Golden Sun: Dark Dawn DS Review
It's been a long time in the making, but this detailed review will help you to decide if Golden Sun: Dark Dawn for the Nintendo DS lives up to its predecessors to be a worthy entry in the Golden Sun series.
In November 2001, Nintendo released Golden Sun for the Gameboy Advance, and two years later the sequel, Golden Sun: The Lost Age was released. Both games were incredibly well received, but still, after a second title, the series ground to a halt, and it seemed like it was a story they were done telling. It's now been seven years since we've seen an installment in this series, but after all this time, they're returning us to the world of Weyard, a world of elemental spirits called Djinn and magic, wielded by elemental adepts, called Psynergy. Read on to find out if this latest installment, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn, lives up to its predecessors as a worthy addition to a very strong series.
Graphics and Audio
If amazing graphics are what you're looking for, a handheld system is probably not the first thing you're going to be reaching for, and the DS is probably not the handheld you're going to be reaching for. That being said, the graphics in Golden Sun: Dark Dawn are pretty disappointing. The first two games were released in 2001 and 2003 for the Gameboy Advance, and this game looks almost exactly the same. I don't expect a lot from the DS, but I do expect a sequel to a Gameboy game to look like a DS game and not just another Gameboy game.
The music and sound effects are pretty similar to the first two games as well, but in this case, that's okay, because those were pretty good, and unlike with graphics, there doesn't need to be a marked technological improvement. I find that I play a lot of DS games with the sound off strictly because I play my DS in public a lot, and I don't want to irritate people. With Golden Sun DS I actually made the effort to get out my headphones and plug them in because I enjoyed the game more with the sound on.
To be fair, most RPGs don't exactly shine in the story department. The first two Golden Sun titles were at their weakest when it came to the writing, and Golden Sun: Dark Dawn follows in that same tradition by managing to be even more generic and clichéd than the first two. The events in this game take place thirty years after the events of the first two, in the same world of Weyard. In the first two games, a power known as alchemy was restored to the world because without it, the world was dying. However, now that it's been restored, alchemy is causing problems and strange natural disasters of its own.
Due to this, the "Golden Sun Event," as it's referred to in game, is not viewed in a positive light by all citizens of the world, and the characters from those original games, known as the "Warriors of Vale," are not always looked at as heroes. The world itself is actually very different, with continents even being in different places, explained away as a result of alchemy returning to the world, but for a game set thirty years in the future, it relies far too much on the events and characters of the first games to drive its story, and, save for literally a handful of instances where there were cute jokes written in (even including a Princess Bride reference at one point), the writing itself is average at the best of times.
Your original party is made up of four characters, just like in the first game, and each is a child of one of the first game's characters. Your main character is a standard silent protagonist, but instead of always being completely silent, he occasionally has the opportunity to interact with characters by choosing from one of four emoticons - Happy, Excited, Sad, and Angry - which is cute the first few times, but quickly grows nonsensical because those aren't a remotely accurate spectrum of human emotion. Your party eventually expands to eight, and all but one of the additional four are related in some way to an NPC from the first games.
This is as silly and generic as it sounds, and both this and the writing of the main storyline provide for an unfortunately generic experience. As well, sometimes other characters will show their opinions of things with a similar emoticon appearing above their heads instead of them saying anything. The sheer quantity of ridiculous emoticons going on actually just gets really irritating really quickly.
The game doesn't make a lot of use of the DS. It can be controlled using the stylus, but it can be played just as well with the buttons. The top screen is used to display party status or the map. Other than that, it plays just like it would have on the Gameboy Advance. Gameplay is similar to the first two entries in the series. You explore towns and dungeons, solving puzzles along the way and collecting Djinn to help you ultimately save the world.
The exploration portions of the first two games were their strongest points, and that's definitely true again in Golden Sun: Dark Dawn. You travel from town to town and through various dungeons talking to people and solving all sorts of puzzles. Just as in the first game, much of your Psynergy can be used outside of battle to manipulate obstacles. For instance, you can make vines grow to climb them, move objects that are physically out of your reach onto switches, start and put out fires, create whirlwinds to activate pinwheels, and many, many other things.
Every dungeon is full of obstacles and puzzles, and all these sorts of things that you need to do just to advance to the end of the dungeon. In addition to these, each dungeon also has a handful of additional, slightly more challenging optional puzzles you can do to reach treasure chests or Djinn spirits, which like to be chased before they'll lend you their power. The puzzles are fairly easy at first while the game lets you get used to way it works, but they do actually grow fairly challenging and pretty inventive towards the end. These puzzles were why I always loved the Golden Sun games, and there are some pretty great ones here in Golden Sun DS as well.
Some of the puzzles are brilliant, and these alone make it worth experiencing the game if you were a fan of the first two, but they only begin to get really challenging fairly near the end, and there are a number of Psynergies that can be used outside of battle but only ever need to be used once or twice at most, which ends up making them feel pretty extraneous. For instance, in the case of the Mind Read Psynergy, one of many that returns from the first game, to complete the main story, it never has to be used even once, and I'm pretty sure there's only a single sidequest it's even required for.
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The Battle System is more or less exactly the same as the system from the previous Golden Sun games, which isn't entirely a bad thing. You have standard attacks, items you can use, and magic you can cast, which is called Psynergy in these games. In addition to that, you have Djinn, which are elemental spirits you can find, bound to you. When they're set to your characters, they change your class, resulting in better stats and better Psynergy. They can be used in battle for powerful attacks, but this will put them on standby mode, which means they're no longer set to that character. However, once in standby, they can be used to summon powerful creatures, and then, after recovering for a round or two, will set themselves back to the character. This double-edged sword creates an interesting strategy, where using them to attack and summon is incredibly powerful, but weakens your characters themselves.
In addition, once you have more than four party members, you have to choose which four you want to go into battles with. In the middle of any battle, you can swap the other characters in or out, and if all four of your characters die in a battle, it tosses your remaining party members into the fray as a secondary party to carry on instead of giving you a game over. This is actually a really nice touch, but the battles are easy enough that you're likely to never see this mechanic anywhere other than the final boss. Overall, the Battle System is really solid conceptually, but the battles are so easy that it never gets to show itself off.
Battles Are Too Easy
Everything at work in the battle system creates some really interesting opportunity for strategy, but really only in theory. The battles are painfully easy throughout; both the random battles and even most of the boss battles can be felled in two or three attack turns without even bothering to think about strategy or heal. This is partially due to the fact that the aforementioned Djinn are everywhere. There are simply too many of them available to you too early. If you make the effort to solve the puzzles and get even a majority of them, you will be swimming in them by the time the game starts throwing bosses at you, which means you'll be swimming in stat boosts and all kinds of powerful attack spells. The battles do get slightly harder near the end, but they're still nothing serious until the game's final boss, which is enough of a sudden arbitrary difficulty spike to make it an actual challenge. I'm not a fan of really sudden jumps in difficulty like that in RPGs, but even with that spike, I beat him on my first try with little preparation. In fact, I never did see a game over screen, in my entire time through the game, and I make no effort to "grind," or get into any more fights than I have to on my way through an RPG, so I was never particularly overleveled.
Equipment and Interface
There are a couple of things about the inventory system I love. You have a very limited inventory, and every party member has their own inventory. This means it's up to you to give everyone a few herbs if you want to use them in battle, because if your main character is holding on to all of them, he's the only one that can use them. This is another one of those things that creates an interesting element of strategy, but again, the battles are simply too easy for it to ever really matter.
Another great thing, and something I think every RPG ever made needs to adopt, is something so simple that I can't believe it's not a standard in RPGs. When you buy equipment in a store, it gives you the option to immediately equip it, like in many other RPGs. If you choose to equip it right away, the store owner immediately asks you if you'd like to sell the equipment you've just replaced, instead of forcing you to leave the buying screen and enter a selling screen. It saves times, and it's ridiculously simple and obvious.
As far as new equipment goes, there are plenty of new weapons and armor to buy in every town you visit, and plenty more to uncover in treasure chests in various dungeons. The things you find in dungeons are considered artifacts and will sell for a lot more gold than a standard item once you're done with them. As well, they'll be available to re-purchase at every single vendor in the game once they've been sold, in case you ever change your mind. Vendors do sometimes get their own artifacts in as well, to add a few rare items to the ones you might find in chests. There are just enough of them that by the end of the game you're unlikely to have anyone left in your party with a single "standard" item equipped, which is nice because most of the rare items have additional stat bonuses or special attacks they unleash at random.
If you're a fan of the Golden Sun series, then Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is definitely worth looking into. It's the weakest entry in the series, and it may not deliver on all of its promises, but it's still a fun game, and if you can get past the lack of difficulty, there are some really great puzzles to solve, and the battle system's mechanics are really clever, although you don't have to use them until the last few hours of the game.
Speaking of the last few hours of the game, however, this game is pretty short for an RPG. Between the length and the fact that it picks up steam right near the end, the actual ending comes almost as a surprise, because just as you feel you're really getting going, suddenly everything is winding down. It comes off feeling almost unfinished, which is unfortunate, and for a sequel to a game that came out seven years ago, is kind of unacceptable.
Overall, it's a fun game, and it's worth looking into for fans of RPGs, and especially fans of the previous titles, but it could have been so much better than it was. I do hope that the game will do well enough to warrant a sequel, because I think they can do better. The first two games are some of the best handheld RPGs ever made, and I'd like to see Camelot return to that form.
All images from Golden Sun's official website, www.goldensun-games.com.