Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin
Although the Castlevania series had suffered on home consoles, attempting to find a way to transition into 3D game play although each game (Castlevania 64, Castlevania: Lament of Innocence, and Castlevania: Curse of Darkness each was met with varying shade of indifference), the series had continued to crank out moderately successful title after another on portable systems. The sales number for the hand-held games were good, and once the series made the transition to the Nintendo DS with Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, the groundwork was laid to extend the franchise for a while yet in that market.
Although the previous two titles in the series, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow and Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, had come out essentially back-to-back, the third portable title in a row wasn't yet another "Sorrow" game. Instead, series producer Koji "IGA" Igarashi went further back in the timeline to make a sequel to the Sega Genesis release, Castlevania: Bloodlines. This was an interesting choice, certainly, as Bloodlines wasn't exactly a strong performer upon its release, with some accounts calling it the worst selling game in the series at a mere 40,000 units sold during its life. But where that game failed, this next game had the promise to correct that wrong and be another solid seller for the franchise.
The resulting title was Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin (titled Akumajo Dorakyura Gyarari obu Rabirinsu in Japan, translated as "Demon Castle Dracula: Gallery of Labyrinth"), was a modest hit in line with the previous sales figures for the series. Focusing on Johnathan Morris (son of John Morris) and Charlotte Aulin (heir to the Belnades Clan), the game follows their exploits through Castle Dracula as a new vampire, Brauner, and his two vampire daughters set up shop in the monster-filled edifice with an eye towards ruling over the countryside.
The game is another in in the Metroidvania series of titles IGA had been perfecting, a solidly built RPG/action hybrid with plenty to do and many areas to explore. This game seems to be designed with a "more is more" approach to the series, giving players more of everything they liked about the previous few hand-held titles. Instead of having just one castle to explore there was now a castle along with a slew of magical paintings that would transport players to new worlds. Instead of use one hero there were now two who could switch back and forth (and work together). There was so much to see and do in the game that, at least on paper, the game could keep players busy for days.
The game was praised, for the most part, for everything the players could do. The two-hero mechanic certainly added a new spice to the game, letting players, in essence, take on the roles from Castlevania 64, but at the same time. The variety of locations, many of which were new locales not seen in a Castlevania game before, lent the game a refreshed air. And it helped add new life to a classic game, Bloodlines, that hadn't gotten much respect back when it was first released.
That said, some critics were right in pointing out that the quest of the game was fairly linear, at least in the first half, and that for all the new variety put into the title it still played a lot like predecessor Dawn of Sorrow. Of course, it played like that game as it was built on the same engine (with natural improvements over time, of course) -- these games were cheaper to produce if the wheel didn't have to be reinvented each time, and IGA could put out three of these in as many years with the help of that engine and its cost saving technology.
Portrait is a bit of a bridge between the past and the future, then. It's the next-to-last mainline title from IGA, and also the next-to-last proper Metroidvania he'd work on. It's something of an opus, is scale and scope, certainly illustrating just how far IGA's style of games could be pushed. Artistically it's a stunning achievement and really stretches the bounds of what came before. But it's not yet the harbinger of the end of the era, either, or the changes to come. It's pure Castlevania without all the drama and broken dreams to come as Konami slowly shifts its focus around from this bread-and-butter franchise for other prospects.