A Good Ol' Classic, Made New and Exciting
You know, I, as an avid fan of Final Fantasy IV, had picked up Final Fantasy IV: The After Years (the sequel), and found it a treat. Recommending it to my friend, someone who hasn't played IV, proved to be a waste of time, as The After Years turned out to be a treat (a very unoriginal treat at that) to Final Fantasy IV fans. Now, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is set 30 years after the events of Golden Sun and Golden Sun: The Lost Age, but by no means is it a disappointing sequel meant to give fans a little tickle - rather, it's an approachable game for both fans of the series and newcomers who didn't have the chance to grab the first two (although there is no question that fans would enjoy it more).
Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is the third in Camelot's fairly successful Golden Sun series. Taken 30 years after the adventures of Isaac and Felix, Alchemy has been restored to the world through what has been called "The Golden Sun Event." Unfortunately, things aren't perfect, and the new problems that Isaac's son, Matthew, has to face, make up the core of this game. There's no need to spoil the story, except for the fact that you will control many of the children of the "Warriors of Vale," the 8 heroes from the first two Golden Sun games.
The Good In the 7 year gap between The Lost Age and Dark Dawn, Camelot doesn't disappoint with any sort of half-ass story. Using characters both old and new, they create new stories, such as the tales of the war-ridden Kaocho, and dating back to the beginning of Psynergy and Alchemy, creating a marvelous backstory that applies to the series as a whole. But one thing that makes this game really shine over, say, The Lost Age, is its accessibility. The game gives a solid backstory of the first two Golden Sun games that allows any person to pick up and play this game, as compared to The Lost Age, which was confusing to anyone who hadn't played the first Golden Sun. Dark Dawn also features an encyclopedia with nearly 200 terms that not only give the game even more backstory, but allow you to find out where to go next.
Newcomers would be unfamiliar with "Psynergy." This is the series' form of magic, allowing the Adepts (wielders of Psynergy) to not only give them an edge in battle, but solve puzzles in the field. There are some Psynergy that can only be used in the field, some that can be used in battle, and some that can be used in both areas (given the situation is right). Psynergy can be divided into Earth (Venus), Fire (Mars), Wind (Jupiter), or Water (Mercury). In the full party of 8, there will be two of each class. 8 is a solid number - it's twice the number you can have in battle (you can have 4 in battle, for those who can't do the math), and it allows for solid class and party customization without getting too clunky.
Dungeons are full of puzzles, which range from easy to hard, although all are very creative. One must have the characters to use in-field Psynergy to complete these puzzles and traverse through the dungeon. This can range to using the "Move" Psynergy to... move pillars into a more desirable place, using the "Cold Snap" Psynergy to freeze pools of water, or use the "Fireball" Psynergy to... burn things. Psynergy costs PP, or Psynergy Points, but they can be gradually restored by roaming in the field or in dungeons.
Battle follows a JRPG style. You roam in the field or dungeons for random encounters, and duke it out with the enemies you come across. They are very standard in the sense that you attack, use Psynergy, switch out your party members, and such (I never find such a system boring). Stats include HP, PP, Attack, Defense, Luck... the basics. Golden Sun: Dark Dawn makes the battle more entertaining with their moving camera. However, where Golden Sun differs from other JRPGs is their little "Djinn" system.
Djinn (Djinni is singular) are these little critters, and like Psynergy, they come into 4 categories: Earth (Venus), Fire (Mars), Wind (Jupiter), and Water (Mercury). In the game, there are a total of 72 Djinn for you to use, 18 of each class. Each character can have up to 9 Djinn, but Djinn insist that they must be divided equally. If you have 8 Djinn, you can't give them all to one character - you have to give one to each character. So, until you have 65+ Djinn, no character can have 9 Djinn at a time.
But what do Djinn exactly do? Well, they dictate two things - Class and Summons. You see, Djinn have three "modes": Set, Standby, and Recovery. Set Djinn alter the class of a character, and can be unleashed in battle to produce different effects at no PP cost (such as restoring HP or reviving a character). Once a Set Djinni is "unleashed," it goes into Standby. Standby Djinn can be used to summon... Summons. Summons can be obtained throughout the adventure through Summon tablets, though you have a good chunk of Summons at your disposal by default. For example, Ramses on the right requires 2 Venus Djinn on Standby to summon. Once Djinn are used to Summon, they start Recovering. At a later point in the battle, or on the field, they will be set to their rightful owner.
Now, you can just keep every single Djinn on Standby in order to "Summon Rush" the opponent, but that misses out on some of the true gold (pun intended) of Golden Sun - the character Class system. While one Djinni by itself won't do anything, having a group of Djinn on a character alter their Class, and with an altered Class comes an altered Psynergy pool and altered stats. Sure, you can saddle 9 Venus Djinn on Matthew since he's an Earth Adept, but that's lame. Give him 5 Jupiter and 4 Mars, and make him a Master that can crush anything in his way! There are dozens of classes to see, and while anyone can Google up the classes, it's far more fun to fiddle around with them and see what comes out.
Golden Sun: Dark Dawn impresses graphically over its predecessors (obviously), blending beautiful color with those chibi sprites. The somewhat grotesque dialogue windows from the previous games are replaced with cleaner dialogue "Cartoon bubbles" that make dialogue easier to read. Having a top and bottom screen allows you to see a Map at the top for navigation purposes and cleans up the Status window, allowing you sift through characters with general ease. Summons are absolutely gorgeous and intricate, and are always a pleasure to view... but you can skip them if you so wish.
Musically, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn showcases more of Motoi Sakuraba's excellence, throwing in the catchy synthesizers with more "orchestra" sounds.
The BadGolden Sun has never been an overly difficult franchise, and unless you starve yourself of levels, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is no exception. In fact, this new installation is easier, save for the Superbosses (far stronger-than-usual bosses) that await you at the game's end. You can breeze through the game and think it went quickly. Dungeons, and even the World Map are disgustingly linear, so while they are designed well, you aren't going to get lost anytime soon.
In Battles, you'll probably never lose. Soon enough, you are going to get reliable healing Psynergy, and then you'll have so much money pouring out of your ears that you can always afford the best equipment and items.
The menu system, while better, is still very clunky, and later on in the game, you are going to have to sit down and spend a good 20 minutes organizing items between characters and selling what you don't need.
But perhaps the biggest flaw of this game is that there isn't anything new. Despite the handful of new Summons, Djinn, Classes, and Psynergy, there has been no change to the overall formula of Golden Sun. Sure, the formula works, but Camelot should try and add to this success.