Disclaimer: This review is long. Skip to summary at the bottom if you don't want to read the next few paragraphs.
The most recent installment in a long, long line of successful and quality video game franchises, Castlevania - Portrait of Ruin (POR from now on) introduces several new concepts, but still hearkens back to the days of the Super Nintendo and Genesis releases in its core gameplay. After a stellar start on the Nintendo DS with Dawn of Sorrow, does Konami's new iteration rise from the grave or do the new gameplay mechanics drag it down even deeper?
In brief, the game revolves around the two heroes as they try to thwart the uprising of a new, unspeakable evil within Dracula's castle. Ok, so it sounds like every other Castlevania game ever, right? Almost. Unlike the previous installments, gameplay is not contained 100% in Dracula's castle... er, sort of. Scattered throughout its various rooms are portraits in which lay an entirely new (but significantly shorter) quest. Each Portrait plays exactly like the game should be; hopping from platform to platform, killing enemies, collecting items they may drop, and finishing with a boss. The maps are actually quite large compared to what is expected. Save points and transport rooms are placed here and there to aid the player if he should get stuck or lost, or simply wishes to return to the core castle. Also refreshing is the inclusion of side quests in the form of a ghost named Wind. He will give you certain tasks, and upon completion, will reward you with spells, items, money, etc.
The rooms themselves have varying themes, all of which are refreshingly interesting. One, for example, is a Victorian town; others consist of a demonic circus that flips upside down and sideways in a circle, and a haunted Pyramid in which there is a seductive Queen waiting as the boss. Of course, obstacles are littered everywhere, and enemies vary depending on which area you are in.
Which brings me to disputable Point #1. One thing that you will notice and that some people may deem as lazy on the developer's part is that some enemies are completely recycled from Dawn of Sorrow, right down to animations and design. This, in a way, could add a nostalgic factor to those playing, but to others, it may come off as a rehash. On the flip side, some enemies, such as Great Armor, have been completely redesigned, and many new obscure monsters have been created. This helps to create a unique feel for this game that distinguishes it from the others.
Point #2. There is no soul collecting in this game. The basic gameplay instills a strong vintage feeling; no card collecting, no soul collecting, nothing. This, added with the varying scenery in the portraits and the inclusion of whips (!) in the game, make it resemble much the classic games of the past. Enemies may drop items when killed, which can be equipped, eaten, or the like. Also, new abilities are obtained not by defeating bosses, rather by collecting Relics that grant you new powers (double jump, the such). Relics can be set on or off, and some relics must be found in order for the game to progress. It may serve as a disappointment to some that there is no soul harnessing or weapon upgrading, but it compensates with a completely new factor.
Point #3. There is a team aspect in this game. As the game progresses, some puzzles require the use of both characters; Jonathan, the disheartened Morris son that cannot use the Vampire Hunter to its full ability; Charlotte, the skilled young magician that has the uncanny ability to use the contents of books in her attacks. Although it is used creatively, it is not used to its full capacity. Some manuevers, like the Acrobat Jump ability, allow you to jump on your teammates shoulders for an extra boost in the air. Unfortunately, this ability is completely disregarded with the obtainment of the Double-Jump ability. Some puzzles require you to switch back and forth, hitting switches or positioning yourself just right, but they are few and far between. In this regard, it falls flat, but it's a different story during the heat of battle. Of course, buttons have been changed since Dawn of Sorrow because of the inclusion of the partner scheme, so special attacks aren't as they once were. The new concept is easy to use and effective, while offering something different. For example, let's say you're playing as Jonathan. Jonathan cannot use magic, but can throw knives, axes, shurikens, whatever. By tapping (or holding, depending) R, Charlotte will come to assist Jon with magical abilities learned through obtained scrolls (these can be found or collected from dead monsters.) However, here's the trick: since Jon isn't performing the spells, Charlotte can be damaged during her assistance. If you're Charlotte, you can call on Jon to fire his bullet weaponry. The best aspect of this is the team attack. Some spells can only be performed by both teammates; when the MP bar is filled enough, it can be unleashed, and some attacks are devastating, including a lightning storm or a raging volcano spewing lava and rocks everywhere. Without this concept, you'd have a cut and dry Castlevania formula and although that isn't a bad thing, the partner system puts an interesting, albeit malexecuted, twist on the old formula.
Point #4: Unfortunately, one of the malevolent traits of Castlevania's past seems to have seeped through development. Maybe it's not even there, but after a stellar Dawn of Sorrow, it becomes noticeable. Stage layout, although not poor, is lacking what made Dawn of Sorrow so great - memorability. To anyone who has played Dawn of Sorrow (my apologies for mentioning it so much in this review), how easy was it to navigate the castle? It seems like every room could be pinpointed without even looking at the map, becuase they all had some sort of recognizeable trait that distinguished them, be it a certain enemy, platform layout, background, whatever. In Portrait of Ruin, it seems jumbled and random. It's nowhere near as bad as the hell layout that was Circle of the Moon; it's easy to navigate, and it's not all just staircases and platforms, but it lacks that certain oomph that was put into the stage design of the previous effort on the DS.
Overall, however, it still manages to maintain a classic Castlevania feel while giving itself a new personality. Music, as usual, is phenomenal, with eerie organ melodies played over a light techno beat. Save points are not as abundant as in Dawn of Sorrow or Aria of Sorrow, but this isn't at all frustrating, as it makes the game challenging without a frustration factor, as in Circle of the Moon. Animation is great as well, and effects, though gratuitus, are not distracting at all and have that classic Castlevania polish to them. The game truly is Castlevania in its fullest, and even with the new additions, stays true to its roots and yet again delivers a way above average title.
+New, original concepts (paintings, partner system)
+Great graphics and animation
+/-No soul collecting
-Much potential wasted
-Disappointing stage design
Rent or buy?: Buy, whether you're a veteran or a newcomer to the series. NOTE: Keep in mind that this game is completely different from Dawn of Sorrow.
I'm in complete agreement with you on this one. I have trouble pinpointing where I want to go on the map, and remembering which portrait is which. I always knew where I was going in Dawn of Sorrow. Also, I feel like I finished this game a lot faster than I finished Dawn of Sorrow, and while I will go through again with the new characters, I still feel like it has less replay value. When I beat Dawn of Sorrow I went around the castle to make sure I had every item, every soul, and every room found. In Portrait I don't feel the desire to get 888% of the map completed even if I will get more.
The character switching thing was a cool idea, but I always stayed with Jonathan because his attacks were better, and only used the girl when I was required. The bosses didn't seem as memorable in this one either. The final boss was cool, but its second form didn't seem as epic as it was in Dawn of Sorrow. It was an overall good game, but I was pretty disappointed with it after the first DS Castlevania. Spot on with a B.
Also, while I agree with you on the level design, you have to admit it did feel fresh.[/QUOTE]
It does; after Dawn of Sorrow, you'd think that Konami would have built on top of that style, but it was done so from the ground up. Such a huge contrast is definitely noticeable.
Yeah, I recognized a bunch of enemies in Dawn of Sorrow from Symphony of the Night.
There were a bunch of Rondo enemies in Symphony, Dawn and Portrait too, though I guess it makes sense in Symphony.