Golden Sun: Dark Dawn – A Comprehensive Gaming Review

Camelot Software Planning’s Golden Sun, released in 2001, along with its 2003 sequel, Golden Sun: The Lost Age, was among the most critically acclaimed games on the Game Boy Advance, and represented one of the best RPG experiences seen on a handheld console. A dedicated group of followers grew up around the series, waiting patiently for a sequel to the first two games. In late 2010, their waiting paid off, with the release of Golden Sun: Dark Dawn for the Nintendo DS.

Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is set thirty years after the Golden Sun event, caused by the relighting of the Elemental Lighthouses which held the secret to Alchemy, a powerful force which held the world of Weyard together. The protagonists of the first two games became world-renowned heroes, known as the Warriors of Vale. Two of the protagonists, Isaac and Garet, live on Mount Aleph, the former home of Sol Sanctum, a holding place for the Elemental Stars which held the trapped forces of Alchemy when the Elemental Lighthouses were extinguished.

Alchemy rules Weyard again, saving the world from imminent destruction, but creating other problems at the same time. Firstly, the revival of Alchemy has forged empires which seek to control the world, and some of which have begun fighting for control of the world. Secondly, the release of power from the Golden Sun event drastically changed the conformation of Weyard, causing entire sections of the world to be completely redefined, along with the formation of Psynergy Vortexes, which suck away alchemical power from the world – and the Adepts which can manipulate Psynergy, the manifestation of this alchemical power.

Isaac and Garet live with their two sons, Matthew and Tyrell, protecting the ruins of the erupted Mount Aleph from the world. The daughter of Ivan, another of the protagonists of the first two games, has joined them. When Tyrell, in a moment of rashness, destroys the Psynergy-driven soarwing which Isaac and Garet use to explore the ruined mountain, Matthew, Tyrell and Karis are told to journey to find a feather from the legendary Mountain Roc in order to repair it. However, their journey soon becomes fraught with trouble, and they end up in a scenario which could decide the fate of Weyard once again.

If the above summation has confused you, don’t despair: While the game’s plot is easier to understand if you have played the first two games, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is largely self-contained, and it’s possible to play it without any knowledge of the prequels. That said, you’ll probably enjoy the game quite a bit more with prior knowledge of the series.

Gameplay-wise, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is very similar to its predecessors, with a standard turn-based system differentiated through the use of Djinn, small creatures linked to the elements and granting additional power to characters. As with previous instalments of the series, the Djinn can also be set to enable powerful summon attacks, and different selections of Djinn on different characters can unlock powerful master classes such as Ninja or Samurai. A few minor changes have been made to combat as a whole; all weapons now have special critical hit actions which become enabled as the characters become more experienced with the weapons, and the inclusion of bows into the weapon mix adds a bit more variety to weapon selection. What’s more, a character targeting a creature which has been previously destroyed doesn’t automatically defend, removing an outdated and irritating element of the original games.

As befits the move to the more powerful Nintendo DS platform, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn has undergone a substantial improvement in graphics over the Game Boy Advance instalments. Full 3D graphics replace the isometric sprite-based graphics of the original game, but thankfully, the game retains the vibrant, vivid colours of the original games. It makes a good counterpoint to the “real is brown” movement found in too many games today.

Another aesthetic element where Golden Sun: Dark Dawn invokes memories of its antecedents is in the exciting soundtrack by Motoi Sakuraba. While the soundtrack isn’t as technically impressive as the ones in the first two games, where amazing things were done with the relatively crude sound systems of the Game Boy Advance, the music in Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is just as enchanting. The soaring main theme has been remixed, and the energetic battle themes and atmospheric music in the dungeons, towns and overworld tops off an excellent set of music.

All of these features will come as welcome additions to the game by existing fans of the series. The Psynergy-based puzzle gameplay is also retained, although this is where the game starts to show a little weakness – none of the puzzles is particularly difficult. While this means that there is no tedious analogue to the second game’s Air’s Rock, it’s still a bit disappointing to see the puzzles take such a drastic drop in difficulty, particularly given that Golden Sun demonstrated the use of its equivalent of magic outside of combat, a logical step which surprisingly few JRPGs have taken.

It’s not just the puzzles which have become less difficult – the combat has taken a step down in difficulty as well. There aren’t as many bosses as before, and most of them can be dispatched without much difficulty, making the summon features of the Djinn look quite a bit less important than in previous instalments.

The plot isn’t the most riveting in the genre either. While it will satisfy fans of the series, who will be happy to discover what happened in the years after the Golden Sun event, but the game takes a while to really build up and ends rather abruptly with a pretty obvious sequel hook. The antagonists aren’t properly defined until the end of the game, and even then, a lot of questions are left unanswered by the end of the game. This isn’t through lack of dialogue either, which shows up in pretty hefty quantities throughout Golden Sun: Dark Dawn.

Ultimately, though, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is still a fun game and an enjoyable experience. It may not be the strongest entry in the series, but it still manages to capture a lot of what made the first two games worth playing. It does appear that the game is more targeted towards the fans, who will be more equipped to understand certain elements of the story, but the game is still a serviceable JRPG nevertheless.

Bottom Line: More of a game for the existing fans than any new audience, but still a decent JRPG regardless.

Recommendation: Fans of the series should consider buying Golden Sun: Dark Dawn, while people who haven’t played the previous games might want to wait for the price to drop.

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