Golden Sun: Dark Dawn
The world has changed. It’s been thirty years since the end of The Lost Age and the appearance of the titular Golden Sun, and its effects are still being felt to this day. The entire planet has reformed; continents have been destroyed and remade, the ocean levels have lowered, and every last remnant of the former realm of Weyward has been affected. There’s no telling how many people died in the explosion, but whole cities were either wiped off the map or evacuated and rebuilt somewhere else. Civilization itself has changed, too. Psynergy, the secret magical powers that fuel the world, have now become such common knowledge that different countries are conducting an arms race over the Adepts that wield them. What used to be humble towns have exploded into miniature kingdoms, each with their own rulers with corrupted ambitions. Those formerly in power struggle to maintain their influence, sometimes paying for it with their lives. But despite all of the changes, the survivors know one thing: all of this was caused by the protagonists of the previous games. Depending on who you ask, the Warriors of Vale either saved the planet or doomed it all over again.
While it’s got to be hard being the saviors/destructors of the world, just imagine what it’s like for their kids. All of the main four characters from the original Golden Sun have married and produced a new team of heroes. There’s not a lot of characterization; Matthew and Tyrell are basically clones of their fathers, and Karis and Rief are slightly modified versions of their parents. There’s also an additional four members that’ll join your party over the course of the adventure, all of whom have some connection to either the plot or another prominent character. But rather than developing Dark Dawn’s storyline further, the game makes a considerable amount of effort to connect it back to the previous games. That’s not a bad thing; thanks to the extensive explanations and references, newcomers to the series will never feel lost. Longtime fans will have tons of cameos and other continuity to enjoy. The rest of the story, however, didn’t get the same kind of attention. The game dumps all kinds of needless terminology and information on you, mistakenly believing it to be a substitute for well-written canon. You’ll come across multiple ancient civilizations, mysterious ruins, and supposedly terrifying dungeons, and then forget them as soon as they’re no longer important to your progression. Not to mention the villains, who are so ineffectual that it’ll take a second to remember why you’re fighting them.
These shortcomings can be blamed on the story’s utterly unbalanced pacing. In the previous Golden Sun games, the plot dragged its feet to a near standstill; you could spend hours just trying to get through one section of a single side quest, gradually expanding the scope of the adventure and the personalities of the characters. Despite the excruciatingly slow progression and somewhat lacking dialogue, the games built up the journey into some truly impressive and climactic endings. In Dark Dawn, however, everything has been inverted. The story moves at an incredibly fast pace; before you even get the majority of your party, you’ll have already cruised through multiple cities and completed several dungeons. If not for the in-game encyclopedia and the reminders on the save screen, you might forget what you’re supposed to be doing. The dialogue doesn’t help much, either. These heroes are much more chatty than their parents; you’ll often find yourself stuck in some ridiculously long and pointless conversation. It’s almost as if the game wants to triple check the understanding of your current objective before forcing you to deal with yet another underdeveloped plot twist.
That could be said for dungeons, too. Like countless other RPGs, the Golden Sun games have always offered a considerable amount of areas to explore. The majority of them are part of the main storyline, but some of them are well-hidden and require some serious effort to uncover. While Dark Dawn certainly maintains the tradition, longtime fans will quickly notice how watered-down these new dungeons seem to be. You’ll have to wander through foreboding forests, perilous mountain ranges, decrepit temple ruins, and several other locales. But while there is tons of variety and a few glimmers of creativity (Craggy Peak and the Phantasmal Bog come to mind), none of them are anywhere near as daunting or extensive as those of the previous titles. Even when you’re trying to explore every nook and cranny, some dungeons won’t take more than a few minutes to complete. That can be especially jarring when you’re entering a place that has been built-up for the last couple of hours as some kind of epic challenge – here’s looking at you, Ouroboros – only for it to be a cakewalk. While that’s probably a relief for those that were turned off by the length and difficulty of The Lost Age, the brief dungeons never fully utilize their potential.
The puzzles aren’t exactly up to par, either. Practically every inch of your journey is laden with some kind of obstacle that needs to be overcome. It could be moving a column or box around to reach new areas. You could have to light a candle, or blow up a cracked hunk of rock. Or maybe you’ll have to fill a container with water, or freeze some puddles to create makeshift platforms. You could have to make a plant grow into a natural ladder, or whip up a strong breeze to activate some kind of switch. Such puzzles are an integral part of the series, and Dark Dawn is no exception. The problem is that, like the dungeons in which they’re located, these obstacles are rarely challenging or creative in design. The majority of them require quick solutions and simple progression; you’ll get so used to seeing the same brief puzzles over and over that you’ll know which Psynergy to use automatically. Even if you do get stumped, the level of handholding is ridiculous; one of the later characters has a special power that lets him see clues that lead to the solution of a given puzzle. It’s one thing to make the gameplay more accessible, but the lacking difficulty doesn’t make for an impressive or memorable playthrough.
Instead, the game focuses more on what made the older titles so addictive: the combat mechanics. Dark Dawn retains the four-person, turn-based fighting system from the previous games. Its design is simple enough that even the newest of gamers shouldn’t have a problem picking it up. You’re given the option of defending or attacking, and the order in which each unit moves depends on their agility stats. Their attack and defensive ratings also determine the kind of damage they dish out, and how much they can take before keeling over. All of this can be altered by the kind of equipment they’re handling. While this basically the standard item system used by the previous Golden Sun games and every RPG in recent memory, Dark Dawn attempts to improve upon its predecessors with some new weapon features. Each sword, mace, axe, and whatever else comes with its own secondary ability or attack. If a character uses it enough, he or she will master that maneuver and be able to use it despite having a different weapon equipped. By the time you get into the latter third of the game, your party will be capable of pulling off all kinds of crazy tricks. It’s not perfect, though; special moves are executed randomly, so you’ll never know what your character will do. Had the game provided a way to map different moves to button commands or other triggers, the combat mechanics would have been better polished.
You probably won’t rely on them, though. You’ll spend most battles frying and zapping your foes with the wide variety of spells and summons available to the party. Each character has a slew of elemental attacks, ranging from lava plumes and hail spikes to tornadoes and earthquakes. But as any Golden Sun fan knows, your team’s true power comes from its Djinns. These adorable Pokemon-esque creatures roam Weyward for the sole purpose of being collected and added to the party. The more you collect (there are 72 of them, several of which are missable), the stronger your party will become. Depending on how you mix and match the critters among the heroes, you could create all-new character classes with even more powerful and rarer spells. They also provide the majority of the your attack capability during battles. Each Djinn has its own special power, be it reviving a fallen comrade, temporarily boosting stats, or dishing out tons of damage. When you use a Djinn, its powers will go towards the summoning of even more powerful beasts and attacks. Dragon chandeliers, demons, and trigger-happy goddesses are just a few of the many parts of your arsenal. Given how ridiculously easy it is to level up and crush your enemies – bosses included – you might be able to get through game without seeing everything.
But if you make the effort, you’ll be rewarded with some of the best visuals on the DS. Longtime fans will gape at how the old summons have been upgraded into extensive and detailed cutscenes, ranging from a stunning meteor impact and a vengeful Norse god to the pure destructive force of an angelic knight. While these make for epic and rewarding distractions, you shouldn’t forget how awesome the rest of the game looks. Thanks to the 3D graphics, the world of Golden Sun has been fleshed out in every conceivable way. The world map is no longer a grainy mass of colors, but a planet made up of mountain ranges, lakes, forests, and oceans built on a far grander scale. The towns actually look lively and bustling – you’ll be stunned when you enter Belinsk for the first time – with relatively intricate layouts and a surprising amount of NPCs. Even the formerly bland sprites have been upgraded with incredibly detailed designs. You can see the size of each weapon, the dimensions of the characters, and the improved running and attack animations. It’s balanced out by a decent soundtrack that, despite not measuring up to that of The Lost Age, manages to set the appropriate tone. It’s still worth the listen, though. Few DS games can boast this kind of presentation, and I will be hard to top it.
It’s about time. It’s been a long wait, and Camelot has done well. Dark Dawn is a fine game, but nowhere near perfect. The story is awkwardly told, needlessly forcing all kinds of new terminology on you while trying to explain everything via tediously long dialogues. The pacing is uneven at best, and the dungeons are not as lengthy or difficult as they could have been. Thanks to the easy battles and leveling system, you’ll rarely have trouble defeating anything. It all feels watered-down and simplified in an attempt to make it more accessible. Everything else is impressive, though. There’s a huge ensemble cast made up of both new and old faces. Long-time fans will be treated to plenty of references and cameos. While the dungeons may be brief and unimaginative, there are a lot of places to explore. The combat mechanics and class systems still offer the same kind of depth and variety they always have. The vastly improved graphics offer a kind of detail you normally wouldn’t find on the DS. Golden Sun is finally back, and hopefully it’ll be even better next time.