The return trip to Wayard shines a bit less brightly.
It's been over seven years since the release of one of my favorite GBA titles. I distinctly remember sitting in the car holding Golden Sun: The Lost Age in my hands and thinking I couldn't get home fast enough. The fate of whatever poor cartridge was in my GBA is lost to time, as it was extricated with abandon to make home for a title I had been anticipating since I completed the original Golden Sun a year prior.
Now, a handheld system generation later, Nintendo and Camelot have brought us Golden Sun: Dark Dawn. The third title in the franchise is set thirty years after The Lost Age. It stars the children of "The Heroes of Vale," the title given collectively to the heroes of the first two titles. Dark Dawn is a good game, but it doesn't feel as well-developed as its predecessors and lacks the evolution one would expect from such a long-delayed sequel. While the game mechanics are still fun, Dark Dawn's biggest issue is the lack of innovation.
In Dark Dawn you play as Matthew, the son of the protagonist of the first Golden Sun game, Isaac. He is tasked with leading a party of Adepts (users of elemental magic) across the world of Wayard. Starting with the rather banal task of collecting a magical feather, the party's objective quickly becomes one of planetary salvation.
Each Adept practices one of four types of "Psyenergy": earth, fire, wind, or water. These powers are used both in battle and to interact with the environment of Wayard. Matthew, as a Venus (earth) Adept, can use his powers to move stone pillars to make platforms or clear paths. His friend Tyrell, a Mars (fire) Adept, can use fireballs to light torches or burn obstacles. Any veteran of the series should recognize the types of puzzles immediately. Dark Dawn does add a few new options but this mechanic carries over from the original titles almost exactly.
The battle system is also carried over without change. The game allows users to equip Djinn, magical creatures encountered throughout the game world, to change character stats and to gain access to Djinn and Psyenergy skills. The flow of combat remains unchanged. Battles are random (and often too frequent), turn-based affairs. Each one of Matthew's friends gets a turn to attack, defend, use Psyenergy, use an item, call on Djinn, or summon a powerful monster.
The game does forego the protracted acquisition of skills from the previous titles. It introduces the mechanics quickly in a way that will keep experienced players from becoming too bored and still offer people new to the series the opportunity to come up to speed with the gameplay. One of the more creative methods the game uses is a training ground for Adepts that lets them "relive The Heroes of Vale's" quest. Not only does it provide example puzzles to solve, but it also reintroduces story mechanics from the first two games, cleverly disguising these as cheaply assembled theme park attractions.
For a handheld RPG, Dark Dawn runs a bit on the short side, clocking in at about 25 hours. It's also fairly easy; I only lost two battles and never felt the puzzles to be especially challenging.
The graphics have moved from 2D isometric into full 3D and look very nice. The battle animations especially have received a strong upgrade. Summons look very impressive, with action spanning both screens. The world is vibrant and well designed and the characters look unique and visually interesting. The music and sound effects are very similar to those from the GBA titles, however I don't feel the same attachment to the music as I did for its predecessors.
The story of Dark Dawn is another weakness. Much of the game has Matthew and crew moving from one menial challenge to another, sometimes without any real tangible connection to the overall plot. In fact, the "threat" Wayard faces early in the title is completely ignored for the majority of the game. Similarly, characters that join the party late in the game are given very little development. Himi, another Venus Adept, has so few lines of dialog that I could count them on my hands, which is ironic because much of the game's exposition feels too wordy.
I love Golden Sun, The Lost Age. I like Dark Dawn. With the weak story, it is not possible to overlook the few changes to the previous games. It is true that The Lost Age was simply "more" Golden Sun, but this seemed far more acceptable given that its predecessor was only a year old. Eight years after the original title, some evolution should be expected. To be clear, it is still a good game, and by no means does it ruin the series, but the lack of evolution and innovation is disappointing.
It is easy for me to recommend this game to fans of the Golden Sun franchise, but Dark Dawn is not the strongest entry in the series by any means. People new to the franchise will appreciate the efforts taken to acclimate them to the mythology and mechanics of Wayard, but the lack of nostalgia might diminish the title's overall appeal.