Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, the successor to Symphony of the Night and part of the popular Castlevania series, is celebrating its 20th anniversary today, on May 6, 2023. The Tactical Soul system, a feature introduced in the game, has had a significant influence on the metroidvania genre and has inspired several other games over the years. In this article, we take a look at how Aria of Sorrow is still shaping the genre today.
The Tactical Soul System: A Game-Changing Mechanic
Aria of Sorrow is one of the few games that offers players an intermittent reward besides experience points while exploring and backtracking to find the path forward. This mechanic, known as the Tactical Soul system, is the basic logic of Mega Man bosses applied to every enemy in the game. Each time the player character, Soma Cruz, defeats an enemy, there’s a chance that he will absorb the enemy’s “soul.” These souls give Soma abilities themed around the enemy’s powers, and they are further classified into various categories: Bullet Souls are single-use spells, Guardian Souls let Soma drain magic for a specific ability, and the Enchanted Souls grant passive buffs or other equipment-like abilities.
The Tactical Soul system’s random nature means that some players will get a great roster of souls without much effort, while others may struggle to obtain useful abilities. While some players use online guides to determine which enemies are worth grinding for ideal soul sets early in the game, others opt to see what they get from natural play and try to make it work. The advantage of the mechanic is that it offers an intermittent reward besides experience points for killing the same enemies, making exploring and backtracking more engaging as players aim to obtain a desirable set of souls.
In the early stages of the game, players might obtain souls that seem useless. However, as players progress, they often find new ways to use abilities they initially dismissed. For example, the “Stinger” soul allows Soma to grow a tail in exchange for MP, which initially does not seem like a powerful ability. However, by the game’s end, the tail’s extra attack offers bonus damage when used with the correct weapon, thus making it useful in taking down endgame bosses.
The Tactical Soul system and its variants, such as Dawn of Sorrow, have become signature features of 2D Castlevania games in the wake of Aria of Sorrow. Additionally, games like Castlevania-inspired Ender Lilies: Quietus of the Knights and Record of Lodoss War: Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth also feature the mechanic in their gameplay, with slight variations.
Aria of Sorrow’s Timeless Qualities
While the Tactical Soul system is undoubtedly one of the game’s most celebrated mechanics, Aria of Sorrow is still a top contender in the metroidvania genre over 20 years later. One of its standout qualities is its excellent pacing, with well-designed maps and very few dull patches throughout. Although its map is small, exploration is well-rewarded, and the game’s well-crafted narrative elevates it above other games in the series.
Many other games in the genre have 30 to 40-hour playtimes, but players can complete everything in Aria of Sorrow in just seven to ten hours. While this may seem like a shorter playtime, this game offers pure, concentrated brilliance without any filler sections – an aspect some fans may enjoy. The game also contains great boss fights, making it a highlight in the Castlevania series.
In another deviation from the series formula, Aria of Sorrow emphasises the story’s central aspect instead of the playable character. Players control Soma Cruz, a scared kid who ventures into an evil castle for unclear reasons, while well-known series stars like Dracula and the Belmonts only appear later in the game. Although the narrative is simple, it is effective and well-executed, further contributing to Aria of Sorrow’s overall success.
A Game That Remains Relevant Even Today
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is often forgotten among the great metroidvanias, overshadowed by Symphony of the Night. Despite this, the game’s influence on the genre cannot be overstated. The Tactical Soul system has affected the choices made in countless games beyond the Castlevania series, and its impact is still being felt today. For those who have only recently discovered the genre through games like Hollow Knight or Blasphemous, Aria of Sorrow is the perfect introduction to the genre’s classics. The Castlevania Advance Collection includes Aria of Sorrow, so it is now easier for players to experience this timeless classic for themselves.