Review: Still inflicting more pain on vampires than Blade and synthetic blood combined.
The slush of a zombie's broken corpse as it hits the ground near your feet. The swirl of a demon-filled dark vortex opening above you. The satisfying feeling of whipping a flea man to death. Do any of these images send you into withdrawal? If so then fear not, it's time for another Castlevania adventure. Ever since Konami released Circle of the Moon for the Game Boy Advance, Nintendo's handhelds have been the new home for classic, 2D Castlevania goodness (the way God intended). Enter Konami's second DS installment, Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin. The buzz around this title has been stronger than one of the game's giant mutant killer bees. Many have called it possibly the best series entry since Symphony of the Night. Does it live up to this hype, or does it pull a Blair Witch Project on us? Read on noble adventurer.
Portrait of Ruin takes place in 1944, at the peak of World War II. During the time where humanity's resolve is being tested to its breaking point, Dracula's castle rises again (when it rains it pours). Would-be adventurer Jonathan Morris (son of John Morris from Castlevania Bloodlines for the Genesis) and sorceress Charlotte Aulin pair up to investigate this supernatural occurrence. They soon discover that it is not Dracula behind the castle's resurgence, but rather a vampire artist named Brauner and his two daughters, Stella and Loretta. Brauner controls the castle through a number of his portraits that serve as supernatural conduits to hellish planes. With the power of the castle Brauner hopes to take Dracula's place as the lord of darkness and avenge himself upon humanity.
As with all of the Game Boy Advance and DS releases, Portrait of Ruin possesses the same action RPG elements that started with Symphony of the Night in 1997. You know the drill. You gain experience based on the enemies you defeat and obtain new abilities and weapons as you progress in the game. Portrait of Ruin's level design is the same ?Metroidvania? style of past entries. The game is not broken into individual levels but rather one expansive world with many areas. This is done somewhat differently in this outing. Dracula's castle, while expansive in its own right, also serves as a central hub to access each of Brauner's paintings. These worlds include an Egyptian desert, a bizarre twisted carnival and a bewitched forest. The goal in each area is to destroy the boss and weaken Brauner's power over Castle Dracula.
What makes Portrait of Ruin stand apart from other Castlevania titles is the ability to switch between Morris and Charlotte on the fly, as opposed to the traditional lone warrior. Each has their own unique abilities that are a benefit in certain situations. For instance, Morris is the warrior and is stronger physically, while Charlotte is the spell-caster. While the player can only control one character at a time, they each share attributes such as hit and magic points. The game often forces the player to use both characters to achieve a goal. In one part, both characters must ride separate motorcycles to destroy a wall. The player must switch between the two characters to duck and avoid obstacles in order to reach the end of the track.
The game gives the player many options in terms of controlling the second, ?helper? character. The character can follow behind you under computer control or can be turned off. While inactive the player can make him or her jump in periodically to cast spells or perform attacks in Marvel vs. Capcom fashion. If the second character is hit, then your combined MP drains. Once the MP reaches zero the character disappears. When under computer control the player can order the helper character to move to certain areas with a tap of the stylus, or to simply stay put.
It is clear that Konami implemented this character swapping to help make the Castlevania formula feel fresh. However, with the exception of the parts where I had to use both characters, I became more inclined to turn the second character off as I progressed in the game. The computer AI for the second character isn't always the sharpest tool in the shed. At times environmental hazards and enemies that the player would normally easily avoid will hit the second character. This drain on your MP is prohibitive, especially during boss battles. I found the best combination was to use Jonathan as the playable character and call upon Charlotte when needed for spell casting and combined attacks.
Aside from the main game, a number of side-quests are accessible via a spirit character named Wind. This spirit will give the player an assignment that they must complete to unlock new items and abilities. These assignments range from fetching items in each of Brauner's worlds to performing special moves. I found these quests to be entertaining and prolonged the playtime tremendously. At times however Wind's hints are a bit obtuse given the sheer number of areas in the game. After all, ?find the statue's tear under the rubble,? can mean anything in a huge dilapidated castle.
Rounding out the package is a number of extra modes. The first of these is a Boss Rush mode in which the player must defeat a number of tough enemies in a certain amount of time to receive a reward. These items can be saved and used by your characters in the main game. There is also a two-player cooperative mode that can be played through both WiFi and local wireless. This functions similarly to the previous boss rush mode, only you have a human teammate to take part in the carnage. Both are entertaining diversions from the main game, but are short and feel tacked-on. Neither really screams to be played over and over again.
There is also an online Shop Mode. In this mode players can set up a shop to sell items they found in the main game to other players. Fortunately, the items you sell are only duplicates, so you never actually lose any of your hard earned spoils. I found buying from other players helpful, especially when the in-game merchant did not have what I needed. The only caveat here is that it seems that players only sell their most expensive items, so be sure to save up.
Overall, Portrait of Ruin is exactly what we have come to expect from the Castlevania series. It is engaging, action-packed and immersive. However, nothing is perfect and following suit there are a few things holding back Portrait of Ruin from the ranks of Symphony of the Night.
In terms of story, I was disappointed that the World War II timeline did not play more heavily into the game. This might as well be 1544, not 1944, as you are running around in the same decrepit medieval castle. Outside of this, the story is very clich?d. Jonathan Morris is the typical arrogant upstart with a chip on his shoulder. The chip in this case being both his long-dead father (seen it) and his inability to use the Belmont whip, the Vampire Slayer. Charlotte, on the other hand, is the teenage girl who wishes to be treated like a woman (seen it). Hopefully in the next installment Konami will focus on fresher elements instead of the bland storyline and characters that Portrait of Ruin possesses.
Some may also be disappointed that the gameplay style has not changed significantly since Symphony of the Night. This is a valid criticism since even with the team dynamics I got the feeling I had played the game before. This is largely because the gameplay is so similar to the past Nintendo handheld titles. Don't get me wrong, this is not Mega Man by any means, but it nevertheless detracts somewhat from the experience. Many of the enemies are straight up recycled from earlier games. I saw more than a few familiar faces from Symphony of the Night. This is forgivable with common foes to some extent, but when it comes to bosses it boils down to laziness on the part of the designers. The lack of variety in Brauner's worlds is also disappointing. With the exception of the Egyptian level, most of these areas were not all that different from Dracula's castle.
The graphics are some of the best in any side-scrolling Castlevania game. The character sprites are all well detailed and have terrific animation. The backgrounds are equally well drawn and adequately convey the game's atmosphere. The bottom DS screen is where the action takes place, while the top is used for the map. This is a nice feature since you don't have to keep switching back and forth between views. The stylus is used only slightly in the game. Aside from the aforementioned character movement, it is only really useful for selecting areas to warp to and from, or in the menu.
The one element that detracts from the graphics is Portrait of Ruin's anime-themed character style. Jonathan and Charlotte both look like characters we have seen in countless anime-themed media. That's not a fearless vampire killer, that's Naruto! It is hard to root for characters when they look so generic, and in Jonathan's case, androgynous. This style does not fit the dark tone of a horror-themed game.
Sound-wise the game more than measures up to the series' high standards. The music is downright terrific, with even some remixed older tunes thrown in. The sound effects are also good and include a great deal of voice work. Often times and enemy will taunt you, which adds to the atmosphere of the game. There is nothing creepier than hearing a John Wayne Gacey-esque clown yell, ?Let's play!? before attacking you.