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• Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin

developed & published by Konami/2006.12.05
1-2 Players (6 save slots)/Flash ROM/Nintendo DS

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Castlevania’s 2nd installment on the DS implements yet another gimmick attempting to rejuvenate the formula: players can swap between two new heroes named Jonathan and Charlotte.  Unfortunately neither character possesses unique abilities of the sort seen in Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse.  Jonathan’s your typical Belmont wannabe and Charlotte’s your typical spell-casting magical schoolgirl.  Usually you control one or the other though they can called upon to perform special moves and team up from time to time.

A Picture is Worth 1000 Enemies

Portrait of Ruin adds to the main castle with magical paintings which transport you to compact zones.  Unfortunately they’re not really a change of pace as they’re basically smaller, isolated Metroidvania-style areas.  What could have been an enjoyable throwback to earlier games’ do-or-die jumping challenges is wasted.  That said, the Circus stage and the Den of Evil are good examples of how this new set-up allowed the level designers to create layouts that would have been difficult to achieve inside of the main castle layout.

Eric’s Fetch Quests

Eric (a friendly phantom haunting the castle grounds in search of his daughters) tests players with a laundry list of quests, most of which ask players to collect a rare item.  The problem with this tactic, which was obviously implemented to lengthen what would otherwise be a fairly short game, is that it only does so artificially through monster hunting.  Basically, players end up having to kill one type of enemy hundreds of times, until it finally drops the item you need.  You not only have to find the right monster (some of which appear in only one room in the entire game), but you also have to repeatedly leave and re-enter that room to respawn the enemy so you can kill it again.  And again.  And again.  I’m all for side missions that test a player’s skill, such as getting from point A to point B within a time limit, but these only manage to test a player’s patience.

Presentation

While not as detailed as Vanillaware’s games (see Odin Sphere, Muramasa) Castlevania is still renowned for its 2D graphics.  The backgrounds are tightly rendered, sometimes containing shifting 3d elements in the distance, but I’d like to see more parallax scrolling than what is on offer here.  A problem from previous games strikes yet again: the recycling of enemy sprites.  The time saved by reusing old sprites has been put to use creating a stable of new ones, which are peppered throughout the game and do spice things up.  The main characters and bosses look great.

Veteran composer Michiru Yamane returns, but brings with her Yuzo Koshiro for support.  The resulting score is possibly the game’s single best asset.  There isn’t a huge selection of songs, but what is there rocks pretty hard, even if the songs themselves (save for the Egyptian tunes) don’t lend much to any area’s specific atmosphere.

One issue which absolutely must be addressed moving forward is that of character/portrait artwork.  Replacing Ayami Kojima’s amazing illustrations with this more “kid friendly” generic anime style is a disgrace to the Castlevania series and an insult to the fans.

Conclusion

It has become clear that try as they might with new gimmicks, the Metroidvania-style game play is showing its age.  The fine folks at Konami have all the talent required to create the most insane Castlevania game ever made, if they would just take a step back and try a new direction.  Even if that means returning to the old style, where players progressed level by level through the castle.

Everything is working the way it should be, from the controls to the 2D graphics, but the level design simply lacks interest.  I blame this on the Metroidvania crutch, which has led to lazy level design, which in turn robs players of any significant platforming challenges.  Amazingly, despite these nagging issues Portrait of Ruin is still a better action game than most of its DS competition.

Quick Run Down

PROs:

  • Tight controls
  • Good in-game presentation
  • Decent challenge

CONs:

  • Stale level design
  • Awful fetch quests
  • Generic character artwork

One Sentence Review: A good action game, but the formula is wearing thin.
One Word Review: Ok.

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