RELEASED: November 16, 2006
AVAILABLE ON: DS
How to prevent Castlevania from going stale? Adding a wi-fi co-op twist. Sound fascinating and fresh enough? I suppose not. Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin does not add to the Sorrow storyline, instead it's a continuation of the 20th century story arc that started with the cult Genesis game Castlevania: Bloodlines (The New Generation) back in 1994. I was not a huge fan of that past development, but coming fresh off my disappointment with the Sorrow storyline, I'll take anything else.
Same picture, different colouring
An elderly vampire with an artistic side, named Brauner, has recreated Dracula's castle by using the souls of those passed in the fires of World War II. He's drawing power from the castle, storing it in the alternate dimensions contained in his paintings. John Morris' son and current - yet incapable - wielder of the Vampire Killer, Jonathan Morris, and Charlotte Aulin, descendant of the Belnades clan with a talent for magic, storm the castle to put an end to whatever it is Brauner's planning. As if we didn't know already.
Let's start with a short recap of this game's true predecessor - Castlevania: Bloodlines. Back at the time I reviewed that game, I simply didn't get it, but mind you that it was the New Generation version - the one watered down for Europeans for God knows what reason. I recently finished the North American version with quite a smile on my face - BLOOD. Gallons of blood, more than enough to justify for the Bloodlines subtitle, and more than enough to make my seat a lot more comfortable than it really is, and keep me glued to it. Playing Bloodlines made me realize that I didn't give that game enough credit. I mean, it was interesting 'cause it was the only Castlevania game ever released exclusively on a Sega system - and I might add it was a hell of a lot better to begin with than its SNES successor Dracula X - and when it comes to gameplay, it was a classic Castlevania game, nothing more and not much less. It was the lack in the European presentation that bothered me, that and the bit too colourful graphics... and across all versions, the stupid-ass plot which made a sudden jump from the medieval times to World War I, and starred an American muscle john instead of a usual hunchbacked Belmont from an undefined rural part of Europe. He was marketed as a descendant of the Belmont clan, which first made me question the logic behind the bloodlines and nationalities of Castlevania characters. Not nearly as much as the point when just about everyone in the series turned Japanese, though.
Well, turns out John was not a direct descendant of the Belmont clan after all - an explanation, how about that! - and that is actually an important plot point in Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin. He's been dead for years, for causes that are first unknown to the player; his son Jonathan has inherited the Vampire Killer, but cannot use it to its full potential. Again, I must take a sarcastic turn here - it's a whip. Just whip it. And whip it good! I guess he hasn't read the ancient tome... every Super Castlevania IV lover out there knows what I'm talking about. His partner/fuck buddy/half-sister/all of the above/whatever, Charlotte, has much stronger ties to the past clans, which somewhat makes her the "stronger" character, storywise. In practice, one's really not better than the other. It's all about personal preference... to a point. It's not like in Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, where alternative playables were kept secret and using them was totally up to the player, or Castlevania: Bloodlines where I think Eric was squeezed in to diversify the usual experience (even more), or even Nintendo 64's Castlevania which was also ultimately so indifferent between the two scenarios that I think Carrie was meant to be played by girls. No, here your partner tags along all the time. It has its moments.
|Spot the right path in less than a second. Go.|
Perhaps the audiovisuals are the most stand-out snag here to be hit. Yeah, that's got to be why I'm not entirely feeling this game - you give me a Metroidvania game and I'll enjoy it. No matter how familiar it feels. That's always been the case, but Portrait of Ruin, not that much. The music's really not that good, it's somewhat offbeat stock, and at times so overcooked that it sounds like three or four tunes are playing at the same time. It's menacing, not in a good way either, and in turn the levels are huge. With numerous sorts of 3D effects, the game takes a lot more out of the DS than its predecessor, I suppose, but I don't know if the rest of the game really needed to look as scruffy as it does. Or if the backgrounds really needed to be so damn confusing. It's nice to have detailed graphics, but it would also be nice to see where I can go, and where I am supposed to go.
It's actually kind of sad how much Portrait of Ruin reminds me of the Nintendo 64 installment Legacy of Darkness. The first game on the Nintendo 64 was quite decent; if they had truly focused on weeding out its weaknesses when they made the "remake" Legacy of Darkness, they might've ended up with a good game. But... no. Legacy of Darkness was a capitalist game with a shit plot and a shit protagonist, but ironically, the mode that was unlocked after the first playthrough - the actual remake of the first N64 game - was quite entertaining, what makes it all the more ironic is that it didn't differ from the original all that much. It was just a refreshing throwback, due to the main game being so damn lame - if you didn't own the original, Legacy of Darkness was the one to get, after all. I think I took a harsh turn there, and I know this sounds like Portrait of Ruin is an awful game, but it's not. It's just as stale as they come, just what it was not supposed to be.
|Bless me father, for I can't whip it.|
But then, when you've beaten this game, you have a chance to take on some really interesting game modes, that are challenging yet reasonable enough to attract even casual fans, it's not of the usual "hard mode" schtick. First is the Sisters Mode, a short prequel to the game, where you take control of two mages whose spells are controlled and aimed with the DS stylus. It's a totally different game, which makes it at least interesting. Then, there's Richiter Mode (yes, I spelled that "correctly") where you'll go all old school and take on the challenges of the castle as Richter Belmont, with the second player strapping on Maria Renard's boots. My history with Richter as a playable character is not filled with very positive colours, but I know how much long-time, dedicated fans love this character, so it's surely interesting to some. Finally, there's a single-player mode in which the player takes control of an Axe Armor enemy. Haven't tried that one, sounds like a novelty mode which, again, some players might find fascinating. All in all, I think Portrait of Ruin lives on its different game modes, while the main game is the weakest Metroidvania I've come across.
Stale and a tad confusing, not bad, when it comes to the bottom line with the main game. Everything's in order when it comes to basic gameplay, but the thing is that everything good about it was invented years back. The new stuff fails to make an impression on me - might be positively different with a friend, I'll give it that benefit of a doubt, but until proven otherwise, Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin is the weakest Castlevania game of the last decade.
+ The extra modes are interesting
+ The basic gameplay - although there's really nothing new to it
- Not the best plot arc to pick up from
- A stale game in comparison to its predecessors as it is, feels even worse as a single-player game
- Scruffy and confusing display...
- ...And ridiculous grammatical errors which make the game look cheap ("Charotte" and "Richiter")
- Lackluster and/or irritating music
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