Having fond memories of playing Golden Sun and Golden Sun: The Lost Age on my Game Boy Advance, I was extremely excited to learn of the development of Golden Sun: Dark Dawn for the Nintendo DS. The original GBA titles were fun, traditional RPGs, and I was looking forward to getting my hands on yet another adventure in Weyard. And I was not disappointed.
Well, maybe a little...
The game is a direct sequel taking place 30 years after the first two titles, putting you in the shoes of Matthew, son of Golden Sun's original hero, Isaac. In fact, many of Dark Dawn's youthful heroes are the spawn of characters from the GBA games, making this Golden Sun: The Next Generation. There are a lot of references to the earlier games, and many characters either reappear or are at least mentioned. The only problem with this is that with Golden Sun being from 2001 and The Lost Age from 2003, references didn't have as much impact because honestly, who can remember back that far? Heck, when games are long enough, I sometimes don't even remember things that happened in the first levels!
Anyway, as Matthew, you must team up with your friends and other warriors you encounter along the way to save Weyard from falling into elemental chaos once again. Each character has an elemental power called Synergy, which allows them to draw on the powers of earth, fire, water and air. And you can augment your powers by collecting Djinn along the way, magical creatures that will enhance your stats, give you new spells, and allow you to summon powerful magical creatures. Since the Golden Sun series revels in its traditionality, the Djinn are its main original feature. Setting the Djinn to your characters boosts their stats, but using them for summons will cause those stats to drop, including HP, so you need to use some strategy when deciding how best to utilize them. The other thing that sets Golden Sun apart is that the dungeons are puzzle-based. Using the various Synergy powers of your characters, you have to figure out how to get from one end to the other, jumping, swinging, creating ladders, evaporating water blockages, and whatnot. Thankfully, when facing puzzle dungeons, random enemy encounters are practically nonexistent, and in some rooms, you'll be able to focus purely on the puzzle. So that's nice! Combat is traditional turn-based action, selecting your actions and watching them play out. Some people may find that dull, but it's actually the way I like my RPGs!
The graphics are really impressive, featuring full 3D character models and environments. The summons are suitably awe-inspiring, although some of the magic spells use really lame 2D sprites to little visual effect. There's no voice acting, but the music is actually really good in places. There was one dungeon where I actually thought to myself, "I would actually listen to this soundtrack," which I've never thought about a DS game. The story is solid, with no lulls, and I racked up nearly 30 hours of play time. There's more exploring I could have done, but towards the end when you get the ship and it becomes more non-linear, I ended up doing a lot of confused wandering around not knowing where to go next. So once I got back on track, I was tired of screwing around and wanted to finish the main story. After finishing the game, though, your cleared save file will let you start just before the final area so you can take care of finding those remaining Djinn and finishing off any side-quests you left dangling (I never did give that girl's present to her grandma!).
The only real complaint I have with Dark Dawn is that it's exactly what I wanted. It doesn't try to reinvent the wheel, which I appreciate, and I had a good time the entire 30 hours I was playing it. But at the end, I kind of wished it had been better. There's nothing empirically wrong with it, but at the end, I was left slightly unsatisfied. (And not just because of the epilogue cliffhanger that sets up the inevitable sequel, probably for the 3DS!) The story is good, the dialogue is cute, there's plenty of places to explore, but there's no real challenge. The difficulty level is surprisingly low, and not just in the beginning. In fact, the only enemy that gave me even a little bit of trouble was the final boss, and even him I beat on the second try. And the puzzle dungeons weren't particularly tough to solve, either.
So it's fun to play, if not so much of a challenge. But if you're looking for a solid, traditional RPG, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn should be on your short list. Especially if you enjoyed the first two games in the series, in which case playing this should be a no-brainer!