Version tested: DS
That title is a curious contradiction (if the sun really is golden, how can the dawn be dark?) and there's another that lies at the heart of Golden Sun. It seems creators Hiroyuki and Shugo Takahashi can't make their minds up whether the magical force of Alchemy – which either binds the world of Weyard together, is responsible for its current state, or perhaps both – is a bad or a good thing.
The first game's central quest tasked players with preventing two characters from releasing Alchemy into the world. In a neat twist, the sequel saw you controlling one of the first game's antagonists, who discovers that its release would benefit the world. Yet the arrival of the Golden Sun is ultimately responsible for the destruction of certain parts of Weyard, for which the heroes of the first two games are widely resented. Everywhere, that is, except in their home town of Vale, despite said hamlet being all but destroyed in the process.
In summary: no idea.
If you've not played the previous games, don't worry: Dark Dawn thoughtfully highlights any important names or references in red, which you can tap with the stylus for a bit of background info. It's one of a number of additions with player convenience in mind. You can choose from either stylus or button controls for just about everything, speed up the message text, and turn off the odd burbling noises that accompany each line of dialogue.
Ignore the handful of concessions to the modern gamer – and the 3D graphics, which are among the most impressive on DS – and this could easily have been released straight after the second game in 2003. But while the mechanics remain the same, the world of Weyard has moved on 30 years. Heroes Isaac and Garet have aged in the way only JRPG characters can: by adopting ill-advised facial hair. In the former's case, it's a large blonde beard, while the latter sports a horrible pencil moustache.
Though these two make up half of your party in the opening hour, for the rest of the game you control their descendants. Matthew, Isaac's son, is the de facto leader. He's joined by Garet's kid, hot-headed Tyrell, and Ivan's daughter, the feisty and forthright Karis. It's not long before you're joined by Rief, son of Mia. These names might not mean anything to the newcomer, but it's a nice bit of fan service for those who loved the first two games.
And there were plenty that did, if the rapturous reception which greeted the initial announcement of Dark Dawn at last year's E3 is anything to go by. That's not too great a surprise; Golden Sun and its sequel were very well-made RPGs with interesting plots and a great battle system. That Dark Dawn is practically the dictionary definition of 'more of the same' shouldn't be of concern to those players, though it's easy to imagine some newcomers playing for an hour or two and wondering what all the fuss is about.
There's very little here that could reasonably be considered new, though naturally there are exceptions to that rule. What the graphics lack in the simple clarity of the 2D games they more than make up with in the vibrancy of the environments, the expressiveness of the characters, and the spectacular effects showcased during the battle sequences. The puzzle elements in the game's dungeons seem more prominent, as characters use their magic abilities (or Psynergy) to manipulate the environment to progress.
The Djinn, the stocky, ugly magical creatures which harness Psynergy to bestow status effects and to summon immensely powerful spirits, are more plentiful in number, with around 80 to collect. This obviously offers greater tactical possibilities, though most players will stick to a handful of favourites rather than diversifying too much. It's not as if there's a Pokémon-like compulsion to catch them all, as they all look similarly unattractive.
It's only once you unleash their summons in battle that their differences become more apparent. It's like choosing from a series of super-powered hamsters without being aware which one can call upon a robot that shoots laser beams from its eyes, and which can raise a giant demon that causes earthquakes.
Yet Dark Dawn's slavishness to tradition shouldn't be used as a stick to beat it with. Aside from the often lengthy dialogue sequences – text can be sped up, but it doesn't stop the camera from lazily panning across every new environment before you get the chance to explore it, nor does it affect the script's fondness for repetition – there's little here to annoy.
The brilliance of the battle system is worth reiterating. It's entirely turn-based, but random encounters are bracingly brisk and thankfully not too frequent, while boss fights are tense and tough without ever becoming attritional. Explore each area thoroughly and you shouldn't ever need to grind.
But none of those elements are why the combat stands out. It's the flexibility that impresses most; the Djinn can either be assigned to characters to change their class, or left on standby for the summons which need time to recharge after use, while even the standard Psynergy abilities offer an array of tactical possibilities that you simply don't find in most JRPGs. It means you look forward to fights rather than dreading them.
After a languid opening with some insultingly simplistic Psynergy-themed puzzles, the level design grows more interesting and the environmental teasers more fiendish. While there's little here that will have you stumped for long, there's still a degree of satisfaction in slotting all the pieces into place, and while most of the elemental favourites are present and correct (lighting torches, freezing water), a handful of riddles manage to out-Zelda the likes of Spirit Tracks and Phantom Hourglass.
And it really does look and sound great. For a world supposedly in disarray, Weyard is a surprisingly picturesque place, effervescing with colour and vitality. There's an impressive sense of scale to the environments and particularly to the enormous spirits you'll summon in battle. The score, from regular composer Motoi Sakuraba, is by turns bombastic and atmospheric, with plenty of melodic highs and a stirring reworking of the main theme.
In a year that Dragon Quest IX took a bold step forward for the JRPG, Dark Dawn can, at times, feel disappointingly retrograde. But then, it's not trying to do anything particularly different; it's simply happy to be a polished, accomplished and hugely likeable RPG with some fine puzzles and a terrific battle system.
With a lengthy central quest and plenty of side missions, there's enough Golden Sun here to illuminate many a long winter evening. It might not change the world, but those looking for something to fill their free time this Christmas might well find it rocks theirs.
8 / 10