Though not likely at the top of the list of most recognized developers, Japan’s Camelot Software Planning is certainly a name with which most savvy gamers are familiar. With well-regarded titles like the Shining franchise under its belt and quality contributions to both the Mario Golf and Mario Tennis series, Camelot has been slowly making its mark since the early 1990s. Still, dedicated handheld gamers are most familiar with the developer for their critically acclaimed portable JRPG series Golden Sun.
Despite a heavy reliance on the hackneyed storytelling and random encounter system of the traditional Japanese role-playing game – not to mention the Pokémon-style catch-’em-all mechanic of the game’s Djinn system – the original 2001 outing was widely regarded as one of the best RPGs on the Game Boy Advance. This was followed shortly by 2003 sequel Golden Sun: The Lost Age, but from there the series all but disappeared until late last month when the Nintendo-published Golden Sun: Dark Dawn marked its triumphant return on GBA successor the Nintendo DS.
Like its predecessors, Dark Dawn manages to cram a vibrant and fully realized game world into the diminutive package of a handheld title, and it likewise does a fine job of highlighting the graphical capabilities of the hardware. Unfortunately, it also makes many of the same missteps as its previous-generation kin.
Picking up 30 years after the conclusion of the first two games, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn presents a world in which the heroes of old, Isaac and the original team of Adepts that returned the magic of Alchemy to Weyard, are both celebrated and reviled for the power and destruction that their adventures unleashed. You are thrust into the role of Isaac’s son Matthew who along with other 2nd generation elemental Adepts are charged with unraveling the mystery of a new threat – Psynergy Vortexes that threaten to leech away this precious elemental energy.
If this all seems confusing it is likely because A) it’s been seven years since you’ve visited the land of Weyard or B) you skipped those titles altogether and have no prior knowledge of the series. For both of these groups I have news good and bad. On the plus side, Dark Dawn realizes it’s been a while since Golden Sun: The Lost Age, and thus includes a lengthy in-game encyclopedia accessed from keywords rudimentarily hyperlinked in conversation segments. Unfortunately, this reliance on overblown vocabulary paired with a nigh relentless barrage of written exposition is also the game’s biggest drawback.
Oftentimes Golden Sun: Dark Dawn forgets to show rather than tell. This is a pity, because the actual advancement of that plot – the playing of the game itself – is a joy. Like the first two installments, Dark Dawn allows players to explore a beautifully rendered isometric map fraught with the dangers of (turn-based) combat and environmental puzzles that can only be solved by properly leveraging the powers of your party’s elemental Adepts. These abilities aren’t limited to magically growing vines to reach a ledge or tossing fireballs to burn through obstacles either, as they can be applied within combat to subdue enemies. In an odd turn from the random encounter battles of old, however, it’s rare that you actually need to employ your elemental magic to defeat these run-of-the-mill baddies.
While Dark Dawn still uses the traditional battle system, it is one of the few fantasy RPGs I’ve played that doesn’t expect or require players to level grind. The difficulty occasionally spikes, but typically only when faced with higher level bosses. This is great for players like me who game to unwind, but the unintended side effect is that you seldom need to trot out the game’s most satisfying combat element, the summons.
The mechanic that has long set Golden Sun apart from its ilk is the Djinn system. Though often compared to Pokémon because of the collecting aspect, these odd creatures actually serve triple duty. Dark Dawn boasts 70+ Djinn that, when encountered, join your traveling party and act as weapons, stat buffs and magic items. Just as player characters have an elemental specialization, so do Djinn, and joining them to individual party members allows for stat increases and new element-specific attacks. Once used in battle Djinn become temporarily inactive, but such standby Djinn can be used in concert to unleash powerfully damaging summon attacks. I’ll pause here to mention that the animations for these summons, while generally eye candy of the highest order, are a bit too lengthy in Dark Dawn, but given the title’s already rambling nature I can’t imagine that comes as much of a surprise.
Part Final Fantasy, part Legend of Zelda, part long-form fiction, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn isn’t so much bad as it is occasionally underwhelming. It tends to balance its finer points with minor annoyances and strange design choices. The uninspired emoticon-based response system (a carry-over from earlier titles) is made more palatable when viewed alongside the game’s streamlined inventory and purchase menu interface – it lets you buy new goods, equip them and sell back your old wares in one fell swoop. Likewise its fantastic overall production value helps to dull the ache that is the protracted narrative.
If you’re looking for a traditional Japanese-style role-playing game for yourself, your spouse or an older geekling who doesn’t mind slogging through the written exposition, Dark Dawn will hit the mark. Boasting handsome graphics, a robust (if occasionally underutilized) Djinn-based combat system and dozens of hours of playtime, this latest installment in the Golden Sun series certainly has legs. It blends the old school with the new for a genuinely interesting gaming experience, but pacing issues knock it back a bit from the excellent game it could have been to the “very good” title that it actually is.
Wired: competently rendered graphics coupled with great sound design, an epic story set in a vibrant world, more than 70 Djinn to collect, lengthy play time, streamlined inventory system, no level grinding required
Tired: overuse of specialized vocabulary, entirely too much written dialog/exposition, rarely challenging
Review materials provided by Nintendo of America