When it was released for the DS in October of 2005, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow quickly became a favorite game for the platform and earned rave reviews from critics. This fall, Castlevania will return to the DS in an all-new adventure titled Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin, and on the eve of E3, Konami stopped by to let us get a hands-on feel for how the game is coming along.
As you might expect from a Castlevania game, the plot of Portrait of Ruin follows the misadventures of a vampiric cult that's attempting to resurrect Dracula himself. The game takes place during World War II, as a pair of vampire sisters attempt to use the energy of the souls of the war's innumerable dead to achieve their nefarious end. Another enemy character is a vampiric painter, who constructs magical paintings that take on a life of their own. During your adventure, you'll travel into a number of these paintings, which act as discrete levels of the game and which should offer up a larger variety of places to explore as you travel.
Fans of Aria of Sorrow and Dawn of Sorrow may be surprised, however, to learn that this game is different from those games in many respects. Gone, for instance, is Soma Cruz, the star of the Sorrow games. He has been replaced by Jonathan Morris, a vampire hunter, and his magician friend Charlotte Orlean. The inclusion of two characters does indeed have an impact on gameplay, as you're capable of switching between both characters with the touch of a button. There are some definite gameplay distinctions between the two, as well: Jonathan is more of a fighter character, capable of dealing excellent damage with his whip, and is capable of taking more physical damage before dying, while Charlotte's spells cost much less to cast and are more potent.
In addition to being able to switch between characters on the fly, though, you can keep both of them on the screen at the same time if you wish. This is useful for puzzle-solving, as you'll find early on in the game when you run across a pressure plate that requires you to use the weight of both characters to drop a bridge. The second character doesn't act particularly smart at this point in time, being content to simply attack and move at the same time as your primary character, but the price of adding to your offensive capabilities will be that you present a larger target to your foes and will have a harder time dodging attacks. Charlotte and Jonathan share the same magic and health bars, so you'll need to carefully manage your reserves to ensure that you don't run out too quickly.
One of the most intriguing ways Charlotte and Jonathan can interact, however, is in their summon attacks. By pressing a button combination when you have enough magic in the tank, you'll be able to perform a variety of extra-powerful magical attacks. In the demo level that we played, we were able to start off with a devastating lightning attack, which rotated around the screen and blasted everyone nearby, and we later unlocked a powerful weapon-based attack, which allowed the characters to whirl each other around, hitting each nearby enemy multiple times.
(And for the curious, Konami is indeed considering adding two-player cooperative play into the game. It hasn't finalized its decision on whether to make the multiplayer cooperative or competitive, however, so we'll just have to wait and see what develops.)
Also gone is the soul-collecting motif of the Sorrow games. Instead of collecting souls, the Portrait of Ruin characters will go back to a cash-based system, where you'll earn cold hard money by defeating your foes and will be able to spend that money on character upgrades and equipment. In addition, the graphical styling of the game makes the leap into 3D. Before you start writing your elaborate 1,000-word online petition to Konami, though, rest assured that the 3D elements of the game are tasteful and fairly subtle: Some of the backgrounds are rendered in 3D to give you a better feeling of depth as you scroll past them, and some of the enemies are also in 3D. The gameplay is still stuck on the 2D plane, though, so if you're worried about having to play through Curse of Darkness again, rest assured that the game sticks to the classic Castlevania side-scrolling goodness that has stood the test of time over the last 20 years.
All in all, Portrait of Ruin is looking like it'll be another excellent entry into the 2D pantheon of Castlevania games. Be sure to stay tuned to GameSpot for more details on Portrait of Ruin as we near its fall release date.