In 2001, Golden Sun was a brand new, unproven role-playing game from Nintendo. The game’s mix of clever puzzles and Final Fantasy-style battles quickly turned the game into a must-have title for Nintendo’s new Game Boy Advance. The critically acclaimed game ended with the story only half finished and the promise of a sequel that would complete the tale. Sure enough, in 2003, Golden Sun: The Lost Age picked up where the first game left off.
After two well-received games it seemed that Golden Sun would become the newest Nintendo franchise to receive regular sequels that built on their predecessors.
That never happened.
Seven years later, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn finally continues the story. Beginning 30 years after the end of Golden Sun: The Lost Age, Dark Dawn tells the story of the children of “The Warriors of Vale” from the first two games.
Everything that made Golden Sun a unique and fun experience has remained intact, but the game is designed to be friendly to players new to the series (or even new to turn based RPGs). While this is not a bad idea, especially considering the seven years since the last game was released, it also means the game has very few new ideas for the games devoted fans who have been diligently waiting for the series to return.
You begin the game by playing through a lengthy tutorial that sets the stage for your adventure. I’m sure the tutorial will be useful to new players, but as someone familiar with the basic concept of Golden Sun it was more tedious than helpful. Furthermore, the story it slowly sets up amounts to nothing more than a fetch quest. This is something repeated throughout the game. Instead of tutorials, it’s lengthy conversations between characters that teaches you little when its over. The first half of the game is a fetch quest. The second half is actually interesting, but only after all of the pieces are put together. That doesn’t happen until the last 30 minutes of the game.
In true Golden Sun style, the game ends on a cliffhanger as soon as it starts to get interesting. The good news is that this all but guarantees a Golden Sun 4 that will have a better story. Fortunately, the rest of the game more than makes up for the slow story. The characters are likable and somewhat memorable, but they do lack any sort of depth. Fans of the original Golden Sun games will recognize several characters who make an appearance. Some returning characters have brief cameos and others play important story roles (the most obvious one being Kraden).
While traveling through the many areas in the game, you will solve puzzles using Psynergy, which is Golden Sun’s version of magic. The puzzles are clever – but usually not difficult – and make good use of most of the abilities given to you most of the time. You will move pillars to form paths, shoot fireballs, blow away bushes, pull yourself to far away ledges, as well as many other abilities. New characters who join your party will give you access to additional abilities. A few special items also teach them.
There are a few Psynergy powers that are severely underused. They add little to the experience and it would have been better to leave them out entirely.
The only complaint I have about the puzzles is the inclusion of Insight Psynergy. Insight Psynergy’s only purpose is to show you what other Psynergy needs to be used to complete a puzzle. Having this ability in the game makes already easy puzzles even easier. You are required to learn the ability – which you learn near the beginning of the game – but not required to use it. Nintendo has begun adding similar “super guides” into other games, but generally they require that you at least try to succeed before turning to the guide. Insight Psynergy can be used whenever you want, as often as you want, and there is no penalty for using it.
The battle system remains unchanged from the previous games. It is a traditional turn-based battle system that would be dull without the inclusion of the Djinn and Summons. The Djinn are creatures that join you when you find them and give you extra abilities in battle. “Unleashing” a Djinn in battle will provide some sort of beneficial effect: a strong attack, healing, temporary stat boosts, etc. Once you have unleashed enough Djinn, you can summon larger creatures to deal large amounts of damage in battle.
The Djinn system makes fighting very interesting as you will rarely want to simply use regular attacks when Djinn are available. However, they also make the fights even easier than they already are. Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is an incredibly easy game until you reach the end. The last boss fight was the only fight in the game where I almost reached a Game Over.
You are left with a difficult choice: make the game harder by not collecting Djinn and deal with a boring battle system, or collect as many Djinn as possible and make the game significantly easier. I recommend collecting the Djinn.
In addition to the Djinn, there are several powerful Summons to collect. All of them are optional (and you automatically have access to 16 different Summons), but they add another reason to explore the world more thoroughly. Unfortunately, on your first time through the game, using a guide is almost required if you plan to find all of the Djinn and Summons. There are a few points in the game where you must continue and are never able to return. If you miss a Djinn or Summons then you cannot go back and get them later.
When used in battle, the Summons showcase the best graphics the game has to offer. In fact, all of the magic effects in battle have impressive visual effects. Outside of battle, the graphics get the job done, but the environments often look like they belong on the GameBoy Advance.
Despite the flaws in the story and battle system, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is hard to put down once you begin. The game took me about 30 hours to complete, and I haven’t enjoyed a turn-based RPG this much in a long time. This is a must-have for fans of the original games, but also a great starting point for new players. In hindsight, the game was easier and slower than I realized at the time, but it was still a very enjoyable experience that I recommend to anyone looking for a unique RPG to play.