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Golden Sun: Dark Dawn - hands-on

With Golden Sun: Dark Dawn's release just over a month away, we got a chance to play through part of it at Nintendo's offices last week. From what we've seen so far, Dark Dawn seems like a nicely upgraded version of the first two games, which is exactly what we've been hoping for in the sequel.

To brief you on the story, DD takes place 30 years after the end of Golden Sun 2, and the protagonists are the children of the former protagonists – Isaac's son Matthew and Garet's son Tyrell, along a girl named Karis (who we don't know much about yet) make up the initial trio in your party, with more characters joining your party as you progress. The continents have all shifted so the land is completely unrecognizable from the setting in the first two games, and although there are lots of treats for fans peppered in throughout, the story is designed to be newcomer-friendly too (and if you are new to the series, headherefor an excellent introduction). Psynergy vortexes (the black and pinkish obs pictured in the screenshots) are popping up everywhere and sucking the Psynergy (i.e. magic) out of the world, and our heroes set off to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Like in the last two games, djinn play a huge role not just as creatures you can call to assist you in combat, but in shaping all your characters' stats and skills. There are over 70 djinn to find and collect throughout the game, each with its own elemental affinity (earth, wind, fire, water) and personality. Each character in your party is also adept at one element, and as you collect djinn you can set them to specific characters to enhance the character's abilities.

The djinn that are set to a particular character determine everything about that character, including stats, class, and spell roster (magic is called Psynergy in the GS universe). To maximize the potential of each of your characters, you can experiment with swapping around djinn to see what yields the best results for a powerful and well-balanced team. With around eight djinn slots per character (we couldn't get an official number, but it's either 7, 8 or 9 djinn per character) and over 70 djinn, the possibilities for customizing your team are staggering.

In battle (which is turn-based), aside from attacking and defending, you can cast offensive and defensive Psynergy spells, call out djinn to fight for you in battle, and perform massively powerful summons. Believe us when we say the animations for the summons are totally epic, and although there's an option to skip the animation, we can't imagine getting too tired of watching them since they're so cool and creative.

Summons have a djinn-based casting cost, so say for example a summon costs one earth djinn and one water djinn to summon, you have to spend two character's turns sending the djinn to standby mode to be able to call the summon. You can get around this though if you know you're heading into a big fight, by setting specific djinn to standby before the battle begins. The downside to this is that when djinn are on standby, they're no longer set to any character, so you must sacrifice some of your characters' spells and stats in order to free up djinn to use for summoning.

Aside from the combat, environmental puzzles are a huge part of the gameplay. As you travel around, you control Matthew either with the d-pad or with the stylus, and overcome various puzzle-based obstacles using your characters' Psynergy spells as overworld moves (rather like HMs in Pokemon!). And since you often have to use spells repeatedly to solve puzzles, you can set specific spell hotkeys to the left and right bumper buttons. You can get a feel for some of the environmental puzzles in the most recent Golden Sun gameplay trailer:

All through our play session, we were consistently impressed with how much thought went into the menus and interface too. During dialogue, key terms are actually hyperlinked, so that you can click on them with the stylus and the top screen will display the encyclopedia entry for that term. New terms appear underlined in red, and terms you've already seen appear in red with no underline, so you can keep track of what you've read and what you haven't. It's a simple innovation that makes so much sense, completely eliminating the need to periodically pause and go into the menu to read walls of text, and it's kind of surprising that no one has thought to do this in a DS game before. Beyond that, the menus are well-designs and it's easy to view all your characters' info without having to drill too deep into any submenus.

While we still haven't seen enough to say for sure, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn seems like a no brainer for any JRPG fan, whether you played the first two or not. The djinn mechanic is unique, the battle strategy is deep yet easy to understand, and the opportunities to customize your party are vast yet not tediously granular. Look for our full review when the game ships November 29.

Oct 21, 2010

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