Release Date: December 5, 2006
If you haven't heard of Castlevania: Bloodlines, don't be ashamed. Released late in the Genesis' lifecycle, it is probably the most obscure Castlevania to be released in the United States; even the Japanese-only Rondo of Blood is better known. Bloodlines chronicles the story of John Morris, son of Bram Stoker's Dracula character Quincy Morris, and his friend Eric Lecard. The first person to wield the Vampire Killer whip who wasn't a member of the Belmont Clan, Morris defeated Dracula and settled into obscurity. The fact that Konami decided to make a sequel comes as a pleasant shock to those die-hard Castlevania fans who never expected to see the Morris family again.
Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin is a direct sequel to Bloodlines. Set during the events of World War II, Jonathan Morris, son of John and grandson of Quincy, and his platonic childhood friend Charlotte discover that Castlevania has once again been resurrected. The duo sets out to seal the cursed castle once again, although Jonathan is, for some unknown reason, unable to use the Vampire Killer whip. However, instead of Dracula, Castlevania's current master is a vampire artist known as Brauner, who is controlling the power of the castle with a series of magical paintings. Charlotte and Jonathan must work together to unlock the power of the Vampire Killer and slay Brauner before he can unleash his plan to destroy humanity.
Unlike its prequel, Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin is one of the "Castleroid" type of games. Rather than a side-scrolling platformer, Portrait of Ruin plays more like Symphony of the Night or Dawn of Sorrow. Players take the duo through the castle, finding new equipment and battling monsters to gain levels. Unlike recent Castlevania offerings, however, only about 1/10th of the game takes place inside Castlevania, and the rest takes place inside of Brauner's portraits. Made of magical paint, these portraits actually contain entire worlds to explore, ranging from a rainy London town to the desert crypt of an Egyptian pharaoh. Each Portrait has its own area to explore, although the overall size of each feels a bit smaller than those found in other Castlevania titles. In fact, the entire game feels smaller. Stages can be finished in a matter of minutes, and the entire game can be finished in less than six hours, with 1000% Map Completion coming with only a few more hours' exploration.
Learning the strengths and weaknesses of the two characters plays a major part in surviving the game's challenges. Jonathan is more focused on physical combat, while Charlotte is more of a magician. Combat with Jonathan is primarily based around his weaponry. Like Soma or Alucard, Jonathan can equip a large of number of different weapons, from swords and axes to the series' iconic whip. Each has his/her own strengths and weaknesses, and some enemies are more vulnerable to certain attacks than others.
Beyond equippable weapons, Jonathan can also find a large number of "skills." A modified version of the sub-weapons found in other games, skills are special weapons that require MP to use, but have unique attributes. Using a skill repeatedly causes it to acquire SP, and collecting enough SP to master the skill causes it to evolve to a new and more powerful form. Charlotte, on the other hand, can only use "Book" weapons, but has access to a wide variety of magic spells. Beyond the various elemental combat spells, Charlotte is also able to use buffing, healing and even transformation spells. The two characters can also combine their abilities to use a "Dual Crush" attack, which does massive amounts of damage.
The biggest difference between Portrait of Ruin and the earlier titles in the series is the addition of the Dual Character system. Similar to the hidden Julius mode in Dawn of Sorrow, players have access to both characters, who share a single life and magic bar. The two characters can be switched at the press of a button; likewise, the secondary character can also be summoned to fight alongside the primary as an A.I.-controlled assistant. When the assistant takes damage, it is subtracted from the player's MP, not HP, and if the MP hits bottom, the secondary character is returned to the sidelines. The second summoned character may also be ordered with button commands and using the touch-screen, which is the key to a few puzzles. While an interesting idea in theory, controlling both characters at the same time doesn't work so well in practice. The secondary character is either too weak to be useful, or so powerful that it can be ordered to tear through enemies at zero risk to the player. Similarly, few puzzles take advantage of the two-character setup and of those, many feel strangely forced.
Another new addition to the Castlevania system is Quests. A mysterious ghost by the name of "Wind" haunts Dracula's castle, the remnants of a hero killed by Brauner. After Jonathan and Charlotte meet Wind, he offers to share his experience and abilities with them in form of training quests, ranging from finding rare items to defeating specific enemies or using specific techniques. By completing the quest, Jonathan and Charlotte can return to Wind to get new abilities and weaponry. The Quests are an interesting concept, and often quite fun as a sort of puzzle, but are often a bit too obscure and frustrating for too little reward. Being told, "Find a random animal somewhere in some area," drags a bit, and when the reward is a nearly useless item, it almost makes you want to smash something. Luckily, a number of the rewards are significantly more helpful, including new whip techniques and even an entirely new bonus area to explore.
One of the more hyped features of Portrait of Ruin is that Konami has taken the Castlevania series online for the first time. Players with access to a Wi-Fi connection can play Shop and Co-op modes online. While this sounds like a great idea, the actual execution feels tacked-on and pointless. Shop Mode is one of those concepts that just don't work. As players progress through the game, they can place items they find in a shop and then sell them to other players online. However, this system features a number of significant flaws. Players don't lose any item they place online, so there is no downside to placing incredibly powerful equipment for sale and taking in massive profits. Likewise, there is nothing but money preventing early-game players from buying incredibly powerful equipment and plowing through the game. While it can be nice if you accidentally sold an item you needed, it is far too open to abuse for its own good.
Co-op is not much better. As players progress, they unlock three different "Boss Rush" modes, featuring enemies both from Portrait of Ruin and from the previous DS game, Dawn of Sorrow These can be tackled single-player or wirelessly with another Portrait of Ruin owner, using Jonathan and Charlotte, or a number of other unlockable characters. While not terribly fun, it is a significantly better multiplayer mode than Dawn of Sorrow's.
The real flaw comes with the Wi-Fi play. In Wi-Fi Co-p, players are limited to Charlotte and Jonathan, and only to a single Rush, which is a massively dumbed-down version of the easiest of the three normal Boss Rush modes. Once you've completed it, there's no reason to go back and do it again. The frustration comes from the fact that, with a few more "stages," this Co-op could have been a real interesting addition. The Wi-Fi play is quick and lag-free, and working together with another player is a real challenge. There's just no depth to it.
Besides the online modes, Portrait of Ruin does feature a number of extras that add to its replay value. There are three different game modes besides Jonathan and Charlotte's, each with its own characters and play style. These modes offer significantly different gameplay from Jonathan and Charlotte's adventures, with each having access to abilities and weapons not found in the main game. One mode is actually played entirely using only the d-pad and stylus. Beyond that, there is also a Hard mode unlocked once players finish the game. There is an obvious increase in difficulty, but hard mode also allows the gamer to set a "level cap" that prevents their chosen characters from advancing above a specific level. Those eager players who enjoy beating Castlevania at level 1 no longer have to avoid every enemy they face. While these extra modes don't entirely make up for the game's short length, they help a lot.
Dawn of Sorrow was a visual treat. With a number of new sprites, beautiful level design and fantastic bosses, it was perhaps the game that came closest to matching Symphony of the Night's beautiful sprites, and in some ways even surpassed them. That is why it is such a disappointed that Portrait of Ruin suffers from some very serious graphical flaws.
First and foremost is the level design. The first four portrait levels and the main castle all look excellent. They have a stunning amount of detail, from bottles falling off a shelf as you jump on it to rain dripping through a hole in the roof to warn you of a breakable wall. However, the second set of portraits is just a rehash of the first. It uses the same tile sets and in many cases, the exact same room design. In a way, it is like the Upside-down Castle from Symphony of the Night, but the execution is far more lackluster. Likewise, the new sprites in Portrait of Ruin are excellent. They feature a number of great details and interesting redesigns of some classic monsters. However, Portrait of Ruin also reuses a staggering amount of Dawn of Sorrow's sprites. While using old sprites is a bit of a Castlevania tradition, Portrait of Ruin takes things above and beyond the norm, to the point where whole stages appear to be rehashes. The reused sprites also don't match up well to the new ones, and it often appears as if you're being attacked by monsters from two different art styles. It's a small problem, but makes Portrait of Ruin feel much more slapped-together than the last DS offering.
As for sound … C'mon, it's Castlevania, and even a bad-sounding Castlevania game usually has a number of great songs. While Portrait of Ruin doesn't quite match up the Symphony of the Night, it has a number of excellent tunes that do a good job of keeping you in the mood. Portrait of Ruin also includes a large amount of voice-acting in both English and optional Japanese, although very little of it is dialogue. The acting is fairly well done and adds a nice little touch to various enemies, although hearing the same yell over and over again quickly grows tiresome. Still, Portrait of Ruin is one title for which you'll want to keep up the volume.
All in all, Castlevania Portrait of Ruin is very short, fairly slapdash and kind of easy, but this doesn't stop it from being a worthy addition to a fantastic franchise. With multiple play modes, a number of interesting bosses and all the fun that comes from the Castlevania franchise, those with a DS are strongly encouraged to pick up this newest edition. Those who've never played a Castlevania title may feel a little lost but should be able to grasp the mechanics — if not the plot — quickly.