Coming up with a list of our most anticipated games of the year seems like a bit of a fool’s errand. Game development is a long, and excruciating process, and more often than not, video game releases are delayed. Take, for instance, two of 2016’s most anticipated titles, Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian — the first announced ten years ago, and the second seven years ago. And let’s not forget The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which was our number one most anticipated game of 2016, and it still isn’t out. That said, we here at Goomba Stomp have gone ahead with our yearly tradition but we did try our best to avoid including certain titles which have nearly no chance of getting a release date in 2017. I’m referring to the likes of Spider-man for the PS4, Shenmue 3, The Last of Us 2 and Death Stranding, to name just a few. Below is a list of the 30 games we are most looking forward to in alphabetical order.
For years, rogue-like games were something of a forgotten relic, an idiosyncratic offshoot of the role-playing game genre that the video game industry seemed to almost abandon. That all changed and in recent years, the style of game has made a comeback. In fact, one of our most anticipated games of 2017 is the indie title Below, from Kris Piotrowski, creative director at Capybara Games, the Toronto studio responsible for Sword and Sworcery. Below was first announced in 2013, and immediately won gamers over with its minimal art styles and design choices like permanent death and high difficulty. Microsoft’s Phil Spencer described the game as a “creative take on rogue-like gameplay” in a “mysterious world” and in an interview with Polygon, Capybara’s Nathan Vella said, that while Below is a minimalistic video game in terms of the design, the missions and challenges aren’t something that should be underestimated. (Ricky D)
Crackdown 3 had all but been wiped from my memory until the end of last year. Announced almost three years ago at Microsoft’s E3 press conference, Crackdown 3 came as a welcome surprise given how poorly the second entry in the series was received. However, after this announcement, and a trickle of information out of Gamescom the following year, Crackdown all but dropped off the face of the earth. While this didn’t bode well for the title, developer Reagent Games promised us a 2017 release, now all we have to do is wait with bated breath. From the look of things, Crackdown 3 is bringing the series back to what made it great in the first place. The complicated zombie nonsense of the second game has been done away with, and once again the player is back to a cleaning of the gang-ridden streets of a futuristic, unnamed city. By far the most exciting part about a Crackdown game is its level of destruction. With the use of Microsoft’s new Azure engine, Crackdown 3 will feature fully destructible environments and a wide array of vibrant weapons and devastating powers unleashed by the player’s character. If all goes according to plan, Crackdown 3 will be one game you won’t want to sleep on in 2017. (Carston Carasella)
Crash N.Sane Trilogy
Who would have thought it? In 2017, one of Sony and PlayStation’s earliest mascots will return, re-birthed on the PS4. It has been well over a decade since Crash Bandicoot was a prominent icon of gaming, instead falling into obscurity as Activision took control of the series’ rights back in the mid-00s. Crash was always going to struggle to fit in the FPS dominated landscape that arose around the turn of the millennium, as were many of the platforming gems of the PS1 era, so perhaps it is high time that old bandicoot had his chance to shine again.
Developed by Vicarious Visions, who have worked on many games for Activision over the years on various series, the Crash N.Sane Trilogy brings together the 3 titles that started it all in 4K resolution: Crash Bandicoot, Crash 2: Cortex Strikes Back and Crash 3: Warped. The journey will be exactly how we remember it, albeit with some modern additions such as manual and automatic save files and time trials across all 3 games.
What the Crash N.Sane Trilogy stands for is much more than simply being a glorious nostalgia trip to the 90s. If Crash’s return is well received critically, financially and personally by the gaming audience, the signal could be lit for the return of the platforming genre as a whole. Yes, we still have Mario and the numerous outstanding indie platformers, but it has been many years since the genre had a place in the hierarchy of gaming; Crash, with one spin, could change all that. (Patrick Webster)
Cuphead is the run-and-gun platform indie game (developed by Canadian brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer) that pretty much stole the show during Microsoft E3 presentation a couple of years back. Obviously, the visuals are what first grabbed everyone’s attention – Cuphead combines the look of hand-drawn, hand-inked cell animation reminiscent of 1930s cartoons with the sort of shooting challenges that Treasure provided in its early 90s games. It also includes its own original jazz recordings and a series of strange bosses that you must defeat in order to repay a debt to the devil. The game is said to be partly inspired by the works of such legendary cartoonists as Max Fleischer’s Fleischer Studios and has sought to keep the works’ subversive and surrealist qualities. Everything is alive in the world of Cuphead: and more importantly, it looks like a blast to play. (Ricky D)
Days Gone appeared as somewhat of an anomaly at Sony’s E3 press conference last year. The open-world action game will be the first I.P. created by Sony Bend since Syphon Filter in 1999 and seemed to come completely out of left field for most of us watching. While little is known about the story of Days Gone, the gameplay seems to be akin to the likes of The Last of Us, with the player utilizing much of the environment to accomplish their objectives. The world of Days Gone appears to be one of deadly tranquility, as nature has taken back much of the world, and humanity struggles to survive. The main enemy of the game appears to be a variety of zombie-like creatures called Freakers. Days Gone will feature a day/night cycle that has a direct effect on these creatures. During the day the Freakers are slow and weak but at night their movement and strength increase. The most intriguing aspect of the game for me is how vehicles will play into the narrative. While a variety of transportation has been confirmed, the most prominent are the use of motorcycles. This looks to play heavily into the story, as the main character Deacon St. John, a one-time bounty hunter, appears to have once been part of a biker gang. While the post-apocalyptic genre is beginning to get a bit overused in almost all forms of media, I’m still excited to see what Sony Bend has up their sleeve, and how consumers will take to a second PlayStation exclusive, post-pandemic based, action game. (Carston Carasella)
Detroit: Become Human
Inspired by our short called Kara back in 2012, Detroit Becomes Human is a sci-fi neo-noir thriller set in the near-future city of Detroit. The story centres around an android named Kara, who escapes from the factory she was made in. She finds herself in Detroit, USA, where other androids are not uncommon but have been stripped of their consciousness, and are simply used as tools to improve the lives of humans. We follow her as she makes her way into a nightmarish version of the Motor City.
Quantic Dream founder and CEO David Cage has said: “It’s very, very exciting; something different from Beyond: Two Souls and Heavy Rain. Building on the same grounds but in a very, very different way.” It’s a game of staggering ambition that took David Cage two years to write and Quantic Dream built a new engine to complement the game and cast hundreds of actors from Los Angeles, London and Paris before commencing a year-and-a-half-long process of shooting and animation. Like all David Cage games it’s a story that tries to put the player in the role of storyteller, and in this case, there are multiple playable characters in the game who can die as the story continues without them. (Ricky D)
God of War
It’s hard for even a casual fan not to be excited about the new God of War. Sony Santa Monica’s behemoth of a franchise garnered massive amounts of critical and commercial success over its decade-long existence, and this next entry in the series looks to follow that similar path. While the game will still revolve around Kratos, it’s confirmed that he’s moved from Greek to Norse mythology. Furthermore, it appears that the one-time godkiller is now the caretaker of a young boy. This begs several questions: is Kratos still on a mission to kill the gods? What’s his relation to the boy? Does he still have some connection to Greece? Who’s his main opposition? While we didn’t get much on the narrative front from the gameplay trailer released at E3 last year, we did get a solid look at gameplay and combat. While Kratos still seems to embody the vicious and rapid combat techniques of his yesteryear, the god of war has aged considerably, and it shows. Kratos’s movement and attacks seemed more labored and slow, especially when he has to deal with larger foes like the troll that appears halfway through the video. Something else of note comes from how open and vast the game world looks. No longer burdened with a fixed camera, the new God of War seems to emphasize a more exploratory gameplay style, and quite possibly some sort of leveling system akin to a modern RPG. While I much preferred the linear nature of the original games, I’m open to positive change, and can’t wait to see what’s in store for Kratos. (Carston Carasella)
Halo Wars 2
Halo Wars surprised a lot of people for a lot of different reasons. Not only was it an RTS – a genre of video game generally associated with the PC crowd – but it was an RTS that functioned and played well on the Xbox 360, a rare feat for a home console. Halo Wars was also praised for its compelling story and entertaining pre-rendered cinematics introducing the player to the brave crew of the Spirit of Fire, and their battle against traditional Halo enemy, the Covenant. Halo Wars 2 is a direct sequel taking place after the crew of the Spirit of Fire awaken from their Cryo-sleep to discover that, while the war is over, a new and even more vicious enemy is born in the form of the banished.
Renowned RTS developer Creative Assembly have lent their extensive experience to the project to build upon the solid foundations of the prequel rather than reinventing it. Halo Wars 2 newest features lie in its dynamic multiplayer options that support up to six online players. Modes range from the simple pleasures of death match whereby the last player to survive wins, to the game-changing Blitz mode where buildings and resource management are replaced with a deck of cards to determine what units the player can deploy. With the sheer variety of multiplayer options and thirteen brand new campaign missions, 343 Industries and Creative Assembly have taken great strides in appealing to both solo players and the multiplayer crowd Halo is traditionally known for.
Halo Wars 2 might not be the right fit for seasoned PC RTS fans – the complexity of multiple resource management and intricate user-interfaces do not reside here – but early impressions and the post-E3 multiplayer beta go a long way to suggest a title with a robust controller layout that refuses to bow down to its older and more complicated peers. For fans of the Halo story and real-time strategy, this is the game to look out for. (Craig Sharpe)
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Two words are all it takes to get a hack-and-slash fan’s adrenaline pumping: Ninja Theory. Almost four years after the massive success of the DmC: Devil May Cry reboot, Ninja Theory is set to release their new IP in 2017: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Known for its incredibly responsive combat and engaging characters that resonate with the player, Ninja Theory is pushing boundaries by trekking into the taboo. Senua will take the player on a journey through hell – though whether this hell is real, or a manifestation of a disordered mind, is unclear. The premise of the story relies heavily on the psychoses of the mentally unstable protagonist – a subject that has not been delved into and fleshed out in gaming up until now. Although very little has been disclosed regarding the story, Ninja Theory has been keeping fans in the loop of the game’s development through a blog informing the public about various stages of production. What is known, however, is that the game will be set against a backdrop of Celtic mythology and that Senua will be struggling with both inner demons, and real ones, while fighting her way through hell to find a man named Dillion. Any fan of DmC, Heavenly Sword, or Enslaved: Odyssey to the West will undoubtedly be ecstatic at the thought of another brilliant offering from the godfather of action games, but what really makes this title unique is the way in which Senua’s psychopathy is portrayed as a character in the game. The voices she hears each have a distinct personality and portray a different facet of Senua’s character, while intensifying the plot. With a true commitment to the realistic and candid depiction of schizophrenia, even in a fantasy world, Hellblade promises to be both intellectually and emotionally stimulating. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is set for release on PS4 and Microsoft Windows.(Belinda Brock)
Horizon: Zero Dawn
There’s nothing more tired in the game industry right now than the post-apocalypse. Triple-A titles like Fallout 3, Last of Us, and Metro 2033 have you explore vast post-event wastelands, and it really doesn’t seem like there’s room for another major player. Well, that’s what I thought until E3 2015. During the Sony press conference, Guerilla Games dropped a trailer for their new title, Horizon: Zero Dawn. Zero Dawn is an open-world third-person shooter featuring a regressive, tribal human society living 1,000 years in the future, after some apocalypse. These tribesmen survive under the shadow of an animalistic, mechanical menace – also known as super-rad robot dinosaurs. Viewers marveled at the juxtaposition of Aloy, the main character, using a bow and arrow to take down laser-blasting, fire-breathing mechanical monstrosities in scenic vistas, and it has captured the imagination of gamers since. Critics are excited as well: Horizon would go on to win the Game Critics Award for Best Original Game post E3 2015, and would also win the award in 2016. So, while the post-apocalypse might be getting a little crowded these days, let Horizon show you, there’s always room for Robot Dinosaurs. (Joseph Ulfsrud)
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
It’s no secret that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is on most gamers’ radars. It’s E3 2016 showing stunned audiences enough to earn it the coveted “Best of Show” award from nearly every gaming news publication that contributed, which is no small feat. But what exactly is it that makes Link’s next outing so enticing? Breath of the Wild changes the timeless Zelda formula more than any other entry to date. Players can now look forward to a completely open world in every sense of the word. Dungeons can be tackled in any order, at any pace, or even not at all. Mini dungeons, called shrines, have also been scattered around the world map for those willing to hunt them down.
Exploration and discovery are encouraged this time around; if it can be seen, it can be reached. The weather also plays an integral role in Breath of the Wild. Fires can be started and spread through the wind, Link’s temperature can drop to dangerous levels if it gets too cold, and rain storms can appear in the blink of an eye. All of these weather changes aren’t just for show either. In true Nintendo fashion, they all affect the gameplay in one way or another, which is an exciting thing to think about. It’s hard not to have high expectations for a new Zelda title. Breath of the Wild has succeeded in getting both fans and newcomers excited for its release, and it is sure to be one of the year’s best. (Zack Rezak)
Mass Effect: Andromeda
As much as fans love the Mass Effect series, there isn’t a lot of information yet pertaining to the latest installment, Andromeda, outside of a brief synopsis and some snappy trailers here and there. Still, Bioware has an impressive track record and it’s hard to contain even a modicum of excitement when you imagine exploring another galaxy of unique planets and getting re-invested in the highly unique lore of the Mass Effect universe. After the mixed reaction to Mass Effect 3, the pressure is going to be heavily magnified for Bioware to deliver a worthy successor, and as such, they won’t be sending Andromeda out of the gates without a ton of polish and forethought. Little as we know, this is still a big game to watch out for in 2017. (Mike Worby)
New Danganronpa V3: A New Semester for Everyone’s Killing Life
The Danganronpa series has been a surprise hit for Spike Chunsoft, finding a small but passionate audience in the west. The games see gifted teenagers kidnapped, locked up, and forced to enter a deadly game in which the only escape from their prison is to murder one of the other kids and get away with it. After a murder, the teens have to investigate the crime and find out whodunnit, and then the game turns into a Phoenix Wright-esque class trial, with the courtroom drama being presided over by an evil robotic teddy bear named Monokuma. Both of the first two games, Trigger Happy Havoc and Goodbye Despair, told gripping, ambitious stories featuring eccentric and memorable characters. Seeing where this story goes is something I’m really looking forward to in 2017. (John Cal McCormick)
It feels like there really hasn’t been a new and exciting 3D hack and slash action game in a long time. Bayonetta 2 came out almost two and half years ago, Capcom hasn’t touched Devil May Cry since the mixed reception of the reboot (I don’t count a slightly updated port of DMC4 as “new”), and Platinum’s last few licensed action titles have all been a little disappointing in one way or another. Queue Nier: Automata. Being a game developed by Square Enix and Platinum that serves as a spin-off to a niche action-RPG that came out almost seven years ago, I, like many others, wasn’t really sure what to expect when Square Enix first teased this game a few years ago, but I saw “Platinum” as a developer and was ready for more details. Teasers and short trailers slowly trickled out through 2015 and 2016, and the game was certainly starting to shape up, but I still wasn’t fully onboard. E3 2016 was the turning point for me, though. The boss battle trailer Square Enix released finally gave a good long look at Automata’s gameplay, and confirmed that it will be a hybrid action and bullet hell game like the original Nier. Platinum’s clean combat choreography and style feel like a perfect match for this type of game, and Automata is looking like a much smoother experience than the original game.
Automata received a demo at the end of 2016, and it does a great job of conveying everything the trailers have been for years. Combat is smooth and elegant, the player character moves more like a dancer than a fighter, and it does a great job of making the game stand out stylistically from the more over-the-top trends of other action games. One of the more artsy decisions in Automata is its use of fixed camera angles, but it feels natural for the game when combined with the myriad of interesting bullet patterns that bosses and enemies throw at you. Some patterns would be difficult to read and react to if you had a simple free-roaming camera. Ultimately, I’m looking forward to seeing the final product, and seeing how far Platinum and Square Enix can push their respective ends of development to make, what I feel will be, one of the more interesting games of 2017. (Taylor Smith)
‘Donkey Kong Country’ – Still as Difficult, Demanding and Amazing to This Day
Donkey Kong Country: 25 Years Later
Back in 1994, Nintendo was struggling with their 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System, which wasn’t selling as well as they’d hoped it would. With the release of the Saturn and Playstation on the horizon, the Super Nintendo needed a visually impressive and original title to reinforce its market dominance. After three years of intense competition and heated rivalries, Nintendo desperately needed a hit that could prove the Super NES could output graphics on the same level as the forthcoming 32-bit consoles. They teamed up with Rare to produce Donkey Kong Country, a Mario-style platformer, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Donkey Kong Country is a game held in high regard and with reason. Monumental! Monstrous! Magnificent! Use any term you want, there’s no denying how important this game was for Nintendo and Rare. The graphics for the time were above and beyond anything anyone would imagine possible for the 16-bit system. For a two-dimensional side-scroller, Donkey Kong Country conveys a three-dimensional sense of dept. The characters are fluidly animated and the rich tropical environments make use of every visual effect in the Super NES’s armory. Each stage has its own theme, forcing players to swim underwater, navigate through a misty swamp, swing from vines, or transport DK using a set of barrels (cannons) to advance. And let’s not forget the mine cart stages where you ride on rails and use your quick reflexes to successfully reach the end. Every level has little nooks and crannies too, hiding secret areas and passageways that lead to bonus games where you can earn bananas and balloons, which you can trade in for additional lives. And in Donkey Kong Country, you’re not alone; your simian sidekick Diddy tags along for the adventure. You control one character at a time, and each has his own unique strengths. Donkey Kong can dispatch larger enemies with his giant fists, while Diddy can jump a little higher than his bulky cousin. It isn’t the most original platforming feature, but it works. The two heroes can also rely on various animal friends to help guide them through their adventure. Predating Super Mario World: Yoshi’s Island, Diddy and DK can also ride on the backs of Rambi the Rhino, Winky the Frog, Enguarde the Swordfish and more!
What’s really impressive about Donkey Kong Country is how it has withstood the passage of time. In 1994, Donkey Kong Country’s visuals were spectacular with its rendered 3D models, lively character animations, detailed backgrounds, and a lush jungle setting, and while some would argue the game is dated, in my eyes it still looks great to this day. Kong has heart, and he’s willing to show it in a game made with wit, excitement and moments of visionary beauty. Meanwhile, the soundtrack by David Wise is guaranteed to win listener’s over. Practically every piece on the soundtrack exudes a certain lyricism that has become a staple of Rare’s games – from its upbeat tropical introduction to the unforgettable climax which secures its place as one of the Super Nintendo’s most memorable boss fights. The result is an apt accompaniment to the colorful characters, tropical landscape, and tomfoolery that proceeds.
What really stands out the most about Donkey Kong Country after all of these years is just how challenging this game is.
But what really stands out the most after all of these years is just how challenging this game is. Donkey Kong Country is a platformer you can only finish through persistence and with a lot of patience. Right from the start, you’re in for one hell of a ride. In fact, some of the hardest levels come early on. There are constant pitfalls and Donkey Kong can only take a single hit before he loses a life. If your companion Diddy is following you he will take over but then if he takes a single hit you lose a life and it’s back to the start of a level. Needless to say, the game is unforgiving and requires quick reflexes and precise pattern memorization to continue. This game requires so much fine precision that it will definitely appeal to hardcore platforming veterans looking for a challenge and those that do are in for one hundred eighty minutes of mesmerization, astonishment, thrills, chills, spills, kills and ills. The only real downfall of Donkey Kong Country is the boss battles. Yes, Donkey Kong Country gave us some memorable villains such as Dumb Drum (a giant Oil Drum that spawns enemies after it hits the floor), and The Kremling King (who is responsible for stealing Donkey Kong’s Banana Hoard), but these enemies have very basic attack patterns and far too easy to defeat.
It’s one of the rare, great works of art that stands up endlessly despite repeated playthroughs, each time revealing something new.
Along with its two SNES sequels, Donkey Kong Country is one of the defining platformers for the SNES. The game looks great and sounds great and the platforming, while incredibly difficult, is still very fun. Rare did the unexpected by recasting a classic Nintendo villain as the titular hero and it paid off in spades. It’s one of the rare, great works of art that stands up endlessly despite repeated playthroughs, each time revealing something new.
The beauty of the original is that there’s more to it than the oversized gorilla. Donkey Kong Country is truly amazing!
– Ricky D
‘Aria of Sorrow’: The Symphony of the Night Sequel Castlevania Needed
Castlevania’s run from 1986 to 1997 is downright legendary. While there are a few duds sprinkled throughout the series’ first decade (Simon’s Quest, The Adventure, Dracula X), this is the same franchise that produced Super Castlevania IV, Rondo of Blood, and Bloodlines over the course of three years– three of the greatest action platformers of all time. 1997 saw Castlevania reach what was arguably its highest point when, unprompted and with no real need to do so, Symphony of the Night pulled off such an expert reinvention that it ended up creating a new genre altogether. With 11 years of goodwill to bank on, Castlevania’s future would never look as bright again– and unfortunately for good reason.
Following the revolutionary success of Symphony of the Night, Castlevania almost immediately fumbled as a franchise. 1997 closed out not with Symphony of the Night, but the ferociously underwhelming Legends, a Game Boy title that took a cleaver to the franchise’s lore and massacred it. The Nintendo 64 would see the release of Castlevania in 1999, arguably the worst transition from 2D to 3D on the N64, followed by a moderately improved but still mediocre re-release that same year, Legacy of Darkness. By 2000, Castlevania had entered the 21st Century at its lowest point, with Symphony of the Night silently in the background, untouched.
As if to signal a return to form, however, 2001 saw Konami release two fairly noteworthy titles: Circle of the Moon for the Game Boy Advance and Castlevania Chronicles for the PlayStation. Where the latter was a remake of the first game, Circle of the Moon marked the series’ first attempt at producing a mechanical sequel to Symphony of the Night. Utilizing the Metroidvania format SotN popularised, Circle of the Moon was met with near universal acclaim at release due to its difficulty curve, tight platforming, and a gameplay loop catered towards old school fans.
Which alone is enough to make Circle of the Moon less a Symphony sequel, and more a Castlevania stuck between the Classicvania and Metroidvania model. It’s a good title for what it is, but Circle of the Moon is so fundamentally different from Symphony of the Night that series producer Koji Igarashi overcorrected when re-taking the reins for 2002’s Harmony of Dissonance, a game that– while good– shamelessly apes everything it can from SotN in an attempt to win over audiences. Juste Belmont looks like Alucard, there’s a variation of the Inverted Castle twist, and the game was designed with the explicit purpose of capitalizing on Symphony of the Night.
To Konami’s credit, the series had regained its legitimacy between both Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance, but neither game captured Symphony’s inventiveness. CotM deserves some slack for generally doing its own thing and remaining the most unique Metroidvania in the series to date, but Harmony of Dissonance plays itself too safe, ultimately just winding up a worse version of Symphony of the Night. Not just that, there was the matter of the series’ story. 19 games in and past the turn of the century, the story couldn’t stay in the background anymore. Legends, Legacy of Darkness, Circle of the Moon, and Harmony of Dissonance all tried to tell a compelling story and they all faltered along the way.
Castlevania wasn’t in need of reinvention in 2003, but refinement. The series was good, not great, and every new release was only shining a spotlight on how good Symphony of the Night was, not on how its successors were following it up. It only makes sense, though. How is a franchise meant to follow-up a game like Symphony of the Night? How can Castlevania even be discussed anymore without mention of what is unquestionably one of the greatest video games of all time? It seemed as though the franchise was suffering for no reason at all, but there’s actually a fairly simple answer as to why the series struggled between 1997 and 2003: the lack of the dream team.
Castlevania often shuffled around its development teams, but Symphony of the Night managed to land a team that in retrospect is on-par with the likes of Chrono Trigger’s legendary development team. Alongside Koji Igarashi– who at the time was assistant director, a programmer, and the scenario writer– Michiru Yamane composed her second soundtrack for the series following Bloodlines, and Ayami Kojima made her debut as a character designer, solidifying the franchise’s gothic aesthetic for good. Unfortunately, the three wouldn’t all intersect again for some time, leaving the Castlevania games to come without the essential players who made Symphony of the Night what it was.
Igarashi and Kojima would work together again on both Chronicles & Harmony of Dissonance, but Yamane’s other work kept her from Castlevania between 1997 & 2003, and none of them would work on Legends, Legacy of Darkness, or Circle of the Moon. The nature of the industry meant there was no guarantee the three would work on the same project again, but now Castlevania’s lead producer, Koji Igarashi had pull to hire Yamane as the lead composer of his next Castlevania game. Ready to address Harmony of the Night’s criticisms, Koji Igarashi set the stage for the game that would breathe new life into Castlevania– Aria of Sorrow.
Instead of calling attention to itself as a successor to Symphony of the Night– something the game admittedly could’ve gotten away with given its production team– Aria of Sorrow does everything it can to assert its individuality asap. Soma Cruz has seemingly no connection to the Belmonts or Dracula, Dracula’s Castle is now inside of an eclipse, and the timeline is no longer rooted in history with the story set in 2035. This is all information conveyed in the opening title crawl, but less than a full minute into gameplay and audiences are already introduced to the Soul mechanic, a system that allows Soma to absorb enemy Souls in order to use their techniques. From there, it’s on the onus of the player to explore.
For such an all-encompassing opening, Aria actually kicks off with little fanfare. Symphony of the Night, Circle of the Moon, and Harmony of Dissonance all open with spectacle, but Aria of Sorrow keeps itself subdued, understanding that while Symphony’s spectacle was indeed an important part of its identity, it’s the gameplay that ultimately won audiences over. Aria of Sorrow wastes no time in presenting its defining Soul mechanic, making it the very first concept players will fully understand: kill enemies to get Souls, use Souls to kill enemies. It’s a simple gameplay loop, but it keeps Aria of Sorrow’s blood pumping long after the credits roll.
With Soul drops determined by RNG, no two playthroughs will be the same. Such an approach might bother those looking to 100% the game, but it’s exactly this reason why Aria of Sorrow remains so enjoyable to replay. With over 100 Souls available for use, Soma can accomplish far more than any other Castlevania protagonist. Soma can equip three Souls in total at any given moment: one Bullet Soul, Aria’s sub-weapons; one Guardian Soul, skills that can be triggered with R; and one Enchanted Soul, passive abilities that don’t need to be activated. Soma also has access to Ability Souls, inherent techniques that he can activate & deactivate ala Alucard’s skills from Symphony.
While the Soul system is more than enough to freshen up the series’ core combat, Aria of Sorrow ditches whips and goes back to the Alucard method of collecting multiple different weapons. Between Souls and Soma’s generous arsenal of weaponry, all play styles are accommodated. Normal Mode is also more forgiving than usual, with Hard Mode better designed for series veterans. This isn’t ideal since most will play Normal and miss out on Hard Mode altogether, but it’s an approach that– in theory– does accommodate fans old and new alike. Aria of Sorrow has an almost overwhelming amount of content, but that’s exactly why it’s so accessible. There’s a weapon, Soul, or difficulty for everyone.
Engaging combat mechanics mean very little without the proper level design, however. Where Harmony of Dissonance comfortably followed a “bigger is better” mentality to its castle’s design, Aria of Sorrow shows a considerable amount of restraint. There is no second castle to unlock– what you see is what you get. Areas are more interconnected than usual, ensuring that fewer areas end up in dead ends, and the castle’s settings are visually grounded for the most part. Aria indulges in chaotic visuals and level design for the final area, but the castle leading up to the finale is unusually comprehensible. As far as navigation goes, this is the best castle in the series.
Of course, the high-quality castle only makes sense when one remembers that it’s Ayami Kojima’s art style that serves as Aria of Sorrow’s base. Moody and gothic, Kojima’s self-taught style has an earthy quality that easily tips into the fantastical, an aesthetic that fits Castlevania perfectly. Michiru Yamane’s score seemingly builds off of Kojima’s art, following the lead with less catchy and more atmospheric tracks on a whole. This doesn’t mean Aria of Sorrow isn’t bursting with amazing songs– one only needs to listen to Heart of Fire to understand that– rather, it’s Aria’s way of keeping a mature, sorrowful tone throughout.
And Aria of Sorrow is indeed more mature than previous Castlevania titles when it comes to story. Where both Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance played their stories straight, Aria of Sorrow features a decent amount of subtext to bolster its already incredibly intriguing plot. Aria doesn’t just take place in the future, it takes place in a future where Dracula has been killed for good. No Dracula means that a new villain can rise up in the form of Graham Jones, and while he’s not that compelling, he ends up representing everything Dracula claims to despise in humanity. Graham is a hateful coward who thinks too highly of himself, and too little of others. A miserable little pile of secrets.
That said, while it’s always beneficial to keep characters who fill similar roles antithetical to one another, Graham’s personality is more layered than that. He may be the main antagonist, but he’s no Dracula. Literally. The main plot of Aria of Sorrow concerns itself with who Dracula has reincarnated into. It’s obviously Soma, a fact the series no longer tries to hide, but Aria of Sorrow very cleverly gets around this by doubling down on Graham’s evilness. He’s blatantly evil from his first interaction with Soma, but that’s exactly what keeps players from guessing the Dracula twist their first playthrough.
Soma being Dracula is the cherry on top of Aria of Sorrow, that last little detail that makes everything just right– not just in the game, but in the context of the series. Fast-forwarding far into the future, Aria of Sorrow establishes Dracula’s demise, a grand battle that took place in 1999, and the last Belmont– Julius– the man who killed Dracula for good, but lost his memory in the process. Aria doesn’t hold any punches when it comes to Soma either, making him succumb before the end of the game and even featuring an alternate ending where he embraces his demonic powers, leaving Julius to kill Dracula yet again.
Aria of Sorrow goes beyond wanting to replicate the greats and instead chooses to be great in its own right.
Although Soma has a clear love interest in Mina Hakuba, it’s the relationship between Soma and Julius that ties the story together. Aria is just as much a character study of Dracula through Soma as it is a celebration of the ultimate struggle between the Belmont clan and the Count. The roles have been flipped this time around, with Julius serving as the penultimate battle in one of the best (& hardest) boss fights in the franchise. As he’s not the main character, Julius is also allowed greater depth than the average Belmont. When he appears, it’s because the story calls for it and his scenes are never wasted.
They’re always used as a means to either flesh out the game’s backstory, or build-up to the confrontation between Soma and Julius. The two build a slight bond over the course of the game, one that turns into genuine respect by the time the two men are fighting to the death. It’s easy to overlook the substance in Julius’ interactions since he’s only in six scenes (including the bad ending), but they all slowly chip away at the man underneath– his history, his connection to Dracula, and what it means to be a Belmont. Which in itself is important, as it gives audiences an opportunity to see a Belmont in his element from not only an outsider’s perspective, but Dracula’s.
Soma’s relationship with Julius may be what best contextualizes Aria of Sorrow’s role in the franchise, but this isn’t to say that the supporting players don’t contribute. Hammer and Yoko Belnades are both on the flat side, but Mina and Genya Arikado do some heavy narrative lifting. Mina evokes images of Dracula’s wife, Lisa, who was first introduced in Symphony of the Night. Their dialogue shows how deeply they care for one another, and Soma’s Dracula-related insecurities end up tainting their dynamic at the end of the game, cutting Soma off from his only source of genuine affection and love. Not just that, Mina proves that Dracula could have adjusted to a normal life had mankind not killed Lisa.
Then there’s Genya Arikado, a man so blatantly Alucard that the word “Alucard” doesn’t need to appear in the script a single time for fans to make the connection– which it doesn’t. Aria of Sorrow features the main character from Symphony of the Night in an incredibly important and relevant capacity, and he neither looks like he did in Symphony of the Night or directly acknowledges his identity. Frankly, it’s the only tasteful way to use Alucard in a post-Symphony of the Night context. His character has evolved with time, and seeing him in a supportive capacity only makes sense given the events of his own game. His presence helps draw in a sense of finality alongside Mina and Julius.
These three characters thematically represent the main fixtures of Dracula’s life: Mina, the love that ties Dracula to humanity; Genya, the son who in spite of his father’s evil, loves him enough to ensure he can truly rest; and Julius, the final descendant of the Belmont clan and perhaps the strongest man alive. At the center of it all is Soma Cruz, the reincarnation of Dracula. Aria of Sorrow feels like the end of everything Castlevania represents. More games would follow, and Aria would even see a direct sequel in Dawn, but what makes Aria such a worthy successor to Symphony of the Night is that it wasn’t afraid to do something new and bold with Castlevania. Most of this boldness stems from the gameplay, but the story presents itself as a thematic end for Castlevania if nothing else. Dracula and the Belmonts may finally put their feud to rest.
Aria of Sorrow might not have had the same cultural impact of Symphony of the Night, but it’s exemplary of Castlevania at its best.
Or not. As previously mentioned, Aria of Sorrow features an ending where Soma goes full-Dracula. It’s morbid and cuts off right before Julius begins his fight with the dark lord, but it only makes sense. Aria doesn’t shy away from Dracula’s nastier aspects, and that means allowing Soma to be corrupted. Castlevania was always about the eternal struggle between Dracula and the Belmonts, so it’s only fair an ending offers a scenario where the cycle simply repeats. Regardless of which ending players find most appropriate, Michiru Yamane’s use of Bloody Tears in the track Epilogue makes one thing clear: Aria marks a new chapter for Castlevania.
When all is said and done, Aria of Sorrow doesn’t even feel like a sequel to Symphony of the Night. Aria goes beyond wanting to replicate the greats and instead chooses to be great in its own right. The end product is the end result of the series living in Symphony’s shadow for years. Koji Igarashi went beyond parroting himself, and instead entered production prepared to take Castlevania to the next level with a tried and true team. But even in sharing the same core members as Symphony, Aria never feels like anything but its own distinct game– a mature goodbye to Count Dracula, the Belmont legacy, and everything that happened in between. Aria of Sorrow might not have had the same cultural impact of Symphony of the Night, but it’s exemplary of Castlevania at its best.
Awesome Mixtape: Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019
Awesome Mixtape Vol. 5
It’s that time once again in which I bring to you my awesome mixtape featuring the best tracks from the best video game soundtracks of the year. Last year, my mixtape featured tracks from Triple-A titles such as Red Dead Redemption 2 and indie darlings like Celeste. In 2017, my picks for best soundtracks included tracks from some of my favorite games including Cuphead, Breath of the Wild and Into the Woods, to name just a few. Well, 2019 has been another banner year for the industry and as always, the games were blessed with an astounding selection of musical scores— some would argue the soundtracks were even better than the actual games at times. As always, it wasn’t easy deciding which songs to include and what to leave out— and as always, I’ve also mixed in some audio clips from various cut scenes while trying to keep it spoiler-free. Feel free to share this link and let me know if you think I’ve missed any great soundtracks in the comments below.
Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019 Playlist
Death Stranding clip
Death Stranding: Low Roar – “I’ll Keep Coming”
Life Is Strange 2 clip
Life is Strange 2: Seyr – “Colour To Colour”
Life is Strange 2: Jonathan Morali – “Into the Woods”
Life Is Strange 2 clip
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Sayonara Wild Heart”
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Wild Hearts Never Die”
Death Stranding: CHVRCHES – “Death Stranding”
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “Title and Credits”
Afterparty: scntfc – “Hades Gonna Hate”
Afterparty: scntfc – “Schoolyard Strangler”
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “The Garden”
Octopath Traveler: Yasunori Nishiki – Main Theme
Octopath Traveler: Yasunori Nishiki – Cyrus the Scholar
Kingdom Hearts 3 clip
Fire Emblem Three Houses clip
Fire Emblem Three Houses: Yuka Tsujiyoko, Hirokazu Tanaka – “Main Theme”
Fire Emblem Three Houses: Yuka Tsujiyoko, Hirokazu Tanaka – “Blue Skies and a Battle”
Devil May Cry 5 clip
Devil May Cry 5: Kota Suzuki – “Urizen Boss Battle Music”
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “The Garden”
FAR: Lone Sails: Joel Schoch – “Colored Engine”
Days Gone: Nathan Whitehead— “Soldier’s Eye”
Death Stranding: Low Roar – “Easy Way Out”
Death Stranding clip
Death Stranding: Low Roar – “Easy Way Out”
Metro Exodus: Alexey Omelchuk – “Main Theme”
Resident Evil 2 Remake clip
Resident Evil 2 Remake: Masami Ueda, Shusaku Uchiyama, Shun Nishigaki – “Mr.X Theme Music (T-103)”
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Begin Again”
Life is Strange 2: Lincoln Grounds, Pat Reyford – “Morning Good Morning”
Life is Strange 2: Sufjan Stevens – “Death With Dignity”
Luigi’s Mansion 3 clip
Luigi’s Mansion 3: Koji Kondo – “Main Theme”
Ape Out: Matt Boch – “Intro”
Deltarune: Toby Fox – “Field of Hopes and Dreams”
Return of the Obra Dinn: Lucas Pope – “Loose Cargo”
“Star Wars: Imperial March” Hip Hop Remix
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order: Gordy Haab and Stephen Barton and the London Symphony Orchestra (and London Voices at Abbey Road)
Death Stranding: Silent Poets – “Asylum for The Feeling”
Catherine: Full Body: Shoji Meguro – “Tomorrow”
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening: Koji Kondo – “Marin’s Ballad of the Windfish”
Metro Exodus – Alexey Omelchuk: “Teardrops”
Sekiro: Yuka Kitamura – “Ashina Reservoir”
Return of the Obra Dinn: Lucas Pope – “The Doom”
Medley: Eye of Death / Wild Hearts Never Die / Dragon Heart / Clair De Lune
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