Every year we're inundated with derivative sequels that look and play just like the earlier version. Yet Castlevania never seems to lose its bloodthirsty, explorative spirit. Dawn of Sorrow crucifies all three Game Boy Advance vamp hunts by offering a longer quest studded with gruesome, fleshy bosses and enough customization to make even the most obsessive gamers arch an appreciative eyebrow.
As with many entries before it, Dawn drops you into Dracula's enchanted castle virtually powerless. Only through extensive rooting about and monster slaying can you find hidden power-ups necessary to advance. This means searching the castle from its spike-laden clock towers down into the underwater caverns, often uncovering items and doors just out reach. All this wandering would get annoying if it weren’t for metrosexual hero Soma Cruz's fondness for soul-sucking.
Every floating skull or ravenous ghoul you see houses a soul; its abilities can be added to your own. Some are much harder to steal than others, so repeatedly killing the same monster may be in the cards. This isn't exactly a problem; there are so many villainous miscreants running around the castle, each affecting your overall power in a different way, that roaming around the grounds is never once boring or tedious.
The new abilities you gain, whether they open secrets or just look damn cool, make these diversions worth the investment. On top of that, ripping the same soul increases its potency; with nine bat souls you can practically stand still while they go nuts shredding everything around you. We'd need some kind of superhuman calculator to figure out all the combinations of weapons and souls there are, and none of them handle exactly alike. In an age of super-short adventure games, meet one that delivers for weeks, if not months.
The DS’ top screen is a given. It’s a map of the castle, something you’d normally have to pause and view every few rooms. Uninspired, but very handy. It can also display the intricate inventory you've racked up throughout the game, plus your hit points and info about what creepy-crawlie you're bashing.
Boss battles are the highlight of every Castlevania game, and here they're handled in a brand new way. To deliver the death blow, you've got to trace a magic seal that pops up on the touch screen. Botch the job and the bloody, puss-spraying monster keeps coming. So even if you hand the Grim Reaper his bony butt, you’ve got to memorize an eight point seal to finish the job. Problem is, this tends to bust up the swordplay when all of a sudden you've got to rush for the stylus.
The new Doppelganger ability, however, brings the game's extensive customization into its own. With the push of a button you can switch your equipped weapons, armor and souls between two settings. It's a good idea to keep one decked out with power-amping souls and all the strongest weapons. Make the other your four-leaf clover, with maxed out luck and intelligence. Basically one setting is for tastefully chauffeuring demons into Hell, the other for finding rare souls and items.
Old-school 2D design is a dying breed on the consoles, and the next generation may put the style to rest forever. But even with all that DVD storage space, most console games can't deliver this much gameplay. Buy this immediately, and witness why a billion polygons a nanosecond will always take a backseat to rock solid craftsmanship.