All I can say is: welcome back.
Golden Sun: Dark Dawn takes place thirty years after Golden Sun: The Lost Age. Don't worry if you've forgotten or aren't familiar with the previous two titles, because Dark Dawn does a great job of filling in new and old players alike -- thanks to a hyperlinked encyclopedia. The Warriors of Vale, protagonists of the first Golden Sun titles, have passed on a new quest to their children. The quest seems simple enough at the beginning: Make the trek to retrieve the feather of a giant bird known as the Mountain Roc. Of course, it doesn't take long before these second-generation warriors are diverted onto a new quest to save the world of Weyard. It's a comfortable jaunt, and I felt right at home.
The rest of Dark Dawn falls under the same traditional structure, especially if you're familiar with Camelot's previous work. Receive a quest, travel to a new town, find a dungeon, kill lots of monsters, get a new quest. It's a rote formula, but it works because every detail in Dark Dawn is incredibly solid. Villages and towns are filled with hidden secrets and items, making each one interesting to explore and not just a backdrop for the next plot point. Each location is lovingly detailed on the diminutive DS too, offering unique architectural and cultural influences.
The same care is evident in the dungeon design, which feels more like a Zelda title than a typical role-playing game. Each dungeon is filled with environmental puzzles that can only be solved using specific magic spells. For example, you might create a stepping stone by freezing a puddle of water into a column of ice. I also drained lakes, doused fires, broke rocks and started up more than a handful of ancient, magical machines.
Of course, it's not a dungeon without monsters and my hero, whom I cleverly named "Rich," spent plenty of time slaying beasties of all kinds. The combat, while a turn-based affair, spices things up using the Djinn system from the previous two titles. Spirits of wind, water, earth and fire, Djinn are littered throughout Weyard, and obtaining each one quickly becomes a "gotta catch 'em all" obsession. Furthermore, most Djinn aren't within easy reach, requiring you to first solve a puzzle.
Djinn add depth to the traditional combat by allowing you to unleash powerful elemental abilities and summon massive creatures in battle. Additionally, assigning a Djinni to a specific character will change said character's class, raising his stats and granting him new abilities. The catch is that using a Djinni in battle puts it on standby, temporarily removing a character's assigned benefits. Furthermore, each summoning spell requires that a certain number of Djinn be on standby. Want to summon a giant dragon? You'll need three fire Djinn on standby, which means your character's health will be reduced by several hundred points while waiting for the Djinn to recover. This risk-reward triangle is what keeps combat interesting.
The exhaustive level of detail keeps things fresh too. Every single weapon looks different, and most of them come with unique and visually impressive critical attacks. These, along with the summons, are an absolute joy to watch. The summons in particular did a wonderful job of reminding me how powerful the DS hardware actually is. Spanning both screens, the spells conjure up gigantic dragons, angelic goddesses and iron horses, showing off some of the most impressive visuals I've seen on Nintendo's system.
Unfortunately, for the majority of the game, combat is far too easy. I was faced with a few challenging battles early on, but once my party reached a certain level, most battles boiled down to using nothing but normal attacks, forgoing magic and Djinn altogether. In fact, the only time Rich's brave party seemed outmatched was during the final boss conflict. It's a testament to the combat design that it doesn't get boring. Still, after spending nearly thirty hours attaining level 45 and collecting 65 Djinn, some difficulty options would have been nice. (I should note that an hour or two of that was spent wandering aimlessly looking for my next objective. Trust me, use the mind reading spell, and use it often.)
Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is cozy. Playing it is like slipping into a favorite pair of jeans. While sprites have been abandoned for polygons -- to wonderful effect -- the arc of Dark Dawn is practically the same as previous Golden Sun titles (and many other Camelot titles, if you care to look). You won't find complex battle systems beset with their own subsystems, nor will you enjoy expansive dialogue trees or strong, emotional character development. Instead, you'll enjoy a traditional, no-frills and rock-solid RPG.
Having waited seven years for another helping of Golden Sun, cozy is exactly what I was looking for.
This review is based on a retail copy of Golden Sun: Dark Dawn provided by Nintendo.