Golden Sun: Dark Dawn Review (of the first 20 hours)

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What do you do when you’re twenty hours into a game and don’t want to play it any longer?  Review it and use that as a pretense.  So instead of this being a review of Golden Sun Dark Dawn, it is a review of the first twenty hours, which I think is just over half of the game.  So read on if you want me to pick away at its nits.

Golden Sun: Dark Dawn Review
Release Date: 29/11/2010
Platform: DS
Developer: Camelot Software Planning
Publisher: Nintendo

So, I played through Golden Sun a little over a month ago, and found it to be lacking, and after getting a to a very grind heavy spot in Etrian Odyssey, 46 hours in, I decided that I was going to come back to that after another game, but half of my handheld games are RPGs, so it was this or getting upset at Crashmo.  However, even considering how I missed plot details by skipping out on part two, the game still tells one of the least engaging stories I’ve ever tried to sit through.

The game starts up by more or less tossing a ball of exposition at you regarding the world, an ancient race, the Golden Sun event, Alchemy, how the world was decaying, and so forth, to the point where it might as well said, “What do you mean you haven’t played the last two games?  Get outta here you prick!”  Before it shows off how much it values its previous fans by making you play as the children of the original four protagonists, who are their parents three times out of four, even in spite of a gender swap.

Normally this is where I talk about what the objective of the game is, but I’d be buggered if I could follow it.  At first you’re just trying to get some wing to create a gliding device that can go to a place.  Then a character you were trying to save in the first game gets kidnapped by two baddies and a guy wearing a mask, just like in the first game because narratives are hard.  Before I was told to activate alchemy generators, not really knowing what alchemy is suppose to be in this universe with psy-energy that is the magic substitute.  Same thing with creatures called Djinns that the entire game’s combat system is built around, but I haven’t a clue where they came from.

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Now, these were still issues with the first game, but I more or less forgot about them they made such little of an impression on me.  But Dark Dawn tries really hard to make the story accessible by including the best codex system I’ve seen, where you tap on key words and get their definitions mid conversation.  Which would invalidate these issues, assuming I could grasp the lore after reading through them.  But after I had to force myself to try and figure out what was going on, I realized that if you’re going to include over 150 key words, you better be able to exposit them properly.

While the actual writing of the game seems more average than anything, there is just too much dialog with not enough surrounding factors to enable me to care.  When telling a story in a game like this, you need to engage the players with more than just text.  Have good music and show them something neat looking for them to care.  Instead, the score made me almost instantly pop on some of my own audio, with the battle themes and sound effects still being enjoyable.

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With the visuals, specifically the character models, make me feel like the kind of guy who drew sprites for a fighting game, right after the Nintendo 64 came out.  Quite simply, when you decide to show character emotion through an emoticon over their head, you’re pretty much behind titles from 1994.  If a 24 pixel tall character can display an array of emotions with the sprite itself, or a portrait can show even more in depth details, having a happy face pop over character’s heads is just lazy.  Same thing with having an ugly static mugshot sometimes appear when characters are yapping about  I know the DS’ 3D sucked nuggets, but so would you, Camelot.  Instead, the overworld 3D models don’t capture the pixely charm found in many a 16 bit RPG, with battles having sprite higher in detail, along with age, seeing as how everyone looks 12 out of battle.

Speaking of which, the battle models actually look pretty good, and have some sort of blur effect to hide away the rough edges, which at least creates the illusion of something more visually capable.  Especially with a pretty hardy amount of animations put in that really makes the enemy sprites for the last game look uglier than they actually were.  Not that it bothers making the combat any better.

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Now, I don’t often grind in RPGs, I fight every foe that comes my way, and I hopefully will be at a high enough level, but even though I collected the best equipment and Djinns, I should not have to use a single digit amount of non-healing spells in battle.  In theory, the Djinns are suppose to be a risk/reward system where if you surrender some stats, you can use a spell without any concern for MP, or PP, along with getting an element based point for a summonable creature.  Now, ignoring how within the first five hours, I was inexplicably summoning demonic minotaurs with angel wings to strike down gorillas.  There is next to no risk with this system.  Yes, your stats can go down, but you are able to take out the foes faster than they can take you down, seeing as how you can begin the battle with an angelic knight summoning a heavenly nuclear blast onto two chumps in metal coating.

Even beyond questioning how this is possible in the world, I literally only lost one party member in my twenty hours, during the third boss when I had very few Djinns.  However, the developers misunderstood this and ended up making a point of no return after said boss battle.  So if you did not get every Djinn before that boss, you’ll never get them, and in an RPG for crying out loud!  You’re just encouraging people to use an FAQ to prevent them from missing stuff, rather than explore  and feel rewarded when they come across these creatures.  Not miss one because they didn’t stay at an inn, because your PP regenerates automatically.

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The sheer fact that not a single playtester discovered this is nothing short of baffling, at least until you realize they made the fourth party member a young male with blue hair and water based abilities.  While the fifth party member is a young male with blue hair and water based abilities… Sorry, unless they are twins that is crappy character design!  Not unlike the puzzles the game uses, where you’re theoretically suppose to use magic in puzzles not unlike those in 2D Zelda titles, but when given your fifth character, most of the answers can be told to you.

Pushing logs, dousing things with fire, summoning whirlwinds, adjusting water levels, all ideas that could be fun except for how menu driven they are, and how long it takes to actually use the power.  Enter menu, select magic, select character, select spell, have spell radius load, cast spell, witness action.  No major challenge, no secondary uses, and rarely a double use in combat, not that you would ever need it.

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I always feel a bit bad for not liking something others do, but this is one of those times when I don’t get why people enjoy something I find to be trash.  A story jumbled and undermines the use of a codex.  Characters who I care too little about to eve want to remember their names.  Battles that gets easier as you go on due to a more or less broken magic system.  A presentation that seems good on paper, but as engrossing as a dirt clump.  And a puzzle system that more often than not gives you the answers.  All make me have no problem saying that I was far too generous with the first one, and that I no longer wish to have any title in this series in my house, so I’m selling them all for less than $5.  Oh, and that bit where after cutscenes and it tells you to go “onward” is stupid too.

Poor (4/20)
Barely any good in the product, often just being stupid, boring, or unbearably uninvolving.  Might have some neat bits to learn from, but the title is rarely worth your time beyond that.

So… I made controversial without even intending to.  If you care about that, or think I did the writing wrongly, I shall respond to your comment as kindly as I can without being disingenuous.

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