Visiting old shrines is rarely a downright terrible idea, but if Soma Cruz had been aware of the events that would unfold from visiting the Hakuba Shrine with his friend Mina Hakuba, chances are he would have stayed away. But then Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow would not have come to be, and you would not be reading this review right now…
It may not have a Belmont as the main character, but Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (Castlevania: AoS) is not a bad game, even if the story is a bit predictable and the difficulty level is on the low end of the scale. Aside from that, the adventure you get to experience in this game definitely has more highs than lows, including some interesting RPG elements and a fun Pokemon-style gotta-catch-em-all soul collecting system; thankfully without those ridiculous pokeballs.
Where both the original Castlevania NES trilogy and the 16-bit sequels were more of a linear experience, Castlevania: AoS – like Harmony of Dissonance and Circle of the Moon before it – instead takes a cue from fan-favorite Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, with Metroid inspired exploration-focused gameplay. That does not mean that the entire castle can be traversed from the get-go however, since certain areas require access to souls that let you do things like performing a second jump mid-air or even walk on water.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here, so allow me to explain what I mean by “souls”: For reasons unknown to him, Soma Cruz is able to absorb the souls from monsters and then use their abilities to… become the very best, like no one ever was! Oh wait, that’s not quite right. What I meant was that the souls will grant him the power needed to save his friend and hopefully figure out why the shrine teleported him to this castle in the first place. Maybe he’ll even figure out why he has this uncanny power? The soul system is pretty a simple one with 3 different types, two of which are movement related while the last one used exclusively used in battle.
Collecting the majority of these can be quite a grind, as each is acquired by slaying a specific creature. There’s no guarantee that they’ll part with it either. How do you feel about killing hundreds of Student Witches for the ability to… throw cats at enemies? Yeah I know: Yawn! All the souls required to actually beat the game are found immediately following a boss battle however, so killing the same enemy type over and over again for their soul is only used to increasing your offensive arsenal.
Unlike that of most Castlevania games, Aria of Sorrow‘s weapons arsenal does not include the iconic whip (wait, what?!). That’s not to say your only means of demon disposal are the offensive souls, because a wide variety of swords and daggers are located throughout the castle, each with a different reach, attack speed and damage dealing potential (including one that’s almost taller than Soma Cruz himself). Along with the many weapons there are also armor pieces and accessories to manage, all of which will affect your stats one way or another. At least there’s no limit as to how much you can carry so feel free to pick everything up; especially those delicious money bags, because apparently credit cards are a thing of the past in 2035.
You’re not likely to be going on a shopping spree during this adventure, but money does still serve a purpose. While potions can be found throughout the castle, there really aren’t a lot of them, and sooner or later you’ll find yourself thirsty without anything to drink. This is where the shopkeep comes into play, as he’s more than willing to part with both potions and equipment. That and he’s more than willing to buy whatever you’re selling… at a high price!
Remember how I said that it’s not a very difficult game? Well, that’s not going to be the case for everyone, since you’ll be able to power level to the point where most enemies will die from a single hit. For the daredevils, the opposite is also an option: avoid the majority of combat and see how far you can get at the lowest level possible; not something I’d recommend until you’re very familiar with how everything works and have boss patterns down to a fault. That said, most of the massive boss encounters proved relatively predictable and easy, although Balore in particular seemed to enjoy giving me a hard time, huge hands flying all over the place and all. What an oversized douche.
As you roam the castle in search of [deleted to avoid spoilers], breaking chandeliers and other objects in true Castlevania fashion, you’ll soon come to realize how big this place actually is. I can’t imagine playing through this game without the strategically placed teleporter rooms, especially considering the amount of backtracking you have to do. These are particularly useful for those looking to collect every soul, find all items and explore the entire castle; after acquiring the means to reach previously inaccessible locations.
I’ll admit that there were times during my adventure through the castle when I felt a bit confused as to what my next destination was, but thankfully those moments were rare and far between. For the most part, it was a genuine rollercoaster ride: Always something to do, somewhere to go (something to kill!). Even if what had to be done in order to progress wasn’t always obvious, wandering the castle in search of treasure and fun kept the momentum going, for me at least. Of course it did help that the in-game map highlighted unexplored rooms, so during times of uncertainty I simply ventured towards one such!
In pretty much every single Castlevania game, your mission is to defeat Dracula once and for all (right… like that’s ever the case with him), but in this game, he’s been sealed away for 36 years! Hold on. With Dracula sealed away and Soma Cruz being without ties to the Belmont legacy, why is he at this castle and who summoned him here? Aria of Sorrow‘s story is shrouded in mystery and intrigue, with a plot twist or two that I actually didn’t see coming, but it was hardly my main reason for playing the game.
Instead, I ventured into the castle hoping to feel like a badass demon slayer with a seriously bad haircut in search of a way to help my friend, which is exactly what I got: Plenty of combat that never felt repetitive thanks to the wide repertoire of souls at my disposal – turning my enemies to charcoal, electrocuting them or even blowing everything to smithereens was fun all the way to end (of which there are several, I might add).