As a Golden Sun fan I am happy to see Camelot build upon the existing Golden Sun story from the previous GBA games, though I could see how this game could be off-putting to new comers. Camelot remedies this issue by including an active database of all people, places, events, settings and other topics mentioned in this game that had some significance to the previous games. Whenever a new term comes up it becomes underlined and bolded in red. The player then has the option to click on the R or L button to bring up a new screen, detailing that term in a more new-comer friendly and understandable manner. So for example, when Isaac's name appears a short synopsis of his role in the previous games appears. As the story unfolds these terms get updated too, so the player can learn more about the terms relevance to the previous games.
Aside from this database, the story is still heavily dependent on the material of the previous titles. I don't want to spoil any of the story, but sufficient it to say that a good amount of this story will only make sense to people who have played the previous games. Also this game, like the first two games, is incomplete by itself, meaning there are plenty of plot holes left unanswered by the games' conclusion. There is even a (mediocre) cliffhanger ending after the credits.
As for the story, it's a fairly straight-forward tale of good vs. evil and coming of age. The beginning and a majority of the game is told through a bunch of mini adventures as the three initial main characters travel the world in search of a Mountain Roc feather to fix a flying machine. These mini adventures are similar to the Dragon Quest set-up, where the characters just wander from place to place, solving everyone's problems (rescuing people, collecting gems, etc...). The main story doesn't take center stage until about 3/4's of the way in the game. Bits and pieces are scattered throughout the adventures (there's a reason behind this), but nothing concrete occurs until a climactic event happens, in which case everything goes crazy. The game throws a lot of material out, but by the games end there are many plot holes left unanswered (though that's probably because Camelot intends to make a companion title, much like Golden Sun 1 + 2).
Score: Fans who will wait for the sequel/second DS game - 8/10, newcomers - 6/10 (because it gets too engrossed in the events of the previous games near the end)
There are two distinct graphical styles in the game. One is for battles only and the other is for everything else. The battle visuals are among the best of the 3D games on the DS, though the enemy and ally animations could use some more detail and polish.
The summon animations are the real draw here. They might not be as amazing as some of the core Square-Enix DS games like Final Fantasy IV, but they do look pretty good coming from the DS.
The other graphical style is the chibi-esque visuals used for exploration. They look similar to the Matrix developed DS games (FFIV, FFIII, Nostalgia, 4 Heroes of LIght), but they don't have the same charm or polish.
The environmental visuals are fairly bland, though the buildings do look a little better.
Overall, the visuals could use some more polish and detail, but they still look good compared to the other DS games out there.
The game is split between traditional RPG turn-based battles, environmental puzzles and world exploration.
The battles are typical fanfare that most JRPG gamers have come accustomed to: Attack, Defend, Item, Magic and Escape. The difference here is the addition of Djinn, which are little mini spirits that provide a couple benefits to the characters.
When "set" (read: equipped) they add a nice stat boost to the character and can provide specific spells to cast based on their element (earth, water, fire, wind). When "activated" (read: used to attack) they perform a specific action such as attack the enemy, heal the allies, add buffs to allies, harm the enemy with status ailments, etc...Once used (or unset) they can be used to summon a powerful diety/monster/beast/etc.... to do a specific action (like the one's previously mentioned), but on a grander scale. There are ~70 different Djinn to hunt down and collect, which adds replayability/length to the game. The level of difficulty in all battles is rather low. The only battle I had a problem with was the last boss
The environmental puzzles are the bread & butter of the game (IMO). Each main character has a certain elemental affinity and set of powers to use both in and out of battle. Outside of battle these powers can be used to solve various environmental puzzles like moving columns, freezing water, burning objects, etc....
Every dungeon/region has a bevy of puzzles that utilize various element abilities to solve. Personally, this is what I love about the Golden Sun games. It's very gratifying to be able to solve a particular puzzle by using a couple dozen powers for a respective effect/purpose in clearing a room. On that note, the level of difficulty for these puzzles is fairly low. I solved most puzzles the instance I saw the room I was in. The hardest puzzles took me no more than 2-3 minutes to reason out. I wish the puzzles could be harder, but this comes from a gamer who loves playing puzzle games, so take this comment with a grain of salt if you will.
Overall, the level of difficulty in this game is low. It seems like Camelot/Nintendo intended this to be a RPG series for a younger audience or for more "casual" gamers.
The music is decent. It's orchestral arrangements in the vane of the original Final Fantasy games.
Nothing really stands out. I just turned off the volume to my DS and listened to my own music when playing this game. I do want to mention that the musical tracks did pick up steam near the ending, but even then the music never truly captured the different moods set during the game.
The sound effects are nice and appropriate.
There is no new game+, but there is an extra dungeon upon completing the game.
There are a few side quests sprinkled throughout the adventure, but they are fairly short and most of them (if not all) are fetch quests.
Overall, the game is fun to play, but it's the fairly by-the-books story and over reliance on the story from the previous Golden Sun games make this a one play-though only for everyone but hardcore Golden Sun fans.
Final Score: 7/10
This game may be easy, but it's still a fun experience to be had. Fans of the previous Golden Sun games would get the most out of Dark Dawn, but this shouldn't deter newcomers to the series. I would recommend this to gamers to enjoy JRPGs and fans of the DS Final Fantasy remakes.