In the first two Golden Sun games the Heroes of Vale restored the awesome power of the Golden Sun, saving the world of Weyard from impending doom. Are their children up to the task in Golden Sun: Dark Dawn?
Thirty years have passed since the events of puzzle-heavy role-playing games Golden Sun and Golden Sun: The Lost Age for the Game Boy Advance, and the Heroes of Vale watch over a very different world. While the Golden Sun event prevented the world from ending, it also caused tumultuous changes. New continents have risen, political boundaries have been redrawn, and at least one new race has been born. Into this strange new world venture Matthew, Tyrell, Karis, and Rief, the children of the original Heroes of Vale, sent on a simple fetch quest that soon blossoms into a complicated series of fetch quests that could determine the fate of the world all over again.
Turn-based role-playing fanatics who don't mind a little push, pull, and poke puzzle-solving between fights and anyone that's been waiting seven years for this game to arrive.
Golden Sun and Golden Sun: The Lost Age were two of the finest role-playing games the Game Boy Advance had to offer. After a seven-year hiatus, developer Camelot Software Planning is back to show players what they can do with two screens and a stylus.
I've never played a Golden Sun game before. Will I be completely lost? Far from it! Camelot Software Planning has taken great pains to ensure that players can jump right into Golden Sun: Dark Dawn with no prior knowledge. First off, there is an absurdly long text introduction, and by absurdly long I mean I fell asleep during it, soothed by its countless scrolling words. Later, when learning how to use your psynergy powers (read: magic) to manipulate the environment and solve puzzles, you're treated to a brilliant little training course that tells the tale of the first two games using a series of cardboard cutouts. On top of that, the game contains a comprehensive hypertext encyclopedia. If a word, concept, or person you aren't familiar with pops up, simply tap it with your stylus and a definition pops up. It's extremely newbie friendly.
And what about the gameplay? Is it easy to pick up? Golden Sun is basically a turn-based role-playing game, so picking it up isn't a problem. Mastering the subtle nuance of the Djinn system, however, takes a bit of work. There are 72 Djinn to capture in the game, each representing one of the four elemental powers: Fire, water, air, and earth. Up to nine Djinni can be assigned to a single character, and depending on the elemental makeup of those Djinn, the character's class can change, granting him new abilities and enhanced stats. Each Djinni also has powers that can be unleashed in battle, though once the powers are spent they go into standby mode. Djinn in standby mode do not contribute to character stats until reset, but can be used as resources to fuel powerful summoned creatures. The trick lies in knowing when to rely on your party's basic attacks and psynergy powers and when to pull out the big guns, sacrificing some of your stats for special bonuses and super-powered attacks. Can you survive several rounds of combat with weakened stats while gathering resources for that one, uber-heinous summons?
That's sounds daunting. Is it really that complicated? It would be if Dark Dawn were anywhere near as difficult as its predecessors. I spent the first 20 of my 25-hour run to the final boss letting the game auto-assign Djinn to my characters and never once had a problem. Some of the encounters in those last few hours were tough, but nothing a little strategic healing couldn't handle. In fact, it wasn't until the final boss that my party finally tasted defeat. I'm being too kind to myself here; the final boss stuffed me so full of defeat it was emanating from my pores. I'm partly to blame for not exploiting the system to its fullest, but I lay some blame on a game so elementary I didn't feel the need. The game's biggest challenge (and greatest satisfaction) lies in finding all of the hidden Djinni and solving the game's countless thoughtful environmental puzzles.
The impressive summoning spells in Dark Dawn should not be skipped.
And what if I'm a fan of the first two games? Well then you're in luck, because the developers didn't stray far from the winning formula established in the Game Boy Advance titles. The biggest differences between this game and the older titles are the gorgeous 3D graphics and the ability to play through the entire game using intuitive touch screen controls. There are a few new summons available, and each Djinni now boasts its own unique look. Characters can master weapons, giving them a random chance to unleash powerful special attacks while wielding them. There's a new story of course, but it's thinly-stretched across a frame of fetch quests, keeping the characters hopping around the world in search of the ancient artifact needed to launch the quest for the next ancient artifact.
So it's more of the same? You make it sound like a bad thing. Dark Dawn have a great deal in common with the first two Golden Sun titles, but those games are seven years in the past. How many times have you picked up a long-awaited sequel to a role-playing game and were disappointed to find it doesn't play at all like the original? That will not happen with Golden Sun: Dark Dawn.
If Golden Sun: Dark Dawn had arrived a year after the last game in the series I would have been sorely disappointed with its lack of innovation. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, however, and seven years is plenty of time to develop a serious longing for more of the puzzle-solving, ass-kicking, and Djinn-collecting that charmed me back when Nintendo's handhelds only had one screen. After more than half a decade creating mascot-driven sports titles Camelot plays it safe, proving it can still deliver a role-playing experience capable of satiating fan cravings while giving newcomers a chance to get hooked as well.
Golden Sun: Dark Dawn was developed by Camelot Software Planning and published by Nintendo for the DS, releasing on November 29. Retails for $34.99. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Spent 25 hours playing through the story, and two hours getting killed over and over again by the final boss before I got lucky.