2010 has been an absolutely torrential year in the world of DS RPGs. It should say something, then, that Golden Sun: Dark Dawn sits atop the heap. The game, a sequel to a GBA series thought abandoned, strikes that balance between tradition and innovation, and it does it with some serious visual flash.
For those of you who didn’t play the originals (or just can’t remember that many years ago), the series makes you the leader of a party of Adepts, special people with the ability to control the elements. The originals had you on a quest to bring about the Golden Sun to save the world from a painful demise, that was actually accomplished at the end of the second game, The Lost Age. In this game, then, it’s 30 years later and the world is suffering the pains that come with the sudden re-emergence of elemental power.
Don’t worry, though, things get back on the track of saving the world from ruin soon enough.
While it starts feeling like a traditional Japanese RPG, the depth in the battle system comes from acquiring Djinn. Djinn are magical creatures, each with a different elemental alignment, and you equip them to characters. Doing this changes that fighter’s stats and available Psynergy attacks. But it’s not that simple. You can also use each Djinn to unleash its own special power, but that removes the stat boost it provides.
It would be interesting if it stopped there, but using Djinn puts them on standby, giving you the ability to use them to summon massive elemental creatures with crazy full-screen effects. These were the centerpiece of the originals’ visual flair, and though Dark Dawn doesn’t push the system’s power as much as the GBA ones did, there’s still a high level of polish to the summons. Once you get deeper in your adventure, you’re managing larger and larger parties at once, and that just adds one more layer to a battle’s depth.
All of this makes for a dynamic battle system, but we’ve seen those before and they don’t always make for great games. So what of Dark Dawn‘s other selling points? Well the overworld puzzles are actually entertaining. Unlike some games, Golden Sun‘s aren’t brain-dead, and enough goes on to make it feel less tedious. Each involves using the same Psynergy powers available in battle, but now Fireball activates switches, Whirlwind lifts platforms and Grip acts as a grappling hook. All of this uses the touch screen primarily, but Camelot smartly put d-pad control in too. While you may need to use the touch-screen to pull off special maneuvers, for most essential puzzle-solving you can let the game lock on to the correct object.
Unlike this summer’s Dragon Quest IX, the game has no problem streamlining simple game tasks like shopping and item management, and the menu system is full of glanceable information and time-saving shortcuts. That kind of thing is incredibly helpful in a game with dozens of gameplay hours, as saving three seconds every time can really add up. In addition, Nintendo’s Treehouse team comes through again with a translation that is simultaneously coherent and amusing. The dialogue is tongue-in-cheek in moments it needs to be, especially those JRPG traditions like the villain arbitrarily letting you walk away or an important NPC giving you information that doesn’t seem like it would come up in conversation but is needed for the next task.
Now most who played the first game are probably sitting there thinking that this sounds exactly like the originals. I’m not going to dispute that at all. It doesn’t take major gameplay risks, and everything feels like it used to.
But everything used to feel really, really good.