Golden Sun: Dark Dawn
Platform: Nintendo DS
Genre: Role-Playing Game
Publisher: Camelot Software Planning
Release Date: November 29, 2010
Modes: Single Player
The Golden Sun series is easily one of the most underrated role-playing games of the last decade, and the two Game Boy Advance titles, Golden Sun and Golden Sun: The Lost Age, provided some of the best gameplay and graphics the Game Boy Advance had to offer. I personally began playing the first game when I was 12 years old, and it’s still one of my favorite role-playing games to date. Dark Dawn is the third installment in the series, a follow up to the pair of Game Boy Advance titles and the first Golden Sun title to appear on the Nintendo DS. Did the game live up the expectations set by the first two titles? No, I don’t think it did. Was it still an overall enjoyable experience? Certainly, though the game has a lot of a flaws and offers little incentive to play again.
I feel that before I begin pointing out any of this game’s flaws I should mention that it actually inherited many of them from it’s predecessors. The painfully slow storyline sequences, overly lengthy tutorials, blithe dialogue and somewhat basic RPG plot elements all existed in abundance in Golden Sun as well The Lost Age, but perhaps because I was so much younger and perhaps because that game was at least it’s own original story that didn’t borrow from any previous games in it’s series, I find those things to be less annoying in the originals, and somewhat charming. However, though this game retains some of it’s predecessors’ charm, it ultimately feels shallow, with no identity of it’s own, and doesn’t hold up without being paired with the Game Boy Advance games.
The game begins with an overview of the events of the first two Golden Sun titles: the world of Angara is built upon the four elements of Earth, Wind, Water and Fire. The name given to those who are aligned with each element and are capable of using magical abilities derived from these four elements are called Adepts. Ages ago, Adepts warred with one another for dominance over the world, and the clashing powers of all the Adepts threatened to tear the world apart. To prevent the destruction of the world, the ancients sealed Alchemy’s power away in four elemental lighthouses, and hid the keys to activating each lighthouse in a temple at the peak of a sacred mountain. Though Adepts continued to be born after the sealing of Alchemy, most of them lived in a small, hidden mountainside village, aptly named Vale, resting at the foot of the mountain.
During the narrative of the first Golden Sun, two Fire Adepts broke into the temple and stole the four Elemental Stars, intent on using them to light the four lighthouse beacons, and a young Earth Adept named Isaac set out on a quest to stop them. They were ultimately unable to stop the Fire Adepts from lightning the first two beacons, and in the second game, the Lost Age, the narrative switched to another Adept named Felix, who learned that without Alchemy, the world of Angara was slowly withering and heading toward it’s ultimate death. Ultimately Isaac joined Felix and together they finished lighting the beacons and caused an event called the Golden Sun, a beacon of pure elemental power that rejuvenated Angara and returned Alchemy to the world, at the cost of dramatically altering the planet’s landscape, destroying many cities and villages and creating new mountain chains along the two continents.
And so we have the setup for Dark Dawn, which takes place 30 years after the events of the first two games. Isaac and his companion Garet live on a mountaintop overlooking the sacred mountain where Sol Sanctum was built, and with them live their two children, Matthew and Tyrell. Tyrell, who is somewhat dense and foolhardy, attempts to fly using an invention called a Soarwing, which is intended to be used only by Wind Adepts, crashes into the forest below and is ultimately rescued by Matthew’s party. In order to repair the Soarwing, Matthew is sent on a quest to retrieve a feather from a legendary bird called a Mountain Roc, and the events of Dark Dawn begin to unfold.
The problem with the story of Dark Dawn is that is it is entirely too reliant on the original Golden Sun games. The four main characters are all clones of the original four main characters of Golden Sun: Matthew, Tyrell, Karis and Rief are all clones of Isaac, Garet, Ivan and Mia respectively, both in terms of battle abilities and personalities. Not only this, but throughout the story, the main characters spend most of their time discussing the adventures of their parents, encountering characters and places from the original games, and trying to live up to the legacy of their parents, who are now known across the world as the Warriors of Vale. This all ends up feeling very shallow and contrived, and I’m left wondering why the story wasn’t told from the point of view of the original characters in the first place.
Though the game takes place thirty years in the future, it’s revealed that none of the playable characters from Golden Sun have aged at all; they’re all still young and capable. The entire story of Dark Dawn could have been done with the original main cast of Golden Sun and the narrative wouldn’t be changed whatsoever, because none of the four main characters in Dark Dawn have their own identity. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate characters like Rief or Tyrell, but I don’t really see why they exist in the first place.
Ironically, though so much of the game is spent discussing the Warriors of Vale and referencing them at every turn, we only actually get to revisit two of them: Isaac and Garet. Though many of the other original characters are mentioned, and some of which like Piers even are involved with the story, we never see or interact with them at all. Similarly, we never revisit any of the old towns or villages, except for Kolima Forest, which was mysteriously moved to another part of the continent and is an entirely different place now. The game takes place on the northern continent and at no point do the part ever travel to the southern continent, or even to the western area of the world. Angara is expanded and restored, but we never get to see it, because the story all unfolds on the northern continent.
The villains of the story are Blados and Chalis, who, like the villains of Golden Sun: The Lost Age, are basically just copies of the villains from the first game. These two are led by a “mysterious” masked man who calls himself Arcanus. Arcanus is literally Alex from the first two games, with a mask covering a quarter of his face. If his appearance didn’t make it blatantly obvious that Arcanus was Alex, the fact that he teleports, speaks like an aristocrat, and manipulated the two main antagonists for his own designs do. Kraden joins the part as an NPC as he did in the first two games, but though he clearly realizes who Arcanus is, he never mentions it to the main cast until right before the end of the game.
Though the party originally goes on a quest to slay the Mountain Roc, they end up getting pulled into a lot of side stories, one involving a kidnapped Princess, one involving a pirate sentenced to death, one involving the war between two nations, among others, and none of these things have anything to do with the reason the children left on their journey: the slay the Mountain Roc. The worst aspect of this, however, is that the party does eventually encounter and slay the Mountain Roc, and take one of it’s feathers. And NOTHING HAPPENS. The feather isn’t used anywhere later in the game, and the Vale children entirely forget that they left home to find a means to restore the Soarwing.
Through a series of less than thrilling events, the party reaches a city of anthromorphic beastmen and bring about the appearance a huge tower that blocks out the light of the sun, creating the Grave Eclipse, a cataclysm that covers most of the continent in a darkness that calls forth terrible monsters, who destroy most of the cities and kill most of the people. The party escapes with the pirate’s ship, and spend the rest of the game sailing around the ocean, learning about the eclipse and gathering the tools to stop it. When the Vale children reach the final temple of the game, they attempt to use a device called the Apollo Lens to stop the Grave Eclipse, and they meet with Alex again, who reveals himself and attempts to help them activate the Lens and stop the Eclipse. The party are interrupted by Blados and Chalis, who fuse with a werewolf monster to try and stop the Vale children, to no avail. In exactly the same plot twist from the last Golden Sun game, the Vale children realize that the werewolf was actually the brother of a party member named Sveta, and with his last breath he sacrifices himself to activate the Apollo Lens and stop the Eclipse.
The game contains basically a watered down version of the plot of the first Golden Sun games, with virtually all the same twists, and as always, Alex manipulated everyone involved to make it all happen. But why? In Golden Sun and the Lost Age, Alex’s goal was immortality and control over the building blocks of reality, but in Dark Dawn, Alex goes to great measures to manipulate Blados and Chalis as well as the Vale children and the leaders of various nations to create the Grave Eclipse, and then manipulates all parties involved to stop the Eclipse. Why? He created a problem and solved it, without gaining anything, and disappears in the middle of a scene without so much a final word on anything.
Alex’s motives are not the only problem with the plot. When the game isn’t busy reminiscing about the adventures of the Vale Warriors, it’s creating characters and plot devices that are never used again. Blados and Chalis serve a ruler called the High Empyror who is never seen or heard from, and has no bearing on the plot whatsoever. The entire eclipse didn’t serve anyone’s purposes, if Blados and Chalis stood to gain anything from the ordeal I either didn’t understand or didn’t remember because the story left so little of an impression on me. The plot had so little substance or depth that it never stood on it’s own, and mostly used nostalgia to try and strengthen the weak storyline.
In the final scene after the credits, Matthew returns home, only to discover Isaac and Garet nowhere to be found, and a black hole floating next to the cabin, which is actually a Psyenergy Vortex, a plot device introduced early in the game that was never used again.The words “The End…?” appear on screen, and the screen fades to black. Why did the Psyenergy Vortexes exist? What was Alex’s purpose for creating and then stopping the Grave Eclipse? Where are Isaac and Garet, have they and the other Warriors of Vale been sucked into the Psyenergy Vortexes, and now Matthew has to go and rescue them? We don’t know, because the game never TELLS us any of these things, it creates a plot simply for the sake of giving the Vale children something to do.
The loose ends don’t stop there, though. Earlier on in the game, the pirate ship the party uses to travel during the latter portions of the quest is encountered as an old piece of junk barely capable of staying afloat, yet is mysteriously refitted to look like a Lemurian ship from the original Golden Sun games, but it’s never explained how or why this happened. Piers apparently traveled to Tonfon and amazed the people there with his ship, but why? Rief’s sister Nowell is only encountered during one cutscene, and is later revealed to have run away with Piers, but whatever happened with the two of them? Amiti’s father is heavily implied to be Alex, but this is never confirmed. Why would Alex, who has been shown throughout the series to be entirely concerned with gaining omnipotence, take a break to have a child with a woman and then vanish? What actually happened to Alex when he stood before the Golden Sun, why wasn’t he killed, and did he gain some new power from it? How does the Grave Eclipse play into Alex’s plan for omnipotence and what is the connection between the Psyenergy Vortexes, Alex’s plans for omnipotence, and the villains he manipulated? We don’t know, because the game never elaborates on any of these things, and leaves the plot up in the air with a completely unsatisfying ending scene of a town full of beastmen waving goodbye and thanking them for being just like their parents and saving the world.
Thankfully, though the story leaves everything to be desired, the gameplay is esentially unchanged from the previous Golden Sun games. Battles work exactly the same way, using creatures called Djinn to strengthen and alter each Adepts Psyenergy and also serve as Summons for the characters to use in battle. Unfortunately there are only two new Summons in this game, and all the rest are the same summons from the original Golden Sun, as well as most Djinn being copycats of the original Djinn with new names, but the same effects.
Though the battles work the same as the previous titles, one of the biggest elements of Golden Sun is puzzle solving. Characters use their Psyenergy to move blocks, create fire, and interact with their environment in different ways to solve puzzles and make it through dungeons. Unfortunately, the difficulty of the puzzles is incredibly easy. Since I’m not a fan of puzzle games, I admit to getting stumped in a few places, but never longer than a minute or two, and only a few times did I ever backtrack to try and find something that I missed. The Psyenergy itself was the unique aspect of the Golden Sun games that gave their dungeons personality, but all of the Psyenergy in Dark Dawn is just the same Psyenergy from Golden Sun, given new names and different animations. There’s not very much to find in this game that’s new or unique, not in the puzzles or the battles.
It’s also worth mentioning that though Psyenergy was quick and responsive in the original Golden Sun games, it’s tedious to use on the DS because the entire game is designed to be played with the stylus, and after casting a spell there’s a wait time while a circular area of effect appears around Matthew and the player is given the option to turn their character in the direction they want to use the ability. This doesn’t even play well when using the stylus because the Psyenergy abilities are still intended to be used with the L and R shortcuts, and are tiny boxes in the corners of the screen that are too small to touch comfortably with the stylus. Walking with the stylus is clunky and awkward too, and no matter whether you use analog or stylus controls, it feels like something is missing because the game was designed to be played the other way; Dark Dawn would have benefited greatly from simply being one control scheme or the other.
Though the four main characters are essentially clones of the original Golden Sun characters and have little personality of their own, there are four new characters that are basically one of the only bright spots in this game. The new Fire Adept, Eoleo, is the same baby who appeared in the Lost Age as the son of the pirate Briggs. Though I like him more as a character than the extremely dull-witted Tyrell, he is a warrior-style fighter who can’t use long swords, which basically makes him obsolete, and that’s unfortunate because I really wanted to include him in my final party. The new Wind Adept, Sveta, has the ability to transform into a beast during battle and unleash powerful abilities at the expense of using up her Djinn, essentially making this ability a summon that lasts several turns.
The new Water Adept, Amiti, has many of the same abilities as Piers from the Lost Age, but is equipped like a mage and can’t use long swords. Incidentally, he’s probably my favorite character to use in battle, as he’s balanced, powerful, and I always like Water Adepts. The final new Adept is an Earth Adept named Himi, who unfortunately is thrown into the game about an hour or two before the ending, and as such will probably be overlooked, if not because the player already has their final party order decided, then because she’s an Earth Adept and in order to have a balanced team would have to replace the main protagonist in the battle roster.
The new characters provided the most enjoyable aspect of the game that lends to it some replayability, because they join gradually and leave the player to decide whether to have a party using all four elements or whether to use which characters the player likes the most. Unfortunately they mostly all join about three-quarters through the game, and though they can be useful, the player spends most of the game without them. One of the annoying things about the large roster of characters, however, is that when scenes trigger during latter portions of the game, nine or more characters may suddenly appear on screen at once, and during storyline events, EVERY character has to have something to say. There are constantly times during character conversations where all eight of the party members have to chime into the conversation in quick succession, or begin speaking in pairs, just for the sake of being a part of the scene.
The inclusion of three playable characters during the final third of the game leads me to another big problem: the pacing of the game. Though I spent 30 hours playing Dark Dawn (relatively short by any normal RPG standards), the quest was incredibly short. The party sets out to get a Roc Feather, then activates a few Alchemy machines across the continent for no particular reason other than to help out the people and find a way across the mountains, saves the Princess and the pirate, and finally collects some gear hidden across the world and activates the Apollo Lens. Though the game manages on paper to take you through several locations and many dungeons, it all goes by quickly and easily with little to no challenge and leaves the player with absolutely nothing to do postgame but gather the remaining Djinn, but even then there’s no motivation to do that because there’s not a single difficult enemy anywhere in the game. Apart from an early boss battle with some soldiers, the final boss was the only enemy in the game to ever KO me or provide any difficulty at all.
It’s not just the lack of difficulty in the dungeons that creates a gameplay problem, it’s the fact that as soon as the Grave Eclipse happens, all exploration drops off. The game makes it seem as though you’re given a ship with which to explore the entirety of the ocean, but in truth the ocean is just a big lake surrounded by the remaining towns you’ll need to explore, and of the entire world map, only about 20% or less is accessible by the ship. The game pads out it’s length by sending you on various fetch quests from town to town, making you travel the relatively empty and small ocean and revisit towns from earlier in the game that have mostly nothing new to see. In addition, battling and leveling up become extremely easy once the party is given the ship, the enemies get only slightly more difficult but the experience given by virtually every enemy in the world jumps into the ten thousands, and characters jump about twenty levels during the final few hours of gameplay.
This is an area that Dark Dawn does fairly well in. The official artwork for the game is beautiful, done in the same art style as the original games, and the characters and settings are all very aesthetically pleasing. The colorful feel of the world of Angara is preserved from the original games, although since Dark Dawn takes place after a worldwide rejuvenation of elemental magic that animates all living creatures and places, I would think that the world would be much more full of life, yet the lush environmental feel of the original Golden Sun games isn’t taken to any new levels here. The in-game graphics leave a little to be desired, as the character models are done in a chibi style somewhat similar to that of the original Golden Sun games, but while that style lent itself well to the 16-bit graphical capabilties of the Game Boy Advance, it doesn’t translate into anything spectacular in 3D. Luckily the more detail battle models of the characters are very well-done, and battle backgrounds are drawn like paintings.
The summon sequences are exciting to see the first couple of times, but because most of them are recreations of classic summons and because the graphical abilities of the Nintendo DS are limited, the summons, which were one of the biggest draws to Dark Dawn, didn’t impress me very much. I liked them, but there was nothing very unique about the majority of the summons, and after watching each sequence once I usually skipped it every time thereafter. The Djinn, however, were each given their own cutsom look, and every Djinn is unique from every other, both in their official artwork and their in-game sprites.
One of the things that this game really accomplished with it’s art direction was make me want to play the classic Golden Sun games again, because I remembered how much I loved the art and environments of those games, which still hold up today. This could be seen as a bad quality, but the character portraits, Djinn art, and environments of the game were one of the biggest factors in keeping me interested in playing.
The original Golden Sun games were kind of a midway point between action role-playing games like the Legend of Zelda and menu-based role-playing games like Final Fantasy. The puzzles played virtually the same as those in the Zelda series, with Psyenergy serving the role of new equipment, and the battles worked basically the same as the Final Fantasy series, with Djinn serving the role of Espers or other summons. Though neither of the main game concepts were extremely original, the Golden Sun titles managed to not only blend these two concepts together coherently, but also push the graphical limitations of the Game Boy Advance and provide players with a storyline that, though riddled with classic RPG elements like Alchemy and elemental magic, was at least interesting and unique.
Dark Dawn unfortunately feels like a pale shadow of the original Golden Sun games, trying to recreate their unique feel without adding anything new or standing on it’s own legs. The plot battles, and puzzles are all virtually the same as they were in the classic titles, and Dark Dawn seems to be either relying on nostalgia for the old games, or a lack of exposure to concepts that have already been used before, to create a fun atmosphere for the player. The game leaves very little replay value because of the linear quest and easy battles, and could have benefited from a few superbosses or hidden dungeons. Ultimately Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is an alright game, but not an amazing game.
I’ve pointed out Dark Dawn’s many flaws here, but I still want to make it known that I did have a lot of fun playing this game. I felt like I was being swept up in the world of Golden Sun, and even though it was probably mostly nostalgia for the Game Boy Advance games, it was fun nonetheless. The game only appears to be riddled with flaws once the adventure is over and can be looked at with more objectivity, but during the story I really did want to know what would happen next, and I enjoyed the storyline sequences even if they weren’t anything amazing. The battle gameplay is still solid, the puzzle mechanics are unchanged, even though they aren’t very difficult, and the essential Golden Sun experience is all still there.
I would encourage fans of the original games to try Dark Dawn and I think that they would enjoy themselves; being a part of the Golden Sun world again is fun after all these years, even when Dark Dawn’s problems make it bittersweet, and new players who never played the originals may find themselves interested in the backstory and having fun in the well-crafted world of Angara. The thing that Dark Dawn did more than anything was make me want to replay the classic Golden Sun titles, and though it probably doesn’t provide the same depth of gameplay and story, it does accomplish what it sets out to do: it takes the player on an adventure, gives them challenges to overcome, and provides a fun escape into the fantasy world that captivated players of Golden Sun.