|Golden Sun: Dark Dawn|
|MtAMinutes to Action||14|
|Buy from Amazon|
Nine years ago, I introduced myself to an interesting little RPG from Japan for the Game Boy Advance. Little did I know, I was playing what would eventually become, arguably, my favourite RPG of all time. That game was Golden Sun, and many other gamers around the world shared my passion. The game ended, but the story was only half-over; it continued in a sequel, Golden Sun: The Lost Age, two years later. The sequel couldn’t have come any sooner; waiting that long for a continuation, for Golden Sun fans, was torture. Turns out that was nothing...
Sometime after The Lost Age’s launch, we learned that the Takahashi brothers’ creations were merely the prologue to a supposed saga of games set in the Golden Sun universe. Fans were frothing at the mouths with anticipation, but, unbeknownst to them, would have to wait seven long years before seeing another sequel. That wait is finally over.
But first, let’s take a step back for a bit and answer one very important question: What makes Golden Sun so great? Why, after all these years, has the excitement for a sequel not died down? Well, there are many reasons, but I’ll focus on, what I think most Golden Sun fans would agree are, the main three:
The story, simply put, is very entertaining and well thought out. It’s as fantastic as it is convincing, and extremely compelling despite its linearity. And although it’s linear, the game still provides a strong sense of freedom, with the ability to fully backtrack at virtually any time, and with enough hidden areas and secrets to find off the main story path. The characters themselves are also quite entertaining, each filling an archetypal JRPG role while somehow never feeling too cliché. It’s an absolute joy watching these characters progress, grow, and interact with each other.
The battle system—the heart of any RPG—is a refined take on the classic JRPG style, but with a great deal of variety and complexity centered around a very simple mechanic: The Djinn system. Djinn are magical creatures scattered throughout the world that the player must find, and often battle, to acquire. That’s a good deal of fun in itself, but the real fun is in their implementation. “Setting” (equipping) Djinn to your characters is the first step. The type—Venus (earth), Mars (fire), Jupiter (wind), Mercury (water)—and number of Djinn will determine a character’s class, which corresponds with their level to determine what spells they can use. There’s a lot of variety here, and because not every character has access to every class, players must take special care in assigning Djinn such that their party has a balance of offensive, defensive, and restorative Psynergy (magic).
But Djinn can take a more active role in battle as well, and this is where things get interesting. Characters can call their “Set” Djinn to perform a number of attacks with a range of effects perhaps not available via standard Psynergy—such as absorbing an enemy’s hit points, locking an enemy’s Psynergy, restoring the party’s Psynergy Points, and more. Once a Djinni is used in this way, it goes on “Standby”, and a single point will be accumulated based on the element it represents. At any time, these points can be “spent” to summon powerful elemental attacks, after which, the Djinn will re-Set themselves to their respective characters one turn at a time in the order they were used. Of course, during this time, the character’s class (and its corresponding spells and stat boosts) that came as a result of the Set Djinn will be lost. It’s the strategy that goes into sacrificing a character’s class for a devastating, potentially tide-shifting attack that makes the battle system so brilliant and unique.
Finally, the adventuring and dungeon crawling aspects are simply amazing. Puzzle solving is challenging and fun, with creativity likened to that of The Legend of Zelda series. And just like The Legend of Zelda, players acquire new means of solving puzzles as they progress, but instead of using an ever-expanding assortment of tools and equipment, players manipulate obstacles and other objects using Psynergy—oftentimes, the very same available in battle. The same spells used to combat enemies are also used to grow vines to climb, freeze puddles into pillars to jump on, blow overgrowth away to reveal hidden entrances, smash boulders blocking paths, and so, so much more.
These are the main reasons why Golden Sun is so highly regarded amongst RPG enthusiasts worldwide. Oh, and I’m sure it helped that, despite being housed on a 32-bit cartridge, the game boasted rather impressive graphics and sound, making it one of the prettiest looking and sounding games in the Game Boy Advance’s library.
The third instalment, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn, finds its home on the Nintendo DS, featuring updated 3D graphics and stylus control. I’m excited. Not only have I been waiting a very long time for this, but this is the first new game I’ve gotten for the DS since Infinite Space. The same classic score from the first game plays on the title screen. I start a new game, enter my name, and begin:
(minutes are in bold)
00 – A cinematic begins playing, detailing the history of Weyard (the world in which the game takes place), the discovery of Alchemy (the study of the four elements and how the makeup reality), as well as summing up the events of the first two games—which gives me goose bumps, admittedly.
02 – I’m shown a giant airship dropping some sort of machine onto a mountain. Looks evil. Also, looks like the re-emergence of the Golden Sun might’ve encouraged technological advancement on Weyard; there certainly wasn’t anything like that in the last game.
The cinematic now begins to explain the events triggered by the “Golden Sun event”, and the state of the world today, 30 years later. It also details what happened to The Warriors of Vale and their town after this cataclysmic event.
07 - A slower, sadder version of the title theme plays (which nearly brings a tear to my eye) while we’re taken to a cabin on the peak of Goma Plateau, part of a newly formed mountain range upheaved as a result of the Golden Sun. Isaac, the main protagonist from the original games, speaks the first lines of dialog:
“What a relief to have that journey behind us. Let’s drop our packs here, son.”
I wonder who the mother is.
“You’re getting stronger, Matthew. That will serve you well, since life here at our cabin isn’t easy.”
The name "Matthew” is underlined. The game tells me to tap on it. I do, and it explains that key people, places, and terms can be added to an Encyclopedia to draw reference from. Neat.
08 - Matthew’s profile is now added to the Encyclopedia. The conversation continues and I make a few more entries into the Encyclopedia while reading them (I’m a sucker for game lore, what can I say).
11 - More reading through dialog and Encyclopedia entries before Garet, another hero from the originals, is (re)introduced. Good old Garet. Nice 'stache, dude.
12 - We learn about Psynergy Vortexes through Isaac and Garet’s conversation—dark rifts in space that suck the elemental energy out of everything in the immediate area, including Adepts. We also learn of Ivan’s whereabouts.
13 – Two more characters are introduced—Karis and Tyrell—daughter of Ivan and son of Garet, respectively. Seems that Tyrell has taken a precious invention from Ivan and Karis called the Soarwing, a device that allows the user to glide using Psynergy.
14 – The emotions system is now explained. During conversations you can choose to respond in several ways: Pleased, Excited, Sad/Worried, Angry. I’m asked to respond how I feel about what was just said. I choose the angry option, and Garet scolds Matthew for snapping at him. I’m not sure yet whether or not your choices will actually impact the story outside of the current conversation, but we’ll see.
Now I’m finally in control. I follow Isaac and Garet to the roof of the cabin, where Tyrell is planning to jump with the Soarwing.
The group tries to talk Tyrell down from the roof but to no avail; he jumps and begins slowly descending on the forest below, where he’ll be at the mercy of the dangerous wildlife there.
19 – After a somewhat overly lengthy discussion (considering the dire situation) and more Encyclopedia entries, Isaac comes up with a plan. Fearing for Tyrell’s safety, he tells him to head for a small plateau near a cave, where he’ll be safer. He does as he’s instructed and Isaac and Garet prepare to give chase.
20 – Karis and Matthew decide they want to tag along. Garet is reluctant, but Isaac insists it will be a good test for the future protectors of Weyard. They tell us to gear up before meeting them at a bridge, the starting point of the rescue mission.
Now I’m suddenly inside the cabin talking to Karis, who gives me a leather cap. She says she’ll help me put it on. Right... Well, I guess that’s one way to introduce the inventory/equipment system...
21 - The game automatically shows me how to equip, using the leather cap as an example. I really like the look of the menu system; it looks sharp.
Karis tells me to find the rest of my gear, equip it, then meet up with her. Before she leaves, she (the game) shows me how to save my file.
22 - I find a sword in a bedside chest and equip it (+8 attack!). I read an entry in Isaac’s diary on a nearby drawer and move on.
24 – Exploring the cabin, I find the “Sun Saga 1” tome. I use it to see what it does.
27 - In a very storybook-like sequence, the game recaps the events of the first game in more detail before giving me control again. Seems all I’ve done so far is read through mountains of text... But it’s nothing I didn’t expect at the beginning of a story-heavy RPG. Back to finding the rest of my equipment...
I move under a small area under the staircase and the camera shift the perspective to better see what lies there. That’s pretty neat, I wonder how this will be further implemented.
28 - I find some padded gloves, equip them, and report to Karis. She determines that I’m ready and we set off to meet Garet and Isaac. She tells me to lead the way.
“Karis joins your party!”
29 - Matthew and Karis stumble upon the two adults discussing something: Isaac wants to take this opportunity to test us by letting us figure out our own way down the plateau, while watching secretly from a distance. A worried Garet agrees.
30 - Isaac and Garet discovered that they are caught. Karis gives them an earful. It doesn’t change anything though; Isaac insists we go about it our own, while they watch and make sure we’re alright.
31 – The party sets off under my control. I get into my first boss battle in a cave; two Slimes (hmm, really thought it would be two rats with pitchforks).
Stats are shown on the top screen, with the battle menu and engaging parties at the bottom. The battle menu looks much like the main menu system; also quite nice. I have three options: Fight, Status, Flee.
I check my characters stats and see what they’re all abou—alright alright, I’ll get to the combat, sheesh...
32 - Fight submenu: Defend, Attack, Psynergy, Item. Let’s see how some of the Psynergy looks first. I instruct Matthew to use Growth and Karis to use Whirlwind. Whirlwind has a small area of effect, which is not only indicated beside the spell’s name when choosing it, but also in the bottom-right corner of the touch screen. That’s a nice little addition, actually.
Karis casts Whirlwind (which has some pretty nice effects, I might add), and just like that the Slimes are felled. I gain 4 experience, 2 coins, and some words of advice from the adults before pressing forward.
33 - Another battle—this time against two Flutter Seeds. A single Whirlwind takes them out once again. C’mon, Matthew! Get in the game!
I come to an obstacle and the adults teach me how to use Psynergy to move it.
34 - I use Move to push the rock pillar out of the way.
35 - More text and Encyclopedia entries before I move on. Near this room’s exit, I get into a third battle. Now it’s getting serious; two Flutter Seeds and a Slime this time.
Surprise, surprise; a single Whirlwind annihilates the entire enemy party. Oooh, I got an herb!
36 - Now at the bottom of the plateau, the adults say that we’ll have to go through Tanglewood. Reading the Encyclopedia entry, I discover that this forest transforms at night, ensnaring those who dare travel through it...and it’s nearly sunset. This should be fun.
37 - Isaac decides to lend Matthew and Karis some Djinn to help them through the forest. Nice.
38 - Time for a Djinn tutorial. Strange, I keep opting to not go through tutorials but the game insists otherwise—probably because it knows it’s my first time playing.
Isaac decides to let one of the Djinn explain the system. Hey! Flint, old buddy, how’s it going!? Appropriately enough, he chooses the Djinni that first explained to him and Garet when they started their adventure 30 years ago. Love this guy.
The tutorial sequence begins. It’s in much the same style as the Sun Saga 1 tome.
39 - Right away Flint explains how Setting two different types of Djinn can give you access to a new class tree. It then goes on to show how they’re used in combat, and how they go on Standby. He then explains that Djinn must be distributed as evenly as possible throughout the party.
40 - He shows how Djinn on Standby are used to summon. I see a rather cool dual-screen sequence of Ramses taking out a group of enemies. The Djinn will then rest and be reset—yadda, yadda—end of tutorial.
41 - They give Karis and Matthew three Djinn each.
I come to a strange glowing vine blocking one path, and head down another towards a treasure chest I spotted. I then encounter a single slime. Before the battle begins, Isaac gives Karis a tip, telling her to use the Djinni Torch. I do as instructed and easily win. That’s cool—when you use Djinn they float around on the top screen to show their on Standby. Each Djinn has its own unique look too.
I don’t think I really needed the advice against one slime, Isaac, but thanks anyway.
45 - The chest contains an herb. ‘Ats-a so nice! I encounter two of a new enemy as I hop along the rocks—Willowisps.
46 - This time Whirlwind wasn’t enough to take either of them down. Matthew’s growth finishes off one of the Willowisps.
The remaining enemy attacks Isaac (good luck, buddy) for 2 damage and it’s my turn again. I get the two to simply attack this time. Karis finishes it off with a smack of her staff. Both young-uns level up and I gain an Oil Drop (I remember these).
47 - I come upon an area filled with more of those strange roots. I also notice an eerie red flower in the middle of them. My guess is the roots disappear if you destroy it.
48 - At the end of another battle, I notice some strange text in the message window telling me that "Karis mastered the Wooden Stick". What the heck!? I browse through the equipment menu and notice that each weapon has a ‘Weapon Skill’ meter (that’s new). Karis’ Wooden Stick’s meter is filled to the max. Maybe it does more damage now.
49 - I come to the red flower and burn it using Fireball Psynergy. The roots burn away giving me access to another chest.
50 - The adults congratulate Matthew on his use of the Fireball while at the same time wondering how he got so powerful.
51 - They determine that the dark, evil energy drawn to the trees is weakest to light and fire, and that we should keep using it against the enemies here.
52 - I head back the way I came down a path that was once blocked by evil roots. Nothing, just a short cut.
54 - After a battle against 4 monsters, Matthew levels up again, but Karis doesn’t. Loser.
56 - I play around in the menu a bit more—checking out the Status, Djinn, Encyclopedia, and Atlus options—before heading back to that chest, which contains a Bramble Seed (another item I remember).
I find a new enemy—Wild Wolf—and Isaac insists I summon Tiamat. Normally I wouldn’t against a single foe, but I kind of want to see the (sure to be) cool summoning sequence.
57 - In an incredibly overdramatic but nevertheless awesome cinematic, the dragon Tiamat is called forth from the ruins of a keep with advanced computer systems in its bowels. A burst of blue energy shoots upwards from the keep. Tiamat materializes within it, then flies over to the battlefield, lands, and incinerates the Wild Wolf in a breath of blue flame.
I burn another flower and head to the next screen.
58 - There's a bunch of green roots forming a small maze to traverse. I notice a small plant in the ground that I can use Growth on, so I begin to head that way.
I get Karis to heal herself after a battle.
59 - I burn the red flower in this area, so I should have access to that Growth point now.
Another new enemy: Rat Soldier. Isaac gives me yet another tip, but this time I’m going to ignore it. I easily dispatch the party with a well placed Whirlwind and regular attack from Matthew.
I cast Growth on the small plant, and climb it, putting me within reach of another red flower to burn and grant me access to the next area.
60 - I get into a fight with a Wild Wolf and two Willowisps. At the end of the battle, Matthew masters his Short Sword (*giggle*). I move into the next area, and that’s it for the first hour.
Minutes to Action: 14
What I Liked:
The graphics. The effects of Psynergy and Djinn in battle, as well as the models and animations of the enemies, summons, and characters themselves were a delight to behold. Just as I had guessed, screenshots don’t do the game justice in this regard. Even the new sprite tiles used for menu options both in and out of battle are worthy of note; they just look nice (*shrug*).
The variety of control methods is great. I found myself—someone who normally sticks with buttons when given the option—using the stylus with much comfort. Although you can rely completely on one method or the other, I instead used a combination of stylus and button control; using the d-pad to move my character while using the stylus to navigate menus and examine objects. It’s also great that you can switch between styles on the fly, without having to toggle an option in some sort of “Controls” menu; everything’s always “on”.
Most importantly, what I liked most was the very familiar feel of the game. From battling, to exploring, to conversing, it all felt very Golden Sun—but updated—which is great. Even navigating through the various menus felt very natural to me. And the music? Perfect. I’m not sure if I heard a single new track during that first hour, but it would’ve been overshadowed by the remixes I heard anyway, and all the memories that came flooding back with them.
What I Disliked:
The graphics. Yes, the new 3D visuals that look great in action don’t work as well for the mostly static game world. Am I wrong? I thought the DS was a little more powerful than this; I thought it was capable of polygon counts and texture resolutions at least a little higher than what I saw. And although I love the many ways the camera shifts perspective during conversations or exploration, zoom-ins make the low-poly models and low-res skins all the more noticeable. That being said, I know this is all very nitpicky, and something I will quickly grow accustomed to, especially being someone who places a lower importance on aesthetics when playing games.
I’m not a fan of Isaac’s tips, and his and Garet’s occasional participation in battle during that Tanglewood section (hopefully it doesn’t continue past that point). The enemies aren’t even that much tougher compared to what I was fighting on my own just minutes before. Camelot should’ve simply let the player fight and figure out what spells and Djinn do on their own, just like the first two games.
Would I Keep Playing?
Yes. Even though I didn’t really see/do much in my first hour, it was enough to know that I want to keep playing; whether it be the Golden Sun fan in me, the JRPG fan in me, or my inquisitive nature as a gamer (or a combination of the three) compelling me to do so. To be quite honest, I don’t see how anyone calling themselves a fan of Golden Sun couldn’t help but to continue.
I expect a long (and fun) quest ahead of me, and you can expect a full review upon its completion.