Portrait of the Vampire Hunter as a Young Man
Dear readers, I’ve said before that while I don’t claim to be intelligent, I’m not a complete moron. Well, I was wrong. I am a TOTAL moron. Why do I say that? Well, it won’t make sense without telling you that I recently made a list for my review series of my personal Top 10 games you should play on Halloween. Some games I wanted to put on there like Silent Hill, Costume Quest, and System Shock were left off because I wanted to recommend only games that I’d played. That being said, despite leaving off some obvious ones, the responses (so far, at least) have been completely civil. However, when people brought up that they had spent the holiday playing a Castlevania game, I realized then that I had made a terrible mistake. In my defense, I’ve only played four Castlevania games, and I don’t regret putting any of the other entries on the list. But I have no excuse for not putting at least one of them on the list, so yeah…MORON.
Hopefully, however, I can make up for it by reviewing the Castlevania game that stuck with me the most. For those who are curious, the four games I’ve played are Circle of the Moon-which was okay, but not really that memorable, Order of Ecclesia-which came very close to being the one I reviewed because of how great it is, Dawn of Sorrow-which had a clever concept, but Order of Ecclesia did it better in my opinion, and the one I’ll be looking at today, Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin.
As you might have noticed, all of those entries are handheld titles from the GBA and DS systems. Like I said before, the first game console I ever owned was a Nintendo 64, and I never played either of the Castlevania titles for it. Why? Not sure, I just never got the chance to. Point is, I missed out on a lot of the older Castlevania titles, and didn’t really think about them until the day I saw an ad on TV for Portrait of Ruin. At that point, I decided that I’d missed out on the series for long enough and decided to give it a try. And honestly, I don’t think I could have picked a better one to start out with. Portrait of Ruin is a nearly perfect Castlevania game for first-timers, that still offers a challenge for old-school fans. Hell, for old-school fans, this also might be a good gateway to Metroidvania games in general.
The story takes place when Dracula’s castle appears in 1944 Europe, during World War II. Apparently this time the castle was raised by a vampire artist named Brauner, using the souls of those who died in the war as his power source, seeking to use Dracula’s power for his own purposes without directly reviving the count himself. However, as raising Dracula’s castle is wont to do, it attracts the attention of the resident vampire hunter, Jonathan Morris, son of John Morris from Castlevania: Bloodlines, as well as his childhood friend Charlotte Aulin, a powerful mage. But there are problems…once they first enter the castle, they’re greeted by a ghost who at first goes by Wind, but you soon learn that he’s the ghost of Eric Lecarde from Bloodlines. Though he was killed, he managed to cast a spell that his spirit will remain as long as the castle is standing. And it’s a good thing, too, because Brauner kidnapped and brainwashed Lecarde’s daughters Stella and Loretta into becoming his minions. However, without a Lecarde to unlock its full power, since Jonathan isn’t a direct descendant of the Belmonts, he can’t use the Vampire Killer. It’s up to you to defeat Brauner, vanquish Dracula, and save the world once again-naturally.
At its core, the game plays the same as your standard Metroidvania title-certain areas of the castle are blocked off and you need certain power-ups to get to them, which you get as the game progresses-with the addition of worlds within magic portraits that you travel to within the castle…Mario 64, anyone? However, John and Charlotte’s gameplay has a few extra bells and whistles added. The game plays a lot with controlling two characters at once-you keep the party member you’re not playing as in hammerspace, until you summon them or switch to controlling that character. You can have the character use their special skill when summoned (subweapons for John, spells for Charlotte), have them stand in one place so you can get an extra boost by jumping off their shoulders, and best of all, there are Dual Crashes. Remember the Item Crash skills in Rondo of Blood that allowed you to use a special attack with your subweapon? Well, these are more powerful versions of those-they summon both party members to the field and have them both expend mana for a move that basically clears the screen. To make them not as OP as they would be otherwise, you have to wait to use a skill right after using it once, and every crash has an element, which some bosses are strong against. But once you know what you’re doing, these can take CHUNKS off a boss’s life bar. I think my personal favorite has to be Greatest Five, which summons five other Castlevania heroes that all attack at once for massive damage. But you can only get it by completing the bonus Nest of Evil dungeon, where you fight bosses and enemies from Castlevania games of both past and present.
Fortunately, even without the whip on your side, you’re not defenseless. Monsters you fight can drop weapons or subweapons you can use, or you can buy them. John can use many weapons like Alucard, but Charlotte mostly uses books…books that shoot out weapons when you attack, often in multiple directions. You can even find Alucard’s spear-which was actually the one Eric used in Bloodlines. Before you unlock the whip’s power, that’s probably my favorite weapon. And in addition to buying weapons, you can also buy health and mana potions if things get too tough.
The graphics are great-every enemy, especially the bosses, really stand out-part monstrous and part badass. The backgrounds also look really good, and despite technically being inside the castle, you still go to a lot of different locations thanks to the painting worlds, so you still get plenty of variety. Music isn’t all that memorable, but it’s not bad and still does its job well.
But the game, as good as it is, still has moments of tedium. With the use of healing potions, levels, and magic, the game functions a lot like an RPG, more so than previous titles. And with that comes GRINDING! Joy. Yes, some of the weapons and achievements to get weapons require you to have X amount in a certain stat. And all of the subweapons you get can also be mastered if you use them a certain number of times. You MIGHT want to grind them against an enemy called Old Axe Armor, but more on that later. But other than those, I found no problems to speak of.
Before you play Portrait of Ruin, though, I’ll give you two tips-now, technically these are spoilers, but I got these tips going into the game, too, so I think it’s only fair. To get the good ending of the game, you need to free Stella and Loretta from Brauner’s possession with Charlotte’s strongest healing spell, Sanctuary. Supposedly, this can cure any ailment, but they make up for that by giving it the longest casting time. When you get the spell and have the boss fight with both sisters at once, press R to have Charlotte cast the spell and use John to draw their ice spells until it casts. From there, they agree to help you unlock the whip’s power, but only if you can defeat the memory of one of the whip’s previous users-Richter Belmont from Rondo of Blood. This fight is tough for several reasons-Richter is fast, has attacks he used in Rondo of Blood, you fight him as John solo so no spamming item crashes, and he seems to follow your movements WITH the powered-up Vampire Killer, so getting close to him is a bad idea. So what do you do? Well, you need a subweapon to hit him from above in an arc-old-school Castlevania fans might think of the axe, but you know what subweapon he’s weak to? The cream pie. Yes-if you master it, you can throw up to three quickly, they travel in a smaller arc than the axe, and it’s a Dark-type weapon, which Richter is weak to. You unlock the fully-powered Vampire Killer…by pieing Richter Belmont in the face. I love this game.
What’s that? This game sounds too easy for you? You want more of a challenge? Well, never fear-beating the game as John with the good ending earns you two new gameplay modes. Sisters mode is interesting because you play as Stella and Loretta, you’re able to fly freely if you have mana, and you use the touch screen to cast spells. It’s interesting, but really the main purpose of this mode is to show what happens to the girls before the game starts. But what you probably care about the most is Richter mode…or as the game calls it, “Richiter” mode.
Misspelling aside, this mode allows you to basically relive your memories of Rondo of Blood by playing through the game as Richter and Maria Renard, who attacks using her animal friends. Like Jonathan and Charlotte, you control both characters, but unlike them, there are no dual crashes, no character dialogue, no new weapons, and no healing potions. That’s right, like Julius mode in Dawn of Sorrow, you have all your subweapons unlocked from the start, and you can find one-time potions that extend your HP or MP, but that’s it. The only way to heal otherwise is to find a save point and get healed there. This is basically the game’s hard mode meant for stronger players, and there’s also a hard mode for that which gives you a level cap. If you want more of an old-school Castlevania experience, play Richter mode, and you won’t regret it. However, I can’t really say that of the final mode.
Yes, there is a fourth gameplay mode, but it’s the hardest to unlock of all. Remember those Old Axe Armors I mentioned earlier? Well, while playing as Jonathan and Charlotte, if you kill ONE THOUSAND of them and beat the game, you unlock the ability to play as one. If that doesn’t sound so bad, keep in mind that the most Old Axe Armors in one room of the castle are around three, and they’re pretty rare otherwise. Yeah. Apparently this is a callback to Symphony of the Night, where you could unlock a similar mode where you played as Axe Lord Armor. But how does it play? Well, it has an axe that attacks in a downward arc in front of it, and the Axe subweapon that works the same way it does for the vampire hunters. However, it also has a Puppet subweapon, similar to a skill Soma Cruz can learn. Basically, it throws a small puppet a short distance, and when the puppet hits the ground, it and the knight switch places, which can be used to dodge attacks. It can double jump, but not slide. However, unlike Jonathan, it attacks while jumping-it holds its axe up above its head, which hurts enemies that touch it. Other than that, like Richter, there are no partners, no items, and no healing potions. Personally I think this mode isn’t worth the trouble it is to unlock it-speaking as someone who did-but if you can beat this harder-than-hard mode, I salute your skill as a gamer. And really, when you get right down to it, that’s four gameplay modes in one cart. If nothing else, I think Konami at least TRIED to give us our money’s worth with that.
Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin is a must-have for any new Castlevania fan who’s curious about the series, but needs a bit of time to ease into it. It really feels like the perfect transition from the relative ease of John and Charlotte’s campaign to the harder Richter mode, which might be a gateway drug for looking at Castlevanias of the past from there. If you’re not a new Castlevania fan, however, I think you’ll still be won over by how much this title sticks to its roots while doing something new. And hey, you might even enjoy this DS title so much you want to try more-and if so, might I recommend Order of Ecclesia? And the extra game modes were a nice way to sweeten the deal.
So in conclusion, Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin is a great game, it gets a big recommendation from me, and I am a total moron for not mentioning it earlier. That is all.
But seriously, MORON.