You may not realize this, but the Castlevania series has just passed its 20 year mark.  It’s true!  The first title shipped in Japan, Europe, and Brazil, and was named Demon Castle Dracula.  It shipped on the ill-fated MSX system in 1986.  Sensing they had a hit on their hands, Konami quickly turned Demon Castle Dracula into Castlevania to release it on the NES, Commodore 64, Amiga, and GBA in 1986 and a legend was born.  Through the 20 year history the game has seen 22 sequels under various names and on a large span of platforms.  Even the Dreamcast almost got a 3D title called Castlevania: Resurrection.  The story has changed slightly from game to game, but for the most part it involves an eternal struggle against the immortal vampire Dracula.

Last year we saw the Castlevania series move to the innovative Nintendo DS with Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow.  While the implementation of the second screen was somewhat lacking, the gameplay was solid and fans snapped up the carts like they were encrusted with diamonds.  This year we get a holiday treat as Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin puts us back in the courtyard of our favorite Demon Castle for another run at Dracula. 

The story in Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin kicks off in the year 1944 as we follow Jonathan Morris the vampire hunter, and Charlotte Aulin the sorceress.  The agony, hatred, and death of so many soldiers lost in World War II has caused the Castle of Evil to be summoned once again.  Our intrepid pair has set out to destroy the lord of the Vampires and banish the evil castle back to the depths of Hell. Can they “Process Dracula’s Rib,” or will they have to seek the power of the “Graveyard Duck to live longer?” While we are on the topic, who is Brauner, why does he have the keys to the castle, and can I also “Process” his rib? (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, go play Castlevania II right now)

Graphics on handhelds have been lackluster in years past.  The Nintendo DS and the PSP have shown that this doesn’t have to be the case, and Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin is a shining example of this.  The game is displayed in the classic 2D perspective that has worked so well for this series.  The storyline is told through ‘talking head’ anime character overlays that pop on to the screen during dialog, giving a slightly larger canvas in which to convey feeling and emotion.  It works well, and you’ll find yourself caring about the characters in the game – a rarity for a handheld. 

The animation in Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin is excellent.  The characters are detailed and as you would expect.  Similarly, the backgrounds are often multi-layered with lots of simultaneous movement going on in the background to complement the action in the foreground where your character lies.  These backgrounds vary wildly from well lit desert areas to dark and foreboding corners of the demon castle.  Enemies are equally varied, with a fairly vast number of enemy types.  The only real hitch I saw with the graphics is the occasional slowdown during boss battles.  Some of the bosses easily fill the entire screen (and then some), which can cause the DS to chug a little bit.  That said, this is a great game to show off the visual power of this handheld.  Well done Konami, well done!

I love the Castlevania series music.  So much so that I picked up the 20th Anniversary soundtrack that contains all of the great songs from the games that I grew up with.  In this area, Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin does not disappoint.  As you play through the game, various background tracks will play to set the mood for that area – my personal being the lightly Middle Eastern theme for the Sandy Grave.  It works very well and at no point was I tempted to turn it off.  I can think of many big budget Next-Gen console titles that can’t make that same claim.

The sound effects in Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin will sound quite familiar.  While Charlotte and Jonathan have quite a few well-voiced lines in the game, the rest of the sounds are almost certainly culled from the stock Castlevania sound bank.  Whips sound like they always have, and the objects they break also sound very familiar.  Since the quality was good before, it remains good now.  It would have been nice to have more voiceover work, especially for some of the villains, but overall this is a solid aural experience.

I knew before I could accurately review Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin, I’d have to run out and play Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow.  After working through the touchscreen controls in that title, I was prepared for what Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin would hold in store for me.  Surprisingly, Konami has completely thrown away the somewhat cumbersome touchscreen functions of the previous title eschewing it in favor of a more conventional control scheme.

The layout is very simple – You use the D pad to control your character movement, with the A button calling your partner into play (we’ll get into that later), the B button making you jump, and the Y button issuing an attack.  The X button allows you to switch to your partner (wait for it! We’ll get to it in a minute I said!), and the L button making your character dash back very quickly to avoid attack.  The R button brings your partner on-screen for a moment to unleash their attack.

Ok, thanks for your patience.  I said we’d talk about your partner, and now we are.  Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin introduces a partner system that you’ll be using off and on throughout the game.  At any point you can hit the A button to call your partner into combat to fight next to you.  This means that if you are playing Jonathan, you’ll call in Charlotte to cast magic and fight against your enemies simultaneously.  At any time, you can also switch active characters, meaning that you’d call Jonathan should you hit the A button.  To broaden the use of this mechanic, Konami allows you to spring off of the second character to effectively allow you to ‘triple jump’ – once off their shoulders, and then twice in the air.  This will allow you to reach areas that were far out of reach otherwise.

The AI can be spotty at times, but for the most part it handles itself well in combat.  Rather than having to manage a second health bar, your secondary character will use up your magic level if they are struck in battle.  It isn’t a big deal for Jonathan most of the time, but it has a severe impact on your casting skills if you are playing as Charlotte.  While the dual-hero control scheme isn’t leveraged as much as you might expect, or as cleanly as you might hope, properly combining the attack power of both characters at the right time can mean the difference between victory and “Game Over.”

One of the coolest moments in the Castlevania series was when you ‘completed’ the game, only to find that the whole castle would flip upside down revealing an entirely new castle to explore.  Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin ‘flips the castle’ by introducing portraits that act as portals to entirely new areas.  These Portraits of Ruin reflect the evil dimensions created by the will of the artist.  I won’t ruin the storyline regarding these portals, but suffice to say that it is a new take on the 22 times that we’ve assaulted the castle of Dracula and serve as the basis for the game.

Other than the Portraits of Ruin, the level design in Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin is very familiar.  Just as in any of the recent Castlevania titles, the castle is set up as a series of ‘rooms’ that you have to uncover and explore, filling out the dark areas on your map.  As you discover and destroy the Portraits of Ruin, more areas are unlocked, giving you greater access to the castle at large.  The game culminates with… yea, I’m not telling.  Suffice it to say that if you have played a previous Castlevania title, you won’t be disappointed with the pacing and style of the gameplay in Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin.

If there is one area that Konami has excelled in this series, it is the use of absolutely massive and memorable bosses.  It is simultaneously one of the best and most unforgiving portions of this game, and serves as a ‘checkpoint’ for the leveling pace of your characters.  It is actually very easy to run from one boss to the next, only to find yourself clearly outmatched.  In fact, you’ll see the skull/snake/sword “Game Over” screen so often that you could probably draw it in your sleep.  A true Vampire Hunter wouldn’t run from a battle with any enemy, and you shouldn’t either if you plan to succeed.  This area of the game does introduce a bit of frustration to the game, requiring a bit of back-and-forth between rooms to level up, but many will find the old school difficulty a breath of fresh air over the ‘easy mode’ games that have hit shelves in recent years.

There is a gameplay element that I’ve enjoyed since Castlevania II that makes an appearance in Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin – the shop.  Killing baddies results in a random amount of coin dropping to the ground for you to collect.  While you ponder where a skeleton would keep a bag of $100 bucks, you’ll collect cash that you can use to purchase new weapons for Jonathan, or spells and books for Charlotte.  You can also purchase potions to restore you health, classic sub-weapons such as the dagger, axe, and boomerang, as well as the odd piece of meat for various purposes. 

As it was in Symphony of the Night, you will also have to manage your character’s experience level, as well as their monster summons.  Fighting monsters will give you experience and enough experience will yield another level giving you additional strength, magic, defense, and the like.  The monster summons are Charlottes area of expertise.  Upon defeating a monster, or discovering a book, she can then summon said creatures into battle to fight on the side of good for a moment.  Jonathan isn’t left out in the cold however; he can also learn new skills to augment his attack power from a spirit named Wind that hands out new powers in exchange for completing quests with very obscure hints (that is, unless “search under the rubble” means something specific to you in a castle that is coming down around your ears).  It is a great blend of RPG and action, keeping the pace of the action, without making it pure hack and slash.

My only significant complaint is that the storyline had very little effect on the overall game.  The game takes place during World War II, but you’d never know it if you didn’t crack open the manual and look.  In fact, the game does feel very similar to every other Castlevania game that has come before it.  There are some new tricks up the sleeve, but for the most part, we’ve all played this game before.

Konami has taken another step towards a good use of the WiFi power of the Nintendo DS with Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin.  You can connect to other players of the game through WiFi and local wireless modes to access two new online gameplay modes.  The first is a Shop Mode that allows players to set up a shop to sell of the items they have found in the single player game.  It extends the game into the online realm by allowing players to purchase items from other players for use in the single player game.  Half the time the merchants in the game had very little in the way of a selection, so having access to items from other players allowed me to succeed where I might have otherwise struggled.  Since the items you sell are duplicates of your in-game items you really don’t lose anything by selling them, so sell everything. 

There is also a Boss Rush mode in the game that allows the player to take on a seemingly-endless throng of enemies within a certain timeframe to try to net a reward.  Since these items are immediately usable in the single player game, it behooves you to try to complete these Boss Rush modes fairly soon.  You lose nothing if you fail and you can gain quite a bit if you succeed.

The second online mode is a co-op mode.  The name is a bit deceptive as you cannot play through the single player game co-op.  Instead you play with a partner through a stage in a similar fashion to the Boss Rush mode described above.   I know I’d love to see a true co-op mode, but I’ll have to keep hoping.

All of these modes serve to extend the short single player game.  You can sit down and plow through Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin in roughly 5 to 6 hours, with the extra modes adding another hour or two at most.  The brightest candle burns half as long, and this is very true for Portrait of Ruin.  There is no doubt that the game offers a great deal of entertainment value, but it just never lasts as long as you might hope.  Pick it up and add it to your library and revisit it until the next game comes out (I can only assume) next year.

The Castlevania series holds a place near and dear to my heart.  From the goofy misspellings to the incredible boss battles, few games will pull you in as well as this series.  Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin tosses out the clunky touchscreen functions of the previous title and replaces it with a new dual-hero gameplay element. In the end, the game is a worthy addition to the Castlevania lineage, if only the game lasted a little longer.