Sequels are a funny thing. Often, especially when it comes to Japanese RPG titles, sequels are a matter of hype and minor disappointment. Only rarely does a member of the series break any serious molds, spilling over with delights that reinvigorate both the franchise and the genre. Final Fantasy VII was one such title. Golden Sun: Dark Dawn sadly, is not.
Well, not quite.
Arriving seven years after the last game in the series, Dark Dawn is the third excursion into the world of Weyard. The first two Golden Sun games were sublime, detailed and catchy in a way that most puzzle-centric role-playing games fail to be. This game is much the same as its predecessors, revolving around a crew of responsible young adults from (what's left of) the hamlet of Vale.
They (the progeny of the original game's lead characters) set out across the world, doing battle with any evil that crosses their path, pushing and pulling stones, opening gates and generally saving the world. The mechanics remain largely the same, as does the overall tone.
What sets Golden Sun titles apart from other RPG games is the Djinn system. Djinn are magical creatures that serve as part familiar and part magic kit. They allow special moves to be pulled off, pseudo Gods to be summoned and spells to be re-arranged. Each Djinn has an elemental theme and attaching one to a member of your party will affect their class on the fly, changing their attributes and available skills. It's a novel idea that gives the player a lot of chances to fiddle and experiment with combinations, adding depth to the title. The incidental fun of finding and catching the numerous Djinn around the world is welcome entertainment indeed.
The puzzles in the game range from fiendish to drab, but with the majority falling between these two extremities. Often, you are given access to a new spell (whirlwind of air, fireball, and so on) upon entering a temple or dungeon. With this new-found power you complete a series of logical moves in order to move through a maze. It’s not revolutionary, but it does carry a sense of satisfaction along the lines of a Zelda title.
Golden Sun stories have traditionally been compelling, keeping things snappy and provocative enough to keep you soldiering on in the dungeon you've most recently become trapped in. While the overarching end-of-the-world plotline stays the same in Dark Dawn, the way it’s presented to the player verges on tedium. It takes 17 minutes from the time you power on the DS to the first save-game, which seems an eternity for a portable.
Characters assault you with text that will be potentially helpful, but after scanning screeds of dull wording you can be forgiven for losing track somewhat. A dialogue that could be summed up in three speech bubbles often takes 12, which is fairly poor form considering many people will be playing this game on a train for a bit of instant gratification before another day at the cracker factory.
Compounding this problem is a slightly off-centre response mechanic whereby you choose from four emotional responses (smiley faces) to help personalise the quest. Other than some surprised replies from party members, you’ll discover that no matter what you pick the story carried on the same line.
What begins to distinguish Dark Dawn from the early Golden Sun titles is the looks. Gone are the lovely detailed sprites with bitmap backgrounds. Here we have 3D engine reminiscent of early 3D PlayStation RPG titles, replete with oddly low poly-count character models. Put bluntly, it's not the prettiest game you'll see on DS this year, especially when compared against other RPG titles that have been released on the platform recently.
On the other hand, each temple you venture into has its own distinctive – if not wholly original – look and the puzzles that lurk within are placed creatively within the world. Summoning Djinn is beautifully animated, and serves to remind you of the polygon-pushing power that the DS so often hides away.
Dark Dawn is a fun game to play – in fact, I've gone back to it several times over the course of writing this review. Battles are compelling and satisfying to participate in (critical hits seem in abundance, which is a boon in the singleplayer world). The Psynergy spells look nifty and get the job done. There’s also plenty of variation provided by the Dijinn system and multiple characters. It feels like a full-sized RPG squeezed into the DS.
Minor gripes come in the form of frustration with a lack of items to resurrect fallen comrades early in the game, along with a good-not-great inventory management system – careful management is needed to ensure you don’t have double-ups of armour or weapons. The in-game shops are useful but too few and far between.
On the whole though, the game is a fun romp only tarnished by being a little long-winded and a tad clumsy to operate.
End of the day, it’s a must for fans of Golden Sun or indeed any fan of portable RPG games.