Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin
Distributed by: Konami
Reviewed by Frank L. Ocasio
What is a man?
Okay, either you answered with something witty and deep or something completely clueless. Or you answered correctly. If you're not exactly sure whether you did or not, don't worry about it--I only asked as a filter: If you replied correctly, I could just say, "It's better than Dawn, but not as good as Aria and nowhere close to touching Symphony," and you could move on to another review or the message boards to talk about how much you loved Symphony of the Night.
If you replied incorrectly, well, just keep reading.
For hundreds of years, the Belmont family of vampire hunters has used the mighty whip known as the Vampire Slayer to do exactly what you'd imagine with it. In some cases (as in Castlevania: Bloodlines), the whip wasn't even brandished by a Belmont. In other cases, the battle wasn't even with the evil Count Dracula (as in Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow). Whether or not you prefer Belmonts whipping Dracula in the face though (I definitely love holy whips to vampire faces), one thing's for sure: switching up protagonist types and villains has breathed a lot of freshness into the series, somewhat saving gamers from the downright unchanged adventure that Castlevania can be. With that same motive in mind, Konami brings us their newest installment of the series on the Nintendo DS, Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin--a game with no Belmonts and a definite deficiency of Dracula.
So is this even a Castlevania game then? Yeah, and it's actually a pretty damn good one. It's got everything a good Castlevania game is supposed to have: addictive, exploration-geared gameplay; a large, 2D map to traverse; a crap load of weapons and upgradeable special abilities; side quests; tons of enemies to slay; and pretty 2D visuals. Surprisingly though, this game also has a story that's not too shabby as well as a serious gameplay upgrade--you play as two people: the successor to the Vampire Slayer, Jonathan Morris and the annoying school girl/witch, Charlotte Aulin. I know, I know--I just said "school girl/witch," but it's easy to ignore Charlotte. Observe:
Jonathan Morris and his partner--lets call her Mittens the Cat if you must call her anything--arrive at Dracula's Castle to stop Brauner, a vampire artist who's using the power of his portraits to control and siphon the castle's dark energy into himself. Aside from the merchant priest Vincent, the party meets Brauner's two vampire daughters and a ghost who calls himself Wind.
To complicate things though, Jonathan can't use the Vampire Slayer. Sure, he can whip things/monsters/people with it, but not to the weapon's full potential. So how will he and Mittens defeat Brauner if he gains Dracula's power? Will they be able to stop him or will Brauner's daughters cleave Jonathan's quest short? What does the mysterious Wind have to do with anything? And what is Death, who's surprisingly anti-Brauner (because Brauner is attempting to steal Dracula's power), planning?g?g?
I won’t spoil it all for you by saying any more, but I will say that the team system that Portrait offers makes gameplay pretty fresh and fun. At the drop of a hat, you can switch between Jonathan and Mittens, giving you a wide range of both melee special moves and magic to choose from. You can also have both characters on screen at once, however, controlling one while the computer controls the other. This allows for team abilities (like pushing very heavy objects Jonathan and Mittens wouldn’t be able to push alone), and gives way for Team Attacks as well (elaborate moves that usually hit everything on screen).
Will this new feature completely change the way fans play Castlevania though? No. Not yet, at least. It is great having two characters with different abilities readily accessible, but the adventure never really favors either one; there won’t be any time where you’ll absolutely need to play as Jonathan or his partner aside from the occasional enemy, boss, or rare puzzle elements. More likely than not, you’ll do exactly what I did through my entire Portrait of Ruin experience—play as Jonathan the entire time, switching to his partner on rare occasions that call for healing or offensive magic. Or, perhaps, you’ll play Mittens a lot and switch to Jonathan rarely, despite the fact that Jonathan acquires a plethora of weapons while his partner acquires about five. Either way, the fact that your secondary character will drain away your MP when they get hit (which will probably happen often with their barely decent AI) and the fact that most enemies go down easily enough from the onslaught of one character, will probably keep you flying solo.
But you’ll have fun regardless. And surprisingly, the absence of a Belmont in yet another Castlevania title actually does the Belmonts justice here and makes the Vampire Killer feel more legendary and powerful than it ever has. No, the experience won’t be earth shattering, and no, the DS is not at all used to its full capacity (I’m actually not sure you’ll use your stylus at all in the normal game), but as far as action games go on the DS and as far as storylines in this series go, Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin definitely pulls its weight in greenbacks.
One more thing before I quit: If you’ve played the last couple of Castlevania games, you can guess what replay value Portrait will offer. Yep—a bonus mode featuring a different protagonist. However, one of these modes is an actual bonus story mode and uses the stylus the entire time. It’s probably the niftiest bonus character mode I’ve seen in a Castlevania title in quite a while. Oh, and it’s only one of the two bonus character modes I know about.
Grading: On a Scale From 1-10, 10 Being the Best
Overall Gameplay: 8