Konami innovates while retaining the basic feel of recent Castlevania games. Read on to learn whether the changes were wise.
Portrait of Ruin marks the sixth game since Koji Igarashi directed Symphony of the Night, which added a number of adventure and RPG elements to the standard action formula. Each follow-up has generally featured a new system of weapons and special powers, with the exception of Dawn of Sorrow, which was a relatively straight sequel to Aria of Sorrow. Portrait retains a lot from the Sorrow games, but features a few dramatic changes that make it stand out.
The first big change is the two character system. From the very beginning, the primary character, Jonathan Morris, is partnered with Charlotte Aulin. Jonathan plays like a combination of Soma and Julius from Dawn of Sorrow. He can equip himself with a range of weapons like Soma, but whips are included in this range, and the controls for the whip feel identical to those found in Sorrow’s bonus mode. A sub-attack (up + attack) can be equipped from a list of acquired weapons and techniques, much like Soma could equip “bullet" souls. Jonathan will get a new whip often enough that you can play the whole game in Belmont fashion if you like. On the other hand, Charlotte is the magician of the pair. Her primary weapon is always a book, which will magically emit some dramatic short-range attack (for example, the second book of arms emits a few maces and a sword in a wide attack pattern). Her sub-attacks consist of magic spells, making her vital for targeting the elemental weak points of some enemies. The number of different spells is impressive.
You can switch between the two at any time (they share health and magic meters). This alone wouldn’t have affected gameplay much. However, you can also have both characters active together if you like. For example, if you’re playing as Jonathan, you can call Charlotte and have her either stay in one spot or follow you around and fight with you. Strangely, if the secondary character takes damage, it is subtracted from the magic points, not health. Running out of magic will force the secondary character to leave temporarily. If you prefer to play solo most of the time, you can also hit the R button to have the secondary character appear, launch his or her sub-attack, and leave again. This is quite useful when playing as Jonathan, because Charlotte’s low defense and attack power make her a poor choice much of the time. In addition to combat, you’ll also have to use the pair to solve a few puzzles, but not too often.
The other major change instituted in Portrait is the level design. The game still features the usual castle, but it’s a bit smaller. However, in various places you’ll find portraits. Each portrait contains a separate level with its own teleport system and save points. You can return to any portrait at any time, but the exploration aspect feels a bit muted. You know each portrait has only one boss and one major upgrade to find, and it’s impossible to find a new area of the castle (with new music, etc.) from inside a portrait. But the portraits aren’t all bad. The game is a good deal bigger because of them, and they allow the designers to create some interesting gameplay and scenery that wouldn’t have made sense inside of the castle proper. The portrait system is tied pretty closely into the storyline, so we likely won’t see it again. It is an interesting idea that works, but I won’t miss it if they decide not to use it again.
Naturally, the game features bonus modes again. Beating the game unlocks the obligatory boss rush mode, hard mode, and a couple of bonus modes involving alternate characters. As usual, these modes are a rather fun and challenging diversion that greatly extend the life of the game. And as usual, you can’t change the button configuration in these modes even though you can in the main game. This is the second time I’ve had to readjust to the default controls after playing the entire main game my way (I apparently don’t like the default jump and attack buttons). On top of the aforementioned bonus modes, Konami also added a bit of Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection support. First, you can designate any of your items to be put up for sale in your shop by choosing an item and setting a price. Then you can connect to nearby DS systems, or go over the Internet and have either friends or random strangers browse your shop and pay you gold for your items. Unfortunately, random shopping isn’t terribly effective because you can’t specify what items you want to buy before you’re randomly presented with a shop, but it’s still a neat gimmick. The other mode is online, co-op, boss rush. This actually works well, although it’s a bit weird fighting alongside a random stranger. Your character’s weapons and level come from the single player game file of your choice. The online capability doesn’t make or break the game, but kudos to Konami for putting it in there.
Other elements of the game are business as usual. The shop is back, the controls are still excellent, the art style is still animé, the graphics technology is still superb, and the music is still very good, but not quite as good as in some past games. The RPG elements still unbalance the gameplay a bit. Unless you artificially limit yourself from drinking and buying health potions, the game is never terribly difficult. Of course, the bonus modes always change that by taking away items entirely.
There are a lot more voice samples this time around, but the dialogue is still text only. The storyline works, and it is kind of interesting. You’ll learn a bit more about the famous Vampire Killer whip and how it came to be used by hunters other than Belmonts.
Overall, Portrait of Ruin is another solid entry into the recent line of Castlevania games. There’s not enough different here to change your previous opinion of the series. If you’ve yet to play a Castlevania game, I’d recommend Dawn of Sorrow over Portrait of Ruin because it’s a more appropriate entry into the series as future games will likely not feature the portraits.