I’ll start this review by getting right to the point. If you have played any of Konami’s GBA or DS Castlevania games, you’ll be playing them again with Portrait of Ruin. That means if you haven’t liked any of the previous “Metroidvania” games, no need to read further.
For the rest of you who are either fans of the style of gameplay or at least find you can enjoy them somewhat, read on.
Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin is Konami’s seventh installment of their Castlevania series on handheld, and the fifth to use the Symphony of the Night leveling/map system. In addition, since this is the 20th anniversary of the Castlevania franchise, Portrait of Ruin (PoR) preorders came with a box including a soundtrack with tracks from almost every game, a chronology fold out for the series, and a booklet containing cover artwork and commentary from series bigwigs such as composer Michiru Yamane and illustrator Ayami Kojima. It really is a beautiful package, and is definitely fan-friendly.
But how is the game itself, you might wonder? Let’s break it down.
It’s 1944, and World War II has killed a lot of people who now have nothing better to do but be angry spirits. All the spiritual bad karma calls back Dracula’s Castle, albeit without the Prince of Darkness himself. That doesn’t stop the vampire Brauner and his daughters, however, who decide to take the power of Castlevania to try and destroy all humanity.
Enter Jonathan Morris, son of the late John Morris, whom you may remember from the Genesis title Castlevania: Bloodlines. Along with his magic-using companion, Charlotte Aulin, he is called upon by the Church to destroy Brauner and Drac’s Castle using the famous whip in care of his family: Vampire Killer. Unfortunately, before papa Morris kicked it, he never taught Jonathan how to use the dern thing, so it’s about as useful against the undead as a wet noodle.
Not one to let that stop him, though, Jonathan takes on the castle anyway, and so the game begins.
My evaluation of the story is as follows; it’s a Castlevania game, you need to kill vampires and demons, and if you’re looking for something deeper and more involved…why are you playing a Castlevania game?! Jonathan and Charlotte are your typical easygoing jock with daddy issues and prudent scolding bookworm, respectively. Add in twin vampire chicks bent on killing you, a mysterious ghost giving you quests, and a cowering priest who overcharges for potions, and you’ve got all the makings of a stock anime. Heck, there’s even an opening anime video ala Dawn of Sorrow.
Still, the story and characters aren’t going to make you want to kill yourself, so it’s tolerable, but definitely nothing special. The one lone exception is the item descriptions, which are often quite amusing.
The gameplay is where PoR truly shines…at least as much as any of the other Castlevania handhelds. For those of you who have no familiarity at all with the series, you go through the castle, filling out the map (and the concurrent percentage rating) finding weapons, armor, and accessories, fighting enemies and bosses, exposing secret passages, and every now and then using your abilities to get to new areas. Jonathan can wield a variety of weapons, such as whips, one and two-handed swords, spears, axes, daggers, and fist weapons, while Charlotte fights with books. In addition, Jonathan can spend MP to use sub-weapons which power up as you use them, while Charlotte can spend MP to cast magic.
This brings us to the biggest change to the series; you can actually switch off between characters or have them both on screen to fight at the same time. Okay, maybe Julius mode in Dawn of Sorrows did this as well, but not in the main game. As a note, all physical combat really should be handled by Jonathan, and Charlotte really should just be used for casting magic. Fortunately, since you won’t need to use magic too often, you can really just play as Jonathan for the entire game without worry. Even better, since you can call your partner to use his/her sub-weapon/magic by pressing R, you really won’t need to play as Charlotte at all!
If you do choose to use both characters at once, damage taken by your partner subtracts from MP rather than HP, and MP regenerates, so really don’t worry too much about having two players out at once. And if you’re feeling frisky and have a friend with the game, you can play Co-Op. It’s a nice feature, but I didn’t really use it much, as most of my playthrough was spent going in and out of rooms to get the rare drops from enemies to complete my item collection. If you played Aria of Sorrow or Dawn of Sorrow, you know what I mean.
Last but not least, new to this game are the Portraits. Nothing complicated, when you get to certain areas of the castle, you can enter portraits that contain their own world for you to explore (like Mario 64) and increase your map completion percentage.
I must say that I enjoyed the gameplay in Portrait of Ruin, but then again, I eat up the Metroidvania model. Those who don’t, stay away.
In terms of control, Portrait of Ruin doesn’t require the stylus at all, and I say bravo! It felt too gimmicky and underused in Dawn of Sorrows, so I’m glad they did away with it. The only problem you’ll have with the controls of Portrait of Ruin is repetitive stress injury, as there are places where you have to keep going in and out of, doing the same button combinations, just to camp an enemy and get its rare drops. Overall, though, control is a-ok.
Graphically, Portrait of Ruin is on par with Dawn of Sorrow. The sprite-based graphics are small, but there’s enough detail to make them recognizable. The big bosses are very nicely detailed, although some look cutesy rather than frightening. The little spell effects are unimpressive, though the big ones can be rather nice. And finally, no palette-swapped enemies, so kudos to Konami!
The only complaint I have with the graphics is that they seem to not want to use series artist Ayame Kojima anymore, which makes me very angry. Her art style was perfect for Castlevania, and ever since Dawn of Sorrow she seems to be off, Konami favoring a more Yu-Gi-Oh anime-style. The only way I wouldn’t mind the change is if they did it to make a Castlevania anime. But, since there seems to be no hope of that, the change gets a big razz from me.
In terms of musical score, I enjoyed Portrait of Ruin. There are lots of new spooky and hard rock tracks to keep any fan of the series’ music happy, along with some homages to previous game songs, especially Bloodlines. Strangely enough, Actraiser composer Yuzo Koshiro had a hand in the soundtrack, but for the life of me I can’t figure out where. And the presence of English comments from enemies and characters make this game very America-friendly.
Overall, this is a Metroidvania game. Get it if you like Metroidvania games. Otherwise, find something else to do with your time. This game does well for what it is, and does not stray even an inch outside. There are some extra wi-fi things you can do, such as set up a shop where other players can buy items, and there’s a boss rush mode, but overall, I didn’t really use them. So there you have it: buyer enjoy, and buyer beware.
(And if you don’t know what “Metroidvania” means, go play Super Metroid and put the pieces together.)