress in each location if you pay attention. While the height of your hops is solid, battling significant creatures or destroying specific candles will provide you with new strengths, such as walking underwater and sliding, which are all outstandingly utilized for platforming through this ginormous mansion. The focus of this title is on the combat, but these different capabilities make searching around exhilarating and fast-paced, with multiple options on where to go and backtracking being cut down due to the generous amount of warp rooms and shortcuts to find.
Furthermore, I also admire the creative and subtle puzzles coming from how you must decipher clues in the environment or combine your powers, like double jumping while standing on the water for gaining height. With this and how the diverse enemies complement Soma as a versatile fighter, there are no moments that became close to underwhelming. This is a short adventure that can be beaten in about three hours or possibly four if you go for the best ending, though everything is done with remarkable polish to the point where I can say that it has never been this delightful before to venture through Dracula’s castle.
Gameplay Score: 10/10
Bewitching and imaginative
It is impressive to see how detailed the series’ gothic style has come to realization here, which can already be witnessed in the horrific monsters to encounter. Terrifying sirens, vicious crows, violent durgas, and plenty more make Aria of Sorrow a beautiful celebration of mythologies from all over the world while still giving them all phenomenal designs to fit this entry’s art. Even the bosses are no different in terms of quality, coming in all shapes and forms while being based on fearful tales, with my personal favourite being the team’s take on Princess Langwidere. This massive assortment of foes makes it easy to forgive the occasional colour swapping, which is kept to a minimum.
Onwards, everyone’s animations are fierce and amazing to look at, be it the fiends disintegrating, mesmerizing magical effects, or merely Soma’s smooth walk cycle. Speaking of the hero, his attacks are sights to behold due to the sheer diversity and how they reflect the enemies he got them from, such as the harsh laser, giant flamethrower, and cute cats. I also simply adore how gorgeous the portraits representing the characters are and change depending on the situation they are in!
The visuals are elevated further by the castle itself, with unique rooms like the study quarter, dancing hall, underwater catacombs, and many more, creating a huge residence that is believable and captivating. It is incredible how it all enhances the game’s overall atmosphere, which especially can be seen in the amount of detail put into the set pieces. One highlight for me here is the saving rooms holding a destroyed casket in the background, which you might recognize from a PS1 classic.
As for the music, Michiru Yamane made fantastic scores once again with the melodies being long, varied, and appropriate for each location to provide distinct styles that still fit the gothic setting. One example here is the tune used for the clocktower, delivering foreboding chimes that escalate with more rhythmic instruments to make the tone tense. It should be noted though that every single composition here is just as memorable, to the point that this project has one of the best soundtracks on the system. Additionally, the rest of the audio is no slacker either with clear effects for screams, weapons slashing through flesh, and iconic cues for every soul spell. This is pure art.
Presentation Score: 10/10
Multiple endings to achieve returns in this title, with all four being engaging to witness and the best one being cleverly hinted at on how to achieve. Though before seeing the credits roll, searching through the entire chateau is delightful just for uncovering everything it has to offer. Filling up the encyclopedia of monsters is a joy for their flavour text and the possibility of more soul powers, with the autofilling map being excellent to give indications on where you should go next.
Upon beating the campaign, you get a good amount of options for revisiting it and all are worth your time. The new game plus lets you keep all the tools you had at the end and hard mode will be testing your skills, but the best one is where you will be playing as a Belmont. Here, you will have every ability needed to scour this palace, can use familiar sub-weapons, have a nifty dodge move, and are able to even dangle the famous whip after a horizontal swing. This mode is especially wonderful for speedrunners to the point that you can actually beat the adventure within 10 minutes if you are fast and competent enough. I am not, as it usually takes me three times the amount.
Then there are also other challenging runs to take on, where you can go through Dracula’s home without mana attacks or items, which offers interesting playstyles you need to adapt to. Outside of this, there is the boss rush that is exciting to tackle, as well as a sound test for listening to the incredible soundtrack. Really, the only mode that was not needed, is the one for trading souls with another player. This is honestly lacklustre when everything can be discovered in one playthrough and offers a more engaging way of acquiring demonical powers.
Extra Score: 9.5/10
Aria of Sorrow has a fantastic variety of mythological monsters, a great challenge, a captivating magic system, entertaining combat with tons of options, a beautifully structured chateau for exploration, and an amazing amount of replay value. Combined with its gorgeous presentation and memorable cast, this is the peak of the metroidvania instalments within the Castlevania franchise thus far and one of the best games within its genre.