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A new Dawn for the Golden Sun series.
on December 3, 2010
It wouldn't be quite right to say that the world of gaming was rocked in 2001, when the first Golden Sun game was released. Still, it would also be entirely wrong to say that it generated no enthusiasm; to the contrary, Golden Sun, and its continuation, Golden Sun: The Lost Age, were both solid, highly playable RPG adventures with excellent graphics, catchy music, a fun battle system, and likeable characters, and they were well received by fans and critics alike, the former winning a Nintendo Power Award for Best Video Game in 2001. But for much of the fanbase, a duology just wasn't enough. The ending of the second game left obvious sequel hooks, loose threads were not all neatly tied up, and the ambiguity of the ending only exacerbated the pervading feeling of "then what?". Basically, the story wasn't done. In fact, considering the possibilities unlocked at the ending of the second game, it felt more like it was just beginning. But years passed with no real sign of a third Golden Sun game. There was plenty of talk by the creators of the first two games, and a few hoaxes... but nothing solid.
Not until Nintendo's 2010 E3 presentation, anyway. There it was revealed finally that a new Sun would be rising: There would be another installment in the series. Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is that installment.
The premise is easy enough to grasp. The world was saved by the Warriors of Vale at the end of Lost Age (in the titular Golden Sun event), but 30 years later, a new threat has risen in the world. Matthew, son of Isaac, the hero of the first game and another character whose identity is kept mum about until well into the game is your player character. Like his father, he is the strong, silent type, a mix of cute young boy and fierce warrior, who is joined by a hotheaded bruiser named Tyrell, a sharp-minded telepath named Karis, and the nerdy scholar-in-training Rief. More characters, some familiar to players of the first two games, will also join up later on to help aid you in your blossoming fight against the world's destruction as the game progresses.
As far as graphics go, Dark Dawn looks nice, with well-matched colors and nostalgic backgrounds. The battle graphics are also rather attractive, although the camera angle here (and only here) can be dizzying, as it tends to move in and out at great speed as characters attack. Things have looked better on the DS, yes, but props must be given for being rather visually appealing while still sticking to the feel of the original two games. In addition to 3D graphics, the game has segments where the display switches to hyperstylized flat drawings resembling illustrations in a child's storybook - Appropriate, as these sections are accounts of the first two games, for players newly picking up the Golden Sun series. More on that in a moment.
Complementing this, Motoi Sakuraba, the composer for the first two Golden Sun games, outdid himself with the music for Dark Dawn, which accomplishes exactly what's needed for the moment without ever being obtrusive or irritating. Old favorites find themselves remixed and interspersed with all-new tunes, and it sounds great.
As a game, Dark Dawn is extremely playable. The menu and field interface is smooth, intuitive and usable, and can be navigated either by touch or control pads. Nothing is particularly novel about the exploration style of the world - standard town/dungeon/worldmap wandering with obstacle courses thrown in - but neither is it bogged down by formula. It's simply not exactly new, and well-travelled RPG fans may yearn for something more.
The battle system is turn based, and is mostly unchanged from past games, though the user interface has been slightly modified to better suit the DS's touchscreen system. With fairly standard options for fights, the most dramatic change from the series' early days is that everything is in 3D. As previously mentioned, the camera's tendency to quickly pan and zoom can be quite dizzying. When not swinging around to show who's attacking what, it remains thankfully quite static as players choose between a fairly standard array of either physical attacks, magical spells (called Psynergy), items, or use of special elemental Djinn, which are one of the stronger points of the system.
One of the things the Golden Sun series was known for was its advanced customizability in the form of the Djinn system. These creatures are collected as the party travels throughout the world, and can be used in battle on their own for a variety of useful effects, used to summon powerful attacks, and/or used to give a character a new class, unlocking spells and stats previously unavailable. Otherwise, battling is simple, adaptable to play preferences, and for the most part not overly challenging. Nor are battles particularly frequent. Battling is not the point of this game, and to judge it harshly on how easy or rare its battles, though perhaps valid, is missing the point.
What is the point? Well, first, puzzle solving. Puzzles range from very basic in concept - classic block puzzles, for example - to more complex obstacle courses that must be manipulated using a range of Psynergy, mental energy that can produce a variety of effects and which sets apart your party as special, from starting a fire to summoning a rainstorm. Difficulty varies; most will likely find the puzzles pleasantly challenging without wanting to beat their head against the wall.
Second, story. No, Golden Sun's plot is not Shakespeare... Nevertheless, lengthy, dialogue-filled cutscreens are used to advance the plot rather regularly, and it's not a bad plot, nor are the dialogue sequences usually tedious. Characters are easy to like, some more than others, and, for players who enjoyed the first two games and connected with the characters therein, continuing the stories of the previous generation is at times amusing, at others quite sad.
One thing that must be made clear is that the Golden Sun games, while well-made and highly playable, are not for everyone, and specifically aren't at all for fans of bleeding-edge action-packed adventures. Dark Dawn, like its predecessors, caters to a slightly different type of gamer who prefers their games to be a little slower and less flashy. Fans of puzzle games, story-driven RPGs, and adventure games (or all three) will likely get the most enjoyment out of this game.
Finally, it's important to look at Dark Dawn as a standalone game independent of its predecessors, despite its status as a sequel. It's been almost ten years since the first game in the series was released; Lost Age was released seven years ago. A long time in the world of gaming, this delay means that, while Dark Dawn will have devoted Golden Sun fans from the olden days flocking to buy it, new players who have never picked up a Golden Sun game before may also be trying out this title. Does it pull its own weight as a game? Well, yes, it does, but only just; events of the past are extrapolated on gently, through use of charmingly-animated story sequences as well as an encyclopaedia system integrated into speech, but it's apparent within the first half-hour that, like many games meant to expand or continue older series, the game is definitely improved by having played the previous entries.
Good graphics, ready playability, a fun, unique Djinn system, and likable characters help to propel this game out of the realm of strictly average RPGs; lower difficulty and lack of particularly groundbreaking exploration are what primarily keeps it from being a masterpiece. Still, as a whole, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is a title well worth the time and money for players drawn to its genre. Fans of the first two games will probably adore it, and an obvious sequel hook should leave them with anticipation for more; fans of RPGs as a whole may find the title at times hit or miss. I adore it, and have rated it accordingly.