Few video-game franchises are more durable than Castlevania. There’s been a new one roughly every year since 1986, for more than a dozen systems. In each game Dracula returns to wreak havoc on the planet, and in each game he is repelled. The series hasn’t changed much since the conceptual breakthrough of 1997’s Symphony of the Night, which incorporated a non-linear puzzle-solving approach into all the monster mashing. The newest Castlevania, Portrait of Ruin, adds only tweaks and spit polishes, but they’re enough to make it one of the better pure action-adventure games around.
GHOUL LOGIC: This is one creepy castle you’ll want to spend some time in.
Where Portrait departs most dramatically from its predecessors is by giving you two characters to control: Jonathan the warrior and Charlotte the magician. You can play as either character at any time, switching between the two with the push of a button. It’s a robust system with regards to combat. Provided you have enough magic points, you can teleport in the other character for a powerful combined attack. The puzzle-solving possibilities aren’t explored to their fullest, however — puzzles requiring both characters are sporadic and depressingly easy. One notable exception puts Charlotte and Jonathan on separate out-of-control mine carts — which means you have to switch back and forth between them to avoid obstacles.
The emphasis, as usual, is on tearing through ever more powerful enemies with a continually increasing arsenal. Portrait of Ruin is not shy about doling out the goodies. You’d expect significant upgrades from beating bosses, but here you’ll also get potent items from garden-variety foes and by simply exploring the map. And as if that weren’t enough, a helpful NPC named Wind presents you with dozens of side quests, each with its own lucrative reward. The A-to-B story line isn’t terribly time-consuming, but these absorbing side quests push the play time into the 15-20 hour range. That’s not bad for a hand-held adventure.
What’s most impressive about the Nintendo DS Castlevania games is how fully realized they are compared with Konami’s creatively stunted 3-D attempts. Curse of Darkness, the most recent PS2 and Xbox entry, was cursed mostly by bland art direction and repetitive level design. Portrait of Ruin boasts diverse settings and skillfully drawn backdrops. The castle, despite its rotting core and lumbering ghouls, is the kind of place you want to spend some time in. Portrait levels provide a pleasing eclecticism in a way that makes sense — you actually leap into enchanted paintings, which serve as stand-alone levels. One portrait has a circus theme; another resembles an Egyptian pyramid; still more are set in forests and towns. They add diversity to the level design without sacrificing congruity or internal logic.
Portrait still isn’t quite up to the otherworldly standards set by the series’s best entries, Super Castlevania IV and Symphony of the Night. The prologue focuses on the new game’s World War II setting, explaining that the Nazi evil has caused Dracula’s castle to reappear. So it’s a little disappointing to find that life within the castle (or afterlife, as the case may be) appears not to have changed at all. Are a few zombies sporting swastikas too much to ask? You could argue that time within the castle walls has stood still during its sabbatical, but that doesn’t explain why the protagonists are content to arm themselves with mediæval weapons. What a refreshing twist it would have been if Jonathan had infiltrated Dracula’s castle wielding an M1 carbine, or even a flamethrower. But given how lucrative Castlevania has been for the folks at Konami, you can’t blame them for not tinkering too much.