While other developers focused on cutscenes and polygon counts, the original Golden Sun brought us back to the lost age of 16-bit RPGs. Golden Sun: Dark Dawn has the same effect, even though it has 3D graphics.
Golden Sun: Dark Dawn takes place 30 years after the events of Golden Sun: The Lost Age. The Warriors of Vale successfully restored the Golden Sun and saved the world, but now energy from the sun is wrecking havoc in world of Weyard. When the game begins you’ll see a familiar face, Isaac, the hero of Golden Sun, in the first five minutes. Don’t worry, if you can’t remember him or skipped the Game Boy Advance games, Camelot built a wiki style system for Dark Dawn. Key characters, events, and items are underlined in conversations. Tap on an underlined word and the Encyclopedia of Weyward will open on the top screen with more information on the quizzical topic. This was a brilliant design choice to make the series’ mythology accessible to new and old players (like me) who haven’t touched a Golden Sun game in half a decade.
While I appreciated the encyclopedia filling me on details, I remembered the core mechanics of Golden Sun and didn’t need all of the hand holding in the first few hours of the game. The story begins with Tyrell, a hotheaded fire adept, crashing a Soarwing (think Icarus-like wings) and landing in a forest known as the Tanglewood. Garet, Tyrell’s father, and Isaac leave Mount Aleph to rescue him with two other young adepts. Matthew, Isaac’s silent son who also happens to be an Earth adept, and Karis, Ivan’s wind adept daughter, tag along. Isaac believes this is a good opportunity to train the kids as well as the player.
When you reach the Tanglewood, Isaac asks Matthew if he knows how to use Djinn, a core part of the game we’ll cover in a little bit. You can respond "yes" or "no." I knew what Djinn were from the previous games so I responded "yes" expecting to skip the tutorial. Isaac compliments Matthew, but tells him not to get ahead of himself and goes through the tutorial anyway. I played enough RPGs to sniff out a forced choice. Sometimes I pick the "incorrect" option just to see what happens ("What kind of hero doesn’t save the world?"), but this caught me off guard. Golden Sun: Dark Dawn has forced choices for tutorials.
Another part of the opening has players run through a Psyenergy crash course. There’s a training field with stones to move and platforms to raise. You need to complete this to earn a gate opening card, which opens a path on the world map. In the first area, Matthew and Karis have some help in combat too. Isaac and Garet join battles, but you can’t control them. The experienced heroes suggest commands (usually to summon whatever Djinn you released) and may step in to save you if you’re getting crushed by the Tanglewood’s weak monsters.
Golden Sun: Dark Dawn starts out slow and sometimes event scenes drag the game out even longer. Back in the Tanglewood, Matthew’s group gets trapped by vines. It’s clear that you need to destroy them to press on. Garet suggests the Fireball spell, which you have access to, and then starts chanting the spell. He fires it at a vine and its ineffective. Meanwhile, there’s a plant chomping away in the background, the kind of plant that grabs your attention because as a player you should hit it. Garet, oblivious to his predicament, throws another fireball at another root instead of the obvious target. Isaac and Garet talk about why this doesn’t work before finally hitting the correct target, which most RPG veterans would have identified a long time ago. Other times enemies and heroes will state their intentions multiple times, assuming players were mashing A to fast forward through dialogue.
While the plot sluggishly moves forward, combat in Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is lightning fast. Camelot’s Djinn system returns giving players a choice to keep Djinn attached to players to access better classes and Psyenergy spells or releasing them in battle for a unique attack. Free enough Djinn and you can summon a monster for heavy damage, but this also weakens the party since it takes at least one round for Djinn to return to their owner with their stat boosts. There’s a neat risk-reward relationship here that you’ll have to consider about when fighting bosses.
Aside from reviving fallen party members in the beginning of the game, you don’t need to use Djinn for regular battles. Monsters are easy enough on their own. Psyenergy (Golden Sun’s take on magic points) naturally recovers every few steps and the rate is so fast you can slam enemies with area of effect spells every battle. Earthquake, Starburst, Plasma, *battle end* was my strategy for the first actual dungeon. Later on when I got stronger weapons, I found the attack command alone was sufficient for most regular encounters. I don’t believe my party was over leveled since I didn’t grind, I purchased the best equipment at each stop, though. The weapon mastery system may be part of the problem. Land killing blows and the chance to deal a powerful special attack goes up. So, if you stick to using weapons, there’s no reason to stop. Each enemy defeated with a blade or rod further fixes players to a "melee" path. Perhaps, Camelot could have fine tuned Golden Sun: Dark Dawn to better utilize the Djinn system by throwing in monsters with Djinn-only weaknesses or toning down the power/range of spells.
Nearly eighty Djinn are scattered in the world for players to collect. Camelot put them in sight, but out of reach. Players have to use Psyenergy powers to create paths to catch the elemental creatures. There are four kinds of Djinn to collect: Venus (Earth), Mars (Fire), Jupiter (Wind), and Mercury (Water). Mix and match these Djinn to change each character’s class. Golden Sun: Dark Dawn will automatically set Djinn when you find them, giving players a choice to skip class configuration if they want. With a little trial and error Djinn trading, players can do a much better job though.
Dungeon design is where Golden Sun: Dark Dawn shines. You’ll roll logs, blow up bricks, latch on to poles to cross gaps, and jump… just to clear one floor. All of these gimmicks make exploration enjoyable, an element missing in many RPGs where maze-like dungeons have a few branching paths leading to dead ends or treasure. The puzzle-dungeons in Golden Sun: Dark Dawn are almost meaty enough to be a game within a game.
Fortunately, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn picks up. It just takes hours before the point where the plot falls into place and the game’s antagonist reveals himself. Once Golden Sun: Dark Dawn gets rolling the Nintendo DS game feels like an RPG of yesteryear. And I mean that as a compliment. While you don’t have to play the other two games, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn hasn’t forgotten about fans waiting for a third game. The story ties in characters and events from the Game Boy Advance games nicely. Maybe that’s what Golden Sun: Dark Dawn does best – it sticks to the series with respect to mythology and gameplay mechanics.