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It's my own fault, really
on February 18, 2011
It is! It's my fault for being desperate for a good JRPG on my DS. I'm so desperate that I'll pick up the aggressively mediocre spawn of one of my favorite portable RPGs, and you know what? I'll probably even play it to the end. Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is a disappointment, made all the more so by the excellent first installment of the series, which came out way back in 2001. The sequel, Golden Sun: The Lost Age, well-reviewed but unplayed by me, came out back in 2003. I'd always wanted to pick it up if I found it for cheap, but haven't had the opportunity. Now I'm not so sure.
The gameplay of Dark Dawn is fairly standard turn-based RPG fare, which is just fine with me. There aren't enough games of that description coming out anymore, and even Square's Final Fantasy series doesn't really fit the mold anymore. The problem isn't with the underlying system, which hasn't evolved much since 2001 and doesn't need to, but the balance of the game. Somehow, and I have no idea how this happened, Dark Dawn manages to have very few random battles and simultaneously be easier than just about any RPG I've ever played. I'm not asking the game to make me grind, but at 15 hours I have yet to use an item for healing. I also have yet to have a character knocked out. The last 2 boss battles are the first ones where I've needed to heal at all.
I never thought I'd complain that an RPG had too few random battles, but here it is; Golden Sun: Dark Dawn has too few. Since they're so easy, one can blow through them by tapping A over and over again to use the regular attacks with no strategy, no peril, and no challenge.
And that's not getting into the lack of boss battles. It used to be standard procedure- finish a dungeon, there's a boss. The bad guy shows up? Fight his underling, and/or him. Creepy plant look at you funny? Kill it dead. But for some reason, modern RPGs miss this, and Dark Dawn is a particularly bad offender. Somehow, the developers thought that after a long conversation with the game's villains, we would be all geared up to... exit the dungeon and return the world map. How hard is this? Color swap some late-game enemies, add a single line of dialogue ("Enough talk! Face this thing I found under my sink!" or some such), and cue the special music. You can even skip a couple of those steps if you're lazy. Just give me more bosses! Or stronger regular enemies! Anything to make the game more challenging!
The basic strategy for any boss battle can be summarized by this; unleash all your djinn, cast the highest-level summon you have, and if the boss is still alive, attack until the djinn are reset and repeat. I've fought one boss so far that lives through the first step. I assume the game thinks that unleashing djinn is a trade-off to the increased stats that they grant, but honestly? I never even noticed. A risk-reward system of this type would be an interesting was to improve on the old RPG formula, but it's a wasted opportunity here.
And that's not even touching that statuses hardly have any affect on gameplay; I've been "wrapped in delusion" more times than I can count and I still don't know what it does. Locking an enemy's psyenergy sounds useful, but why bother, since the game is so easy? And once again I have the question of why regular attacks don't wake sleeping enemies or party members. The game also seems to think that packing dungeons with items that heal these will somehow balance this, when really it just makes me think, "Aw, I wanted new armor."
AND money is a joke. I never had to sell equipment or anything else in order afford new equipment, and the one time I couldn't afford new equipment for everyone, it didn't even matter because the game is so easy. Since there's no point in buying healing items, and the statuses that actually do something (like being haunted) can't be cured with items anyway, I am sitting on a big pile of money that can't be used. The buying and selling interface could be better, too, but it's a minor complaint among these others.
But let's step back from all that. Golden Sun: Dark Dawn's dialogue is wretched, even by JRPG standards. I expect some of this. I expect people to talk too much in these games, as a rule. I still don't know what happened throughout most of Final Fantasy XII. But that game was great. There's a sequence in Golden Sun: Dark Dawn, in which the characters indicate that they are rushing to save someone's sister, and that she will be boiled alive if they fail (really). During this section of the game, the characters WILL NOT SHUT UP. Forgive me if I can't sweep this under the rug of "RPG conventions," but can ANYBODY play this sequence and doubt for a second that the sister will be rescued? Can anyone think that their actions will matter in the slightest as to whether the sister will live or die? There are times I can buy this; I understand that Sephiroth's Meteor will hit earth "sometime soon" even as I endlessly force chocobos to mate for my amusement. But there are sequences in that game that involved real urgency, where the player's actions could actually make Cloud and friends fail.
It doesn't stop there. Dark Dawn's dialogue endlessly repeats itself, even when it writes in sequences that seem designed to avoid doing so. An example; the character Sveta can read minds, and once she does, what does she do? Repeat the same thing that all the other characters in the room, we, and everyone else in the game world ALREADY KNOWS. AND THEN THE OTHER CHARACTERS, WHOSE MINDS HAVE JUST BEEN READ, REPEAT IT TOO. Who can defend this writing?
The game's puzzles are marginally better than its dialogue. That is, until one picks up the "Insight" psyenergy, which literally puts a filter on the screen that shows you the solution to puzzles. Some of them overcome this by being about positioning and/or some other cleverness, but they are the exception when they should be the rule. Stuck? Use Insight. Now you're not.
The looks great and sounds pretty good (though many of the tunes are less memorable than in the first game, and the color palette seems a bit muted compared to that, too), but art design can only go so far. At this point, we need better than competent and good-looking. The only reason to consider Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is if you're like me; starved for a traditional JRPG on a portable system. Lord knows I won't blame you for picking it up, but if you do so before getting the infinitely superior Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy 4 remakes, you've lost your will to be entertained.