Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin DS Review
Castlevania is back for its second outing on the DS, and once more nothing’s really changed: Vampires are being badly behaved, and there’s a castle full of ghastly beasties to trawl through. It’s 1942 and the vampire Brauner’s been trying his hand at a bit of oil painting, with rather evil results… and what’s all this? An automated sidekick? This is the most immediately unwelcome addition to the series, and frankly when you play PoR for the first time, you’re not going to like it as much as its predecessor Dawn of Sorrow. You’ll want Soma back. You’ll miss your souls.
I’ll stop myself here though, because this isn’t a criticism: Castlevania titles are usually held in such high esteem by gamers that any changes are often ill received at first by fans, as once again the series which has evolved a fixed Metroid-styled exploration theme continues to innovate once more in its new outing.
Compared to its predecessor, early impressions of Portrait led me to believe the game was shallow, gimmicky, and rehashed. Having a sidekick back me up in combat made me feel dirty, there didn’t seem to be enough depth to customization, and many of the enemies had been ripped straight out of Symphony of the Night, much as with Dawn of Sorrow. But after continuing to play for a few more hours, suddenly it all clicked into place, and it became crystal clear in my mind that Portrait of Ruin is an absolute corker of a game.
First off, this game gives you options galore – most important of these regards your aforementioned sidekick, Charlotte. Personally, at first I hated the inclusion of a computer controlled ally and throughout most of the game I didn’t use her at all, it took me a while to realise the true nature of Charlotte; she’s simply an optional feature which allows deeper customization alongside a huge amount of extra moves and strategies which you can use if you want to. You can either have her act as a summon who quickly pops in to provide support or you can have her backing you up full time and fighting enemies alongside you. You’ll have probably noticed by now that I keep describing the uncontrolled character as being the female half of the team, and surprisingly this isn’t just because of my hugely misogynistic nature… After delving deeper into the stat-grinding aspect of PoR, it becomes quite clear that Jonathan is intended to be the main character for most of the game; His skills receive experience through repeated use, whilst her spells cannot improve. He has a much wider variety of moves to perform than Charlotte who, whilst being fairly powerful, doesn’t hold her own as a fully playable character and I expect was never intended to.
The lack of souls as mentioned earlier is rather disconcerting at first, but by combining the weapons, armour, spells, subweapons, and trinkets that enemies drop it doesn’t feel like the customisation element has been lost at all; Jonathan’s subweapons in particular offer more variety than you can shake a stick at. As well, each has their own experience level to max out, which opens up a frankly silly amount of grind-time for even the most masochistic completionist. Adding to the already rather substantial beef of the package, not wanting to include spoilers I’ll just say that the game world itself is rather huge and there’s even a decent bunch of optional quests to keep you entertained and well equipped along the way. Even though the entire game can be completed in about 10-12 hours, there’s an undeniably epic feel to the adventure – I usually found that one hour playing felt like 3; forget value for money, this game is incredible value for time.
The bosses vary in difficulty, but they’re all awesomely inventive – hitting that marvellous sweet-spot of game development where you can happily be killed by a boss two or three times simply because you’re so surprised at the inventiveness of their attacks and animations that you forget you’re supposed to be miffed.
The audio in PoR is fantastic, the typically sharp smashing and bashing sounds laid over the catchy score gives the sense of drama and adventure that’s expected, and the vocal soundbites used are too infrequent to ever really get annoying – which in my mind is a massive technical feat. Visually, Portrait of Ruin is an absolute treat, continuing the DS tradition of alternating between beautifully detailed 2D backgrounds and slightly fuzzier but rather epic 3D backdrops; they add a very real sense of solidarity and style to the environments you whip your way through. Some of the later backdrops interact with your character in a manner which is overwhelmingly creepy despite technically being quite basic. The entirety of the level ‘Nation of Fools’ is a good example of the sometimes disturbing nature of PoR; the mechanics give it an awkward, claustrophobic feel which combined with the gruesome boss gives the entire area a rather brilliantly crafted feeling of discomfort and dread. Animations throughout the game are consistently fantastic. Even when walking through recycled environments in the later parts of the game, the new enemies that pop up will have you absolutely mesmerised at times, keeping the game feeling fresher than you might have expected at this stage. But it’s not just the monsters keeping you on your toes; unlike its predecessor, PoR’s control system is built upon throughout the game, leaving you with controls that are almost of the complexity of a decent beat-em-up. But of course, you can also quite happily just play it like a standard Castlevania title and ignore most of the new stuff if you’d like to as well.
Again, it’s this feeling of choice that makes Portrait of Ruin such an exceptional game; they’ve added a huge amount of complexity to the controls and customization that you can quite happily just ignore without being penalised by the game. The early impressions of innovation and change are a misinterpretation of what is simply an extension of what handheld Castlevania fans have grown to love: more customization, more to explore, more to collect. Many of the complaints about PoR have regarded the in-game recycling of environments, but considering this re-use adds a huge amount of extra content to the game I really can’t complain. The one criticism I must make about PoR is the inventory system, which is poorly organized and at times buckles under the weight of all the goodies you hoard throughout the game; it always seems particularly difficult to find stuff that you’ve just picked up even when you know exactly what the item was called.
Sure, this game doesn’t really do anything new. But what’s wrong with that? Portrait of Ruin gives fans of the series everything they could want to fiddle around with on the customisation front, and then gives you a large game world as your playground. And it does all this in a way that feels almost perfect. For your money there’s a lot of fun and thrills to be had here, backed up by some seriously beefy content. Get hunting.
It’s better than Dawn of Sorrow. What more could you want?