If you only play one Castlevania game, make it this one.
Replaying these Game Boy Advance Castlevania games has been instructive. Circle of the Moon came in 2001 as a system launch game. It had its share of hardware-specific problems, but overall it’s a strong entry in the series. Harmony of Dissonance, which launched in 2002, marked series veteran Koji Igarashi’s return, but I feel the game is flawed in many respects. It’s amazing, really, to think that he perfected the formula a year later with Aria of Sorrow. This is, bar none, the best Castlevania game on the GBA and arguably the best Symphony-era Castlevania game ever made.
The first movement forward is the storyline: the game takes place in 2035, following Dracula’s final destruction (no, really) by the Belmonts in 1999. Soma Cruz and his friend Mina visit a shrine during a solar eclipse and are transported to a mysterious castle. Soma shows an unexpected ability to absorb the powers of the castle’s monsters, and during his exploration, meets a colorful cast of characters who believe that Dracula will soon be reincarnated. The story is genuinely interesting, and without giving too much away, I’m happy to say that you never actually fight Dracula.
The other big change is to the magic system. There are no subweapons—Soma is constantly absorbing new powers from his foes, and they are divided into three broad categories: weapons, summons, and buffs. You’ll constantly be experimenting with the new powers you find. Soma also finds traditional move set-increasing souls, like a double jump and a backdash. You’ll also find armor, accessories, and tons of interesting weapons to play with. Soul collection becomes a major emphasis in the game, as every enemy’s soul has a different drop rate. On the GBA, players could actually connect their systems and exchange souls like Pokémon, but of course this ability isn’t present here. The level design is improved from Harmony of Dissonance. There’s just one enormous castle divided into distinct areas. As in Circle of the Moon, there are many breakable walls, but they are unfortunately not differentiated—I recommend looking at an online map, as much of the most overpowered equipment is hidden in secret rooms. However, because Aria’s castle is not painfully duplicated as in Harmony, the game is quite a bit shorter. To make up for this, Aria is much tougher than Harmony. While I rarely felt outright under-leveled, having the right loadout often meant the difference between life and death.
It may take some work to get the game’s true ending, which culminates in an epic, abstract final boss. Despite the relative brevity of the main game, finding all the souls will take some doing (and you ARE rewarded for it). There’s an unlockable Hard mode, in which at least one exclusive weapon is found, and a great version of Boss Rush that encourages speed running with exclusive weapons and armor as time-based rewards. You can also play through the game as Julius Belmont, but since his weapons and abilities are set from the beginning, his progression is quicker and it’s not quite as satisfying.
To me, this is the best Symphony-era Castlevania game, and definitely one that everybody should experience.