The mechanics involving its two protagonists could have been explored more consistently and the standalone locations of its world could have been more varied and bolder in terms of design; however, the fact the two big shifts it executes are not perfect should not cloud the greatness of Portrait of Ruin
The trio of Castlevania titles released for the Game Boy Advance showcased a clear evolution, as if developers were slowly grasping not only how to translate the saga to a handheld machine, but also figuring out how to expand on the nonlinear gameplay that had turned Symphony of the Night into an instant classic. Given that progressive path, it was the final entry published on that portable, Aria of Sorrow, that set the standard against which all future installments of the kind would have to be measured. And because of the widespread critical and commercial success of that game, it is no surprise that when Castlevania first hit the Nintendo DS, Konami opted to build a direct sequel to it; one that moved the story of Soma Cruz forward while using the very same gameplay twists that were an essential part of Aria of Sorrow.
Despite a few hiccups, mostly found in misguided attempts to use the Nintendo DS’ touch commands, Dawn of Sorrow was certainly a hit. After all, it was hard to go wrong when the usually solid nonlinear level design of the franchise met the protagonist’s unique ability to use the powers of the dozens of foes found in Dracula’s Castle in his favor. The glaring similarity between Aria of Sorrow and Dawn of Sorrow, though, meant that when Konami contemplated releasing yet another handheld Castlevania game, which would be the fifth in six years, it was time to abandon the tale of Soma Cruz and look for new gameplay mechanics in order to avoid severe staleness. Portrait of Ruin, published in 2006, was the result of that search.
Naysayers are likely to claim, with some reason, that at that point the battle against mold was already lost. Five releases in nearly as many years is arguably too much for any franchise, regardless of how great or recognized it might be. And when one factors in how Castlevania games follow very specific patterns, even going as far as taking place in the very same location, it is easy to see how Portrait of Ruin – much more due to its timing than its nature – was engaged in a struggle it was bound to lose anyway. Nevertheless, the game puts up a fight and walks out of it with a result that is strong enough to at least dispel some of that pessimism.
Portrait of Ruin is set in 1944, when the planet was covered by the dead of World War II. The horrors of the battlefields and the souls departed in pain cause Dracula’s Castle to emerge once again. When that happens, the young descendants of two families strongly involved in the protection of mankind against evil take on the task of stopping whatever forces are at work. Jonathan Morris is a vampire hunter while Charlotte Aulin is a sorceress, and together they enter the legendary home of multiple Castlevania adventures to discover Dracula is not the one pulling the strings this time around, but a vampire artist named Brauner, who was sent down a wicked path much due to the conflict that is ravaging the world.
Portrait of Ruin, then, begins the task of distancing itself from the games that preceded it by sporting a duo of heroes. Jonathan thrives in physical attacks, being able to land hits with a main weapon (such as a sword, a whip, a lance, or others) and a secondary piece of equipment (like disks, shurikens, and boomerangs) that will use a bit of magical power when thrown; he is, therefore, a pretty standard Castlevania protagonist. Charlotte, on the other hand, summons spirits from books as a primary form of attack but can also perform a varied assortment of spells which can be acquired around the castle. At any point in the game, players can use the X button to switch between the characters, the A button to summon their partner (which will then be controlled by the CPU), and even deploy a combination of the X button with pressing up on the D-pad to trigger a mighty special attack that combines the forces of the two heroes.
This dynamic between Jonathan and Charlotte is naturally explored by Portrait of Ruin. Some bosses pretty much require that players switch frequently, be it due to them exhibiting different types of weaknesses as they change forms or as a consequence of attacks to which one of the two protagonists is specially vulnerable; likewise, the big bad guys sometimes employ offensive maneuvers that can only be avoided if gamers to summon their partner for help. On another front, out in the overworld, there are numerous obstacles that are just overcome if Jonathan and Charlotte work together, such as buttons that cannot be pressed without extra weight, blocks that are too heavy to be pushed by a sole hero, and even a couple of wackier gadgets like a pair of motorcycles and an elevator that also demand either cooperation or switching.
In a way, it is possible to say that Portrait of Ruin could have done more with this unique facet of its gameplay. Sadly, not all bosses take advantage of the fact there are two protagonist, meaning there is a bit of a missed opportunity when it comes to the design possibilities of these larger battles. Simultaneously, given the Castlevania franchise was never one to fill its overworld with puzzles and other types of obstacles that require interaction, it is not shocking to learn there are not so many moments when Jonathan and Charlotte have to cooperate while exploring, and that the ones that do exist are not overly clever. Yet, it is undeniable that Portrait of Ruin manages to get some decent mileage out of its pair of protagonists, even if it is not as significant the one that would be observed in titles that are not so chained to classic design.
Speaking of traditionalism, the essence of Portrait of Ruin should be familiar to anyone who has ever gone through a Castlevania adventure – at least the ones from the nonlinear kind. Dracula’s Castle is a large interconnected map made up of multiple subareas, and access to most of them will be blocked from the start. However, by navigating its branching hallways, shafts, and rooms, players will slowly acquire abilities – often protected by powerful bosses – that will allow them to get to new places, such as how obtaining the double jump will let them hop to a previously unreachable ledge or how turning into a frog will let the heroes squeeze into a tight tunnel. Little by little, then, and in nonlinear fashion, Dracula’s Castle will unfold like a puzzle as it demands gamers to figure out where to go next. Underlining all of that, of course, is a straightforward RPG layer, because not a single room in the castle is devoid of enemies, and killing those causes characters to accumulate experience points, eventually making them level up.
Out of this established formula, Portrait of Ruin squeezes the usual qualities seen in games of the franchise. Dealing with the hordes of evil creatures is alluring not just because they are very varied, but also because they make one more powerful and drop gold, which can be exchanged for potions and other helpful items at the local shop. The branching nature of the map paves the way to various optional rooms with secrets like expansions to the characters’ health and magic bars, better pieces of equipment, and other goodies. The solid design of the castle itself makes the journey of slowly unraveling it an engaging experience that merges action with exploration. Finally, surviving until the next save point is reached can be quite a thrilling challenge sometimes, one that requires patience, practice, and skill.
It is here, on this structural front, however, that players will find the point in which Portrait of Ruin executes its second change to the usual Castlevania framework. Since the villain of the story is a vampire artist, the protagonists of the game will quickly learn that this instance of Dracula’s Castle has been filled with paintings. And more than beautifying Gothic rooms, these objects are being used by Brauner to keep the main chamber of the place locked away. As such, Johnathan and Charlotte can only reach the end of their quest if they succeed in destroying all of these portraits. To do so, they will have to step into them, explore the worlds they contain, and defeat the guardian boss that lurks within.
Portrait of Ruin boasts a total of eight paintings, and what players will find inside them is not that different from an usual Castlevania subarea: there will be a branching maze of hallways filled with enemies, a few warp rooms, a couple of checkpoints, optional items, and a boss. And indeed, because they are essentially subareas (albeit physically disconnected from the rest of the main map), Portrait of Ruin executes an interesting exchange, severely cutting down on the size of the castle in order to focus on these standalone locations. Therefore, when compared to the versions of Dracula’s Castle seen in the four portable games that preceded it, the one that emerges here is less complex, even if it is still daunting, making Portrait of Ruin come off as somewhat streamlined and, consequently, different.
Skeptics may say the paintings do not make that much of a difference in gameplay: since what the portraits contain are effectively subareas, they are not really that special; they have just been transported to outside the castle. However, the truth is a bit more interesting than that, because the nature of the paintings benefits the game in two ways. For starters, they allow it to go thematically wilder: there are only so many types of environments that can be contained inside a Gothic castle, and by venturing away from its walls, Portrait of Ruin goes to a circus, a village, a pyramid, and a forest. Secondly, this separation also lets developers touch a bit more freedom in relation to level design, allowing them to explore distinct structures, like the circular insanity of the Nation of Fools and the buildings of the City of Haze.
Like the dual protagonists, however, the paintings are a bit ambivalent: while it is undeniable they bring great value and personality to Portrait of Ruin, it is also easy to get the nagging feeling they could have been better utilized. Case in point, although there are eight paintings, not all of them have unique themes; in fact, there are only four different scenarios, and each one is used twice. Needless to say, it would have been far more interesting if all paintings transported players to a completely new environment. Additionally, in spite of how the game does try to bring a few fresh design quirks into these standalone locations, most of them still feel too classic, meaning more creativity could have certainly been used.
A smaller, and also the final, change that Portrait of Ruin implements to the basic Castlevania formula appears in the shape of sidequests. Handed out to Jonathan and Charlotte by one of their allies in the struggle against Brauner, these thirty-seven tasks include killing specific enemies, gathering certain items, obtaining a few rare drops, and even some random inconsequential activities like using magic spells. The most interesting of the bunch, though, involve following tips to uncover nice secrets, which are usually related to the appearance of special foes. Even though certainly not as significant as the other additions that Portrait of Ruin carries, sidequests are an appealing inclusion that meshes well with the franchise’s structure and adds value to the package.
Similarly to its predecessors, Portrait of Ruin has plenty to offer. Its quest eight-hour quest, which contains two endings, can be extended by quite a bit if players are looking for full completion. Moreover, following a Castlevania tradition, alternative versions of the main campaign exist, and here there are three of them: one that nicely serves as a prologue to the events of the game; one that has players taking control of Richter Belmont and having all abilities unlocked from the start; and one in which the challenge is going through the adventure as an Old Axe Armor enemy, which has access to limited weapons. To top it all off, there is a Boss Rush mode that, on what is a first for the franchise, can be played cooperatively by using the wireless capabilities of the Nintendo DS.
As a game that desperately needed to find elements to separate it from its predecessors, Portrait of Ruin does a great job when it comes to uncovering these ideas. The fact the two big shifts it executes are not perfect, however, should not cloud the title’s greatness. Unquestionably, the mechanics involving its two protagonists could have been explored with more consistency; besides that, the standalone locations of its overworld, which are accessed through the paintings found in the castle, could have been more thematically varied and slightly bolder in terms of design. Still, not only is this an excellent Castlevania game with great visuals, a spectacular soundtrack, and a solid story, but it would not be absurd to look at it as a product that topples – or at least matches – Aria of Sorrow, which had set the standard for portable entries of the saga a couple of years earlier.
There is a good debate to be had about the balance of classic pieces and new concepts found in Portrait of Ruin. Some may see it as just about right, some may miss the sprawling complexity of the castles of its predecessors, and some may wish Konami had gone a little deeper in exploring the dynamic between Jonathan and Charlotte as well as the liberty offered by the paintings. Yet, regardless of where one stands, the overall impression on the game should be the same among all parts: Portrait of Ruin is well designed, fun to play, and comfortably sits beside the best entries of the property. It might have come out during a time when Nintendo handhelds had already seen too many Castlevania efforts being released over a very tight period of time, but it uses all tools it can to carve out a personality and keep players engaged in a cycle of releases that would come to an end a couple of years later.