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Review: Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin

When Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow hit the DS over a year ago, Castlevania fans rejoiced at the title, a worthy entry in the series, and certainly one of the best DS games of the year, even one of the best games of 2005 in general. It was absolutely no surprise that the game would have a follow up, and the busy bats over at Konami whipped out a sequel in a year’s time (oh, the puns). For all of its 20th Anniversary flash and fanfare, how does Portrait of Ruin stack up?

Since Portrait of Ruin uses the Dawn of Sorrow game engine and is, for the most part, a spiritual sequel to DoS, one can’t help but make comparisons. So, what are the key differences? The most obvious difference is that you play as two characters: Jonathan Morris and Charlotte Aulin. Jonathan is your physical powerhouse, and Charlotte is your petite magician. Jonathan is the son of one of the main characters from the lesser-known Castlevania: Bloodlines. He’s inherited the famous Vampire Killer whip from good ol’ Dad; however, since he is not of the Belmont bloodline and his father never taught him how to harness its power, Jonathan can’t use the whip properly, effectively making it relatively useless.

This proves as one of the pillars of the game’s storyline. Speaking of the storyline, it does a good job at serving up some fan love with subtle references to past Castlevania games, as well as not-so-subtle references. Suffice it to say that the storyline this time around is improved over Dawn of Sorrow’s–not as detailed as many other games, but definitely an admirable improvement. I’ll leave the tale untold, but either way, a storyline is meant to supplement gameplay in this case.

The gameplay of Portrait of Ruin has many similarities to last year’s entry, mainly the action/platforming gameplay, as well as the element of seeking out items and abilities to use them. Gone is the soul system from DoS, replaced by abilities that are mostly found within the environment, and a few here and there that can only be obtained from enemies.

The ability system is, in my opinion, highly improved over the soul system. For one, abilities are much easier to obtain. In addition to this is the implementation of powering your abilities up. In DoS, you had to collect multiple souls to power up your abilities. In PoR, however, your abilities with Charlotte can be powered up by dedicating a slightly longer amount of time when casting them. On the other hand, with Jonathan, using his abilities when killing enemies earns Skill Points which are used to earn Mastery of an ability, thus powering it up. This system works out great and gives incentive to use your abilities and rewards you for doing so.

Playing as two characters may sound complicated, but it is actually rather simple–you play as one character or the other, and can switch between them with a tap of a button. You can also summon your partner to be controller by the AI–when you do this, damage done to your partner is reduced from your MP rather than your HP. You can also use your partner for solving some light puzzles, and utilize their aid to pull off dual-character special attacks that obliterate your foes.

In summary, the gameplay elements are deeper and more complex than in Dawn of Sorrow, and for the most part, this is welcome and helps the game feel fresh. However, these changes may bring mixed feelings. For one, the game does not fully capitalize on the potential of puzzles and battle strategies using the two characters–it would have been nice to see the potential more fully realized.

At first, it seems like the developers took the basic skills of one character (Soma Cruz) and split it into two characters. However, as you play further through the game, you will grow to appreciate this because it makes the game more challenging–it also just seems more feasible and makes more sense. Since you have two characters, enemies and bosses (especially) are noticeably more difficult than in DoS. Though most will play through the game with a dominant choice of Jonathan, Charlotte is no pushover by any means. I actually played through most of the game as Charlotte, and was pleased to see that she holds her own very nicely. Her physical attacks are much more limited and not as strong as Jonathan’s (most of the time) but her magic abilities are much more useful and powerful than Jonathan’s, especially when you use the power-casting technique. In the end, it comes down to your preference and style of fighting, and it is great to switch back and forth between the characters to meet the situation.

Another new element thrown in is the incorporation of Quests. Quests are assigned with normally vague details and contribute to flesh out the game, rewarding you for completing them. For the most part, they are completely optional, but usually worth the time. The problem is that many of them are too vague for their own good and may have you wandering aimlessly for too long.

While there are some disappointments in the potential for the dual-character system and the quests, the main qualm I have with this game is its level design. The game is huge in comparison to Dawn of Sorrow’s castle, mainly because there is an overworld castle roughly one third to half the size of DoS’s entire game, but there are also eight painting worlds that you will explore (similar to Mario 64’s concept) that are each rather sizeable. Sounds great, right? Problem is, the later four stages are basically remixed versions of the first four. And furthermore, the stages themselves are already a little bland in their design. You will get deja vu many times as you encounter near identical rooms–it’s as if, for the most part, you’re just supposed to plow through all of the enemies in a room. Fortunately, killing things can be done in a great number of ways.

In the end, the action is solid, but the bland exploration and platforming in combination with recycled and mostly uncreative level design hurt what could’ve been a better game.

Graphics: 8

The art style is like a remixed version of Dawn of Sorrow. There are detailed character sprites, but the quality of backgrounds and enemies is kind of inconsistent. Sometimes the game looks really great, but other times it looks a little bland. For the most part, it looks good and does a couple of flashy things. Most of the time, it has great animation and backgrounds. Pretty good graphics, but probably nothing that will astound you.

Gameplay: 8.5

The dual characters, the abilities, the quests…These all expand the game and deepen it, mostly for the better. It’s huge, relatively varied in its enemies, and incorporates a few interesting puzzle and platforming elements, but for the most part, it’s really an action game. And the action is sweet and tight, with many boss battles that will have you gnashing your teeth.

There are also some WiFi connection options, but these are mainly some fluff added on to the end. There is a Shop mode for buying and selling items with other players, which is kind of cool, and a Co-Op mode, but the Co-Op mode only has one stage. Very limited multiplayer options, but considering that Dawn of Sorrow had none whatsoever, it’s a minor addition that one cannot complain much about considering it is completely optional.

Sound: 9

Castlevania games rarely ever disappoint with their soundtracks, and this one is no different. The songs are catchy and a little dark, and when complimented by the good sound effects and great voice additions, the sound comes together to help enhance the experience.

Replay Value/Challenge: 9

While the multiplayer and WiFi options are rather dry, you may squeeze a bit of time out of them. However, what’s really big is simply how large the game is and just how much there is to find and do. The quests add an extra layer on top of the proceedings, and there are many reasons to play through the game again: hard mode, including optional level caps for extra difficulty, and even two other pairs of characters to play as, including one that controls entirely with the control pad and stylus. Maybe not incredibly deep, but very cool unlockables nonetheless that will give you a good chunk of extra play time if you do so desire. The game even gives you six save slots to encourage you to start over without having to sacrifice your progress on the normal game in case you ever want to start a new game+.

Presentation: 9

The graphics and sound in combination with the decent story come together into a nice package. Jonathan and Charlotte are both likeable characters and add a fun duo dynamic to the mix. There’s even some elements of character development in there, too. Shocking, I know. Add a cup of fan service (including a really cool optional boss fight and some extra characters), a teaspoon of voice work, and sprinkle on some other subtle touches and you get a rather delicious frosting on top of the cake.

Awards:

 

Superb Soundtrack

Deep Gameplay/Value

 

 

Overall Score: 8.7

Final Word:

Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin may not feel quite as fresh as Dawn of Sorrow did a year ago, and does not make full use of its potential, but it is a solid, lengthy game that holds steadfast to the Castlevania formula while trying some new things. It may not have the same bang as some previous games, but Jonathan and Charlotte pull off a valiant effort at following in the footsteps their legendary predecessors while dancing to the beat of their own drum.

Whip it and whip it good.

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