Popular opinion has it that not only is Aria of Sorrow (AoS) the best Castlevania game in the Switch GBA collection, but that it may be one of the best -vania games in that particular lineup. In this case, popular opinion is pretty much right.
The story here takes everything that I love about Castlevania and ratchets it up to a ridiculous degree. For starters, no longer are we a Belmont from the past or the son of Dracula, we’re Soma Cruz, a supposedly normal high school teenager from the future… in Japan. See, apparently they sealed Dracula’s castle inside a solar eclipse, and due to the rising need for evil, it has returned through a shrine that Soma’s childhood friend/love interest Mina tends with her family. The government has actually sent some people along to help, though it’s questionable whether or not they will do so.
It turns out that Soma actually may be the reincarnation of Dracula himself, which grants him the power to absorb and utilize the various souls in the castle for his benefit. Naturally he doesn’t want this power, so he sets off to eliminate the other guy who thinks he’s Dracula and free Soma, Mina, and their friends from the castle.
And the story only gets crazier the longer it goes. The logic here is just absolutely absurd, from “let’s hide the castle in an eclipse and never explain why or how that works” to “yes, this random Japanese teenager is quite probably the reborn spirit of Dracula, as is this dapper probably English man.” Dialogue is delightfully cheesy, just gooey with the stuff. And the characters are actually kind of fun and interesting: Soma is desperate to get out of there, but he’s also someone who occasionally comments on how insane this is, and he goes out of his way to help the people who actually help him. Mina isn’t just a love interest to be rescued: she ends up holding down the entrance to the castle and can regularly heal you and offer you advice. Everything that a person could love about Castlevania stories is here and present.
But to nearly quote my last Castlevania review: nobody really plays Metroidvanias for their story (except, y’know, those of us who like those… most of the players of Hollow Knight… you get what I’m saying). How is the actual gameplay? How is the exploration?
For starters, there’s no trick castle here, for which I’m eternally thankful. No second castle or hidden alternate dimension. The castle is the castle, and you can actually trust the percentile marker you can see in the map.
Said map is engaging and has several different biomes and areas. In many ways, it almost feels like a “greatest hits” for -vania games, as there’s all the coolest/most important areas: the stairs up to Dracula’s throne, the underwater waterways and hidden ice cavern beneath, the Arena, and of course a clock tower. These unlock fairly naturally with the various hidden abilities as you go. What can be fun is that Soma can naturally unlock abilities through the Souls he captures from others. These can sometimes let you tweak how you move and operate in ways that not only expand the map, but continually encourage you to find more Souls.
It’s still very much a castle though, but it’s one of the most dynamic castles that I’ve seen in this franchise. I kind of wish there had been more nods to the modern timeline in there besides a few of the characters and the fact that a handgun is an available weapon. That feels like a missing opportunity.
I want to take some time to more fully explain the whole Soul system. The basic concept is that every creature in the castle possesses a key ability unique to them. This varies from summoning copies of them to fling at enemies to slowing your fall to stopping time. Each time Soma defeats an enemy, there’s a chance of a Soul popping out; this is naturally guaranteed for a few boss enemies throughout the game. As I’ve said with similar games that use this system (see: Bloodstained), it’s a great way to encourage players to kill everything and seek things out. It also allows for customization.
However, it also created a few moments of slight irritation. The chance to get a Soul is low, and in order to enter a slightly hidden area of the game you need a particular setup (I had to look it up on YouTube). Perhaps more grating is that you require a certain set of Souls to unlock the True Ending (because of course there’s multiple endings). Fortunately, these Souls weren’t that hard to find, and the game actually gives you hints that are actually useful.
All in all, this is far and away the best -vania game in the collection, and honestly worth it on its own. There are a few faults, mostly irritations and wishes, and the game itself is on the shorter side (I took about 5 hours to beat it, maybe 6). But it encapsulates what made the Iga-vania games so very good and why the -vania part deserves to stick on Metroidvania. It’s engaging, has a crazy plot that’s crazy fun, and has everything a person could want in a -vania.
9 it also ages well! And you definitely can say that about every game in this collection!