developed by Camelot Software Planning, published by Nintendo
1 player/3 save slots/Nintendo DS/2010.11.29
Camelot Software Planning’s role-playing roots stretch back to games like Shining Force, and their Golden Sun series carries that tradition forward. Beginning life on the GameBoy Advance in 2001 and followed by a direct sequel in 2003, the series has had a 7 year hiatus. It makes the transition to the Nintendo DS in the platform’s last remaining months, amidst a fairly crowded line-up of similar games. Can its reputation for strong graphics and smart puzzle design outshine the competition, or is this one better left in their shadows?
Golden Sun is remarkable due to its plot consistency; the first two games followed back-to-back and you could even transfer data from one to the other. Dark Dawn is a slight departure, picking up the thread 30 years later, placing you in the role of the heroes’ young but capable children. You’ll see some familiar faces, but the world was so dramatically altered at the end of the last game that you won’t feel like you’re retreading the same territory. The uninitiated can get up to speed by collecting a few books scattered throughout the game that present earlier events as illustrated storybook pages.
The story is pretty basic and suffers from redundant exposition that can get slightly annoying, but that isn’t the main issue. Perhaps because of the release of the 3DS, Nintendo seems to have rushed the developers to release the game. As a result the story ends somewhat abruptly and sort of feels like half of a game as a result. Seemingly important plot devices, like the Psynergy vortex seen near the beginning of the game being one example, are never properly resolved. This could be because Camelot plans to continue the story in the next game like they did with the first two installments on the GameBoy Advance.
During conversations, you will often be given the opportunity to express yourself from one of four options: happy, confident, sad, or angry. Unfortunately it doesn’t make much difference what option you choose, and for the most part putting on a happy face will always yield the best responses.
Dark Dawn takes full advantage of the platform’s dual screens and touch screen. The top screen can be used to display a useful map of the area (including the locations of collectibles) or it can show you how many Djinn have been released in battle. As you release Djinn belonging to the four elements (earth, fire, water, air) they can be used to summon powerful mythological beings to devastate your foes. Djinn also determine what spells and Psynergy abilities are available to each character. There’s a little bit of strategy when casting spells, as you can selectively focus the brunt of the damage to the strongest enemies, and elemental trade-offs are common.
Outside of battle, Psynergy abilities allow you to telepathically move certain blocks, smash boulders, light torches, and grow plants into vines that can be used as impromptu ladders. Likewise, certain vessels can be filled with water, which can then be frozen or dried up, which usually affects the surrounding environment. You might, for example, have to fill a lake and then freeze it to get across a valley. Generally speaking the puzzles aren’t very complex, but it’s fun to see all the steps required to navigate a tricky maze. Almost every area in the game, including towns, have puzzles where Psynergy can be used to access hidden treasures or powerful Djinn, and you have to be observant to find them.
Perhaps best of all there is an excellent balance between battles and exploration. Compared to most RPGs with random monsters, Dark Dawn has a very low encounter rate which allows you to explore and solve puzzles with few distractions. Some of the more complex puzzle rooms don’t even have any monsters in them at all. You won’t have to do any grinding to level up your party, and generally speaking it’s just a very well constructed game. After you have completed it, you can return to the final check point and access some hidden challenges to put your skills to the test.
Like its predecessors on the GameBoy Advance, Dark Dawn is a real graphical showpiece for the system. The many summon spells fill both screens with massive creatures and mythological figures that are more detailed and impressive than anything else seen on the platform (yes, even better than the Square-Enix games) but you can always skip the lengthy animations if you want to. Even regular battle animations can be fairly impressive and involved, and can also be sped up by holding the “A” button, which was a really nice touch. The settings are all unique and colorful, and some feature really amazing set pieces.
The story sequences are fairly basic, but they do take advantage of more cinematic angles and usually show all of the characters on screen at once. Outside the battles, characters are rendered in a somewhat clunky super-deformed style (big heads) that use a variety of distracting and ineffectual emote icons to express what they’re feeling. The style isn’t nearly as nice as that rendered in Final Fantasy: 4 Heroes of Light, and the archaic emoticons are a bit of a shame considering the rest of the package (including the music) is so good.
Camelot’s Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is not only the stand-out graphical showpiece for the Nintendo DS, but it backs up its strong production values with its excellent design. Aside from a few minor quibbles and the lack of a strong finale, Dark Dawn successfully mixes the environmental puzzle-solving of Zelda with the flashy battles and role-playing elements of Final Fantasy. It’s a straight forward mash-up that provides hours of predictably solid entertainment. At the time of writing no sequel has been announced, but I hope one is forthcoming to properly conclude this chapter in the saga.
Quick Run Down
- Spectacular graphics
- Very low random encounter rate
- Imaginative puzzles
- 25 hours of adventure
- 5 hours of extra content accessible after the main game
- Dialogue can be annoyingly wordy
- Ends abruptly/feels incomplete
One Sentence Review: A visually impressive RPG romp that successfully combines elements of Zelda and Final Fantasy.
One Word Review: Impressive.
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