Thirty years have passed in Weyard, the world in which Camelot and Nintendo's Golden Sun
series is set. It feels a little like it's been that long since I played Golden Sun: The Lost Age
on the Game Boy Advance.
In reality, though, it's only been seven since The Lost Age originally graced shelves back in 2003, before we'd even heard of the Nintendo DS. Seven years just feels like an eternity, which is why I'd intended to replay the GBA games before the review copy of Dark Dawn
arrived. The glut of games to play this year kept me from achieving this, but as it turned out, I hadn't forgotten nearly as much as I'd thought I might have.
Golden Sun: Dark Dawn looks very different at first glance, having moved from tiles and sprites to oft-impressive 3D, but it didn't take me long to realize that this apple didn't fall very far from the tree of its predecessors. With few exceptions, it's obvious the world is still definitely constructed from tiles; you still can hop between platforms if there's a single tile space between them, for example. Most notably, you'll find that the game works best if you keep your stylus slotted and just use the d-pad and buttons like you always have. It's got the same feel as the originals, despite the graphical upgrade; it made me wonder at times if Dark Dawn may have even originally been a sprite-based game that was up-ported to polygons to meet changing expectations in the DS market.
In case you simply don't remember—or have never played—the original games, though, don't fret. There are a number of systems to keep you well-oriented in Dark Dawn. My personal favorite are these neat little animated sequences retelling the tale of the GBA games; search every bookshelf you come across to make sure you pick up all the books that these sequences are contained in. There's also an interesting wiki-like encyclopedia that highlights terms in conversations you may not be familiar with, both old and new; just tap an underlined word with your stylus or use a shoulder button to get a definition. This is optional, which may prove a good thing for the impatient: Dark Dawn continues the series tradition of conversations that tend to drag on forever, with characters constantly emoting—slowly—between what feels like every speech balloon. These conversations are already very lengthy, so it's good to know you can take shortcuts if need be.
In gameplay, one of the original series' key hooks was the use of magic ("Psynergy"), not just in battle, but also in the field to solve environmental puzzles. In Dark Dawn, these puzzles don't ever really reach devious levels—I remember beating my head against the wall much more firmly in the original games, particularly with rolling logs—but they're still fun. Most of the Psynergy you'll use will be immediately familiar if you've played the previous games, with a few new things to spice things up. Some of it may even drive vets a little nuts as you'll know exactly which Psynergy you need to get through a side path to pick up some treasure, but it's one you haven't unlocked yet.
Battle is again almost entirely the same as the previous titles, playing out in traditional turn-based fashion, with only a few minor additions. The game's other trademark, Djinn, the little elemental creatures that you'll find in towns (usually blocked by some sort of environmental puzzle) and in unmarked spots in the field, are back in familiar fashion as well. You can choose to either set them to your characters for stat boosts, mixing their elements up for class changes (does anyone actually do this?), unleash them in battle to use their effects (from attacks to healing and more), or combine them based on their elemental properties to summon visually-impressive legendary creatures. It's more than a little amusing to see, with the smaller summons, a legendary god smite your enemies with about as many HP as you would have done with your own sword; but if you've got enough of them on standby to summon, they can be rather effective. It didn't take long for me to settle into my old routine of unleashing and summoning and waiting for them to be set again, carving a path of destruction in the flashiest way possible.
These options add up to make the battles pretty fun, but they are really pretty stunningly easy. Couple this with the fact that Dark Dawn also calls forth the legacy of random battles that its predecessors relied on, and often battles just end up being an annoyance more than anything else. Thankfully, it seems encounter rates are intelligently toned-down in areas where you need to do a lot of Psynergy-based puzzling, but it's just so flat-out difficult to lose that I found myself sprinting through as much as I could just to avoid having to smack down another group of bats. Stacking one more complaint on the pile is the troublesome inventory system; you'll be "blessed" with all sorts of items usable inside and outside of battle, particularly if you're searching pots and barrels in town, but more often than not they're only really worth selling for some pocket change, since it's a piece of cake to get by exclusively on the fully-reusable Djinn and Psynergy. You'll have to sell off old crap a lot
, too, since you'll repeatedly be running into the limits of your pockets and shuffling items between your party members is a chore.
Dark Dawn ends up a nice revisitation, but probably just a little too attached to the past. Even Dragon Quest
has done away with random battles now; it's probably time to ditch that particular aspect, especially with the heavy environmental puzzling element—and some speed-up in the conversations department would be very helpful too. I don't know if we'll ever see another entry in the series, but if we do, I hope Camelot and Nintendo work on modernizing its systems a bit. But it's still a good time, particularly for fans with fond memories of the original games. Dark Dawn is proof that you can
go home again.