From the advent of Metroid to the renaissance of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and beyond, the exploration-based platformer has been a well-loved genre. In most cases, such games drop the player in a relatively linear area before introducing new power-ups which start to open up several new paths to the rest of the game world. Over the years, a few types of abilities have shown up in a great many different titles, including but not limited to a secondary jump, water traversal, speed boosts, and hovering or flight. Because these abilities are fairly commonplace, the genre is full of examples of how to introduce them and codify places where they can be used. This is a different story, however, with less common abilities. How should a game introduce a novel ability? The answer is different depending on the ability in question, but Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow has a few suitable answers.
The protagonist of Dawn of Sorrow, Soma Cruz, has the power to capture and control the souls of monsters he slays.
These souls can manifest in one of four ways: Bullet souls, used for attacks; Guardian souls, used for defense or movement; Enchantment souls, which provide passive bonuses; and Ability souls, which remain active and provide some of the powers described above. A great many of these souls are entirely random drops from the various demons haunting the castle, but bosses—as one-time encounters—are guaranteed to surrender their souls upon defeat. While some boss souls hold powerful attacks, others provide unconventional access to new areas of the castle, and these are the type we’ll focus on.
The first boss in the player’s path is the Flying Armor, whose soul allows the player to fall more slowly when in use. This effect is familiar to those who have played the game’s precursor, Aria of Sorrow, but for those who haven’t, it is formally in the room immediately after the battle. This introduction is clear, if inelegant, and takes the form of a light blue helmet and pair of swords which resemble the Flying Armor itself.
These make up the majority of the background, hanging over a gap that’s just a little too far for the player to jump across. After this point, the player has a general idea of how to use the ability to proceed further into the castle.
The next case of an ability used to proceed is actually the second boss: Balore, a large demon who punches and shoots lasers from his eye. In the descent leading up to Balore, the player could run across a couple of rooms littered with impassable ice blocks. As soon as they enter Balore’s chamber, they’re greeted with another wall of ice blocks, only for Balore to immediately blast them away with one of his lasers.
His soul allows the player to break blocks using the touch screen of the Nintendo DS, which they must do to exit the room after the battle. Its uses are limited, but the association between the two is clear from the moment the player steps into the room.
Finally, we have my personal favorite of today’s examples: the Puppetmaster soul. By the time they reach the Puppetmaster himself, the player has likely run across several walls with small gaps in them—too small to jump through, and too high up to slide through. The Puppetmaster’s soul allows the player to toss a puppet, which they switch places with when it hits the ground. The association between the walls and the puppets is not immediately clear, as the nearest wall to the Puppetmaster’s arena requires a trek back through the area, but one piece of scenery cleverly hints at the solution: a single puppet leaned against the far side of the wall. The area leading up to the Puppetmaster, the Demon Guest House, is full of various toys and paraphernalia in the background, so the puppet is neither overly blatant nor out of place. Even so, its presence is enough to clue the player in and encourage progress while making them feel clever themselves for figuring it out.
Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow is not a perfect game, and the way it introduces mechanics wouldn’t fit for every game or ability. However, it makes masterful use of its own unique abilities to give the player all the tools they need to explore the castle to the fullest.