It's the year 2035, there's no whip or Belmont to wield it, but this is still a Castlevania game, and is shaping up to be the best one out of the three GBA installments. Konami has never had to stray very far from its classic formula to have success with this series, but it hopes that there is enough innovation in Aria of Sorrow to keep fans excited.
The freshness of the setting and story is instantly discernable to those familiar with the series. The setting for the game has always been, and remains, Dracula's castle. The timeframe for the games has always been pre-WWI, when fighting the Count's minions with a whip or at least a sword didn't seem totally ridiculous. Imagine Drac's chagrin, then, when a band of adventures finally kills him off "once and for all" in the not so-distant past of 1999, the age of kalashnikovs and SUVs. Fast forward thirty-six years later, when ordinary Japanese student Soma Cruz and his friend Mina visit Transylvania to see the solar eclipse - one that very much resembles the eclipse of 1999. Sure enough, Soma and Mina are warped to Castlevania and they've got no choice but to explore it if they want to return home. A more interesting discovery for players will be the identity of the castle's new master, now that Dracula is "dead." A nice change for a story, to be sure, but Konami plans to flesh it out even more with multiple characters and cutscenes. It seems like Castlevania is starting to feel more welcome in the land of RPGs.
As far as gameplay goes, the comparisons come more easily between Aria and its predecessors, especially the most recent, Harmony of Dissonance. The basic premise is still jumping around the castle, fighting off nasties with various weapons, and looking for ways to unlock new areas. Aria differs only in the system in which these things are handled. Soma learns new abilities, opens up new areas, alters his form, and boosts his attributes using the soul system. Souls are acquired by defeating enemies and by finding them scattered throughout the castle. By equipping them, Soma can change his attributes, and use different abilities. Some of these abilities take the form of traditional Castlevania weapons, like Holy Water, only now they consume MP instead of hearts. Some abilities might be used for reaching new parts of the castle; these abilities are permanent once Soma acquires them. Finally, Soma can change into devilish alternate forms, but it remains to be seen whether this will play as large a role as it did in Symphony of the Night. There are over 100 souls to collect, and this process can be expedited by trading them with other players. However, even though game-breaking souls can be traded to players who arenít as advanced in the game, level and MP restrictions prevent them form being used.
The aesthetics of the game have not changed to represent the futuristic setting. Konami has designed some cyber weapons and enemies, but they all fit in with the Chimeras and Gothic arches that gamers are used to. It is to Konamiís credit that it hasnít let Castlevania slip into a survival-horror graphical style. The graphics remain bright and colourful, and they are clearer than they were in Harmony. The sound has also been improved from Harmony, both in terms of quality and composition (Symphony of the Nightís composer Michiru Yamane has taken up the reigns for Aria). Fans will also be pleased to learn that Konami has upped the difficulty, and if Harmony was easy, then Aria is at the opposite end of the spectrum.
Equal part dungeon-crawling RPG and action/platformer, Aria of Sorrow has a wide audience. This game is going places.