Developer: Camelot / Publisher: Nintendo / ESRB: Everyone 10+ (Mild Fantasy Violence) / Played on: DS / Price: $34.99
You’d be hard pressed to find anyone that owned a Game Boy Advance and called themselves an RPG fan that hadn’t at least heard of the original Golden Sun. The classic RPG was among the best role-playing experiences the handheld had to offer, while its sequel The Lost Age offered the same unique gameplay and continued the story of the first game but through the antagonist’s point of view. Seven years and a new generation of handheld consoles later, the newest chapter of the Golden Sun series begins on the Nintendo DS with Golden Sun: Dark Dawn. Gorgeous graphics and a fluid combat system mean Dark Dawn continues the high quality bar legacy of this series.
Dark Dawn takes place in the land of Weyard 30 years after the events of The Lost Age come to an end. After an introductory recap of the first two games, it is revealed that Weyard is thriving from the events of the past, but a new threat has emerged. Psyenergy vortexes are appearing across the world, sucking the alchemy and magic out of psyenergy users–known as adepts–as well as the planet itself. You play as Matthew, the child of the protagonist of the first game, who is an elemental adept like his father. Plenty of references to characters, locations, and events of the first two games will please fans of the series, and those that have not played the original games won’t be left in the dark. A clever and extremely useful encyclopedia-like system explains in more detail important events and characters. Certain words are highlighted during dialogue and tapping the L or R buttons brings up an entry on the topic, making sure you are always aware of what you need to know.
Unfortunately, many times the action of the game is dragged down by the long, drawn-out story sequences. You might find yourself skimming the dialogue, trying to get back to the action more times than you’d like. At around 20 hours long, Dark Dawn offers up a tale that is unique if a bit long-winded.
The original GBA titles were praised for their unique art style and presentation, and Dark Dawn is no exception. This is easily the best looking DS game I have played all year. The cel-shaded style is similar to this summer’s Dragon Quest IX, and the vast amounts of color and detail bring the 3D world to life. The transition from 2D to 3D is done very well and utilizes everything the DS has to offer. While the original GBA games looked good for their time, Dark Dawn looks even better on the DS. Each town, dungeon, character, and monster is detailed and polished, making Dark Dawn a visually stunning game. Battle animations with summons, in particular, take advantage of both screens, delivering a satisfying experience overall: seeing your tiny Djinni combine and transform into giant dragons and beasts has never looked better.
If you’ve played a Golden Sun game before then you’ll feel right at home with Dark Dawn. A fine balance between puzzle solving and action segments will keep you engrossed in the game. During battles you and your party members can choose from standard physical attacks and magical psyenergy attacks, with the latter dealing elemental damage to your foes. As with previous games you can also equip and use Djinni to aid you in battle. There are over 70 unique Djinni in the game and each one adds stat bonuses and special elemental attacks to your party. After setting and using one of them in battle, they go into a summoning pool that you can tap to unleash devastating damage to your enemies. The more djinni you summon, the more powerful and awesome the attack. Battles are turn-based and encounters are random. The rate of encounters in dungeons is limited and you’ll never get frustrated with too many enemies popping up on you.
The other key component to Dark Dawn is its puzzles. Every town and dungeon is full of them, and they are easily the most creative parts of the game. You’ll use your character’s elemental abilities outside of combat to solve most puzzles. Wind psyenergy needs to be used to power fans, fire psyenergy to start braziers, water psyenergy to put out flames, and so on. Each puzzle is very rewarding, offering up new items and gear, and the game encourages you to explore its colorful world to find these puzzles. While challenging, the puzzles are never too difficult. The sublime blending of action and puzzles makes Dark Dawn a blast to play.
One unfortunate element that has somehow carried over from the last game is the inventory management system. Each character has a set number of items they can hold, and once the maximum is reached for each character you’ll have to perform some tedious inventory management to organize what you want to keep. It can really take away from the game when you’ve got to stop everything to move around some medicinal herbs from Matthew to someone else. On the whole, though, the gameplay in Dark Dawn is great, and will please both fans of the original games and newcomers alike.
A sweeping soundtrack plays across Weyard and throughout the game. While some tunes are catchy and fitting, like the intro song, others come off as unimaginative and under realized. Familiar sound effects return from the older games and mix with the new to make a game that sounds great. There isn’t any spoken dialogue, however, which is sorely missed as many of the cinematic sequences could have benefited greatly from the addition of good voice acting. Overall Dark Dawn’s sound is average and as such the low point of an otherwise superb game.
There is something for every RPG fan in Golden Sun: Dark Dawn: a superior blend of puzzle-solving and gameplay for newcomers and the same charm from the original GBA games for series veterans. The battles are fun, the puzzles are rewarding, and the overall game is addicting, all ingredients needed for a stellar RPG. It may have been seven years since the last game in the series, but Golden Sun: Dark Dawn succeeds in bringing the series into a new generation and is another must-play for fans of the genre.