The Japanese-style role-playing game doesn’t lend itself well to direct sequels. Their entire premise depends on characters exploring the entire world to completion, so what’s supposed to happen next? The original Golden Sun and its 2003 sequel succeeded by telling a single story over two games. Failures include Final Fantasy X-2, which turned players into tourists in its old game world—then it made fun of tourists. Golden Sun: Dark Dawn manages to avoid most of the sequel issues by copying from its predecessors. They’re good models to follow, because their quick, fun gameplay put them at the heart of the RPG renaissance during the GameBoy Advance era. The fast-paced combat, character customization, and entertaining puzzles are all back, and that’s welcome enough after a seven-year hiatus for the series.
Dark Dawn’s story takes place 30 years after The Lost Age, starting with the children of the heroes from the first game. Each of those original heroes had a child, who all come together for their own epic quest. (It takes two-thirds of the game for any mention of a second parent—apparently heroes can procreate via mitosis.) Like most JRPGs, Dark Dawn relies far too much on dramatic irony and exposition for storytelling, but that’s par for the course here—fans of the originals and new players should be equally pleased and annoyed. The children form a solid starting party, but the game’s slavish devotion to the series means that four additional characters join up over the course of the game. The new heroes serve some narrative purpose, but they add nothing but annoyance to the gameplay.
The game’s biggest missteps occur when it deviates just slightly from the beaten path. The collection and character improvement portion of Dark Dawn focuses on a set of Djinn attached to your party members. The Djinn work like a compound of Pokémon and materia: You find them hidden away in various puzzles, and once collected, you attach them to characters to change their classes and abilities. The problem is that, unlike previous Golden Sun games, it is far too easy for you to miss a Djinn and never have the chance to get it later. This is a monumental annoyance, and one that pushes the player to either play with a guide, risk missing out, or feel compelled to restart the game and wade through the exposition again.
The difficulty is too low, with virtually no challenge until the very end of the game, when it suddenly ramps up to interesting levels. That ending does include a cliffhanger, which is notably unsurprising since half of the game’s setting is left to rot after the first few hours. It’s nice to have Golden Sun back as a series, and it’ll be even nicer if its designers make a few simple tweaks.