Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin ReviewJoe Shaffer
By the time Konami released Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin, they had just about run the 'Metroidvania' concept into the ground. Regardless, they decided to release yet another such game, and logically it should have been a complete flub. Somehow, though, Portrait of Ruin manages to work, mostly because it slightly strays from the formula utilized by its antecedents.
For starters, you control two different protagonists in this game, reminiscent of the Genesis title Castlevania: Bloodlines. In fact, one of the player characters, Jonathan Morris, is the son of one of Bloodlines's heroes. Like his father, Jonathan wields the legendary whip Vampire Killer, but has yet to unlock its full potential. Joining Jonathan is a distant relative of Sypha Belnades (Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse) named Charlotte Aulin. Like Sypha, Charlotte deals with magic of various effects, from conjuring massive icicles to impale her opponents to healing wounds and treating ailments.
Commanding these two is not the same as in Bloodlines, though. That is, you don't select one character and play through the entire campaign using only him/her. Rather, you can change between the two at will during gameplay. You can also summon your partner to assist you in battle and even bark rudimentary commands at him/her. Best of all, the two of you can crush the competition with a punishing double team attack that affects all foes present on the screen. If you desire some alone time, though, you can send your partner away. Suffice to say, Portrait of Ruin makes full use of its core concept.
Of course, the game does more to stray from formula than merely throwing a double team feature at you. Probably the most noticeable change is the game world's structure. In contrast to previous titles, Dracula's castle is quite puny this time around. It doesn't even occupy the entire map screen when fully explored, but only takes up about three-quarters of it. While that is disappointing, the game makes up for it by including eight external locales for you to travel through, all via bewitched paintings found throughout the castle. Each stage is fairly neat to explore and adds character to the game by allowing you to access environments that would be out of place contained within the castle. For instance, one of the areas you explore is a pyramid, complete with trapped chambers and legions of mummies. Another level tosses you into an accursed circus that defies the laws of gravity, featuring an upside down "basement" and floors that run vertically.
In terms of all around design, the stages are mostly uncomplicated, although they do sport some tiny branches and hidden nooks and crannies. There are a few places, for instance, where you can pulverize a wall and retrieve a new weapon or accessory. Other areas feature ability-specific roadblocks that bid you return at a later point in the campaign, and usually hold devastating spells or game-changing power ups.
It's exciting delving into the first four stages because they're the kind of addition that the 'Metroidvania' games needed. Sadly, these stages will amp you up for the latter four paintings, which are all a huge letdown. As it turns out, paintings five through eight utilize environments rehashed from the original paintings. Although the stages' structures differ from before, the familiar grounds only serve to tire players and ultimately cheapens the experience. More than anything, failing to implement four new levels feels lazy--the Silent Hill 4, revisit-environs-because-we-can't-be-bothered-to-contrive-new-ones kind of lazy.
Right about now is when I usually start musing about boss battles and how they can make dull stages worth trudging through. Unfortunately, Portrait of Ruin's boss lineup draw mixed reactions from me. On one hand, the game's bosses look freaking cool! Many of them are decked out with devious details and look as though they've been fed some major steroids. Seriously, check out the werewolf in this game when you get a chance. He's gone from your typical anthropomorphic canine to a hulking, snarling beast with blood-dripping talons. Even big time classics like Medusa and the Creature have been given major overhauls. The former first appears to you in the form of a gargantuan snake, only to morph into an immense version of herself. From there she occasionally cuts loose a mighty ray as if she were a Dragon Ball Z villain, and then summons a whole cloud of Medusa-heads. The Creature, on the other hand, looks about the same as before, but sports some impressive modifications. Now and then he'll lift an arm and reveal a machine gun grafted into his elbow. His other arm is even worse, as it launches punishing rockets.
Portrait of Ruin's bosses look awesome, but fighting them is not as epic or memorable as it should be. Remember the team up attacks I mentioned earlier? As it turns out, you can easily beat most bosses by spamming the hell out of those. Using a team combo only consumes a bit of your MP and only bars you from using the attack for mere seconds. Once the temporary restriction has been lifted, you can execute the attack again and cause serious damage. Once you're out of MP, you can either use items to restore it or equip accessories that boost MP regeneration. Even the final boss is no match for combo spamming, as I managed to crush him in a few short minutes without putting much thought into my actions.
I originally wanted to write at length about the game's side quest system, where you receive quests from a character named Wind. Unfortunately, there isn't much to say about it. It's a neat addition, but like every other fresh aspect of the game, it feels too experimental and isn't fully realized enough to add graciously to the experience. Mainly, it's because the quests are either of the asinine 'fetch' variety or require you to perform mind-numbing tasks like spending all of your money.
I wouldn't say that experimenting with new concepts ruined Portrait of Ruin. I loved the game on my first playthrough, but subsequent revisits have shown me how tiresome it can be. Thankfully, the negative aspects that come with the game's new features are mostly benign. Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin is still enjoyable and a worthwhile addition to the franchise, but it doesn't measure up to most of its ilk.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.