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RELEASE DATE (NA): December 5, 2006 GENRE: Action/Adventure
// review by SoyBomb

Dracula's Castle gets yet another tour from the locals.

Castlevania was becoming quite the staple on Nintendo handhelds, especially by the time they could actually create a coherent long-winded game like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night on a portable machine. You could really rely on these games to give you a solid action-packed experience. The Game Boy Advance had three of them, and the Nintendo DS responded in kind with its own trilogy. Right smack dab in the middle of that trilogy was Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin. Sadly, I believe this is the point where Castlevania games, as they were, began to really show their stale nature.

As with many Castlevania entries before it, Portrait of Ruin is a game in the coined "Metroidvania" style: that is, focus on one interconnected world where your character must explore and gain additional abilities in order to progress to further areas. Portrait of Ruin definitely follows suit, although with a bit of a kooky twist. The main ground is Dracula's Castle, a location that has served the series well for over a quarter of a century. To unlock the mysteries of the castle, our heroes Jonathan Morris and Charlotte Aulin must venture into enchanted paintings and defeat the vile creatures within.

This is where the game starts to lose its creepy edge. Vampire hunters belong in dingy castle settings, dark forests, clock towers. The paintings take them to places that hardly qualify as typical Castlevania environments, giving me pause and raising me to believe that the formula they once knew and abided by was falling apart. Why are they in a broken-down old circus? Why are they strutting about in an Egyptian desert? It almost appears as though the developers were running out of ideas and just tacked on ideas they pulled from a hat. (It also saves them from having to connect these areas in any labyrinthine manner.)

You can play as either Jonathan or Charlotte at any given time, with a quick button press switching between the two. As an added bonus, you can even have them both going at the same time, with the backup character following you closely and providing backup. Okay, they're not always great as backup, but at least they're good targets for enemy fire. There are even certain puzzles where having both characters is required, such as having to hop on separate motorcycles and quickly switch between the two to dodge obstacles. Yes, that's what Castlevania has come to: drag racing.

Get ready for even more Castlevania...mania...

Gameplay is as solid as ever, and Konami was smart enough to bring back not just the legendary Vampire Killer (which, sadly, needs to be unlocked via a special battle), but several others as well, including a deliciously evil flame whip. Jonathan also gets use of swords, axes, and the like, while Charlotte uses tomes... from which vicious blades emerge. Mmmm, yes. As well, both characters can equip subweaponry (Jonathan gets actual weapons, whereas Charlotte is more inclined to use spells.) And, if need be, there's a shop run by a short little man, though the prices are assuredly steep. Oh, and monsters sure like to drop food. Lots of food. Lots of DIFFERENT KINDS of food. Thanks, skeleton. I sure needed that spoiled milk for something.

Also featured in this game, encountered fairly early on, is the ghost of Eric Lecarde, made famous through his efforts in Castlevania: Bloodlines. Aside from being dead and floating around, he also has some quests to perform for you. Completing them will give you extra items or abilities... if you feel like spending some extra time on them.

The music was composed primarily by Michiru Yamane, who had handled many Castlevanian soundtracks prior, but this time with a bit of assistance by Yuzo Koshiro, the name behind a number of classics, including Actraiser, the Streets of Rage series, and the Etrian Odyssey series. The soundtrack ranges from somber to funky, but in general, it sounds very close to classic Castlevania tunes of the past, once again maintaining that vampire-killing feel.

Portrait of Ruin also takes a hit in the art department. I don't know what happened, but someone must have thought that the up-close portrait drawings of characters in Castlevania were too scary because now it looks like they were submitted by eight-year-olds. The rest of the game looks just dandy, with a similar look to the previous game, though slightly less futuristic, given its World War II-era setting. Although many of the enemies border on being citizens of Generic City, the bosses in particular stand out with some uniquely spooky designs. We're also treated to some blasts from the past, including the ever-so-lovely Medusa and Frankenstein's monster.

Bottom line: if you really enjoyed the previous handheld Castlevanias, in the style of exploration and battle equally sharing the stage, than Portrait of Ruin is right up your alley. Just don't expect any evolution of the series here, because it's more of the same. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing sometimes...

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