Monday, January 28, 2019

Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin Review

Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin was released by Konami in 2006 on the Nintendo DS. It was the 2nd Castlevania game released on the DS, following 2005’s Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow. PoR was the first Castlevania with online and multiplayer modes, but these are not playable online anymore, since the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection service ended in 2014. The online modes included an online item store and a co-op Boss Rush mode. Portrait of Ruin is also notable for its 2 character tag team gameplay, which had you controlling 2 characters at once, and let you switch between them instantly.

Portrait of Ruin is the sequel to the 1994 Sega Genesis game, Castlevania: Bloodlines. It takes place during WWII in 1944, 27 years after Bloodlines, and 55 years before Julius Belmont's battle with Dracula in 1999. A Vampire and painter named Brauner has used the souls of humans who died in WWII to summon Dracula's Castle, and used his magic paintings to seal Dracula’s throne room and prevent him from being resurrected along with the castle. Brauner's daughters died in WWI, which was started by Elizabeth Bartley in order to use the souls to resurrect Dracula in Bloodlines in 1917, so Brauner hates humans, and he also hates Dracula for failing to kill all humans time and time again. Brauner plans to use the powers he gains from being the castle's master to wipe out humanity himself.

Portrait of Ruin is a Metroidvania, but the castle is a hub world connecting all the levels inside the paintings, like Peach's castle in Super Mario 64, instead of being the whole game world, like in Symphony of the Night. Gameplay in the main castle is very similar to previous games, like SotN. You explore the castle in search of the next painting, use new abilities to get past obstacles and reach new areas, break walls to find turkey, and fight the occasional boss battle. There’s also save points that refill your HP and MP, teleports to quickly travel around the castle, a quest giving NPC, and a shopkeeper.

The levels inside the paintings are much more straightforward, though. They’re mostly about killing everything on your way to the next save point, and then killing the boss at the end. They have a few branching paths that lead to items, skills, and spells, but there aren't a lot of interesting obstacles, places where you have to use your partner skills, or any sort of challenging platforming. These levels are probably bigger than the average SotN or AoS area, but they feel very small and short when they're separated from the rest of the world like this. The level design also feels very tame and unimaginative with so few obstacles which require use of your partner or special abilities.

There is a quest system that will have you revisiting these areas, and that adds a little replay value to these levels, but the quests are not very interesting. The quests are mostly MMO-like fetch quests that require you to collect items or kill a specific enemy. I did maybe 2 quests that were related to the main story, and the rest were completely optional. There's also quests that might become impossible to complete, because they require you to collect unique items that can be consumed or sold. These quests won't necessarily line up with the level you're on, so you could collect and get rid of these items long before getting the quest, and since you can't drop quests, they'll be stuck in your quest log forever. The rewards for some of these quests are pretty good, though. You can get new spells, special weapons, like the Alucard Spear, and special moves with fighting game style inputs, similar to the ones in SotN.

The main new mechanic in Portrait of Ruin is the Partner System. The Partner System has a second AI controlled character following you around and attacking enemies, and allows you to switch between the two of them instantly with the press of a button. You can also tap on the screen to make the second character jump around. It's kind of like Donkey Kong Country meets Julius Mode from Dawn of Sorrow. You'd think they'd have a bunch of abilities designed around having two characters on screen, but there's really only 3, and most are not used very often. One lets you leave your partner somewhere, like on top of a switch, one calls your partner to help you push objects, and one lets you jump off your partner's shoulders, effectively giving you an awkward triple jump when you get the double jump ability. The only one of these you use very often is the partner shoulder jump. This setup also lets you use the second character's subweapon or magic without switching by pressing R, and there's flashy team up magic spells, like the Item Crash moves, called Dual Crush. The Partner System is cool, but it doesn’t feel like it’s used to its full potential.

The 2 main playable characters in PoR are Jonathan Morris and Charlotte Aulin. Jonathan Morris is the son of John Morris from Bloodlines and current heir to the Vampire Killer. He also could possibly be the one to hand the Vampire Killer back to the Belmonts in 1999. Jonathan wields the legendary whip, but can't use its full power, because his father died without teaching him how to unlock it. Jonathan resents his father because of this. The truth is that since he is not a Belmont, the Vampire Killer will drain and shorten his life if he uses its full powers. The Lecarde family are also the only ones who can perform the Whip's Memory ritual in order to unlock its full power. Jonathan plays like a mix of Soma Cruz and Julius Belmont. He has almost the same moves as Soma, and can use all kinds of swords, maces, and spears, but can also use whips, and has the Shoryuken-like punch, like Julius Belmont. Jonathan’s subweapons are also more like classic Castlevania subweapons than a bunch of summons and magic spells. Charlotte gets most of the magic.

Charlotte Aulin is a very intelligent and powerful young witch. She is a relative of the Belnades clan, and Jonathan's childhood friend. In PoR, she learns the Sanctuary spell, which can cure Vampirism, and the manual says that she is seen as the final weapon against Dracula, but she definitely can't use Sanctuary on Dracula in this game, I tried. She would be 71 in 1999, so I guess they're hinting at her taking part in that battle. Charlotte can't use any of the weapons and subweapons Jonathan can, and her melee attacks are very weak, but she can use a lot of powerful magic spells. Charlotte has the same basic moves as Jonathan, but since she doesn’t do much melee damage, and magic requires MP, you probably don't want to control her most of the time. She does come in handy against bosses and enemies with elemental weaknesses, though. Charlotte's magic includes all sorts of elemental spells, and spells to transform into a toad to squeeze through small passages, and an owl to fly around and reach new areas.

Portrait of Ruin is a beautiful looking game. The DS's resolution is lower than the PS1’s, so it looks a bit more pixelated than SotN, but it’s still a great looking game. All the character portraits look really good, Charlotte and Jonathan have really nice animations, and the environments are all incredibly detailed and interesting. There's a monster infested European city, an abandoned Witch school in a spooky forest, a haunted circus in a warzone, and an underground pyramid in a desert. I especially like the city paintings. They have underground train tunnels, London inspired streets with a big city in the background, ornate street lamps, and vintage storefronts, and lots of indoor areas, like markets, butcher shops, restaurants, and cafes with tons of little details, like baked goods, butchered meats, and all kinds of fine china. It feels like a lot of effort was put into making each area not only look great, but also feel like something fresh and new for the series. It's just really disappointing to see all the themes reused in the second half of the game. There are 8 painting levels in the game, and the last 4 use recolored graphics from the first 4 paintings.

Portrait of Ruin’s OST is pretty great. There’s so many kinds of music in it. From the intense, fast-paced organ music in “Gallery of Labyrinth”, to the classical-inspired heavy metal of “Bloodlines Bequeathed” from Rondo of Blood. It’s mostly new songs, but it does have a few more remixed classics, like “Theme of Simon Belmont” and “Iron Blue Intention” from Bloodlines. Both Michiru Yamane and Yuzo Koshiro worked on this OST. They worked on separate tracks, but that’s a hell of a team to have on the same game.

I think this game controls really well, it has nice graphics, a great soundtrack, and a great story with interesting characters, but it’s definitely one of the weaker Igavanias. The reused graphics in the last 4 levels and the mediocre level design in the paintings really brought the game down for me. If those 2 things would have been better, this could have been an amazing game.