Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin
Meet Jonathan Morris. He’s the son of the late John Morris, vampire hunter extraordinaire and the late hero of Castlevania: Bloodlines. Unlike his badass of a father, however, Jonathan is moody, self-righteous, and occasionally tempermental. Considering the legacy of his family established from previous adventures, it’s little wonder that this would-be hero has such a massive inferiority complex. He can’t even wield Vampire Killer, the legendary whip handed down from the Belmont family to Jonathan’s ancestors. The fact that he has to rely on a stuck-up young witch named Charlotte Aulin as his backup makes him seem all the more pathetic. Regardless of his questionable skills as a vampire hunter, Jonathan has come to Castlevania in the height of World War II to vanquish evil yet again.
Like his father before him, our hero will venture forth into the inner recesses of Dracula’s castle and smite any zombies, vampires, and whatever else that get in his way. He’ll start off wielding the useless Vampire Hunter whip, but he’ll eventually acquire a huge arsenal of other whips, swords, maces, lances, and a few other weapons of minor destruction. Aside from affecting Jonathan’s stats and combat capabilities, each weapon possesses different special attacks, be it boosted attack damage, faster hits, or other little features. On top of that, Jonathan can also acquire a wide variety of subweapons that can be used to augment his arsenal and can be leveled up to dish out some truly devastating moves. Though you’ll get to wield a few unconventional weapons like shurikens and darts, you’ll get the chance to unlock Holy Water, Crosses, and a few other staples of older Castlevania games.
If you’ve played any of the last few titles in the handheld Castlevania series, this should sound all too familiar to you. As in previous GBA/DS games, you get to play as a young vampire hunter, find weapons, and work your way through Dracula’s home. However, Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin gives us something that previous titles couldn’t: a second character that can fight alongside the main hero at the same time. In a similar concept to the Sonic and Tails relationship in Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Charlotte will keep pace with Jonathan (or vice versa, depending on which character you prefer) and help him slay whatever cross their path. Unlike Tails, however, Charlotte is not a helpless or mindless automaton; not only can she provide excellent backup in a fight, but she will also find a wide variety of weapons in the form of magic spells as well. She can fling fireballs, set up shields to cover the pair from enemy fire, and even morph into different creatures to access hard-to-reach areas.
You can play as either character, and summon the second whenever the need arises. The point of having two characters is not to use them exclusively, but as a team. Both will be required to solve certain puzzles, be it reaching a faraway ledge, hitting switches, and pushing obstacles out of the way. These two characters have distinct strengths; Jonathan as a direct, close-range melee fighter, and Charlotte as a distant spell-caster with superb support magic and a handful excellent offensive magic. You can toggle between the two of them at will, given that you have enough energy charged up in your magic meter. Should your support character get hit, the damage will be dealt to your magic, effectively cutting off your ability to use subweapons or magic respectively. On the other hand, having two characters fighting at once has its benefits; you can choose your secondary character’s attacks, and then trigger them using the R Button. Also, you’ll be able to acquire some awesome (albeit utterly broken) “Dual Crush” moves that can use both characters’ powers. If you’ve got enough energy stored up (you’ll know when your magic meter starts flashing) you’ll be able to fire bolts of holy light, summon meteors, and unleash all sorts of chaos upon Dracula’s hapless minions.
The dual-character combat and puzzle solving mechanics aren’t the only new features of Portrait of Ruin, either. At first glance, this game will seem like just another handheld Castlevania game; you’ve got a castle that requires platforming gameplay and exploration a la Metroid, complete with interconnecting pathways, long hallways, and a multitude of rooms. If anything, this rendition of Dracula’s abode seems kind of small and a little too oversimplified; you’ll be able to access much of the map in a fairly short amount of time. However, this rather seemingly uncomplicated map layout tricks you into believing that the game is short. Though the castle doesn’t offer much in exploration, it makes up for it with the ten portraits strewn throughout the place. These paintings aren’t for decoration, however; within each portrait exists a separate dungeon that will require you enter, defeat the all the baddies inside, and acquire whatever items you come across. None of these dungeons are particularly elaborate, but the sheer amount of challenge and exploration required will keep you busy for hours.
That’s right, all you obsessive gamers. You’ve got ten different maps to complete, eventually adding up to a 1000% completion rating. You’ll likely spend hours exploring every dungeon, with your eyes glued to the screen and drool running down your face as you look for well-hidden secret rooms. The size of game won’t be the only thing to keep you coming back, however. Portrait of Ruin features online co-op gameplay, allowing you and a friend to team up against evil or simply purchase items from each other. Early on in the game, you’ll meet Wind, the ghost of a former vampire hunter that will give you all sorts of sidequests and random missions to complete. These tasks vary widely; you could be asked to acquire certain items and bring them back to learn a spell, kill enough enemies to get a new weapon, and get enough percentage of the map completed to unlock an obscenely tough bonus dungeon for Castlevania diehards. The game also boasts the standard Boss Rush challenge, higher difficulty levels, and even an alternate gameplay mode that Dracula X and Symphony of the Night fans will be sure to appreciate.
In fact, much of Portrait of Ruin is an homage to previous games. The background of Jonathan Morris is one of the game’s several connections to Bloodlines. The Vampire Killer, one of the focal aspects of the story, includes direct references to Richter Belmont’s adventures in Dracula X. Should you search enough, you’ll even run across a few familiar faces from Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. A good portion of the music is comprised of remixes of older Castlevania soundtracks as well. Despite such throwbacks, this game offers plenty of its own original content. All of the levels have their own look and theme, be it the Egyptian temple covered in hieroglyphs, the murky and rain-drenched forests, or the abandoned villages. Though many of the enemy sprites were taken from Dawn of Sorrow, several of the foes have been redone; you’ll get to see the magic spells floating through the air, hear the rattling of bones against the floor, and fight the occasional 3D monster. Also, many of your foes can now speak English fluently. There’s nothing quite as weird as hearing a succubus calling Charlotte a “filthy cow” and trying to seduce Jonathan. The two heroes are just as detailed and chatty; you can see their clothes rippling in the wind, watch them strike poses during Dual Crush summons, and yell each other’s names when being summoned.
Castlevania fans now face a problem. The Metroid-esque gameplay of Portrait of Ruin has not been changed from its predecessors on the GBA and DS. You have heroes that will get weapons, level up, find items to progress, and eventually explore every nook and cranny of a massive castle. But before you shake your head in disdain and proclaim that this game offers nothing new, consider what this game does have: a decent follow-up to Bloodlines, characters with plenty of personality, and plenty of content to enjoy. Between the different maps, the weapon leveling, the secret bosses, sidequests, and extra gameplay and online co-op modes, you’re going to have your hands full. If anything else, the sheer amount of older Castlevania game references ought to send fans awash in nostalgia. But even if you’re not a follower of the series, don’t worry; in terms of action gaming on the DS, Portrait of Ruin is second to none.