|Developer:||Camelot Software Planning|
PLEASE NOTE: This preview contains spoilers for the original Golden Sun and Golden Sun: The Lost Age.
The first Golden Sun and its sequel, The Lost Age, are some of the most beloved modern classics in gaming. They didn't reinvent any wheels or shake the foundation of the industry – they were simply incredibly solid turn-based RPGs with outstanding graphics, art design, and music. They had great writing (and a lot of it), memorable characters, and a great, old-school story about a group of misfit kids saving the world with an interesting wrinkle; the enemies of the first game whose cause you struggled against became your allies, and their cause became your own. The ending of the second game wrapped things up nicely while still leaving room for another adventure, which many assumed would not be far off. They were wrong.
Thankfully, after seven long years of dormancy, the Golden Sun series returns with a full-fledged sequel in Golden Sun: Dark Dawn, and I (who had The Lost Age on my list of the top 10 RPGs of the past decade) couldn't be happier to report that I have been able to spend a few hours with the Japanese version of the game. What follows are my impressions.
The first thing to note is that, much like with the first two games, Camelot doesn't try to reinvent the wheel in Dark Dawn. Thus far, that has only been to the game's credit. Instead, they focus on honing the game's turn-based combat and presentation to a razor-fine edge. From the moment the game starts up, fans will be serenaded by a soundtrack that offers something new yet familiar. Dark Dawn maintains many of the series' classic themes and sound effects, along with a few new ones that fit in perfectly. The graphics are excellent, fusing the colorful style of the classic games with a new 3D look that is rich, detailed, and utterly pleasurable to behold. The character designs are very attractive, and every Djinn now has its own unique design, which really helps to differentiate them in more ways than just their abilities.
Taking place 30 years after the end of The Lost Age, Dark Dawn begins in a secluded, sun-drenched mountaintop where Isaac (sporting a sweet new beard and trench coat) and his son Matthew live. Hijinks ensue, prompting Matthew, Karis (the daughter of Ivan from the original games), Isaac, and Garet to head off into a spooky forest to find Garet's son Tyrell (Terry in the Japanese version). Upon locating him, the team discovers a strange phenomenon called a Psynergy Vortex, and from there the children set off on a new adventure of their own.
In terms of gameplay, Dark Dawn doesn't stray much at all from the framework established by its predecessors. You explore a varied world full of puzzles that need solving, utilizing various Psynergy powers such as Move and Grow to that end. The combat is turn-based and functions nearly identically to that from the previous games, albeit with a variety of interface tweaks, touch controls, and a heavily upgraded presentation. The top screen typically offers a map, character status, and during combat your released Djinn float around on it, which is a nice way of visually displaying their unique designs and how many you have at your disposal. Additionally, for the first time in the series, your characters will automatically target the next enemy if their current target is defeated before they attack. The menus are attractive, colorful evolutions of those found in the original games and are easily accessible via either stylus or D-pad controls, both in battle and the field.
The first hour of the game functions largely as tutorial and introduction to the new principal characters. The introduction recaps the first two games for newcomers, and during conversations you are able to tap on key terms in the dialogue, prompting an instant explanation of that particular term to pop up on the top screen. Additionally, as a concession to younger Japanese players (and students of Japanese like myself), you are able to select any of the kanji in the game and pull up their readings.
Based on my time with the Japanese version, it seems as if the game manages to succeed at the delicate balancing act of feeling both totally fresh yet familiar. Those looking for a dramatic evolution of the series' formula will be disappointed, but for everyone else (read: me), playing this new Golden Sun will be like being welcomed back into the arms of an old friend after a long separation.