"Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin is as rewarding an experience as the series is likely to ever provide. Itís huge, itís fun and itís devious in all the right amounts. I can think of only two flaws: nothing here feels overwhelmingly new compared to previous installments, and sometimes you have to wander around breaking apart too many candlesticks for gold because healing items and accessories are so expensive."
Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin is as rewarding an experience as the series is likely to ever provide. Itís huge, itís fun and itís devious in all the right amounts. I can think of only two flaws: nothing here feels overwhelmingly new compared to previous installments, and sometimes you have to wander around breaking apart too many candlesticks for gold because healing items and accessories are so expensive. Those are my only gripes. Otherwise, the game is nearly flawless.
Like any Castlevania, Portrait of Ruin begins with Draculaís Castle appearing from out of a foreboding mist. It beckons heroes to yet again vanquish the terrible evil lurking inside. In this case, a dark vampire named Brauner and his two daughters provide the nastiness. Together, they hope to bring humanity to destruction. Any further discussion would involve spoilers, but know this: the game is the perfect bridge between the events in Castlevania: Bloodlines on the Genesis and Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow on the Game Boy Advance, set at the recent turn to the 21st century. You even play as the son of John Morris, Jonathon, as he fights to right the worldís wrongs alongside his lovely assistant, Charlotte.
When I say Ďalongside,í I mean that quite literally. Portrait of Ruin breaks from the path its predecessors tread by allowing simultaneous control of both heroes, if you wish. By default, youíll wander the castle as either Jonathon or Charlotte, but pressing a single button switches between them. Alternatively, you can have them tagging along together. This concept is applied to a few simple puzzles scattered throughout the game. One has you ride two motorcycles at the same time, trading off between the characters to avoid obstacles that will make you crash before the appointed time. There are other similar brain teasers elsewhere in the game, but youíll find that the bulk of time the two heroes spend together is during battle.
Obviously, this had the potential to make the game too easy if it wasnít executed with the proper restraint. Itís easy to imagine a situation where one character is invincible and does damage while you simply dodge attacks and await victory. Thatís not how it works, though. If you have a tag-a-long, he or she will disappear if your magic meter empties. Then you must do without aide (and your own magical abilities) until it regenerates. Caution is therefore advisable.
One particular passage serves as a good example. As you approach an incline, you hear the sound of a rolling boulder. Just in time, you jump and save yourself from a blow that would typically take off a good quarter to half of your life meter. Next your computer-controlled partner mimics the evasive maneuver, but thereís a delay. The lag is enough that he or she bears the brunt of the blow and your meter drains more quickly than you might like. When timing is crucial, youíll do without your ally.
Boss encounters are one exception to that rule. When youíre facing someone big and powerful, you want to rack up damage as quickly as possible. Thatís because the encounters in Portrait of Ruin, though seldom cheap, settle somewhere between manageable and brutal. Some bosses have obvious weak points you can exploit for success, such as a gelatinous being that rolls up in a wheeled cauldron and starts spewing ectoplasm all over the place (just stay near to his base while your helper mops up the slime and youíll do just fine). Others have fairly complex attack patterns that force you to watch them closely so you can get an idea for what theyíll do next and plan accordingly. Then there are foes like Death, who is as difficult to conquer as ever. You also donít have to worry about sealing them with the stylus to put them to sleep for good; thatís one nuisance that thankfully stayed behind with Dawn of Sorrow.
Even with teamwork, boss battles can easily end your adventure prematurely if you donít have the right items. You donít go about stealing monster souls, but you can find magical scrolls that summon many of them in times of need and you can grab life extensions and magic upgrades, plus a fine assortment of weapons and capabilities. Besides providing you with more effective ways to dispose of your adversaries, the latter often help you to explore. When you see a ledge just out of your reach, you know youíll be back once you have the double jump or can change form. Portrait of Ruin is also stingy with the hints about what to do next and leaves you to explore for yourself. Some might not find many of the gameís secrets for that reason, but I wouldnít have it any other way. Part of the fun comes from suspecting that something fantastic lies just around the next corner, then finding by yourself that you were correct.
Many of the coolest moments have to do with something else thatís new to the title, the eponymous ďPortrait of Ruin.Ē Brauner keeps mysterious artwork lying about the castle, just oozing magical energy for some dark purpose only he knows. Your goal is to remove the foreboding paintings that block the way to his masterpiece, which you do by entering them and defeating the bosses that lurk in their darkest depths. The concept of unique portraits allowed the developers to play around with the scenery a little bit. Though most of the areas donít look all that different from Draculaís Castle as youíve seen it in the past, there are still neat moments like when you wander across shifting sands to explore a pyramid, or when you venture along the edge of a forest and even through a train station.
Strong visuals and the usual awe-inspiring compositions heighten the mood. Youíll find a few moments that are downright impressive, like when you approach a blackened tree and ravens fly away in a flurry, or when you happen across an angry hornet hive. Late in the game, try not to shiver when you run along a hallway and bloody handprints spatter the wall behind you like crimson rain drops. Detail extends to some particularly impressive bosses that fill much of the screen. Even some standard monsters impress, like a dragon that emerges from geysers of sand and crumbles apart as you whip him. Whether youíre in the middle of battle or not, youíll probably keep the volume going for the haunting melodies that make each hallway that much creepier, each cavern that little bit darker. Youíll also appreciate the shouts and screams various characters emit. Thanks to the presentation, each location you unearth is new and exciting.
Portraits are about more than just a change in scenery, too. Each one comes with its own percentage and map. Draculaís Castle, though large, only provides 100% out of a significantly higher total. Youíll search for hidden rooms will take you all over the place, lost in the madness of it all but loving every second. Because the Castlevania series is so prolific, youíll find palette swaps infrequent. Thereís little need for them when there are 150 different creatures to see. Conquering the game with the maximum percentage unlocked doesnít mean youíve truly experienced everything, either.
After the game ends, thereís the standard ďBoss RushĒ mode and a higher selectable difficulty level (plus special characters, including one set that makes you glad you have a stylus), but thatís not all Iím talking about. Even during your first trip through, youíll find a mysterious character named Wind who gives you special quests you can fulfill to acquire health boosts, new skills and even access to a new portrait. He might ask you to return while wearing three pieces of clothing that belonged to a nun, or to strike a side of beef in a butcherís shop. Such objectives keep you running throughout the halls long after youíve explored every corner.
You might expect something like that from Castlevania, but this time around you can share the adventure with others. Besides Charlotteís companionship, youíll find plenty of people online with items to sell. You can even manage your own storefront. Itís also possible to find friends and then rush through special challenges together with your bulked up characters, then check your ranking and record.
Such tweaks truly make Portrait of Ruin worth playing, even if itís not a huge overhaul of the same formula Konami has been selling us for nearly ten years. If the notion of wandering through a bunch of twisting corridors and fighting vampires and their friends makes you irritable, stay away from this game and play whatever else it is that suits your fancy. If you like new adventures in Draculaís Castle, though, this is the best of its kind. Donít miss it.
Staff review by Jason Venter (December 12, 2006)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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