Konami has been firing on all cylinders with its portable entries in its beloved Castlevania series. The veteran publisher/developer didn't miss a beat as it jumped from its stellar Game Boy Advance games to the DS. The third installment of the series on the DS, the upcoming Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin, doesn't show any signs that the developer's track record is in danger of being thrown off. We had the chance to spend some quality time with an updated version of the slick 2D title recently, and we're pleased by what we've seen.
The game uses the same winning formula seen in last year's Dawn of Sorrow and features an animated scene-setting intro that showcases the DS's modest but solid video capabilities. The intro cinematic gives players their first look at the game's two lead characters, Jonathan Morris and Charlotte Aulin. As with previous entries in the series, Portrait of Ruin finds new ways to get mileage out of the franchise's family tree. In this case the game taps on the Sega Genesis Castlevania Bloodlines cast, with Jonathan being a descendant of Johnny Morris, that title's main character. He's joined by Charlotte, a powerful mystic. As you'd expect, each character has their own unique strength in the game. Jonathan is obviously the team powerhouse when it comes to melee combat, while Charlotte relies on her magic and isn't as sturdy as her partner when it comes to going toe-to-toe with the undead. The duo sets out to stop what appears to be the forthcoming resurrection of the poster boy for the vampiric lifestyle, Dracula.
However, despite the reappearance of Drac's mighty and twisted castle, Dracula isn't actually the big bad in this adventure. It seems his home has been hijacked by a rival vamp by the name of Brauner, who, along with his two undead daughters, is using the energy from the all the death caused by WWII to power the castle's return. While we haven't found out much more about the specifics, it seems Drac's crib is a pretty potent domicile for power seekers. To help power up the castle and contain the mighty energies being funneled into it, Brauner crafts paintings that are portals to what appear to be pocket dimensions. Jonathan and Charlotte must seek out the paintings, enter the dimensions, take out the bosses in them, and disrupt Brauner's flow of energy. If the pair disrupts enough of the energy coming in, Brauner's plot to resurrect casa de Dracula is hosed. This all sounds like a plan worth pursuing by the pair of heroes, and it forms the driving force behind the action.
The game follows a fairly standard Castlevania structure in that you'll be doing a ton of exploration and revisiting areas you couldn't access previously once you earn new abilities. Obviously, the main part of your adventure revolves around finding Brauner's paintings and disrupting them. However, the game also features some interesting side quest work, thanks to the presence of a ghost named Wind. It seems the phantasm is all about opposing Brauner and has bound his spirit to the castle. Given his ghostly form, his options are somewhat limited when it comes to actively opposing Brauner; but what he can do is dole out quests to our heroic duo and reward them with new items and abilities that are key to progressing in the adventure. From what we've seen, his missions are typical fetch quests or kill quests that require you to take out a certain number of enemies. We'd of course like to note that if Casper were really serious about taking out Brauner he'd just fork over the helpful stuff as opposed to making Jonathan and Charlotte work for it, but there you go. You'll find another friendly face on your travels, a priest, who runs a shop you can visit in the game and spend your hard-earned cash for items and gear. As with Wind, if his holiness were really committed to helping in the fight against evil he'd just give the pair what they needed instead of forcing them to fork over their hard-earned cash for goods. But no one ever said the fight against evil was easy or cheap.
Painting Can Be Fun (In an Evil Way)
The main new mechanic to the gameplay mix is how you'll control the two heroes. You'll be able to switch between them on the fly, or have both onscreen at the same time with the artificial intelligence controlling your partner. The dual mechanic presents some interesting, cool options during the adventure. The most obvious is the additional firepower when fighting enemies. Your partner will attack what you do and help you take out foes that much quicker. The downside is, as they take damage, the magic meter will run down. Once it gets low enough, they'll disappear, forcing you to refill your meter by collecting hearts or using an item. The other perk to having a buddy out during your adventuring is that you can use them for moves as you earn new abilities, such as a springboard when jumping. You'll also find the pair will be able to perform combo attacks that result in mass damage to anything nearby. As with previous games, you'll find a full inventory and item system to use as well as a leveling system that lets your characters get buff as they take out the forces of evil. You'll also be able to equip better weapons and gear, each with unique stat enhancing attributes, as you come across it or buy it. Finally, you'll be able to customize your magic and combo attacks as you gain them.
The control in the game is solid, with the basic Castlevania handling in full effect. You'll be able to run, jump, and use magic weapon attacks like always. The new swap mechanic is folded seamlessly into the mix and feels good. Combo moves are easy to pull off, if you have the magic points to support them. The touch screen is put to some use as well, with one feature where you can draw on your save file (as in earlier games), as well as a bit where you can use it to direct your partner on where to go when they're out by tapping on the screen.
The visuals in Portrait of Ruin have gotten a winning layer of polish since we last saw the game in motion. Jonathan and Charlotte move fluidly, thanks to animation that's on par with the previous games. Enemies animate just as well and have their own unique, and obviously undead, flair. The game's 2D presentation is nicely done and seamlessly blends in 3D flourishes. Little touches, such as animated elements in the background, help the presentation stand out. The game doesn't skimp on special effects, either, as evidenced by the various attacks the duo performs, either as a pair or solo. One interesting thing to note is that while the in-game graphics are on par with the previous games, the face shots used in dialogue sequences to move the story along sport a new art style that reflects a more traditional anime influence. As a result, the character portraits will feature a good deal more personality and a slightly younger look to them. The new presentation winds up being pretty effective at selling everyone's emotions during chats, which is a subtle touch that helps tell the story. Finally, as in previous Castlevania DS games, you'll be able to check your map and inventory on the second DS screen.
The audio in the game is coming together fine and lives up to the high standard set by the previous portable Castlevania games. Aside from the impressive soundtrack that anchors the experience, we heard new touches, such as the characters saying each other's names as we alternated controlling them. Besides that, we heard the old, reliable moans of the undead and various abominations as we murdered them, which was all good stuff.
Based on what we played, Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin is shaping up to be one cool little entry in the series on the DS. The gameplay is interesting and seems to be a good mix of old and new. The visuals are looking pretty slick and are well on their way to maintaining the high level of quality we've come to expect from the series on the DS. Though we weren't able to try the game's wireless features, we're anxious to see how they will pan out. The notion of playing with a friend and selling gear seems like it could be interesting. Though the version of the game we played was a work in progress, all signs point to Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin becoming another cracking entry in the long-running series that shouldn't be missed. The game is currently slated to ship later this year for the DS; look for more in the coming months.