Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin
Review by Mike Finkelstein
A few years after the turn of the century, Dracula was bested by an enemy from his past, John Morris (son of Quincy Morris, killed in Bram Stoker's book, Dracula, and setup for the storyline in Castlevania Bloodlines). Years later still, the next son of the Morris clan, Johnathan Morris Jr., has arrived at the demon castle to destroy Dracula. Aided by his friend, Charlotte Aulin (heir to the Belnades clan), the two enter the castle looking for Dracula, but what they find is a bigger mystery, instead.
It seems that Dracula's castle returned, not by Dracula's power, but under the control of a new villain, Brauner, a vampire and evil painter. Brauner has his own agenda seperate from raising Dracula, but the goal is clear: Brauner must be destroyed. In the process, Johnathan must also gain control and power for his whip (the Vampire Killer, a whip that just so happened to kill John Morris because John wasn't a Belmont, and if Johnathan uses the whip too much, it could kill him, too). Through all of this, the two heroes must team up, explore, venture to new worlds, and rid the castle of the pervading evil that always lives within its walls.
Portrait of Ruin, the second Castlevania game for the Nintendo DS, features gameplay that should now feel all-too-familiar to modern Castlevania players. Our two heroes, Johnathan and Charlotte, explore the castle in the now-standard Symphony-style gameplay, looking for new powers, spells, items, and everything else they'll need to free-run through the castle. The big twist this time around is that the two character explore simultaneously -- both characters are on one screen, one in the lead (while the other follows), and the player can actively switch between the two, using each of their powers as needed for the situation.
Functionally, Johnathan is like most Belmonts. He can use his whip, although he can also equip various other weapons (swords, axes, etc.). He has access to various sub-weapons (the standards from the series, plus a variety of additional items (boomerangs, discs, javelins, and even paper airplanes, among others). Plus he can learn martials arts, special attacks that can be activated with button presses and combos. He's a good, all-around warrior, and stronger defensively than Charlotte.
Meanwhile, Charlotte is the sorceress, but unlike previous Belnades clan-members, Charlotte can learn and gain access to a large variety of spells. Unlike already knowing ice, Charlotte can learn Ice Needles and Ice Fang. Unlike already knowing fire, Charlotte can learn Raging Fire and Salamander. Her variety makes the spell-casting more interesting, although (as is always the case) you'll probably find specific spells you like and use most of the time, ignoring others.
One of the big claims of Portrait of Ruin was the scale of the castle and the large number of areas that could be explored... but then this is sort of a fudge of the facts. There are thirteen areas to explore for a grand total of 1000% exploration, six of those areas inside the main castle, while the rest are sealed inside paintings -- the player will explore these paintings as well as the main castle. Four of the paintings, though, are just more difficult remixes of previous paintings ("Forest of Doom" and "Dark Academy", "Nation of Fools" and "Burnt Paradise", etc.), and each of these areas is markedly smaller than the main castle. The total castle isn't much bigger than in other games, and will take you about as long to play through (so those hoping for a more lengthy experience will probably be disappointed).
Really, though, players looking for a new experience won't find much new in Portrait. There's more of eveything, sure, but it all plays and feels the same as previous games. Even the bonus modes are all expected and mostly the same as before. There's a "Boss Rush", as always now, and once again you fight bosses in a race against time. You can also unlock additional characters, although most of them have been playable in previous games (and some of the inclusions are weird, like Richter and Maria exploring together, fun but insubstantial). As with previous games, there's nothing new here, and you'll probably end up bored before you've fully explored every mode.
On the graphical front, the game isn't really refined so much as republished. The game doesn't look any better or worse than Dawn of Sorrow (the previous year's iteration). The stages are different from the previous game, but every location could have been in Dawn and looked right at home (well, except for "Sandy Grave"/"Forgotten City", ancient Egyptian-themed stages that are far outside the normal look for Castlevania stages). It's all clean and good looking, but not really new or fresh.
Oddly, the soundtrack is much improved over previous games -- a bright spot in an otherwise expected game. There are a number of standout tracks, including "The Hidden Curse", "Hail from the Past", "Jail of Jewels", and (my personal favorite) "The Gears Go Awry". Later stages feature a number of quality remixes, including "Iron Blue Intention" (originally in Bloodlines) and "Crucifix Held Close" ("Cross Your Heart" in Haunted Castle), although I am in no way a fan of the Portrait version of "Bloodlines Bequeathed" (originally from Rondo of Blood) -- it has some stylistic flourishes that I think detract from the song, ruining an otherwise exceptional track.
What we're left with is a game with a lot of good ideas and some bright spots mired in the fact that the basic play-style of the series has started to get quite long in the tooth. Yearly releases of the same formula have resulted in a fatigue of the "same old game" (commonly called the "Capcom Syndrome"). On its own, if it had been released years earlier, the game would probably be hailed as a classic, an improvement in every way. Now six entries into the Metroidvania "series", the same old gameplay isn't going to cut it anymore. It's a good game brought down by too much of the same old-same old. You won't find anything new here, and that's really starting to become an issue.