Castlevania and I go way back. I've probably logged more hours defeating Dracula than Sephiroth. In similar fashion to Brad, I would call the Castlevania series a dynasty in the gaming world. For many console generations, it would represent the epitome of design, production value and artistry. Super Castlevania IV, for example still holds up incredibly well for a nearly 15-year-old game. The original PlayStation library cannot be defined without Symphony of the Night (SotN) . Unlike Brad, I've played through every Castlevania that has been released since SotN, and my perspective on the series is probably a bit fuller.
The GBA games were high-quality titles, and on the DS, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow is no exception. I definitely agree with Brad in this regard. Yet, for all the quality of the work, I feel Castlevania has finally—for now—run out of steam.
Here's the problem: A game is made that makes a huge impact on the way the series is perceived. Once that's happened, the series suddenly hits a brick wall. It's done all it needs to do, and all that's left is honing the formula to razor sharpness. The formula is this: create a multiple-path route, create single-element areas (i.e. the underground water level, the library, the forest outside), add a boss which you think is the end boss but actually isn't, explore some more, get the one item to change one minute element, defeat final boss, rinse, repeat. SotN did a remarkable job of refining this formula to near-perfection—and even SotN was an expansion of ideas taken from Dracula X: Chi no Rondo (only available either in Japan or to stupid people who spend too much money on eBay like I did). The problem is, in over eight years, not much has changed.
It is this rehashing that leads me to the downfall of Dawn of Sorrows. With the creation of a wonderfully creative canvas, Koji Igarashi (IGA to the faithful) utterly fails to make any major improvements to the formula, let alone re-imagine the formula itself. Coupled with the barrage of GBA titles, Dawn of Sorrow was almost unnecessary.
This isn't the first direct sequel to a previous Castlevania game. SotN was a direct sequel to Dracula X on PC Engine. While it worked then, it doesn't so much now. Too much of Dawn of Sorrow was directly copy-pasted into the new game. The soul acquisition system hasn't changed at all. In fact, many of the enemies are copy pasted themselves—from Dracula X over 12 years ago.
My other main gripe is the missed opportunity with the platform itself. The concept of destroying blocks with a stylus to create a pathway sounds like such a creative treat. The large cavern in Castlevania III—ten solid minutes of working with falling bricks to create one's pathway upwards—could have been completely re-imagined. But, this remarkable ability is used in a grand total of two—yes, two—rooms. Very few of the backgrounds have any 3D at all, and the presentation is just too well-worn and familiar.
Don't get me wrong: taken on its own, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow is a very high-quality title, and I would encourage anyone to play it. The Julius mode is worth the price of admission alone. (In fact, that's probably the way they should have made the game: with Julius mode being the primary drive behind the game, and Soma being the bonus quest.) But one can't just look at a single Castlevania title without looking at where it came from. Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow looks a little too much in the mirror.
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