Is Aria of Sorrow an action-RPG? It has a leveling system, plus a plethora weapons and armor which effect the player’s stats. The core mechanics are similar to games like Dark Souls, only much less complex or interesting. It’s more RPG than The Legend of Zelda, which I’ve covered in this series as well, so I’m including it.
The other day I tried to play Circle of the Moon and found it wrought with poor design choices, so I skipped to its better-received sibling, Aria of Sorrow—the third and final Castlevania game released on the GBA. Aria of Sorrow usually ranks in the top ten on lists of the best GBA games of all time, and has universally positive reviews. Some consider it to be one of the best games in the Castlevania franchise.
I neither like or dislike Aria of Sorrow. It reminds me of two different games—Metroid and Dark Souls—but it doesn’t feature any of the greatest strengths of those games, and doesn’t have any strengths of its own to make it stand out.
The open world of Aria of Sorrow is far closer to resembling something out of a Metroid game than that of Circle of the Moon, and gives a lot more credit to the term “Metroidvania.” The map is designed with a clear sense of direction, and each unique area of the mansion has its own definitive look and feel, which is portrayed both through music and art design. It is not, however, portrayed through level design.
It’s rare for Aria of Sorrow to even feature level design in a true sense, and when it does, those moments stand out. The clock tower stage, for instance, is the one area which consistently features environmental challenges and hazards, with enemy placement that causes the player to stop and figure out what the hell to do, and not just jump around slashing at every enemy in their path.
Most of the game consists of just that, occurring in linear corridors. There is some facsimile of variety in the environments—parts wherein the player is underwater, or parts that involve more jumping and the occasional moving platform—but this never amounts to anything except another means of traversing linear corridors and fighting enemies.
This fact separates Aria of Sorrow from being like a Metroid game, and is a big part of why I readily consider one to be an action-RPG, and not the other. Metroid games are “action platformers” because they focus primarily on two things: action, and platforming. Platforming refers to level design which emphasizes environmental hazards, and forces the player to understand the game’s control scheme really well in order to proceed. Only a couple of rooms in Aria of Sorrow involve thinking about the movement mechanics. The game’s focus is combat and the surrounding stats—therefore, it’s an action-RPG.
Because of this, Aria of Sorrow can’t stand on its level design as a strength. It may have graphical and musical atmosphere, but if you stripped that away, you would just have a bunch of straight walkways dotted with enemies.
Imagine if this game had been released on the NES, with the same graphical limitations as the original Metroid, or even the original Castlevania. The levels wouldn’t be nearly as memorable as levels in those two games, because what made those games memorable was the intense challenges of their environments. Metroid carried this design philosophy into Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion, in which the personality of each level is represented in graphics, music, and in every aspect of the level design.
It’s because of this that I think the game is more comparable to Dark Souls, which is another open-ended action-RPG with a massive focus on combat. Of course, when you start comparing combat in Aria of Sorrow to combat in Dark Souls, that’s when the problems start to arise.
“But Digibro! Aria of Sorrow is a 2D game for the GBA! How can you compare it with a 3D game on the PS3 and expect it to be as good?” I wouldn’t. I would expect it couldn’t compare, and indeed, it can’t. But this isn’t the GBA’s fault. Well, it’s the GBA’s fault that it can’t handle a game like Dark Souls, but it’s not the GBA’s fault that the developers decided to make an open-ended action-RPG on a handheld console as opposed to an open-ended action-platformer, which the GBA is proven to handle quite well.
But there’s nothing inherently wrong about a combat-focused side-scrolling action-RPG. In fact, I think fans of Odin Sphere, Valykrie Profile and even Actraiser would argue that they can be quite good (although I haven’t played enough of any of these games to say whether or not I agree). The question, rather, is whether the combat is interesting.
Aria of Sorrow doesn’t have a deep combat system. It features four different weapon types, with the primary differences being range. Stronger weapons are usually shorter-ranged, but longer-ranged weapons mean having more space to evade enemy attacks. There are a lot of weapons in the game, all falling into this gradient, and I found that using long-ranged weapons was never the worse choice. Maybe someone disagrees with me, but even when the longer-ranged weapons were significantly weaker than the sorter-ranged ones, it was worth it to take one more hit to kill an enemy if it meant I didn’t have to get close to them.
Because Aria of Sorrow is drastically short (I’m on the final boss (not counting the secret boss) and my time is 4:30:17), the player is constantly picking up new weapons, with most of them being useless. I changed my weapon only when I got the next-best mid- to long-ranged weapon, and never found weapon choice problematic throughout the game.
In addition to weapons, Aria of Sorrow also features a soul-collecting system. Each enemy has the possibility of dropping their soul, and the player can equip these souls and use them to gain a variety of powers, which are divided into three types.
One type of power is used by holding up and pressing B. These are the most common powers, which are used for combat purposes. A lot of them are just repeats of old powers, and the only useful ones are long-ranged projectiles. These are usually weaker than just hitting an enemy, but are useful when it’s hard to get in close. Powers use up MP, which is collected constantly from hearts that you get by breaking candles and shit.
You could cut these powers from the game entirely, and it would actually be better for it. I usually resorted to them on enemies whose attacks were harder to dodge, meaning that the few parts of the game which could’ve been really challenging to push through were made much easier.
The other two kinds of powers are innate ones (which do things like make it so you can walk on water, or give you a strength bonus), and powers which are used by pressing the R button. In both cases, these are mostly powers needed to proceed through the game, and serve little purpose beyond opening up new paths. Besides that, a couple of them are ludicrously-powerful super-moves which make boss fights much easier.
Once you’ve learned an enemy’s attack pattern, dispatching it is cake. Only on rare occasions does the game place enemies in such a way as to make you rethink how to fight them. Even then, you can usually overpower the challenge, or rush past it. As you level up and get new weapons, old challenges cease to be challenges, and instead are just random shit you kill to get from point A to point B.
The difficulty curve of this game is all over the place. I probably died less than five times before reaching the clock tower, which was the first area to actually feature challenging rooms wherein enemy placement and environmental hazards conspired to be a pain in the ass. This was also where I fought Death, the hardest boss in the game by far, and the first to give me a hard time.
After being slaughtered by Death a few times, I went on GameFAQs to see what I was doing wrong. The guides I read suggested that I should be between levels 25 and 30; I was at level 19. The idea that I was supposed to grind didn’t add up, because none of the enemies in the area were difficult to kill.
I ran all the way back to the weapons shop at start of the game, bought nine potions, then ran all the way back, gaining two levels in the process. When I returned to the clock tower, the combination of knowing what to do and being leveled a little meant I completely destroyed it.
I wasn’t sure if 21 would be a high enough level to take on Death, because his attacks took such huge chunks out of my life. However, I mastered the first part of the fight well enough to not take damage, and then broke out the super moves for the second half and wrecked his shit completely.
After that I went to the Arena level. Again, this place was a little difficult at first, but I quickly learned the enemy patterns, rendering it easy as balls. I got to the boss and it obliterated me, so I leveled up twice, picked up the best weapon in the game, and then came back and demolished it.
What I’m saying is that Aria of Sorrow has weak, easy, and boring combat. It takes all of three seconds to determine how to fight an enemy, and then it’s a cakewalk, even more so if you bother to use special attacks. I didn’t even go to the item shop but the one time when fighting Death—if I had, I could’ve bought a ton of mana potions, and been able to use my overpowered super moves to get past most of the harder enemies.
The entire time it took me to beat Aria of Sorrow was about the time it took me to beat the first level of Dark Souls. In that game, not only is each enemy a challenge, but each room has new combinations of enemies that force you to rethink your combat strategies. It’s a game in which, like in the original Castlevania, trying to plow through at top speed will get you killed relentlessly, and you have to really stop and think in order to proceed. Aria of Sorrow never makes you pause for more than five seconds.
So what’s good about this game? The primary focus is on combat and RPG elements, both of which are sloppy. The world is cohesive and very beautiful, but it’s undercut by bland level design and random enemies that have nothing to do with the places they’re in.
If it can’t stand on atmosphere, nor on its core mechanics, what can it stand on? Narrative?
All the game can really stand on is its production values. The music is great, the sprites are gorgeous and move well, and the sound effects and animations are satisfying. This allows the game to feel fun for a while, until the appeal wears thin and it’s time for the mechanics to hold their weight—which they don’t.