I keep saying that the Game Boy Advance is chucking out so many great titles that I really have to wonder just what an idiot I was when I had one. I used my GBA SP to play Ecks vs. Sever, for goodness sake - that's how out of touch with the handheld's library I was. So it's thanks to this 1001 list that I'm introduced to all the games I should have been playing, with Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow taking the reigns next.
Taking lots of cues from the success of Symphony of the Night, Aria of Sorrow builds upon the PlayStation hit and still manages to squash the action into a Game Boy cartridge. Dracula's Castle serves as our backdrop once more, as we Metroidvania our way through it in search of the big bad guy himself, no doubt.
Will this turn into yet another GBA title that I can't put down?
Aria of Sorrow starts with a figure slowly climbing some stairs while a whole load of text sets our scene. It is the far future, realistically depicted, and folks are awaiting the first total solar eclipse of the century (ignoring the other twenty-odd total eclipses that there will have been up to this point: It's the first they don't have to travel to see).
Soma Cruz is our protagonist, a teenage exchange student. I'm already starting to dislike him, and his friendship to the Shinekeeper's daughter, Mina Hakuba. I don't know why, and then a castle appears in the sky.
This introduction to our lead characters does nothing to help me. The character portraits may be stylish, but they're doing no favours in trying to get me interested in these people. Soma comes across as a bit of a blithering idiot, Mina knows more than it seems, and Genya Arikado here is just a posh twat.
The trio finds themselves inside Dracula's Castle, but its's not to be found where you might think you might find it...
The talking is cut short by the appearance of a whole squad of skeleton warriors, armed and armoured and harbouring ill-intent towards us.
This new mechanic, absorbing the abilities of the enemies we kill, is key to the way Aria of Sorrow plays. Defeating a winged, spear-wielding skeleton has given us the ability to throw spears of our own, a ranged attack to complement our melee attack.
The more monsters we dispatch, the more abilities we'll be able to make use of against more enemies, who will probably have skills of their own for us to learn... You can see where things are going, but for an explanation, we need to do some exploration.
The first area, like the previous game, gives us a chance to see what we're capable of against slow-moving opponents. Soma can run, jump and crouch, but can only attack when rooted to the spot, at close range.
Unless he utilises his newly absorbed ability, that is. Holding Up and pressing the attack button throws a spear in the direction we're facing, which swiftly turns the zombies into bloody chunks.
Finding a short sword to extend our reach ever so slightly, we face Tiny Devils and Bats and Skeletons from all sorts of weird angles. Your foes can fly through places you don't seem able to pass yourself, so lining up and timing attacks can be a little fiddly. An exchange of damage was how I took out the Tiny Devil, for example, and fighting skeletons on the stairs wasn't the smartest of decisions.
Killing enough bats resulted in learning another ability, but I would have to replace my spear-throwing skills if I wanted to use it.
I worked my way through the castle, learning this and that. A backdash serves as your dodge, and lots more downed enemies meant lots of abilities to choose from. The axe throw sounds meatier than the spear throw, and switching out seems like a good idea. How else am I going to know what each ability does?
As it happens, the axe throw would come in handy almost immediately...
... not that I knew what to do with it. After ten minutes in Dracula's Castle, I had met my end.
I'm not going to say I hated playing Aria of Sorrow because I didn't. I just wasn't interested in it.
It felt a tiny bit sluggish, though I wonder if that's down to emulation, or using an Xbox d-pad, or maybe just incompetence on my part. Probably that, let's be fair. Because of that sluggishness, I wasn't going into fighters thinking I had a chance, even at this early stage of the game. I was going into them expecting to be hit and to be able to take enough hits to outlast my opponent. That's not a strategy that will work in the long run.
What am I missing, then? Apparently, Aria of Sorrow is one of the best handheld Castlevania offerings. That sure sounds promising if you liked Symphony of the Night and want more like it, or if you've finally managed to finish the fantastic GBA titles we've already come across, I suppose, but I'm not feeling it.
The characters don't appeal, the plot doesn't look like it'll be anything radically different - explore the castle, defeat Dracula, the end (or is it?) - and so it's probably the gameplay that makes or breaks this game for me. Acquiring abilities from fallen foes sounds fine. It promotes dealing with everything and hunting down the right creature for the right attack. It gives players options - I'm sure there are some fan favourite abilities and ones many people avoid - and gives a sense of progression, even if you're stuck and confused on where to go next.
But, coupled with the feeling I get when playing it, through either my lack of skill or not, it's not enough to win me back to having another go. I'm happy to leave this game for others to enjoy instead. Maybe I'll watch it, but I really am not fussed about missing out on it, must-play video game or not.
You can trade souls - learned abilities - via the link cable, like you can trade Pokémon in Pokémon, potentially making progression easier for some players.
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, developed by Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo, first released in 2003.
Version played: Game Boy Advance, 2003, via emulation.