Ah, Castlevania. If I had to pick one "elder statesman" of action gaming, this would most likely be it. I can think of few other series which have spawned so many quality titles and endured for so long. Capcom's Mega Man might be in the running, but the variety isn't there. Metroid might be a contender too, but the current shift to first-person gives me a bit of pause. There are a handful of other series that might take the crown, but for old-school action like few others, it's hard to beat a Castlevania title.
The latest entry, Dawn of Sorrow, comes courtesy of the Nintendo DS. For those not familiar with the games (what, all four of you?) the action consists of taking the current main character, Soma Cruz, and exploring a large, intricate castle. Along the way, Soma collects various weapons and items, steadily gaining in strength and ability. Presented in glorious 2D, its colorful and attractive graphics are a good match for the handheld.
To be honest, I have not spent serious time with a Castlevania title since the immaculate Symphony of the Night on the PS1, so I was definitely in the mood to play Dawn—the two games are extremely similar in structure and content. The original formula that drove Symphony to become such a sidescrolling classic hasn't really changed significantly, and considering that the game came out close to a decade ago,that's a testament to its design. I imagine if I had played all of the other games released in the interim I might very well be tired of them by now, but coming to Dawn after my long Castlevania hiatus was like coming home.
The centerpiece of the platforming play is the polished "soul collection" system. Each monster in the castle will randomly release a soul after being killed… although some are more frequently released than others. Each one Soma harvests will bestow a different property like summoning a creature to fight alongside him, increasing various statistics, giving him different kinds of attacks—and one even lets him grow a goofy (yet functional) scorpion tail.
It's a great system, and gives the adventure a very Pokémon-esque quality that made me want to "catch 'em all". Some are obviously more functional than others, but half of the fun is simply discovering what each one does. The downside is that due to their random appearance, some of the souls took far too long to be collected. For example, there were two souls in particular I was after, and each took me over an hour apiece before getting what I needed. It's not fun to spend that much time killing the same enemy over and over—it felt like I was working some kind of crazy videogame slot machine, waiting for my payoff. If some souls need to be "rare" I can understand that, but this was taking it to a slightly unpleasant extreme—though on the whole the soul system is a great mechanic.
However, as good as Soma and his souls are, one of the best parts of the experience was only accessible after the credits roll. After achieving a certain ending, Julius mode becomes selectable from the main menu. Extremely similar in nature to Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse (easily one of the best entries in the entire series), this mode stars three of the peripheral characters from Soma's adventure as they fight through the castle on their own. It felt a little rough in places, but was an excellent addition and made me feel as though I got two complete games for the price of one. As a bonus mode, it was pretty outstanding.
The only other things to mention are the parts of the game that utilize the DS's stylus to "enhance" play. Honestly, I saw them all as nothing but gimmicks, adding nothing significant. Basically, the stylus can be used to break blocks in two or three areas, and it also is used to draw a shape when finishing off a boss. If the shape is not drawn correctly, the boss regains some life and continues fighting.
Personally, I don't especially like using a stylus under most circumstances, and Castlevania is the kind of fast platforming action that cries out for both hands firmly on the controller. I was a little annoyed at having to keep the stylus handy, and dropped it a few times in the middle of battle. I do admit that have been the castle map constantly displayed on the DS's upper screen was quite handy, but otherwise the other DS-specific implementations were irrelevant.
It may not be very original or innovative when compared to the rest of the games in the series, but Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow succeeds in bringing a similar level of polish and quality to the Nintendo DS, and I can't think of too many things that make the hours pass by as smoothly as a good Castlevania can.