Interestingly, I gave this game an 8.8 when I originally scored it here. Looking at the way I grade games currently, this score tells me that the game is really good, on the cusp of being great. Having replayed it just now in 2023, I think I would actually score it a bit lower.
I've played a lot of Castlevania over the past few months. It started in October when I grabbed the collection on PS4 that included Rondo of Blood and Symhony of the Night. Since I was in such a Castlevania mood, I also wound up grabbing the Advance Collection on Switch, which includes the three GBA games, plus Dracula X for SNES. Having FINALLY played Aria after playing the various games in these collections, I have to say, it's not as good as I remember.
All of the parts that make up this game are stellar. Like, really impressive, knockout stuff for the GBA. The graphics are maybe even better than in Harmony of Dissonance, using more original assets than its predecessor. The music technology hasn't been sacrificed here, and most of the songs are really good. Really consistently good stuff that you'd expect from a Yamane Castlevania soundtrack. There's some voice samples, sprite scaling, the works. You can tell it's a really top tier GBA game where they've learned a lot of lessons.
The level design and progression also arguably feels better and more refined than the other two GBA games. While some may knock the game for being more linear, I viewed Aria as a game that didn't waste my time. Warp points seemed conveniently placed, at least at first, to steer me towards my next objective. Save rooms were located in more convenient places as well, giving me a soft landing place in case I died against a boss (which was infrequent).
The story is also intriguing. Of course, I know the twists and turns at this point, so it wasn't as engaging as when I originally played it, but I found it to be pretty unique and interesting 20 years ago (wow). Even though I wasn't surprised by anything on this playthrough, I was at least nostalgic about how glued I was to my GBA many years ago.
All that being said, you'd think I'd be giving this game a 10/10, right? Each individual aspect of this game is really well done. So why don't I feel like gushing about it any more than I am? I don't know if I can articulate it exactly, but there are many ways that this game just feels kind of...boring? Bland?
Yes, on paper, it basically is just a better version of the games that came before it. Better music, better story, better visuals, tighter controls, etc. It still however, does have some flaws that these previous games had as well. As nice as the warp rooms were at times...by the end of the game, you really realize how inconvenient they are. It's such a chore to get to some of the areas of this castle, and the game doesn't give you any speed upgrades until the VERY end.
And SPEAKING of which....this is ANOTHER Iga Castlevania game where you have to do something really silly and nonsensical to unlock the final ending. Spoiler alert, but this game requires you to equip three specific souls during the final boss fight. You can deduce which souls these are by collectiong three ancient books throughout the game...only, the game doesn't really explain this at all. IF you talk to Yoko later in the game, she explains that Arikado said the ancient books were out there. I don't remember if she mentions that there's only three of them? Anyway, each book houses a "clue", and this is a clue to which souls you want to equip in the final boss fight. They're just so cryptic though. One of them is described as "a beautiful nightmare," hinting that you have to equip the Succubus soul. Unfortunately, there's also a soul literally called "Nightmare." And even if you figure out which soul is which, you don't really get any indication as to when to use them. There's an area of the castle you can't get to, so you'd think you'd have to equip them there, but no. You'd only know how to do this if:
a.) You've played previous Castlevania games that do the same schtick and realize what the game is telling you to do.
b.) You've looked it up online.
It's infuriating. I wish they would explain this stuff better IN the game. I shouldn't have to deal with all this to literally just see the end of the game.
End rant. Other negatives for me here: The Souls system is pretty straightforward...but 90% of the souls feel useless. I pretty much just equip the two or three souls that seem to be working, and ride them out for most of the game. I'm not sure I prefer this system over the traditional axes and crosses and holy water and whatnot.
The game is, for the most part, absurdly easy. The bosses are mostly a joke, and the linearity of most of the game kind of makes it feel like "in one ear and out the other." There was a couple places I finally got baffled as to where to go next, but it was pretty easy to deduce the next step based on my latest powerup. Get the thing that makes you fly? Go to any room where you couldn't reach the ceiling.
Speaking of which, the powerups are pretty boring. It's all pretty much the same as earlier games. You get a slide, a double jump, a gliding thing, etc. There's no excitement here. It reminds me a little of Other M in this regard. Everything seems very new and exciting, but when you boil things down, you're not really doing anything new that you haven't done in the other games.
I mentioned this before, but the map design has big swings for me. Sometimes it seems like the game is really straightforward, and rooms seem pretty logically laid out. Other times, I'm like...why aren't these rooms connected? Why is this warp point next to this maze/beehive of other rooms? Why isn't there EVER a save point that's right next to a warp point?
Taking everything into account, this game winds up feeling like a game that is very technically well made, but also doesn't really stand out in any one way, and surprisingly feels a bit forgettable. I like it better than Harmony of Dissonance, but I think HoD might actually be a much more interesting game. Both of these games subverted my expectations on some level, but at least HoD felt a bit more like the rug was ripped out from under me.
I hate to say that Aria is one of those "very competent game made by professionals," because there's obvsiously some top tier stuff, but for me, I now look at it as a very good game that is a bit farther from being "great" than I truly thought. Even with Symphony of the Night's flaws, I don't think Aria really quite gets to that level.
Readjusting my score to an 8.5/10 on this one. So, not too much lower than I had before. It's a very good game, but I think it needs some more standout moments to get put over to the next level.