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DS  header logo

Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin

For: DS

It's dead good

Product: Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin | Publisher: Konami | Format: DS | Genre: Action, Hardcore, RPG | Players: 1-2 | Networking: wireless (network) | Version: US
Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin DS, thumbnail 1
Goths got the best deal when it came to popular subcultures, didn't they? Not content with the biggest hair and the most ornate footwear, they also have a 'catch 'em all' approach to piercings that makes Pokemon look like a five-year-old's stamp collection. But despite this ostentation, they're also a very traditional lot – it's all good as long as it's painted black and death-related.

They'd certainly feel at home in Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin. The second DS game in Konami's series is set in the familiar playground of Dracula's castle. It's been repossessed by vampire twins Loretta and Stella, who are in the control of an up-and-coming biter by the name of Brauner. And if that's not the name of a German goth-metal band, I'll eat my bat.

Some things have changed, however. Most notably, you're controlling not one but two heroes: tough kid Jonathan Morris and his witchy friend Charlotte Aulin. It's an interesting move on Konami's part, but one that may divide hardcore fans.

Cut-scenes are more prominent than in previous whip-cracking installments, too, making the story harder to ignore. Fortunately said whip-cracking builds into something wonderful.

Set in a beautiful 2D world full of imaginatively evil monsters, your characters start the game kitted out with weapons either too weak to do much damage or which they cannot use properly. Critically, Jonathan can't yet use the Vampire Killer whip because he's not a descendant of the vampire-killing Belmont family.

Making the best of a bad situation, you fight on, hoping your armoury will improve. It does.

Charlotte, who battles with magic, has more imaginative weapons from the start. One relatively easy-to-find weapon is the classic novel Don Quixote. Attack with it and the brave knight pops out, swinging his sword.

As you begin to feel a bit more confident in your arsenal and switching between your two heroes – which you can do at any time, as well as combining their attacks into the impressive Dual Crush combo – you start to take more notice of your enemies.

A lovingly drawn cast is found within the game, taking cues from a vast library of folklore and literature. Along with the more traditional zombies and skeletons, you'll find Shakespeare's (poor) Yorick and the goddess Persephone.

Bosses are less fun. The majority live inside the portraits dotted around the castle's walls, which you must travel inside, like Alice Through The Looking Glass.

These painting worlds, presumably intended to add variety and add longevity, often feel like a chore. Enemy placement here feels lazy, and it's not uncommon to see a room filled with 20 of one type of monster; a miserable situation for a series that thrives on variety. Wonder and discovery are pushed aside in favour of a brutal war of attrition. Never is this more evident than in the boss battles themselves, which by-and-large eschew strategy in favour of a simple test of how many health potions you're carrying.

Get back in the castle though, and the sense of satisfaction returns. It was the compelling nature of exploration that got us hooked in Dawn of Sorrows, and Portrait of Ruin is similarly blessed. The DS's top-screen houses a map that unfolds as you move from room to room; sometimes you'll get stuck with only a small corridor showing up ahead. It's a great way to build your anticipation for the magic skills you'll be learning, and pushes you to go on playing for just a little while longer.

One underexploited opportunity though is multiplayer support. Portrait of Ruin employs Nintendo's Wi-Fi connection service in two ways. The first enables you to set up a shop to buy and sell items. Marginally more interesting is the co-op mode, in which you team up with another player to fight a series of bosses against a time limit. Travelling in a linear path from room to room, you share health and magic – a frustrating imposition, when you find yourself suffering for your partner's failures. It feels very much like an afterthought.

All told, Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin is a highly enjoyable challenge. While there's a nagging feeling that few of the new features Konami has introduced – the online modes, the portrait levels, and the excessive dialogue – have been truly successful, the sense of adventure and sheer number of items and enemies means most series fans will still love it.

Some might be better off picking up a copy of Dawn of Sorrows first, though. Even goths know not to mess too much with a good thing.
Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin
Reviewer photo
Robert Howells | 5 January 2007
Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin is a deep, enthralling game but the presence of some flawed elements mean it's not as good as the previous Dawn of Sorrows
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