Golden Sun is a successful traditional Japanese Role Playing Game (JRPG) series that started off on the Game Boy Advance.
There are three entires in the series thus far, two of which were for the GBA. A big part of the reason I found Golden Sun: Dark Dawn – the third entry in the series, released for the Nintendo DS – so interesting and worthy of review, is because the series itself has very graphically simple roots, utilizes the now largely outdated traditional Japanese Role Playing Game game play format and combat system, and yet still manages to be completely relevant.
If you look at the evolution of JRPG games, there begins a departure from the norm around the time of Final Fantasy 12, which took the most commercially recognized JRPG series and flipped the structure on end, doing away with the world map system, and incorporating free movement based combat in which only one character is controlled manually. From FF12 onward, each established JRPG series began tweaking the formula–which used to be uniform and rely mostly on story to be unique–and trying to find it’s own niche in the evolved JRPG state.
Golden Sun: Dark Dawn came out 4 years after Final Fantasy 12, and by and large kept the same dynamics as its predecessors, choosing to focus more on expanding their already tried and true system, and enhancing the graphic of the game to more modern standards. So why does it work for Golden Sun when it became boring for other titles?
In the Golden Sun series mechanic, there are two very unique systems that still adhere to the traditional JRPG format but also manage to add a level of complexity to the game that surpasses most other in its genre. And that mechanic still holds up in my opinion, even in the face of games that have 80+ hour play through times and graphics that make passersby wonder what movie you’re watching.
Two elements of Golden Sun‘s storyline are Psynergy, which is essentially your magic category in other games, and Djinn, which can be loosely compared to summons. The way that Camelot Software approached these two systems is what makes Golden Sun so special. Both are heavily plot-relevant, and have several uses beyond just combat like in every other game.
In the world of Golden Sun, those that can utilize Psynergy are termed “adepts”, and they are a rare breed. You and your party are a young group of adepts burdened with great purpose by unknown forces, and you quest to save the world. Along your journey, you encounter a number of Djinn, who join you in your quest and lend you their abilities. Now, each adept has has its own specialty, split into four categories – water, fire, wind, and earth – and the Djinn are split into the same four categories.
Here’s where Golden Sun shines (pardon the super lame pun.) The Psynergy and Djinn dynamics, while already inherently intertwined, play just as large a part in the actual game play mechanics outside of battle as they do within. Your typical JRPG out-of-battle puzzles have an extra dimensional layer, because, not only do you need to traverse through mazes and solve riddles, but you also need to utilize the various types of Psynergy to help you do so. Many a time you’ll be stuck at a puzzle, unable to progress forward, only to notice that conveniently placed in the valley of a gap between two raised structures is a little lily pad, on which you can use your wind Psynergy to elevate it in the air for a precious few seconds as you scurry to climb the nearest structure and hop across before it falls. This out-of-combat Psynergy element keeps game play fresh where your standard puzzles have become stale.
Psynergy can be used within battle too as powerful spells to devastate your enemies. Which brings us to the Djinn. The Psynergy a character can utilize at a given time is largely affected by which Djinn they have equipped at that time. And there’s no guarantee you’ll get every Djinn in the game as you progress. In fact, it’s very likely you’ll miss quite a few without a game guide. Oftentimes you’ll need to use your Psynergy out of battle to solve side quest puzzles in order to find them. But the Djinn in battle is what makes the combat as fresh as Psynergy makes out-of-battle play.
Each Djinn, when equipped to your player, slots them a specific move. Once this move is used – and it can do damage, boost your party’s stats, or even heal you depending on the Djinn – that Djinn is “set”. Once a Djinn is set, it can be used to as a summon, dealing a lot of damage to multiple enemies. Now, remember how I said the Djinn were split into four types? Well, for each Djinn of a specific type you have set, they stack up, providing a more massive and powerful attack the more Djinn of a type you have. This creates a battle sub-dynamic that allows for nearly infinite tactical possibilities depending on your Djinn lineup, and the Psynergies and Djinn abilities that go along with it.
And the best part, while it may sound convoluted in my words, is that the whole system is very user friendly. The only parts that may get a bit confusing at first are the Psynergies that come with your Djinn allocations.
So, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is JRPG tops in my book, because it took this great dynamic started in the GBA versions and massively expanded it for the capabilities of the Nintendo DS. In fact, the real irony about this JRPG is that the weakest element of it is the story, which is the driving force behind all JRPGS (The story is still good by the way, just not exceptional). My hat is off to Camelot, because rather than dilute and ultimately lessen the JRPG genre, which most series have done in recent years, they took it upon themselves to try and take something great and make it better. And they succeeded.
Written by: Richard Reitzfeld