I admit, maybe a bit too strongly, that Symphony of the Night has colored many a gamer’s perception of what a “good Castlevania game should play like.” Oh yes, the aforementioned game is almost considered one of the proverbial “holy grails” of videogames because no matter how many years have passed, it still feels fresh and inspired. This is something many videogames lack. So let’s travel back a few years on our DSs and analyze Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin.
Portrait of Ruin follows Jonathan Morris (his dad is one of the heroes from Bloodlines on the Sega Genesis) and Charlotte Aulin as they travel to the recently resurrected Castlevania to find and stop Dracula. Unfortunately for them, Dracula is still “sleeping,” and a vampire artist known as Brauner runs the place. Scattered throughout the grounds are portraits that are bastions of his powers. They have to enter each portrait, find and then destroy the head monster to weaken Brauner’s powers. Lather, rinse and repeat until Brauner’s butt is kicked.
While it is a bit different than the usual Castlevania game in terms of overall plot, the characters certainly make certain nothing has changed. Who cares about their history or motivations when you have an acre or two of castle to explore? And the game shows this off on almost every level it can.
As such, you’ll do the usual action-adventure behaviors: platforming, smashing skeletons, exploring the castles, finding and using equipment, smashing zombies, finding save and warp points, poking floating eyes, completing side quests and destroying bosses. Subweapons return with a vengeance as Jonathan can wield the old Belmont arsenal (and then some). Unlike Simon and his progeny, Jonathan lacks experience with the weapons, and the only way to increase their power, besides gaining some for himself, is to kill enemies with them. This can become tedious to master each individual weapon though not necessary to complete the game. The main advantage to doing this is having a weapon for every occasion.
Furthermore, because Charlotte is present, the game gives you the option of switching between the two characters and sometimes letting the other friend tag along. You will, on the rare occasion, use your ally to push, spring off, stay on top of something and “direct” said ally battle. However, you never really use this function of the game that well as it neither requires it to be mastered, nor does it use the function to perform to solve clever puzzles. It just comes off as a great idea that never fully received the attention the development team could have given it.
The graphics emphasize the ambitious yet fallen nature of the game. Yes, everything looks great as a midgeneration DS game. There are tons of little details in the background, such as the cloud movements of the sky and arms reaching through prison bars. Bosses tend to be foreboding, such as the massive bull-like creature with rotten flesh chasing after the heroes and a massive knight whose head floats around the room. Then there are the levels, and there are ONLY four types: city, pyramid (desert), ruined city and a haunted school. With the portraits separating the levels of the castle, Konami had a lot more freedom to create unique areas and integrate them into the game easily. Instead, we’re left with levels that ultimately feel uninspired. Don’t let that fool you into thinking that the levels are not solid. They are. My favorite is the It is the ruined city, and I love it because the terrain “rotates” to its sides as you explore the level. So when you’re at the top section, the room is topsy curvy!
Sound wise, the game does things correctly. Whips slap through the air, daggers “cling” against the wall, iron balls thud against enemies, fiery fires and freezing colds, the “slashes” of wind, and the stomps of boots landing on the floor. Music is solid as well and emphasizes the creepy mood. Voice acting is, believe it or not, present. Unfortunately, it is limited to grunts, moans, creepy laughs and the characters’ names.
And yet, despite all of the criticism levied toward Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin, I still like it. It isn’t too hard or too easy since the difficulty has a nice curve to it. The graphics have a certain charm. And the music is a pleasant experience. Granted, this was THE first DS game I ever played. So is it not unusual for me to be a bit too lenient overall toward it? Yes, I probably am as it does what it intends to do: provide a solid action-adventure experience that provides a solid ride. However, I do acknowledge it aims a bit too high for its own good, and it could have been a stronger experience. The latter part of that statement is true for many games — and even us as individuals. If you’re looking for a solid action game, then this is a good choice. However, if you’re looking for something to rock the Castlevania series and your DS, look elsewhere.