Review: Golden Sun Dark Dawn a beautifully-produced adventure

Your DS is sulking: it knows you’ve got your eye on its 2011 successor. Why not indulge in some first-class RPG action to wrap up your DS’s 2010 on a high note?

Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is a beautiful, finely-tuned, classic-style adventure”¦and I use the term “classic” here in the best sense of the word. This is video game comfort food’a perfect choice for relaxing winter evenings by the fire.

Featuring the offspring and students of previous Golden Sun heroes (who saved the world only to unleash chaos’I hate it when that happens), Dark Dawn does not require knowledge of past events: It will get you up to speed via an ingenious training park obstacle course that synopsizes the past via charming clockwork wooden-cutout monsters.

If you’ve ever played any JRPG in your life, you won’t find many big surprises: You’re in for hours and hours of inns, weapon shops, random turn-based battles, temple puzzles, summoning and villagers who don’t bat an eye when you invade their homes and take their stuff.

Quality, however, and a loving attention to detail make GSDD a worthwhile journey. Everything about this game feels well-designed and top-notch. From the beautiful multi-level locations to the friendly menu navigation, this title bends over backwards to make your experience entertaining. The random battles occur at reasonable intervals. You can save anywhere at any time. Friendly merchants equip your purchases and buy your old stuff without you having to ask them. You can play entirely with the stylus, entirely with button presses, or any combination of the two. Whichever way you choose, the controls are precise and intuitive.

The story starts off with a fun mixture of whimsy and dread, and you’ll soon find yourself in command of a youthful team of insecure whiners. These characters love to scold each other, apologize, and then reassure one another that they don’t suck. It’s like D&D meets the Breakfast Club. Not to worry: they’ll toughen up quickly, and the dialogue, while overly-plentiful, is smooth and generally entertaining.

The journey unfolds with lush, imaginative presentation incorporating camera moves, perspective shifts and masterful use of parallax scrolling to create illusions of height and depth in the environments. The colorful squads of monsters, soldiers and demons attack with believable animation and terrific effects.

The battle system features all the standard weaponry, magic (here called psynergy) and item management, but incorporates a fun twist that grows increasingly important as the game unfolds: The elemental Djinn.

Djinn are small creatures attuned to one of the game’s four major forces: Earth, Fire, Wind or Water. Once caught and added to your party’s inventory, they can effect character attributes, attack enemies on command or summon spectacular and devastating help from the spirit world. Learning to effectively equip, manage and juggle the Djinn becomes a major key to victory in the game’s second half.

Of course, you have to find the Djinn first, and that task becomes an ever-present puzzle game as you explore the world. They’ll usually appear just out of reach, and you’ll need logic, memory and persistence to capture them. It’s a bit Pokemon-ish, but the Pokemon franchise can only wish it looked as good as this game. (You can’t help but wonder while playing GSDD: Why doesn’t Pokemon look this good? A Pokemon game running on an engine like this would be spectacular!)

With Golden Sun: Dark Dawn, the year’s major DS software lineup ends with a grand and beautifully-produced adventure. Between this and the upcoming Dragonquest VI, your DS could keep you entertained with epic quests right up to the release of the 3DS”¦and maybe beyond.