The DS might stand for Dawn of Sorrow, but in this case it could also stand for Done Superbly.
I can still remember buying the original Castlevania for the NES back in 1987. It was so different from anything else at the time – there were other platformers, but nothing with the horror movie villains and creepy environments of Konami's classic. The series reached a high-water mark with the legendary Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (SOTN) on the PS1. Taking cues from Nintendo's seminal Super Metroid, SOTN introduced RPG-like elements that allowed you to level-up your character and equip new weapons and armor. Castlevania games have followed the SOTN model ever since, and the first Nintendo DS installment is no different. Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow takes advantage of the Nintendo DS's dual screens and graphics punch to make it the best handheld Castlevania yet.
Dawn of Sorrow continues the storyline of the Gameboy Advance's Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow. In the previous game, Soma Cruz was revealed as the heir to Dracula's throne, but he refused to accept his sinister destiny and instead defeated the forces of darkness. A year has passed, and now a cult lead by the evil Celia Fortner is attempting to crown a new dark lord. Soma must once again conquer Dracula's castle to prevent it from happening. In other words, yes this is Castlevania, and yes you have to beat a Dracula-esque figure once again. It's classic 2-D platforming action with a heavy Super Metroid influence, with players wandering the castle map while fighting monsters and defeating bosses. As new items are acquired, more areas of the castle become accessible. It's a familiar design that Konami has all but perfected, and to their credit they haven't made any drastic changes here. If you've played any of the recent handheld Castlevania games, you'll feel right at home.
Thanks to the DS's four action buttons, the control scheme is reminiscent of SOTN. The B button jumps, Y is for normal attacks, and A is for special attacks (done with your regular weapon, but they use magic points). The X button is used to switch between two full sets of equipped weapons, armor, etc. on the fly, meaning that you could have one set of equipment for use in boss battles (focusing on defense and power) and another set that's, say, tailored to walking around the castle (perhaps using a set of armor that raises your hit points as you walk). It's a brilliant addition that takes the inventory management aspect of the game one step further.
The L and R buttons (as well as Up + Y) are used to activate your souls. Soma Cruz has the ability to absorb the souls of his enemies and use their powers as his own. In practical terms, it means that enemies will occasionally drop a soul item when they are killed, and players can then go into their inventory and equip the Soul to use the magical power it contains. There are three soul types: Bullet (projectile-type spells, e.g. the ability to throw axes), Guardian (spells that consume magic, e.g. summoning a Bat to help you), and Enchant (status boosters, e.g. extra strength). Soul spells are indispensable when battling bosses and are required to reach certain areas of the castle. Their benefit is twofold, as they can also be used to upgrade weapons. The soul system adds a welcome element of strategy that, when combined with the ability to switch equipment sets, opens up a lot of experimentation. The only downside is that enemies tend to drop souls infrequently, meaning you'll have to kill the same enemies repeatedly to get the rare ones.
The DS's dual screens are used very effectively. The top screen displays the castle map, and always having it there to refer to makes navigating the castle a heck of a lot easier. The Select button switches the map with a display of Soma's character stats such as level, experience points, and experience points needed to reach the next level. It also features a baseball card-like profile of the last enemy you fought. It details what attacks they're weak against (fire, water, electric, etc.), what items they've dropped for you, how many of their souls you've acquired (more on these later) and how rarely their soul appears. The bestiary was always one of my favorite aspects of previous games in the series, and it's nice to finally have it available as you're playing.
The bottom screen is where gameplay takes place, and pressing Start brings up an inventory screen that also displays the game time and how much of the castle the player has discovered. Fans were concerned that Dawn of Sorrow would contain unnecessary touch screen gimmickry, but its use has been kept to a minimum and never feels forced. It's employed in some subtle ways, such as having you sign your name to your save file, but it's also used during gameplay to destroy certain kinds of blocks and point familiars (creatures you can summon to help you) at specific enemies. During boss battles, "magic seals" appear when the boss is near death. If you trace the pattern on the seal correctly, the boss is defeated. If you don't, the boss stays alive and you must get in a few more shots to make the seal appear again. This task is a little unforgiving, as it requires you to complete the seal pattern in short order, but you can practice the seals before and during the battle if necessary. Enough of the touch screen functionality has been used to make it worthwhile without intruding on core gameplay.
Another noteworthy gameplay addition is a wireless Vs. Mode. From the start menu you can enter Enemy Set Mode, where you're presented with five rooms into which you can drag-and-drop monsters (the monster list is comprised of the souls you've acquired in your saved game). You then wirelessly connect with another DS player and compete with them to see who can get through your "monster obstacle course" the fastest. It's a simple but fun bonus to the main game, and makes you wonder what else could be done with the "game construction set" idea. Also handy is the ability to wirelessly trade souls with other players, giving you the opportunity to get those that you missed the first time around.
Dawn of Sorrow's graphics are excellent. Environments routinely feature sprite rotation, full-screen effects, and multiple levels of parallax scrolling to simulate background distance. Some of the boss battles are particularly impressive, with massive creatures performing attacks that light up the entire screen. The art style is pure Castlevania, with colorful and bizarre enemies roaming about creepy dungeons, melancholy gardens, and fantastical laboratories. I keep thinking the designers of the series will eventually run out of new ideas for monsters, but they keep churning them out. Among my favorites are the "Waiter Skeleton" (he throws a pot of curry at you) and the "Killer Clown" (who fires playing cards at you and is described as "a shrewd poker player").
From a visual standpoint, I have two minor gripes. The first is that Soma's weapons change depending on what's equipped, but his costumes do not. In past games you would equip, say, a cape, and you'd actually see your character wearing the cape. This is a small touch but it's missed. The second is the adoption of anime-style character designs for the in-game dialogs. This gives the game more of a Saturday morning cartoon feel, definitely taking some of the edge off. To me, Castlevania games have always been dark and somber, touching on themes of fate, death, rebirth, and even the place of organized religion in society. I'd much prefer the character designs to retain the hand-drawn style of previous titles instead of moving towards a generic anime look. Neither one of these issues affected my enjoyment of the game in the least, but as a rabid purist fan I had to point them out.
On the other hand, what's sure to please purist fans is Dawn of Sorrow's incredible musical score. The Castlevania franchise is synonymous with great music and this edition is no exception. The aural capabilities of the DS are pushed to the limit, with hauntingly beautiful tracks that rival SOTN at times. Sound effects are also very well done, featuring plenty of disturbing digitized roars and screams from the monsters as well as a satisfying "Hwaaaarrrgh!!" when Soma meets his maker. You'll definitely want to play this one with headphones.
Dawn of Sorrow has just about everything you could ask for in a portable Castlevania title. It boasts great graphics, music, and sound effects, as well as tight controls that employ the touch screen just enough. It has a large castle to roam around in, all kinds of monster souls to collect and trade with friends, and even a wireless Vs. Mode to keep you playing for a little while after the main game is finished. Fans of the series will love it, and non-fans definitely need to check it out. Highly recommended.