Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is like the daughter of the beauty queen who blows the pageant by tripping over the same annoying party gown that sent her mom tumbling down the staircase. Games that can't recognize -- or more importantly fix -- the mistakes of the past are definitely doomed to fall just short of greatness.
This fantasy RPG is set 30 years after events in the two Golden Sun games for the Game Boy Advance, in the same world. Alchemy, a magical force involving the four elements, is both the salvation and destruction of everything. The kids of the original heroes who saved the world three decades ago now get their chance in the hero spotlight.
This is, stylus down, one of the prettiest games to hit the DS this year. The young heroes' most powerful attack involves using cute little elemental djinni to summon gigantic spirit-creatures that administer powerful beat downs. Seeing both of the DS' screens filled with a ginormous red-furred wolf or a colossussized pharaoh is jaw-dropping -- a great reminder of how cool games that use both screens to full effect can be.
Golden Sun: Dark Dawn's best parts involve using psynergy, a magical force that can manipulate the environment, to solve puzzles -- moving objects, growing plants into ladders that can be used to reach inaccessible areas etc. When the game challenges you to figure out how to use these powers in concert to advance the action, it soars above its predecessors.
But while psynergy is a fascinating concept, it's also part of the game's biggest problem -- the heroes are simply too powerful. Your eventual party of eight characters has four, count 'em, four powerful ways to take out monsters and enemies -- standard weapon attacks, psynergy attacks, djinni attacks and spirit summoning. The pervasive sense of killing flies with sledgehammers makes the otherwise deep and interesting RPG elements feel about as redundant as casting Reese Witherspoon and Katherine Heigl in the same rom-com. Yes, you could experiment to see which combo of the 70 different djinni creates the most interesting character class, but why bother when a standard fireball or summon command beats back almost everything the game throws at you?
Long and windy conversations were one of the original games' downfall, and the chatty factor hasn't dropped at all. The game's most pointless feature asks you to choose from a set of emoticons (pleased, excited, sad or angry) to react to something another character has said. In deeper RPGs on other platforms (see just about any BioWare game ever created), this interplay affects the storyline and your relationship with your party members. Here, it's just a way to get chastised if you make a bad choice or hear your conversation partner tell you what you were already thinking if you choose well. Excuse me while I tap the exasperated emoticon.