Preview: Golden Sun: Dark Dawn

Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is almost here. Fans of the series are freaking out, while the mainstream gamers remain oblivious to its existence. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground with this series; either you’ve never played it, or you think it’s amazing.

I was in the prior group before playing Golden Sun: Dark Dawn. I’ve always heard that the series was great, but it’s hard to jump into a new RPG series these days. Making that type of time commitment is serious business. You can’t just date games like Golden Sun. It’s marriage or GTFO.

After spending an hour or so with the game I may not be ready to tie the knot, but a pre-engagement certainly isn’t out of the question. Read on for my full impressions.

Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is almost here. Fans of the series are freaking out, while the mainstream gamers remain oblivious to its existence. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground with this series; either you’ve never played it, or you think it’s amazing.

I was in the prior group before playing Golden Sun: Dark Dawn. I’ve always heard that the series was great, but it’s hard to jump into a new RPG series these days. Making that type of time commitment is serious business. You can’t just date games like Golden Sun. It’s marriage or GTFO.

After spending an hour or so with the game I may not be ready to tie the knot, but a pre-engagement certainly isn’t out of the question. Read on for my full impressions.

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Dark Dawn is the third game in the series. It takes place 30 years after the “Golden Sun event”; a massive, life-altering moment at the end of the second Golden Sun. When I asked Nintendo what that event was all about, they got all giggly and cryptic, and said something along the lines of “We don’t want you to know, we want you to find out in the game.”

It looks like there will be a lot to discover in the new Golden Sun. Times have definitely changed. Issac (seen in the screenshot above) and Garet from the first Golden Sun make appearances early on, but only to help introduce their sons; Matthew and Tyrel. These two are best friends, and their relationship serves as the starting point for the game’s narrative. With new and familiar characters both at the forefront, those new to the Golden Sun series, as well as long time fans, should both feel right at home.

Another nice touch for new players is the hyper-linked in-game Encyclopedia. While in a text-based cutscene, or just talking with an NPC, certain text will be highlighted red and underlined. Tap these words with the stylus, and you’ll get their definition on the top screen. Anything unique to the world of Golden Sun gets an entry, so if you’re confused about what or who someone is, the game has your back.

From there, the story kicks in. The game quickly establishes Matthew as the responsible friend, as he’s tasked to go rescue Tyrel from some mess he’s gotten himself into. Things are go fairly well for our heroes, until “Psynergy Vortexes” start popping up in random places around the world. I’m told that these Psynergy Vortexes are central to the game’s plot and tie in directly with that mysterious Golden Sun event.

After showing me these introductory scenes, I was invited to play the game myself. I was warped ahead a few hours into the game, where I had gained a new party member, the air-expert Karis. She’s also the offspring of a past Golden Sun hero, though Nintendo remained mum on her paternity test results. It could be someone from Golden Sun 1 or 2, though Nintendo seemed fairly certain that none of Dark Dawn‘s playable characters are siblings (which narrows things down a bit).

Karis was a nice addition, but the coolest thing about warping ahead was the new abilities I’d gained. I was really impressed with the versatility of the Psynergy powers that my characters had. Psynergy is sort of a psychic/magic combo that Golden Sun fans will be very familiar with. Some Psynergy abilities work like offensive and defensive spells from traditional RPGs, while others feel more like items from a top down action adventure game.

For instance, the Psynergy ability “Grip” works a lot like A Link to the Past‘s Hookshot. In order to get to point A to point B, you’ll have to psychically “grip” onto marked pedestals, flinging yourself and your party through the air. Figuring out how to grip around the environment will take some thinking, adding a light puzzle flavor to the action. It’s far from original, but it’s a nice way to break up the otherwise straight forward exploration/turn-based battle gameplay.

As for battles, I’ll have to admit, I’ve always been a sucker for summons. Ever since Final Fantasy II (now known as Final Fantasy IV), I’ve loved the way that huge, over-the-top attacks from God-like buddies can break up the monotony of a battle and add some personality to sometimes stale turn-based battle system. Golden Sun‘s summons are amongst some of my favorite in recent memory. Somehow, the game kicks things onto another level when the summons come out. This may be some of the best polygon pushing that the DS will ever see.

Summons don’t come easy though. In order to cast one, you’ll need to manage your Djinn. Also a Golden Sun standard, Djinn are magical monsters that you can acquire through a variety of different means. I caught one by successfully out smarting in with my Grip ability, but I’m told there are many other ways to snag them. There are over 70 in all, each with their own individual character sprite. So now I’ve added monster catching to the things that game has going for it. Nice.

I’d like to explain to you exactly how managing the Djinn works to alter which summons you can cast, but not only am I not 100% sure that I understand it myself, but I fear that I’ll lose your attention in the process. Rest assured, the game is no slouch when it comes to customization and statistical details. If you love painstakingly training your RPG characters to learn outrageous new abilities and max out on there states, Dark Dawn has plenty for you. Luckily, none of that stuff is mandatory, so lazy old guys like me that just want to go with the basics can survive just fine.

After using Grip, seeing some summons, and catching a Djinn or two, I moved on the demo’s boss fight. I expected to take on a giant crab monster or a ant-lion or something, but instead, I had to fight three ninja-looking guys called “Stealthy Scouts.” Though they didn’t look like much, they almost wiped me out on the third attack. Nintendo told me that all but one of the other game bloggers and journos who’d played the demo got killed by this merciless band of scouts. I felt proud to survive, and impressed that the game would pull no punches with difficulty.

With the scouts dead and my time with the game almost to a close, I got to see a cut-scene. It featured Kraden (from Golden Sun 1 and 2), future playable character Rief (a water adept), and the game’s villains; a green skinned ninja named Blade, and an extremely girly looking gentleman wearing a Phantom of the Opera-inspired mask. There was talk of kidnappings, Psynergy vortexes, of hope and doom. I don’t want to give too much away, but I’ll tell you that I was neither blown away, nor bored with the demos climax.

One nice touch was that you can choose an emoticon to respond with during certain in-game discussions. Your response wont change the outcome of the story, but it does alter the dialog spoken that occurs afterward.

On the whole, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn did a lot to impress me. The game doesn’t really try to stand out in the crowd, but it doesn’t really need to in order to leave an impression. It handles the fundamentals of its genre so well that it should be able to garner an audience based on quality alone. While I personally prefer the sprite based graphics of the GBA Golden Sun games, I can’t deny that the team at Camelot has done a great job with the polygon power visuals of Dark Dawn. Supported by an incredibly deep combat system, plenty of diversions, and a nearly ten-year legacy of quality, I’m sure the game is going to make many people very happy when it’s released in late 2010.

Jonathan Holmes
"Where do dreams end and reality begin? Videogames, I suppose."- Gainax, FLCL Vol. 1 "The beach, the trees, even the clouds in the sky... everything is build from little tiny pieces of stuff. Just like in a Gameboy game... a nice tight little world... and all its inhabitants... made out of little building blocks... Why can't these little pixels be the building blocks for love..? For loss... for understanding"- James Kochalka, Reinventing Everything part 1 "I wonder if James Kolchalka has played Mother 3 yet?" Jonathan Holmes