The Golden Sun series might not have the name recognition of Square Enix's Final Fantasy franchise or the longevity of the popular Dragon Quest titles, but for a small subset of portable gaming fans, it's certainly a beloved series. The first two entries, Golden Sun and Golden Sun: The Lost Age, debuted on the Game Boy Advance nearly a decade ago. The series has always been developed by Camelot, a developer who has had long-running ties with Nintendo but also created titles for Sega and Sony at different points in its existence. Prior to Golden Sun, most of Camelot's Nintendo experience was with Mario sports titles, but as fans might remember, those titles had quite a few RPG elements, so creating a new RPG franchise from the ground up wasn't that big of a stretch.
Now that I've played through the newest adventure, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn, I think longtime fans are going to be pretty happy with the results. Camelot certainly hasn't lost its touch; the elements that made Golden Sun stand out on the GBA are certainly present here, but at the same time, it also shares a few of the series' flaws. The difficulty is tad too easy for my taste, so it's very easy to blow through most of the in-game encounters without breaking a sweat. Younger gamers who have cut their teeth on a few modern RPG series might be disappointed in the ease of this particular title. Another issue is that it still remains a little too wrapped up in its own dialogue. Occasionally it's better to show people something than tell it to them, and Dark Dawn is sometimes a little too conversational for its own good. There is an interesting gameplay element that imparts information that you may have missed from the previous titles, but I'll delve into that later.
In Dark Dawn, players take on the role of the children of the heroes from the previous games. The main role is occupied by young, blond Matthew, an adept who's also the son of Isaac, who fans will recognize from the previous titles. In the world of Golden Sun, adepts are basically magic wielders, and their abilities are tied to a specific element. Matthew wields the ability of earth, while other characters take on the role of fire, water, etc. Most abilities are elemental-based, which isn't necessarily unlike most RPG titles of yore. Of course, magic is referred to as psyenergy, and even the elements are referred to as Jupiter, Mars, Mercury and Venus. These small changes help differentiate Golden Sun from other similar Japanese RPGs, but the trappings and concepts are still the same. Use elements against each other for more damage, and make sure your characters are outfitted with the correct spells for boss fights.
Another returning element from the previous games is the Djinn, small magical creatures that can be set to your party members to enhance their abilities and grant class bonuses. There's a number of Djinn hidden around the world for you to obtain. Some are optional, but they are worth seeking out for their stat bonus abilities. Djinn also have abilities that can be used in battle, and they're the key to unleashing devastating summoning spells. The summoning spells remind me of old-school Final Fantasy titles, complete with unique animation sequences.
Psyenergy (magic) plays a huge role in the combat of Golden Sun, and you'll find yourself casting spells far more often than you tap the attack button. That's one element that makes the game a little too easy, especially since early on, you'll gain access to group attack spells that can target all monsters in a random encounter. You can get away with spamming these moves every turn for most random encounters, and since your psyenergy points recharge as you walk around, there's not much of a restriction on using them.
Dark Dawn's environmental puzzles play a very large role in most of the dungeons you'll encounter. Your psyenergy spells aren't just for battle; you'll be able to use certain spells outside of battle to manipulate objects in the environment to solve puzzles or reach optional treasure chests or Djinn. For instance, Matthew has the inherent ability to move certain objects by selecting them with either the d-pad or touch-screen (both control schemes can be used), and that'll allow him to move items like pillars into position so that you can traverse large chasms. Likewise, Karis has a wind ability that allows her to send small flowers up in the air, using them as temporary platforms to get an out-of-reach item. Each character has a specific environmental ability, and you'll often use all of them within a dungeon to uncover all the secrets. The dungeon design is really great, offering up a lot of unique solutions that can sometimes leave you scratching your head. It's the only gameplay element that provides a slight challenge, and it's a welcome addition to Dark Dawn.
Of course, there is a negative side, but I'd venture to say that it's pretty minor in the long run. The previous Golden Sun games were filled with too much dialogue, and the script really needed to be pared down. Characters would over-explain things, launch into small speeches, and often repeat events that you had just seen play out on-screen. Unfortunately, Dark Dawn is also guilty of this. Although it's doesn't seem as wordy as the previous titles, there were certainly times when I felt like I was getting more information than I wanted. Combine this with the lame-duck emotional responses, where you can choose from four different emotions, and you might find that some of the dialogue is pretty bland. I liked that the game tucked most of the references to the previous titles into linked words, which you can tap to bring up an optional page of reading material that explains the role and importance of a character, event, location or term. This allows new Golden Sun players to jump into this title without missing out on the events from the past two games. It's a neat way to present the information, and other serial games could do well to imitate this feature.
Finally, as I mentioned, the game offers the ability to use the touch-screen as your primary method of control. The touch-screen option is great when it comes to manipulating items or using your psyenergy on various objects outside of battle, but I preferred the old d-pad and button setup to navigate menus and walk around. Other games have used the touch-screen in a similar fashion, though, and I'm sure you'll be able to find a middle ground that works for you. I'm glad to see it included, and I'm glad that players have the option to use either or both.
Golden Sun: Dark Dawn will certainly satisfy its core base of fans while remaining entirely accessible to new players. It's not a stand-out RPG or a must-have in my book, but it'll really help pass the winter months for people who have just finished up with Dragon Quest IX. It's definitely worth checking out, but I'd probably temper any nostalgia-based excitement for it.
More articles about Golden Sun: Dark Dawn