Itâ€™s been a fair few years â€“ seven, to be exact - but developer Camelot has finally released a third title in its popular Golden Sun RPG series. Like the previous two games, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is set on Weyard - a flat, disc-like world with oceans perpetually spilling over the edges (all we need is four elephants and a giant turtle, and Terry Pratchett would have grounds for a lawsuit). Unlike the previous two GBA games, this one is for the DS and has undergone a major facelift - while still retaining the qualities that endeared it to fans.
The story takes place 30 years after the events in the last game, with the progeny of the original protagonists taking up the mantle of heroes embarking on an epic quest. While it is a sequel, knowledge of the earlier Golden Sun titles is not required. During your travels youâ€™ll find books covering the exploits of the first heroes, and thereâ€™s also an extensive dictionary to fill in any gaps. The plot is disjointed in places; at times it feels like youâ€™re off on an adventure safari, rather than a quest of epic proportions.
The game is controlled via a combination of buttons, control pad and touch screen, and it all works rather well. The in-game menus are similar to an onion, in that there are many layersâ€¦ and they may make you cry, eventually. Expect lots of button pushing/screen tapping whilst navigating in and out of each menu. We did find something to like, however: when buying an item in a shop e.g. a new sword, you are automatically prompted to equip it and sell your old one â€“ all without having to juggle inventories or switch menus. This thoughtful touch will be appreciated by RPG enthusiasts.
There are plenty of interesting locations to explore, each with its own distinctive appearance and inhabitants. Towns have more to offer than retail outlets and a place to sleep. Taking the time to search every residence can unearth some useful info and items, although rummaging through someoneâ€™s personal belongings is a bit like watching some dodgy tradesman on Target. It just feels wrongâ€¦ but you do it anyway. The terrain is laden with puzzles, which must be solved to progress the plot, or to gain access to hard to reach areas. Solutions involve the use of elemental magic known as Psynergy, to shift objects and alter their physical properties. The puzzles are generally easy, but sometimes you really have to exercise the grey matter. An ability acquired mid-way through the game can provide insight on solving the trickier puzzles, so it never becomes too taxing.
So far it sounds like a stock standard RPG, but Golden Sun; Dark Dawn has an ace up its sleeve in the form of collectible Djinn. Forget vorpal swords and magic elixirs; these elusive, elemental creatures are the ultimate adventurerâ€™s accessory. Some of them require a bit of â€˜persuasionâ€™ to join the party, but once captured they can be employed in three different ways. The first is to artificially enhance character stats, like steroids but without the long term negative impact. Secondly, their unique abilities can be put to use in battle - offensively, defensively, or even medicinally. Lastly, different combinations of djinn can summon powerful spirits from a mishmash of mythologies. Cinematic sequences for these are visually stunning and encompass both screens. It will be quite some time before you tire of viewing the cinematics, but when you do thereâ€™s a handy fast forward option to cut to the chase and lay down some â€˜Whoâ€™s your daddy?â€™ on the opposition. FX, character animation, backgroundsâ€¦ when it comes to graphics the news is all good.
It wouldnâ€™t be an RPG without a healthy dose of random encounters. Nothing like a mixed bag of aggressive monsters to hone the fighting skills and showcase those spectacular spells. The encounters are not too frequent or onerous, and you can minimise or maximise the odds of an encounter with spells and items. Combat is turn-based, which is ideal for the DS with its small buttons. Thereâ€™s less chance of hand cramp if you can pause to flex your fingers during a lengthy, intense battle. Once you get to know an enemyâ€™s strengths and weaknesses, attacks can be tailored to best effect. You can also switch out a downed character for a battle ready one, which puts the odds squarely in your favour. With the exception of boss battles, few of the creatures encountered lasted more than one or two rounds (wimps).
The spoils of victory take the form of XP and loot, which are well balanced in quantity. There is usually enough money to upgrade some gear when you reach a new town or outpost, but not sufficient to deck the party out with powerful artifacts. When a character levels up the stats and skills are automatically allocated, which saves you the headache of micro-managing everything. This simple, hands-free approach is perfect for gamers who just want to â€˜kill things and collect stuffâ€™. Characters automatically gain expertise with weapons through regular use, which provides incentive to throw in some physical attacks as well as magical, and to stick with a particular weapon until youâ€™ve mastered it.
With the exception of one or two characters, the heroesâ€™ personalities are quite bland and largely forgettable. Thereâ€™s plenty of scripted text dialogue, with more jibber-jabber than a whole crate of the latest talking Elmo dolls; however very little of it is relevant to the story. Much time is wasted through inane exchanges, frequently accompanied by emoticons above the charactersâ€™ heads. Younger players probably wonâ€™t be bothered at all by this; one glance at a teenagerâ€™s Facebook page reveals itâ€™s perfectly normal in their world. However we reckon it's too verbose and interferes with the flow of play. There are some genuinely funny moments in the game, but these are few and far between.
A lot of work has gone into the musical score, which is comprised of numerous themes â€“ each well suited to the situation and location. Itâ€™s enjoyable listening, and we never had to mute the music during the 30-odd hours playing time we clocked up.
No doubt about it, youâ€™ll definitely get your moneyâ€™s worth here. It may not be the most memorable or challenging RPG youâ€™ll play, and is definitely not without its frustrations, but Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is a respectable package - with sufficient character and quality to hold your interest right through to the end. Itâ€™s a good game for younger players to cut their RPG teeth onâ€¦ and for the fans, of course.