Review: Golden Sun: Dark Dawn
It takes a series like Golden Sun to show a player where their favourite assets lie in RPGs. Not since Final Fantasy: Tactics have I felt normality to be displaced as rapidly as it is here. I should clarify: what makes these titles so thought-provoking for the genre isn’t any kind of ruthless casting to the side of conventions. No, these series embrace their roots with zeal, but minimise certain elements in favour of others. Tactics provided a level of strategy combat tools which can only be surmised as comprehensive. From racial deviations of combat ability, to environmental tinkering; the series was a succession of battlefields waiting to happen. But Golden Sun marks the antithesis to this approach: its simple turn-based fighting is tucked neatly to the side, as puzzles, narrative and aesthetical variety are thrown into focus.
Most RPGs paint the combat as the back-bone to the gameplay. We’ve all experienced it in some form or another, that point at which our customisation pays off with lethal precision. With such an enormous accumulation of conventions over the years, very specific predictions start to seem reasonable. New dungeons are expected to pose a threat. They are supposed to hold weapons and armour somehow superior to any area you’ve previously visited. They are inexplicable bastions of labyrinthine tunnels, unknown enemies and deadly confrontations. This is where Golden Sun: The Dark Dawn stands out the most: it is almost completely bereft of this danger. I found myself wandering ominous corridors, expecting to stumble across some Real Enemies at any second. Notice the capitalisation: this may be presumed to denote their stark paucity. No matter how malicious-looking the dungeon you’re never far from the gentle prods of the suicidal locals.
If the combat-vacuum this suggests worries you, perhaps the content which fills this gap can sate your appetite. Namely dialogue and puzzles. Your team of young magicians (or ‘adepts’ in this world) use their spells (Psynergy) to progress through tricky terrain and solve mechanical constructs. Is there usually a boss battle at the end of the dungeon? Would you settle for a long conversation followed by another fightless puzzle-section instead? There is one mainstay of combat here, though: the world map. It is, in comparison to other environments in the game, a savage place, with extremely frequent random encounters. It makes for an unpleasant contrast to Dark Dawn’s puzzle-hole, safety-first dungeons.
Maybe Golden Sun just doesn’t suit my tastes anymore. I’ve grown to love the combat of modern titles, and while a good story will usually take priority over a game’s mechanics, I know which component is most likely to keep me coming back. That said, I would question the elements this title chooses to emphasise anyway: the puzzles are practically the same as the first two Golden Sun titles, whose story I also felt was harnessed to a much greater effect. I was invested at the time for a number of reasons: the lack of alternative RPG titles on the GBA, a hunger for a title with a rich plot, and the general idea that dialogue was simply a good thing for games to have. Over-abundance wasn’t a consideration. At the same time, though, I feel that the musical quality has remained pretty consistent in strength. That is, above average, but nothing really ear-catching.
With Dark Dawn you find yourself in control of the sons/daughter of the original protagonists, as they set off on a thinly contrived adventure. I can roll with a lot of story choices, but this approach smacks of laziness. If nothing else it’s extremely difficult to invest in characters that are carbon-copies of their parents. It’s a shame Camelot chose such a weak basis to move into a story that clearly had a lot of thought put into it. Characterisation and shifting geographies develop to fine points as the game progresses, and it seems worth mentioning a certain proficiency with narrative hooks and convention here. The best example I can give is the reason you set off on your adventure to begin with. Though both irritatingly convenient and inexplicable all at once, the goal feels like a neat throwback to older RPGs. Your group is searching for a giant bird called a Mountain Roc with the intention of getting one of its feathers. Nice and simple, although the reams of dialogue which spurn this on would suggest otherwise.
Even with all of this said, though, I feel like I’ve undersold the game. The length here is considerable, and the narrative seldom falls into lulls. If you can see yourself enjoying an RPG where NPCs divulge their life-story at the drop of a hat, then you’re in luck. Maybe this game works best for newcomers. Every element is so rehashed that I find myself hard-pressed to consume Camelot’s leftovers, yet I know there are strengths here. I’ve bashed the puzzles, but they will fit many players’ palettes and are satisfyingly conceived for the most part. While many players prefer puzzles whose obscure, mind-wrenching answer bestows an almost divine sense of providence upon completion, I am more of the inclination to enjoy puzzles that don’t take the piss. And while this title would definitely suit the latter category, it does so at the expense of a challenging experience.