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Review – Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin (NDS)

If you’d have suggested to me twenty years ago I’d be a Castlevania fan I’d have laughed in your face.  I have zero interest in the whole Gothic Horror genre, I dislike the soul crushing difficulty of the NES games, and frankly, the whole Dracula thing is kind of derivative.

Then I played Symphony of the Night on the recommendation of pretty much everyone in  Ok, I purchased it at the Greatest Hits price then it sat on me game shelf until halfway through college.  Eventually I needed something to play so I picked it up.

Now I’ve purchased the latest Castlevania game on a pre-order that I placed the day they announced it (and it’s 20th Anniversary bundle).  Frustratingly I still have not gotten my bonus pack.  I’m planning on bitching to Gamestop corporate, for what it’s worth to try and get one.  You see, the store claims their shipment was damaged by UPS.  I came in the day the game was released to ensure I’d get my game and bonus, and here I am, weeks later, without.  I already hate Gamestop in general, this doesn’t help.

But this is not a complaint on Gamestop nor a praise on Symphony of the Night.  This is a review of Castlevania Portrait of Ruin for the Nintendo DS.  I’ve played the three Game Boy Advance Castlevanias but I’ve not had the chance to play Dawn of Sorrow.

Because I like giving the punch line before the joke, I’ll tell you Portrait of Ruin is an excellent game.  You can go away now if you’d like unless you’d like to hear me rattle on about why.

The gimmick of Portrait of Ruin is coupling.  You get two different playable character in the main monde and two of the three bonus modes.  This isn’t your straight “pick a player” set up though, you get control of both characters at once.  If you prefer (I do) you can sent the other person away and tag team in and out at will.  If you’re especially skilled the second player can be controlled via the touch screen.  Good luck at that one however unless you’re some sort of three armed mutant.  Let’s see, Portrait of Ruin, N64 Controller, I see a trend.  Maybe there is something we don’t know about the Japanese.

Each pairing features a physical based character and a magic based character.  For the main game you play as Jonathan Morris and Charlotte Aulin.  You may recognize the name John Morris from the Genesis Castlevania: Bloodlines.  This game is essentially a direct sequel to Bloodlines, but you don’t play as John, you play as Jonathan, John’s son.  There are however ties to Castlevania X (to which Symphony of the Night was a direct sequel to) through the Vampire Killer Whip.  You must fight to restore the Whip’s power late in the game and face the “Last Belmont to Wield the Whip”.  Confused yet?  I’m pretty sure there were a few references to the plot of the Dawn/Aria of Sorrow combo in there was well but I’m not certain.  Basically this whole timeline is actually a bit more coherent than it would appear to be.

Charlotte on the other hand has no real relation to anyone.  Truthfully the two characters just act as an arbitrary separation of magic and physical attacks.  It does help add a few interesting story bits.  My style of gameplay had me using Jonathan more than Charlotte however.  Mostly I used her for the combo “Dual Crush” super attacks.  I’ve heard other people report opposite styles of gameplay however.  The transition is well done between the two characters and the computer AI controlling Player two when on screen is decent enough.

My chief complain with this game are the bosses.  The game in general is fairly easy until you get to a boss.  Almost all of them have attacks that will wipe you right out before you even realize what’s happening.  This can be quite frustrating.  However the End Boss actually doesn’t have this problem.  In most Castlevania games I’ve actually had trouble defeating Dracula and his final form but this game was definitely the easiest Dracula ever.  You even face off against Dracula plus a partner enemy.  The irony is that the enemy Dracula teams up with is probably the hardest boss in the game when you fight him alone.

Oh right, in case you didn’t know, Dracula is at the end of pretty much every Castlevania game.  Often in current games he’s hidden behind one or two “bad endings”.  This game is no exception though considering that you’re map isn’t complete in the bad ending and there is a huge “mystery barrier” it should be pretty obvious to anyone that you’re not done if you think killing the Sisters is the end of the game.

Speaking of completing the game, after doing so you’ll unlock bonus modes.  You can play through with a “New Game +” feature using Jonathan and Charlotte, or play through as the Sisters.  Or, if you’ve unlocked the Vampire Killer, you can play as Richter and Maria.  Richter mode is especially fun.  His ability to crush enemies easily makes it extremely quick.  I spent roughly 15 hours my first play through getting 100% on everything (I’m still not quite done yet).  I’ve played MAYBE an hour on Richter mode and I’m already nearly halfway through.

There is also the touch screen heavy “Sisters Mode”.  This mode actually serves as a bit of a prologue sequence where you play through as the game’s two Sister characters.  However gameplay is drastically different and almost entirely touch screen based.  The only buttons you use are the control pad and the L button to switch characters.  The Magic based sister constantly attacks anywhere you touch on the screen, the physical based sister allows you to slash enemies with your stylus.  It’s pretty neat and is a good use of the touch screen.  It’s also different enough to give incentive to play through it and the prologue story is a nice bonus.

These bonus modes are great and really go to increase the replay value.  What also helps a bit with replay value are the Boss Rush and Multiplayer Modes.  Boss Rush isn’t anything new to the series though I find this game’s version of it more entertaining than previous games for some unknown reason.  The Multiplayer is essentially a two player version of the Boss Rush.  This can be good and bad depending on who you get matched with.  Nintendo’s WiFi Multiplayer has not been it’s strong suit so far.

The Multiplayer also includes a shop mode.  Essentially you can buy things from other players.  It’s neat because it can allow you to get quest drops early and more easily, but annoying in overall interface.  The WiFi takes forever to connect and you can only make one connection before having to reconnect.  The reconnect is especially annoying when selling.  It would be great if you could leave your shop open say, while charging the DS.  Wake up and become instantly rich.  I have noticed however that more than one person can connect to a shop at a time.  At least once I met another player, though the game allows zero interaction.

My other complaint is the bonus “Nest of Evil” zone.  It’s essentially the “Area of really hard enemies that have to be beat before leaving the area”.  Sort of like Circle of the Moon’s Coliseum only easier.  You can use teleport stones after every level and the enemies actually get really easy near the end.  Especially the final sets of bosses.  The pay off is a really cool throwback to previous games in the series Dual Crush, but it’s not overly strong.  In fact the strongest Dual Crush is 1000 Blades which is received fairly early in the game.

The biggest plus for this game is variety of areas.  The game of course features Dracula’s castle with it’s relatively standard design and areas.  However there are numerous portraits that you must enter which transport the player to several unique zones.  The neatest of which are the two “wheel” areas in which the environments slowly turn on their side then upside down as you traverse the area.  They don’t actually move, and you always go “down” but the map itself is circular and everything on top is upside down.  If that makes sense.  I will have to nitpick the areas though, late in the game you unlock a second set of paintings each of which is a flat out revamp of the previous 4 paintings.

Portrait of Ruin is an absolute blast to play.  It’s really sad that side scrolling games are slowly going by the wayside.  This and previous side scrolling Adventure style Castlevania games show that the genre has a lot to offer.  The only real competitor in style, Metroid moved to the third dimension a while back which was a huge loss for the genre.  Anyway, I highly recommend this game for anyone with a DS.

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