Golden Sun: Dark Dawn- A Good Game, or at least Half of One

I’m not the hugest turn-based RPG player around. My dalliances with the Pokemon games aside, I tend to prefer turn-based strategy or action-adventure/puzzle games. However, I do occasionally enjoy a good RPG, and the Golden Sun series has been rather satisfying in that regard, including the latest installment, Dark Dawn.

The Golden Sun games take place on the flat world of Weyard, a pseudo-medieval world that is home to a magical force called psyenergy; people born able to use psyenergy, called Adepts, are able to use it to manipulate the classical elements of earth, fire, wind, and water (categorized as Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Mercury psyenergy; the Captain Planet jokes practically write themselves, but I am feeling entirely too classy for that today) to perform amazing feats. The first two games, Broken Seal and Lost Age, dealt with two groups of these adepts struggling with each other over whether or not to restore the ancient power of Alchemy, a combination of all four elements, to the world; at the end of Lost Age, it comes to light that Weyard will perish without Alchemy, and so it is restored. Dark Dawn begins 30 years later, starring the children of the previous games’ protagonists as they begin an adventure in a revitalized but also fundamentally altered Weyard’s geography.

Golden Sun’s gameplay strikes me as something of a mixture, combining elements of puzzle-based action games like The Legend Of Zelda with a combat engine similar to Final Fantasy, where monsters are randomized encounters your party must overcome through turn-based combat. Some games don’t take well to incorporating multiple gameplay focuses, but I feel that Golden Sun balances the two well; the puzzles are mostly a matter of figuring out what Psyenergy is needed to manipulate your surroundings, which can sometimes be very simple and other times quite complicated. It is no exaggeration that outside of combat the two most useful psyenergies in the game are simply the ability to summon a giant hand to grab or move far-off objects, which can be used to clear paths, make stepping stones, or even act as an impromptu grappling hook. The puzzles tend to be very intuitive, and sometimes even a bit too easy for a Zelda veteran, but I found it admirable that Golden Sun was able to make many of the magical powers of the characters practical for more than just combat situations. The combat itself is similarly fun and intuitive; your characters can use their psyenergy as offensive spellcasting, but each character can also use and master a variety of weapons that have their own special qualities, and make use of the series’ trademark gimmick, the Djinn. The Djinn are cute little spirits associated with one of the four elements that you can find and befriend all over the world. Attaching the Djinn to a character drastically increases their power and can have a strong effect on what kind of psyenergy they can use, but Djinn can also be unleashed by the character in battle for a powerful variety of effects, and then used as fuel to summon even more powerful creatures. Between the weapons, djinn, psyenergy, and summons, you have a lot of options in combat that can allow you to fight any way you wish.

That said, there are some elements of Dark Dawn’s gameplay that irritated me. You can distribute the Djinn your party finds however you wish as long as everyone has about the same amount when you’re done, but the variety of effects certain combinations of certain Djinn will have on one character means a beginner is likely going to be tempted to just stack a bunch of djinn of one element on each character to avoid the hassle of figuring out what combinations give access to the much stronger character builds. Additionally, finding ALL of the Djinn can be a phenomenal pain in the neck; while most of the 72 or so Djinn in the game hang out in places you can see and get to with a little problem-solving, a handful of them are hanging out invisibly on the world map and can only be encountered randomly if you run around in spots you’d never pause in without a guide telling you a Djinn was hiding there. Even on a second playthrough knowing where nearly everything was, I still missed three due to this decision and don’t really understand how anyone was supposed to figure out where the randomly encountered djinn could be found. Other critics have also complained that Dark Dawn is simply too easy once you know what you’re doing with the djinn; I respectfully disagree and suggest instead that Dark Dawn doesn’t aim for the right kind of difficulty. Once your party has dispatched the final boss, a variety of bonus bosses are available to fight, but I can’t help but notice these “difficult” encounters aren’t so much tough as they are tedious. While the actual gameplay bosses are engaging and often challenging fights, the bonus bosses are much harder primarily in that they turn the fight into a massive grind, rarely being all that threatening offensively but having so much health and the ability to regenerate that a quick, tense battle is out of the question; once the game is beaten, continuing to play is mostly to get strong enough to survive a war of attrition with the remaining secret enemies.

Plot-wise, Dark Dawn is pretty good but had some flaws that annoyed me. Like a number of RPGs, kicking things off is a matter of “one thing led to another” syndrome; most RPG protagonists can’t send their kid out to buy eggs without accidentally catapulting them into a race to save the world from evil, and Dark Dawn sees no reason to avert this trend. While your characters’ parents, the protagonists of the previous games, are studying the destructive effects of saving the world, a vital piece of equipment is broken. Your group is sent out to retrieve the incredibly rare and difficult-to-acquire component needed to repair it, partially in hopes that a tough but manageable adventure will be a good experience for you. As usual, it’s never actually as simple as the start of the quest makes it sound, since after departing from home, I proceeded to run afoul of a military superpower, repair two ancient devices that fundamentally altered the geography of the world (again), accidentally activate an ancient super-weapon, inadvertently destroy 45% of the world’s population, kill a bird worshiped as a god by primitive cultures, exorcise a demon haunting the world’s dreams, defeated the military superpower, and reactivated another ancient super-weapon to destroy the first one, saving the surviving population…and at no point during all this was I able to return home to deliver the MacGuffin that got me out in the world in the first place. Dark Dawn is fairly linear in its progression, but it keeps things interesting in that the linear path is not at all clear until you’re most of the way through it; every time you make any progress, the game tends to throw a curve ball your way. This can get annoying sometimes, particularly since a large percentage of those curveballs are the bad guys showing up to be infuriatingly vague about who exactly they are and what they’re trying to do. Since the evil plot is so unclear that the only way to avoid advancing it is to take your metaphorical ball and go home, Dark Dawn uses the common RPG trope where the villain gets away with being incredibly lazy by conning your well-meaning heroes into doing 99% of the work for him in an attempt to stop him; several times during my quest I had to wonder if the world would be in so much danger if I didn’t keep trying to save it.

The main flaw in Dark Dawn’s story, however, is that it does not feel like a complete narrative. On one hand, the characters in your group are likable and have rounded personalities, but on the other, the game is very lax with developing them; I don’t feel like any of my group has changed very much at the end of the game from how they were at the start, and the last member of the party only joins at the very end to provide some exposition. Secondly, the various plot elements with the baddies don’t seem to get much of a payoff; a ground-breaking reveal about the two villains that have been harassing your party this whole time comes up at the very end of the game and isn’t elaborated on at all, a very clear and obvious set-up that one of your companions is the son of the overarching bad guy of the series is never executed, and said overarching bad guy escapes justice yet again without so much as a boss fight at the end, with every implication that my efforts in thwarting one evil plan caused another to pay off handsomely. This is something that annoyed me about the last two Golden Sun games as well; the story told is so large that each chapter of the series needs to be told with two companion games, but this means all of the Golden Sun games are half a story. Knowing that Dark Dawn is most likely designed for the dozens of unresolved plot threads to be resolved in another game does not make the unanswered questions or the blatant sequel hook any more understandable; I personally feel that building a franchise around multiple installments rather than trying to tell a complete story first and then expanding on it as demand allows to be a risky strategy, and should a fourth Golden Sun game fail to materialize, the series will be stuck forever on a Maybe Ever After.

All in all, I give Dark Dawn a competent but somewhat lacking 6/10. The game is fun and has some decent replay value, but the feeling of incompleteness highlights some of its flaws and drags its score down considerably. Only time will tell if my opinion improves if or when the teased second half of this game is released.

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