Review: Golden Sun: Dark Dawn
Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is the follow up to the highly acclaimed Golden Sun: The Lost Age which released for the Game Boy Advance back in 2003. While I have never played that game and can’t attest to how the two of them relate to each other, I can tell you that this new game handles itself very well and offers a ton of content for the fan of Japanese role-playing games. It is quite literally the best JRPG I’ve ever played on DS, and I spent a little time with Dragon Quest IX.
While the game is certainly not without its faults, they are worth overlooking for what you’ll be getting in this very deep and rewarding game. If two of Nintendo’s biggest franchises, Pokémon and Zelda, were to conceive an illegitimate bastard child, its name would be Golden Sun. It mixes up the exploration and puzzle solving of Zelda with the monster catching and turn based combat of Pokémon and then it one-ups both of the games with its depth and the amount of content it provides. And, for the record, I did a little background checking on the GBA games to avoid not knowing all the jargon as I played through. Let’s dig in.
The graphics in the game are easily the low point for me. Not to say that they are bad, but the other components of the game put the visuals to shame, which is pretty much a good thing. I can’t understand why it seems like every JRPG with 3D graphics for the DS look like they were rendered with the same engine. The character models are spotty and ugly, with big heads and the anime eyes and precious moments figurine faces are just not appealing to me. To put into perspective, if you’ve played Final Fantasy IV, Dragon Quest IX or Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light on the DS, then you’ve pretty much seen what the game has in store concerning character models.
The pre-rendered stuff is really tight, but we’ve all seen fancy cut scenes. The environments easily outshine the characters in terms of the visuals. When the camera draws back to show you the entire design of a city, you’ll gain a greater appreciation of what they did with the environments. Bright color palettes and ornate patterns on the grounds and buildings paint life into the game. The items all get their own designs and I think that’s a loving and much appreciated gesture. I’ve played too many games where items only have names and effects with very little visual representation, but this game depicts everything from the apples, cookies and candies to each and every sword, shield and accessory. Everything gets a tiny little detailed drawing and it’s certainly worth mentioning. During combat you can see the different weapons. Seeing the armor and accessories on your character’s model would have been sweet, but oh well.
The visuals take a really positive turn during combat though. Spell effects are created awesomely and the summons are a real treat. Everything holds together nicely and, although it isn’t beautiful, it has its moments of beauty and it does its job really well. I’d have to bet that the graphics are pretty good for a DS game, but you can’t help but feel a little slighted after seeing some of last year’s JRPG entries on the PSP. All the menus and displays are clean and easy to traverse and the game is just overall really easy on the eyes. Sometimes it even looks kiddy with its bright colors and soft rendering. It looks alright.
The sounds are pretty good. The music in Golden Sun is very two-fold. When it tries to be grandiose and epic, it falls pretty flat because of the obvious limitations of the console. The sounds just never reach that sharpness or depth that’s needed to make them really stand out in your mind. I don’t know enough about programming to truly blame the hardware, but I’d like to think they could have done a better job if they had more. Where the songs really shine though is when the tracks opt for a soft, laid back, relaxing tone. They pull off that really comfortable “you’re entering a town after many hours of grinding and just want to relax” kind of softness flawlessly. I can even remember entering one of the towns and just leaving my DS open so that it would play while I wrote up some news. So, for the music, in summary, it does soft and playful really well and does dramatic and emotional not so well.
There is no voice acting. Instead, odd little humming sounds chirp along as the characters talk and they love to talk. You’ll hear a lot of the buzzing, but it’s quite quiet and doesn’t bring things down. I’ve also yet to see a fully voiced DS title so I don’t really feel deprived in that aspect. Combat sounds are fine: swords clank against armor and flesh appropriately, spells ignite chimes and woodwinds and elemental sounds are spot on. The enemies don’t seem to make very much noise, except for when the finishing blow is landed, and I can’t decide if I think this is a good thing or a bad thing. You see, the silent characters add a novel feeling to the game while the silent everything else kind of feels cheap and lackluster. For a DS game though, it’s solid.
The story of the game is nice, but I have a few big gripes with it. Most of the back-story is thrown at you in this ridiculously long intro cut scene that seems to drag on forever. When I first booted up the game, I wished there was some way I could pause the cut scene and save to come back later to it. This huge intro is not a positive thing and has the potential to be very off putting; a turn-off if you will. It also hits you with so much information that it’s kind of hard to remember it all. From what I can tell, it takes you through the happenings in the first two Golden Sun games. I imagine that for series fans it’s just one big recap. Many powerful adepts brought forth the Golden Sun event which saved the world from the clutches of deterioration. I won’t really get into that since it’s actually part of the previous two games in the series and apparently relates quite subtlety to what happens in this game. Having said that, people who are already up to date on what’s happened over the last two installments have an obvious advantage over newcomers in terms of story comprehension. That intro is simply too much though. In fact, if you aren’t a fan of long, dialog heavy cut scenes that make you mash buttons to progress, you may want to return the way you came right now. I’ll talk more about this near the end of the review though.
You take control of Matthew, the son of a powerful elemental magic wielder named Isaac. Early in the game, his good friend Tyrell breaks a flying device that is very important to the people of the village. Tyrell and Matthew’s parents are apparently heroes from past games. The same thing is true for Karis, their female friend, and Rief, a main character who is met a little later in the game. This ends up with you and your friends on a journey to capture a feather from a mythical bird which will restore power to the flying device. You can probably gather from what I’ve said so far, especially if you’ve played the other games, that the story gets much deeper than this. Dimensional rifts unveil a bigger plan which brings to light more characters and a bigger plan which unveils saving the world and so on and so forth. I don’t like how the story seems to continue dragging on because it makes it hard to follow and a bit convoluted. In fact, there was a point in the game where I thought “Well I’ve found the feather, shouldn’t we be getting back to Isaac?” but unfortunately it was nowhere near that simple. I didn’t mind the depth of story, I just think they could have been cleaner with it.
The main characters are developed clearly and thoroughly, with each one becoming familiar and expectable as the hours roll on. You’ve got the hotheaded Tyrell who rarely thinks with his head, Karis who is always patient and open minded and Rief who is intelligent and calculating. Unfortunately, Matthew, who is supposed to be the main character, is quite boring and shallow. This is mainly because he doesn’t have any dialogue and takes the cop out “silent protagonist” approach and never says anything, though people pretend to have full conversations with him (looks cuttingly over at Pokémon and Zelda).
They give you these little prompts when Isaac can convey an emotion about something. He can express when he’s happy, excited, sad or mad about something using these prompts. The characters then say something in the way of “There’s no need to be sad about it…” or “Yea, I’m mad too…” It’s cutesy, I’ll say that, but the lack of any real bearing on the outcome of the game makes it quite shallow, juvenile even. It would have been nice for certain responses to make some significant changes ala Mass Effect, but it never gets that deep. Sometimes though, choosing between yes and no will keep you from progressing, but it’s an afterthought. Nod the right way or don’t move on.
Many characters you will encounter are from past adventures, which I only know because they told me so. They usually drop some hint about what either of the characters’ parents did and their parents’ reputations actually sheppard them through a lot of the game, and I, for one, find it irritating. Okay so these other guys were really cool in this other game; I get it. Can we please focus on Matthew and company for a little while? In the end, much of what takes place between the numerous characters throughout the game feels like something of a big inside joke. I assume that a lot of fan service is taking place, which is all the better for series fans. There is enough here for newcomers to enjoy story wise, but we’re definitely playing second fiddle to long-standing players.
The real villain steps in at nearly the halfway point of the game, so prepare to spend a long time not knowing what you’re fighting against, a problem I touched on earlier. The final boss comes seemingly out of nowhere, and there is a good amount of drama thrown in. There are four other playable characters in the game, and only two of them have any important story ties. The other two are rather sloppily inserted into the game a few hours before the end of it, and they wound up underdeveloped, unplayed and generally unimportant. It probably could have been avoided if the story dove into the really important stuff a little faster, but the spoon feeding turned out to not work so well. The story is pleasantly deep, if a little confusing and, for the most part, the characters are endearing and relevant, in spite of a few clichés. A lot may go over new players’ heads, but the new content pretty much compensates for that.
On to the game play, the high point of the title and an ode to the bigger RPG franchises that we all know and love. Golden Sun is a no holds barred, tried and true JRPG. It’s got dozens and dozens of hours of quests, tons of level grinding, vast lands to explore, turn based combat, item collecting and crafting, the whole nine. Nothing about this part of the game play is too unfamiliar. The quests mostly consist of story related bits, though there are a few non-story dungeons to tackle after completion. You’ll spend upwards of thirty hours on the main quest alone though, so it presents a lot of value on its own. You can complete various little tasks and odd jobs as you travel the world, though you’ll have to keep a keen eye out for them most of the time. Main questing gets a little repetitive because you don’t get many breaks in between, but it’s still alright. The item creation gets introduced so late in the game that you’ll probably just go ahead and finish the title without paying much attention to it.
The three distinct parts of this game are as follows: combat, monster collecting and puzzles. Let’s talk about the Djinn, or monster collecting, first since it has so much to do with the other components. The Djinn are why I say the game reminds me a lot of Pokémon. The biggest difference here though is that there are less than a hundred Djinn in the game and naturally this allows them to be quite distinct. They also make you put some real effort into obtaining most of them and only a few of them are found in the wild or handed to you as part of the story. The creatures are basically little elemental entities that possess unique attributes and effects.
Djinn come in four flavors: Mars, Jupiter, Venus and Mercury or, fire, earth, wind and water. In combat, the Djinn can be used for a variety of important things. They can be equipped to your characters person or set to them, and they give a variety of stat buffs and abilities. The Djinn any character has equipped affects their class, with these classes opening up new abilities in battle. They can also be put on standby which compresses them into a gem which can be used to cast summoning spells, which I’ll talk about later. Finally, they can be summoned directly (if they’re set) and used for their special abilities or attacks, after which they go to standby mode. This makes using the Djinn a tricky balancing act: if you set them all to your character, you get plenty of stat buffs and abilities but you can’t use the very lucrative summon magic. If you put them all on standby, you can summon powerful allies, but your characters will be helpless and frail. This is made a lot less complicated by the fact that you can switch your Djinn between set and standby modes on the fly during combat. It turns out that setting them is the best bet most of the time and the in-combat switching is a godsend.
The combat is turn based but it executes the formula really well, and it turns out pretty solid. Characters fit neatly into their classes like mage, warrior and healer, but the variety of weapons and Djinn split them up into subclasses. Battles are instigated randomly as you run throughout the field. What I noticed about the random battles is that although they start off pretty subdued at first, as the game progresses you run into fights more and more often, eventually feeling the need to run from the boring and feckless monsters because they attack you so frequently. It’s much better than a game that leaves that taste in your mouth after the first few minutes, but it eventually does hit its stride of repetitive and irritating random battles. The later parts, where you must travel huge distances across your map, are especially bothersome.
The controls are pretty simple, and before I forget, the game can be played pretty easily entirely with the touch screen. It’s fun but a little more strenuous than hitting the buttons. It’s just a whimsy; there because it can be but not adding or subtracting much. In your first fight, you may find yourself disgusted at the constant button mashing needed to perform actions, but after you issue all the commands and then hold the B button, things fly by at a satisfyingly quick pace.
The combat itself is like a perfectly cooked apple pie with an egg on top; it’s mostly familiar, in a great way, but has a little something extra that makes it special. Everything about the combat is polished to a glossy finish. Even some simple tasks are made more interesting with little flourishes. Attacking is unique because, depending on the weapon your character has equipped, they may perform a special attack. Tyrell had an axe equipped, for example, that would sometimes summon a grim reaper to perform an attack. Karis had a bow equipped that would sometimes do an arrow rain special to hit all the enemies for a nice amount. These special attacks really encourage you to switch up the weapons and see what each one can do. This is a neat way to avoid leaning too much on the one or two strong weapons, the way JRPGs sometimes enthuse you to do.
Using magic, called psyenergy, in this game is also pretty fun and useful. Spells do just about everything they’ve done in most other games in the genre. You have healing spells, status effect spells, elementals, etc. Like in the Final Fantasy series, spells progress with your character and they get a lot more powerful and diverse. Spells, of course, draw on MP, or PP, to be precise, but what’s cool is that the PP regenerates as you walk. Neat right? Sure it’s something of a crutch, but I in particular have never been a fan of hoarding MP restoring items around and being so economical when it came to magic. You’re encouraged to try out all kinds of things with spells since you get the PP back. You can also have your Djinn activate their special abilities and then go into standby mode like I described earlier.
Summoning is one of the coolest things in the game for me. Sure you’ve done it in other games, but this one really treats each summon specially with their own animations. It’s really very reminiscent of Final Fantasy VIII. Summons are gained as you collect Djinn, but the strong ones are found in various hidden locations in the game. Summoning, as I previously mentioned, requires the sacrifice of standby Djinn. The stronger the summon, the more sacrifices it needs. Which kind of Djinn it needs depends on the summon’s special ability; earlier water elemental summons require Mercury Djinn, while later more powerful summons require a variety of elements. The summon animations are just awesome. The way the dual screens are used is really a treat, and some of them have the nicest animation you’ll see in the game. Their properties are also pretty useful, with some of them dealing thousands of points in damage. As you can imagine, it’s definitely worth keeping at least a few Djinn on standby to make quick work of bothersome fights. In a nutshell, the combat in this game is as great as I can imagine any turn based combat can be. While it may not hold a flame graphically to some console JRPGs, it executes its formula far above the average title in the genre.
Lastly are the puzzles, which are clever and sometimes ingeniously engineered. They are the reason I compare this game to Zelda. Sure they teeter on the scale of insanely difficult sometimes, but with patience and careful thinking you shouldn’t have too many problems. If you’re a younger player or considering getting this for a younger player (because a lot about the game suggests this could be the case), then you might want to grab the strategy guide to accompany the game. Now that I think about it, you may want to actually pick it up for more reasons than that, but I’ll get to that when I talk about my biggest gripes with the game. You’ll use the psyenergy that your characters have to solve puzzles, doing things like growing small plants into vines to use as ladders or freezing pools of water so that you can cross over them. The puzzles get more intricate as your characters gain new psyenergy, getting pretty down and dirty by the end. The puzzles add a nice touch of depth to the game. Many similar games are available, but GS mixes in this element better than any JRPG I’ve ever played. It feels more like an essential part of the game play, than an occasional trial or challenge.
While I’ve spent the last four pages practically showering the game with praise, Golden Sun boasts a glaring issue that threatens it. This issue lies with both the exploration aspect of the game and progressing the main story arc. Many times throughout the game, you won’t receive any tip or hint about where you’re supposed to be going or what exactly you’re trying to accomplish. You may spend hours roaming around trying to figure out what to do, and this has always been a huge pet peeve of mine. Sometimes you have rarely even the slightest clue what to do in the game, and if it wasn’t for the internet I probably wouldn’t be anywhere near finished with it. This is just unacceptable.
The JRPG hardcore fanboy will probably moan that spending tons of time trying to figure out your next move is part of the fun, but I saw nothing – and I mean nothing – fun about it. They try to give you a tip or so on what to do at the save screen but it is really vague and doesn’t tell you exactly what’s supposed to happen. This gets considerably worse near the end of the game when you get a ship used to sail the seas. From that point, as far as I could tell, you just basically went wherever you could dock your ship and talked to every NPC trying to get a clue, and this is one of the most frustrating, irritating and boring things that I’ve ever done in a video game, period.
I usually purchase strategy guides to my JRPGs when I buy them for this exact reason, but I expected this game, with its cartoony characters and childish demeanor, to alleviate this with some kind of arrow pointer or journal entry or something. Leaving the player hanging in the breeze is just not okay, and it’s a shortcoming that I can’t easily look past. I’m sure this will please some players, and I myself do enjoy exploring and discovering things, but when you aren’t sure what to do in a game and you have to resort to means outside of the game to see what you’re supposed to be doing, you can’t help but take a little umbrage.
Another much less severe problem I had was the amount of dialogue that the NPCs exchange. They like to talk to one another very, very much. Sometimes conversations went on for so long that I’d either forgotten the matter at hand or stopped caring about it. The chatterbox scenes in the beginning of the game get worse and worse as time progresses, and it eventually got so bad that whenever I saw all the characters in the party emerge from Matthew’s character model for a cut scene, I just watched YouTube videos and mashed on the B button. Some way to skip these cut scenes would have been just too awesome because I’d have used it all the time.
In the end though, none of these problems stop Golden Sun: Dark Dawn from emerging as a prize in RPGs. Its nods to other franchises only help you to enjoy it more. I’m almost positive fans will love it, and I’m new to the series. I fail to see how a much better JRPG could have been made, graphical components aside. It’s as though the developers looked at a JRPG recipe and then used only the finest ingredients and cooked it perfectly, adding in a hint of special ingredients for a nearly perfect result. It doesn’t do much I haven’t seen before, but I rarely remember any game being this content rich and clean at the same time. Sure that navigation issue keeps this from reaching higher, but it is forgivable with all the proper keys this game hits. Like Final Fantasy? How about the Legend of Zelda or Pokémon? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you need to go get this game right now.
- Title: Golden Sun: Dark Dawn
- Platform Reviewed: Nintendo DS
- Developer: Camelot Software
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Release Date: Available Now
- MSRP: $34.99
- Review copy info: A copy of this title was provided to DualShockers Inc. by the publisher for the purpose of this review.