Monday, April 28, 2008

Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin

Sometimes I feel like Galileo. I walk the streets, informing people that the Castlevania franchise is really rather frighteningly good, and the only response I get is a kind of quiet enthusiasm for burning me at the stake.

What with winter coming on, that stake is looking like a viable alternative to the frigid wasteland that men have come to call Canberra, so let me say once again that these games are made out of candy-flavoured sherbert-infused platinum.

Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin is the latest entry in the series, and is available on the Nintendo DS. Like past iterations, you'll be playing the role of a vampire hunter tasked with exploring Dracula's castle, beating the nine hells out of a wide variety of low-grade nasties, and eventually sending Captain Bitey himself to his well-earned demise.

Portait of Ruin is in 2D, and like a mad scientist it creates genius by grafting undemanding platforming mechanics to an open-world exploration core, with some RPG level grinding and item collection thrown in for good measure.

Dracula's castle is a big place, and you won't instantly be able to access all of it. But as you defeat bosses and find hidden areas, you'll become able to slide through tight spaces, jump higher and further, push heavy blocks, and eventually transform into an owl, all of which grant you access to new rooms and tougher bosses.

This time around you're paired up with a companion, the spell-casting Charlotte. As you will know if you have played Ico, being saddled with a female sidekick is Not A Good Thing (TM). Her attacks are based on a finite supply of magic points, which makes her a poor choice for exploring the castle, and even in boss fights her low defensive rating and rather limited range of spells makes her an iffy proposition.

Luckily you can turn Charlotte off by pressing the A button, and only bring her back out on the rare occasions that you find a use for her. With the weaker sex thus handily locked in the closet, you can go about enjoying Portrait of Ruin in pretty much exactly the same way as you have the last few games in the series.

Portrait of Ruin introduces a quest system, where an NPC ghost near the entrance of the castle hands out tasks for you to complete while exploring the castle. These typically require you to find a rare item or defeat a rare monster, and the rewards are most often new subweapons, skills, or pieces of equipment. For the most part they're completely optional but they provide some interesting variety to the normal Castlevania formula.

The game world is significantly bigger this time than the last couple of outings. Not only is Dracula's castle reasonably large, but you'll also be using portraits hung in key parts of the castle to travel to eight sub-worlds, each quite sizeable and featuring a boss fight at the end. Total play time adds up to maybe 15 hours, give or take depending on how much of a completionist you are.

The game unfortunately retains one of my key complaints from its predecessors. If you play this game entirely without the aid of an FAQ, you'll likely miss the last quarter of the game and get the "bad ending". Progressing to the good ending requires finding a fairly well-hidden spell and using it to win a certain boss fight in a non-standard way. That's just stupid game design, and it's potentially very frustrating to casual players.

Speaking of frustrating, I should add that the US version of this game shipped with a potentially game-breaking bug, for which you should also check an FAQ so as to not have to restart the game at around the halfway mark. European versions like mine are apparently patched and work fine.

Those gripes aside, Portrait of Ruin is an excellently paced game that is likeable and highly satisfying. If you haven't played a modern Castlevania game before then this is an excellent place to dive in, and I highly recommend it.


Chris said...

"Progressing to the good ending requires finding a fairly well-hidden spell and using it to win a certain boss fight in a non-standard way. That's just stupid game design, and it's potentially very frustrating to casual players."

This overlooks one small point... no casual player actually plays Castlevania! This is a hobbyist game franchise if ever there was one. :D

I love the Castlevania games myself, and your review here encourages me to put this into my list of "games to buy before long airplane journeys". :)

Best wishes!

Greg Tannahill said...

That's a fair point, Chris, I don't think I've seen a casual player with a copy of this game.

Which is a shame, because it's available for DS, it's got incredibly simple gameplay, and it's a reasonably well known intellectual property. There's no reason they couldn't be flogging these things to all and sundry.

I mean, one of the things I really love about them is how friendly they are to "pick up and play" - save points are less than a minute apart, and total time from power-on to gameplay is about 4 seconds - you can play these things while waiting for the bus.