While it isn't perfect, Portrait of Ruin should be given credit for its ambitions. Execution is where it falls short.

User Rating: 7 | Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin DS

Some things are better off left alone. But if games always followed that trend, then we wouldn't have Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin, now would we? Portrait of Ruin is definitely a game that isn't afraid to step out of the series' comfort zone, and definitely steps outside the boundaries of what defines a Castlevania game. It does have its good moments (in fact, several), but sadly the game's detrimental issues outnumber its merits - but not by so much that it makes this the worst Castlevania game ever. There's worse ones out there.

As the second Castlevania title for the Nintendo DS, it can be safe to say that it is a little more polished than the first one, which was Dawn of Sorrow. As the years have passed and as developers have gotten more familiar with the hardware, Portrait of Ruin is no exception when it comes to polish. It's a stunning game, visually and artistically. While the story may seem a little outlandish and the characters out-of-place for a Castlevania game, the music and gameplay more than make up for it. It plays well, looks, good, and sounds great.

One of the more recent games in the series timeline, the story takes place in Europe in 1944 during the second World War. This historical fact is hinted at once or twice, but is never made the center of the story - so don't expect to put any of your history class skills to the test. What you might want to know is that the game's story continues after Castlevania: Bloodlines, which was released in 1994 on the Sega Genesis. Enter our two protagonists: Jonathan Morris, the current wielder of the famed Vampire Killer passed down to him by his father (from Castlevania: Bloodlines), and Charlotte Aulin, a magician with connections to the Belnades clan, a family of magic users. The game does dabble here and there on events from Bloodlines, but it's not necessary to have played that beforehand to understand the story here. The duo arrive at Dracula's Castle to defeat the castle's lord, Count Dracula. It might sound like your typical Vampire Killer game, but there's enough story in here to warrant a second playthrough to see how things fully play out. The story is a little convoluted, so you might not understand the whole thing in the first run if you don't pay attention.

As for first impressions, Portrait of Ruin shines. While this new, younger generation of vampire hunters might seem a little awkward (Jonathan's not exactly my favorite Castlevania protagonist) and even corny at times, they're not unbearable. You might even like them if you give them a chance. I can still recall entering the castle for the first time while the game summoned one of the most kickass first level themes in Castlevania history. I can say, without a doubt, that Portrait of Ruin has one of the best soundtracks in the history of the series. And that's saying something, because just about every game has had amazing music (yes, even Harmony of Dissonance had its good points). There's a lot of Baroque and classical music influence here, which should be applauded. The songs are upbeat when they need to be, and atmospheric when the situation calls for it. Two words: 'dat bass.

A ton of things have been done to freshen up the gameplay. This time around, since there are two protagonists, you get to play as two characters. There's quite a bit of freedom as to what they can do, as well. You can choose between Jonathan and Charlotte and have one or the other go solo, or you can even have both on-screen at the same time for backup. You can even tap anywhere on the screen with a stylus and have your partner move to that location for better coverage. Want to reach a high ledge? Simply jump off your partner's shoulder. There's even super moves that involve both characters that attack at once for cool screen-covering attacks.

On paper, this sounds good, but execution is where it falls flat. The game doesn't maintain a good balance between cooperation and... well, cooperation. Just about everything the developers intended for you to do you'll end up doing only about half the time, and good intentions end up becoming wasted potential. There is the option to have both characters on-screen at the same time, but the artificial intelligence for your partner is horrendous. For example, Charlotte (or Jonathan, depending on who your partner is) might destroy a Blood Skeleton (you know, those red skeletons that die when hit but regenerate a few seconds later) but keep attacking it until it wakes up only to continuously repeat the process ad infinitum. There are puzzles which require cooperation, but these are so few and far between that I rarely felt the need to use my partner for anything. And since the cooperation is not emphasized enough, I found myself stuck at one point before I realized I could use my partner for something other than a pack mule. This results in a lack of any attachment you might have to either of the protagonists, which is pretty bad. Unless, of course, you're willing to accept the fact that the partner system is underused and can get over it. Which is good.

There's a hefty variety of environments like all Castlevania games, but Portrait of Ruin takes that fact personally. This is where the Portraits come in. Throughout the castle, there are rooms that contain a scenic landscape within. Using Charlotte, you can actually enter these paintings in a world that the artist designed. Say what you may, but I found this nothing short of jaw-dropping. This is what I found the coolest part of the game, because now you're not limited to Dracula's Castle (or Europe, for that matter), but to various environments all over the world, fictional or real, with varying degrees of art house and surrealism. Each portrait contains a different area, and there are a lot of portraits with different places to visit, monsters to destroy, and bosses to slay. Unfortunately, this does come with its share of issues. Some portraits make you excited to explore, and others will make you dread setting foot in them. One area in the game that particularly annoyed me was this surrealistic world filled with ridiculously large amounts of traps such as moving blades, flames, and simply bad enemy placement. This didn't feel like a challenge. It was frustration. The traps are so common and scattered throughout the level with mechanics that defy Castlevania level physics and thus make it difficult to navigate because the way the characters move don't coordinate well with the traps they're supposed to avoid. The spikes and blades are hard to avoid, and you're going to try to not get hit by them, but you have to fight off wards of Medusa Heads, poison blobs, spear-wielding knights that throw javelins, and an endless array of problems. This forces you to forget all about the cooperative effort the game emphasizes and stick to one character for the entire level.

Fortunately, the gameplay is Portrait of Ruin's saving grace, save for those issues previously mentioned. It's of the "Metroidvania" vein, and so you should expect RPG elements such as level progression and obtainable equipment. Jonathan and Charlotte both have their perks and weaknesses (unfortunately Charlotte gets hit worse with the weak stick). Jonathan is the grunt, who is capable of all of the physical obstacles in the game. He can wield swords, axes, maces, whips, and more. Charlotte is a magical-based character, so expect to use her when you need to fight enemies with certain elemental weaknesses. She can summon lightning, pillars of fire and ice, and other cool magic spells. If used right, they are a force to be reckoned with. Expect to find yourself using Jonathan most of the time, though. Both characters get their own set of equipment as well, so there is a huge array of stuff to equip for both characters, enhancing their stats. There's a ton of secrets to be found and enough goodies to warrant numerous playthroughs with plenty of extras and post-completion rewards.

It can be said that Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin isn't the best game in the series, despite its good intentions. It's too bad that the whole thing didn't come together as planned, and while there are a lot of new things that the game offers, it just doesn't mix. However, the music and level design are spectacular in this installment, and outweigh the campy story and the other minor issues. The ambitious partner system should be commended, however, and personally I liked it even though it fell flat in some areas. It's quite lengthy, and completionists will feel right at home with the hordes of things to find and collect. The game's not for everyone, but those who are willing to give it a chance might find Portrait of Ruin one of the best Castlevania titles in years.