If another year has come and gone, then it must mean that so, too, has the release of a new series title. As said, the winter of 2006 brought us Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin, which as its theme suggests acts as a portal into the minds of Koji Igarashi and his venerable crew as they ceaselessly temper and perhaps redefine the series whose legacy they hope to continue shaping. It's true, then, that the current creative regime is very much aware of the series' storyline inconsistencies and seeks to use its vision to tie up for-years-dragging loose ends that entail not only previously stated canon but what we thought to be lost titles that were previously expelled from the lineage.

The crew in Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, Portrait's predecessor, delivered a memorable action-adventure experience that chronicled the continuing tale of Soma Cruz, the potential Dark Lord successor who through his endeavors showed us that the true danger was always the power and not necessarily the man. Portrait of Ruin starts in motion events that lead to this separation and while doing so clears up some other lingering matters; its prime objective, therein, is to justify the existence of Castlevania: Bloodlines, the 1994 Sega Genesis title, and finally reveal to us the relevance of the Morris family (thought until now to be simply Belmonts of a different name).

It's in Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin, Bloodlines' direct sequel, where we meet Jonathan Morris, son of John Morris and grandson to Quincy Morris, and his childhood friend Charlotte Aulin. The impetuous, careless Jonathan and the fair-minded Charlotte, indeed his polar opposite, by request of the Church head off to investigate the mysterious rising of Castlevania, whose legendary owner is inauspiciously absent. It's within Dracula's haunted abode where the duo learns of a complicated plot hatched by the vampire Brauner, who strives to eradicate the human race, which thanks to their self-destructive ways he blames for the deaths of his daughters, who now assist their father's efforts, too, as vampires. Unable to utilize the full power of the Vampire Killer whip, for reasons at first not fully understood, Jonathan must instead rely on the help of friend Charlotte and the guidance of new friends like the entrepreneurial clergyman Vincent and the specter Wind if he hopes to live up to his bloodline and the celebrated exploits of his father, John Morris, for whom Jonathan holds a surprising amount of scorn. The adventure that follows highlights the importance of the Morris family (in addition to opening the door for titles like Circle of the Moon and Castlevania 64), the evolution of Jonathan as a man who comes to understand his ancestry, and the conclusion to life events only brushed over in Bloodlines.

Portrait of Ruin is the team's second attempt on the DS, and it very much follows recent blueprints. Going one step further, it takes inspiration from Dawn of Sorrow's acclaimed "Julius Mode" and provides a gameplay experience wholly defined by the title's partner system. That is, Jonathan and Charlotte act as a two-person team as they scour the castle in search of clues as to why it has reappeared without much in the way of warning. Jonathan or Charlotte can fight alone, or either can persist with by his or her side a partner controlled by the CPU, which mimics the player's basic movement but will otherwise stray to readily assault any enemy that moves within striking range (the system is somewhat reminiscent of Capcom's Mickey Mousecapades, if Minnie Mouse tailed Mickey as if on tape delay); if the lead character breaks too far ahead or executes a jumping maneuver that the CPU-controlled partner can't match, it will simply warp in and out to rejoin the lead character (as Tails is apt to do in the 2D Sonic games). When a partner is present, the magic meter becomes its source of energy, draining to warn the main player of an ally in danger; if the magic meter empties, through either item overuse or reckless behavior, the partner will become immobilized until enough of the meter regenerates to where the partner can safely return and properly function. Depending upon the enemies and dangers present, the partner must be summoned or dispatched strategically according to its limitations.

There are certain mechanics built around the partner system. While earned will be obligatory solo maneuvers like the slide and super jump, the duo will through the securing of relics gain certain team-based abilities: There's the Change Cube, which allows the player to quickly shift direct control between either hero, which would help if, say, both were concurrently riding on motorcycles along separate paths--one high, the other low--which at different intervals are littered with obstacles; the Acrobat Cube, which allows one partner to kick off the other's shoulders, an ability that fills the gap until obtained is the more desired double jump; the Wait Cube, which positions the partner at a standstill and helps in the case of puzzles built around switch-pushing and the like; the Skill Cube, which calls upon the partner to use his or her currently selected skill; plus a few others that serve more for increased castle accessibility. Useful but not required is the pair's Dual Crush ability, which by definition allows them to combine their strength to execute superpowered magical attacks.

The quest will unfold as the heroes explore the castle and breach Brauner's supernatural paintings--castle-wide thematic ornaments that act as transports to the self-contained worlds where the duo will surely spend most its adventure. The system of exploring paintings lends the game depth of locale; where a castle can provide only cold walls and cavernous depths, such paintings allow them to raid evil-consumed buildings, dredge through desert and torturous Egyptian pyramids, desperately cipher cursed cities, and conquer other types of demonic habitats. Painting or not, the stagnant formula is ever-present: The heroic duo will traverse the respective real-estate through "rooms," which are crammed with randomly paired minor enemies, platforming perils, devious traps and pitfalls, traditional and team-based puzzles, and surely combinations of the aforementioned.

The heroes will meet the challenge thanks to the provisions doled by the governing RPG system: Whereas they start the adventure with lacking arsenals (for Jonathan his fists and a limited Vampire Killer, and for Charlotte a weak encyclopedia) and disposable backdashes, they'll through the defeat of enemies earn experience and thus gain levels in which their attributes will raise incrementally; they'll otherwise manipulate stats by equipping weapons and armor (a) found laying about, (b) purchased from Vincent, or (c) dropped by enemies. (While Jonathan and Charlotte share the current level, their attributes and arsenals [including the equipping of such] are exclusive.) To further boost their potency, the pair can locate the mostly hidden max-up symbols, which augment their HP and MP meters.

Dawn of Sorrow continued to showcase the innovative "Tactical Souls" system, which helped carry two previous formulaic entries to greatness. Portrait of Ruin, in telling the tale of a bloodline hero, simplifies things and provides only "Skills," which are equippable in nature and when selected act as sub-weapons. These are for Jonathan familiar and new items like daggers, axes, holy water, ninja stars and hardware of their ilk plus special fighting maneuvers; they're for Charlotte spells and incantations that enhance attributes, cure conditions, and help in certain instances of inaccessibility. The destruction of an enemy using a skill earns for it a certain number of "Skill Points," which vary in amount according to the skill being used. When a predetermined number of Skill Points has been attained, the skill will be "Mastered," in which case its deadliness will be amplified in any number of ways--a weapon's size or range increased, a fighting combo prolonged, and or a spell's effect heightened. Also equippable are the aforementioned Dual Crushes, of which the duo will over time find more and more; after you push "Up" plus "X," the heroes will unleash a devastating team attack (according to whichever Dual Crush the lead hero has equipped) at large expense to the magic meter, which must be considered in tradeoff--the Dual Crushes used perhaps sporadically if you hope to keep a partner present for long periods.

The partner system is an interesting concept that doesn't quite live up to the standard of "Julius Mode," which due to its simplicity kept the focus at all times on the action at hand. The partner system, a veritable cornucopia of ideas and possibilities, should by all rights exceed what is in comparison a limited system of quick-swapping allies, but the developers forget that simplicity should have been a common thread; rather, the focus continues to be on the bloated RPG system, an avalanche of inventory, and a whole sidebar of special powers and abilities that the player must balance even though most of it holds no real relevance. Consider that the assignment is doubled when you have at your control two fully equippable characters at one time and you begin to realize that the partner system as presented is designated to merely dressing when it should be a main dish. And they don't do much with it. Sure--there are some clever team-based puzzles that entail the riding of minecarts and motorcycles, the activation of and positioning within elevators, and some early challenges involving the pushing of large objects as relative to team abilities (before they're rendered obsolete by the collection of advanced relics used specifically by single characters), but the very concept, as executed brilliantly in games like Maniac Mansion, demands much more--as a priority the prevalence of the system and the application of ideas, which the current team won't provide in deference to the hindering RPG-based formulas.

Portrait of Ruin straddles the line between good- and great-looking. Its presentation is all-around indicative of the work as drawn by artists who understand this universe and the atmosphere expected of it; its characters are well-animated, rife with a sense of living, breathing vitality, and expelled in defeat by creative, raucous bluster; multiple layers of scrolling backgrounds and foregrounds immerse the player; and their many textures are loaded with those little details that you tend to take for granted--there are many background activities to be surveyed by those who like devoting time to exploring and savoring the climate. Used more so than in Dawn of Sorrow (but unfortunately not enough) is parallax scrolling, which when used to define the dimensions of scenery like the interior and exterior of buildings, clock towers, and pyramids provides a sense of depth that scrolling layers can't match. Tying a bow around the solid presentation are neat subtleties like the debris that flies off store shelves when you land on them, the bloody handprints that pad the background and trail the heroes in the Dark Academy, and the haunting transparencies (like the chains that hang in the Buried Chamber) that populate foregrounds and provide further depth.

Hurting the effort is a sense of staleness that pervades the game's entire landscape. You could complain that they simply reuse the same background textures over and over again (like the reaper-occupied thrones in the Master's Keep), but this would be ignoring the more pressing issue of aimless level design; that is, there are too many similar-looking rooms found in succession, the bulk of which are mostly baron, which when considering even large compartments (like, say, the giant corridors of the Great Stairway) shows that the developers are clearly padding the castle map (which is truncated and unimpressive compared to maps found in other modern titles) either out of boredom or in deference to the portal-contained areas. The problem, even here, is that Portrait celebrates these paintings as a breakthrough, a magical trip to exotic locations, but by the fifth such locale is already repeating themes found in previous paintings; they describe these later paintings as "inverse" to those breached previously, but you can see it for what it is--a shortcut to further prolong the adventure using themes, challenges, and even whole structures with which you've already been familiarized.

Too, the team, more than ever before, relies on the enemy template that has been used and reused dating back to Chi no Rondo. I mean, the designs of such heralded foes are impeccable and maybe too good to supplant, but why do older foes outnumber new additions by such a large margin? Dawn of Sorrow had a balance and was pushed over the edge by its awesome boss guardians, but Portrait is more like a rearranging of an earlier title, and its bosses are derivative and nowhere near as entertaining (it even gloms off of Dawn of Sorrow by borrowing some of its bosses as ripped directly from it!). Portrait as a result lacks real personality. If the criticism is that games of its ilk are by this definition Symphony of the Night clones, why not buck the trend by putting to use the creativity we know you have and instead supply a whole new breed of minor enemies like the shotgun-armed Lerajie, who was interesting and fun to encounter?

To the rescue are Michiru Yamane and friends, who can always be counted upon to deliver a soundtrack that both comes to define the action and in honoring past works conjure feelings of nostalgia and affirmation. Their efforts are again successful. The enemy designers would do well to emulate this philosophy, which in practice is to compose several unique pieces and then work in a few classic tunes, which better serve to create at least an aesthetic link to past titles. Standouts like Gaze Up at the Darkness and Victorian Fear, which typify the new school, give way to Iron Blue Intention, a Bloodlines classic, which reminds us of a time gone by. Additions like Hail from the Past and Chaotic Playground, which help set apart the painting-contained areas, allow the composition to move beyond the scope of the norm and entrance us with Egyptian-themed tunes and those that are just plain weird. And, of course, as is becoming tradition, the composers, they continue to dip into Haunted Castle's untraveled waters and net what are very welcome melodies; it's for Portrait of Ruin the engaging Crucifix Held Close, the arcade title's opening theme.

The sound effects are especially solid. The characters are as lively as ever, their attacks pelting and whiffing, their frantic movements acoustic, their battle cries frightening, their deaths explosive and ground-shaking, and their taunting joyously spewed. Giant characters stomp through rooms and cause the terrain to quake, while others (like Mandragora) use sound, itself, as a means of attack. Jonathan and Charlotte expel their rage thanks to sound and voice samples that accentuate their actions, their attacks wrought by violent snaps, thunderous spells, and piercing, ripping stabs. The characters are for exposition provided voice-overs, but these are reserved for greetings and thankfully not overused in following.

Portrait of Ruin, like its DS predecessor, is surprisingly challenging when you consider the history of RPG-adventure titles. Whereas Dawn of Sorrow accomplished this rare feat thanks to calculated enemy placement relative to a large yet well-structured map, Portrait has no such luxury and cheats, instead hinging on enemy overwhelment and the overuse of certain tricks, like the aggravating large swinging scythes, giant flame wheels, a ridiculous amount of Medusa Heads, and a whole slew of baddies that expel unavoidable mist and other poisonous projectiles. The heroes are sometimes bounced around so painfully and annoyingly that you'd think Konami was secretly sponsored by Spalding. The boss battles are largely uncreative, resulting in empty skirmishes with uninteresting foes like the swamp-inhabiting Dagon and the pot-lurking Keremet, and they're often of the variety of slugfest, where you simply pound away at enemies with high HP totals and hope for the best. Still, they do well to limit the number of save rooms and charge enough money to where you can't overload on healing items without putting a dent in your wallet, and there are many game-wide scenarios that are challenging in a good way, like those related to team activity; the final battle, though high in difficulty, is both intense and a nice departure from the norm.

If all things continue to remain equal, then you can be sure that at your command is a control scheme that is highly serviceable. Portrait, on the basis of running and jumping, indeed controls as well as can be expected, at a quickened pace as dictated by the relentless assortment of enemies. If there's restriction or encountered any stiffness or stickiness, there's surely a logic to it--a heavy weapon will, for instance, hamper a heroes' mobility and reaction time, which is a quirk that must be considered before you equip it. Things can get confusing when it comes to partner use and instances where swapping/summoning must be done in rapid fashion during the more hectic of predicaments; there are so many buttons and so many combinations to remember that you'll be prone to the infamous "Gamer Spazout," where you'll manage to pull off every type of conceivable action except for the one you actually intended. The recurrence of such is dependent solely on the user, of course, but it does exhibit that the developers are trying to do too much. It is for certain that they're passionate about perfecting control methods in 2D games, and they do an outstanding job, but the key to future success is to keep it simple and set a threshold for the amount of functions and special moves.

When it comes to extras, Koji and his crew set a new benchmark. They're not content to deliver a few secret characters just for the sake of it; as they showed in "Julius Mode," they want the unrelated missions to mean more--to make up for their lack of storyline relevance with a level of excitement, action and replayability unmatched even by its main mode. And they do this by further utilizing the partner system and applying it to two sets of secret characters: The teams of Richter Belmont and Maria Renard (indicative of their Symphony and Rondo incarnations, respectively), and Stella and Loretta, who were previously combination boss-supporting cast members. To run through the castle and its paintings at top speed, with little in the way of restriction, and lay down a beating on bosses who are ill-prepared for such a barrage is pure joy, especially in the case of Richter and Maria, who manage to overwhelm the hapless foes.

Their missions are handled with a simplified RPG system, which while not visible to them will help the teams cope with the much more considerable final bosses. In the case of Stella and Loretta, their separate attacks are handled via touch control, which sounds gimmicky but is in practice a fun excursion. There is in addition the ability to play as an Axe Lord, as you could in Symphony, for what could best be described as a traditional solo mission. There are otherwise the expected Boss Rush (this time broken up into three specific challenges) and Sound modes.

New to the series is Portrait's use of online play as part of the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection. You can take advantage of two separate features: There's the Shop Mode, using which you can log on to the Wi-Fi Connection to open your own store, wherein you can set price on items from your inventory; or you can visit someone else's shop and purchase items that you may have missed (or didn't want to put the effort in to attain). There's also the Co-op Mode, where you'll team up with a random player (one controlling Jonathan, the other Charlotte) and take on a Boss Rush-like challenge whose clearing will earn both players a special item; initially one stage available, more will open as you complete challenges. The Shop Mode is useful for those who are completionists but don't have countless hours to spend collecting dropped items, but the Co-op Mode is undercooked, largely forgettable and a most disappointing missed opportunity; it would have been more ideal had it allowed for cooperative play using a team of secret characters, whose missions are without storyline interference, and it's as is a throwaway feature.

In keeping with this line of thought, Portrait of Ruin is at its core the very embodiment of missed opportunities. Here they provide us with a partner system, as used sparingly, and apply it almost strictly to the heroes, which is disappointing considering the circumstances surrounding the aforementioned final battle, which teases us with possibilities. Considering their previous work, the famed Symphony of the Night, the answer was right in front of them: Slogra and Gaibon. Why are they again minor enemies and not a team of bosses? What about the Werewolf and the Minotaur? Frankenstein and Igor? A pair of Mummies? It's another instance of a begging-to-be-exploited theme--in this case the partner system--taking a back seat to a formula that has seen its better days.

The development team wants to apply its own stamp but does so at the expense of the subject matter. When reviewing Curse of Darkness, which is a years-removed sequel to Dracula's Curse, I stressed that they were underutilizing if not completely ignoring the classic title's fundamental components (its playable characters, enemies, stage locations, music, and such) and deferring to their current brand image, which held for it little respect and bore no resemblance. The pattern continues in Portrait, which like Curse of Darkness is purported to honor a past title; in gauging the full effort, I fail to see Bloodlines' full stroke of influence. There are some reminders, like the appearance of Eric Lecarde; the procuring of the Alucard spear (which is used nothing like it was when in the hands of Eric); the playing of the tune Iron Blue Intention; the traditional boomerang; and some scant mechanics (like a whip's double-strike when the attack button is held down, and a skill that allows Jonathan to whip diagonally downward). But Portrait is devoid of any meaningful citation. Where's the whip-swinging madness? Where are the memorable enemies, like the Mecha Knight, the Gargoyle Bat, the Gear Steamer, and the Speed Demon? Simply plugging in the ever-reused Dracula X assortment of foes does no justice to a game that took no such inspiration.

There are vague storyline references to John Morris and his father, Quincy, and the confinement of the paintings does well to remind us of Bloodlines' sense of world travel, but it's simply not enough. Need I even question why they didn't consider adding John Morris and Eric Lecarde as an unlockable team, which would have made more sense than Richter and Maria?

Sealing the deal is that the team was content to brush off the DS feature from which the game would have most benefited: The dual screens, which were screaming to be used in light of the partner system. (The top screen is used here, again, as swappable map and statistic-bearing readouts.) Having the separate characters stationed in alternate locations would have been the perfect means for advanced puzzle-solving, and it would serve well to cut down on time spent directionlessly warping about. But it's not to be--the team has its mission, which is to produce cookie-cutter adventure games, solid as they may be, and cover for the formula's growing deficiencies by making each title more heavily storyline-oriented. Much to my dismay, it's clear that this practice will continue indefinitely.

As is, Portrait of Ruin is a solid four out of five--it's not better than Dawn of Sorrow nor is it as heavy on the content. However, despite any rampant criticism and Portrait's lack of cognizance for its source material, it's above all just plain fun to play. As did "Julius Mode" for Dawn of Sorrow, it's the extra content, the unlockable heroes, that pushes Portrait of Ruin over the edge and allows it to attain greatness; sprinting through the castle, carefree and with bad intentions, doesn't get old and is in its own right a source of replayability (taking into account, too, the Nest of Evil, a secret-boss-filled hidden area through which you can proceed again and again). True, despite any and all formula, Portrait of Ruin has to it a certain magic that will keep you playing.

It's in the end exactly as advertised: An experience typical of modern series offerings as driven by a screwball story and a gaggle of extras. No more, no less.

It does just enough to be a great-looking game but is done in by stale level design
Though interesting in theory, the team concept does little to rescue it from formula
Like mailmen on a mission, the sound designers continue to deliver the goods
The developers have perfected controls in 2D no thanks to complicated game mechanics
Overwhelming enemy clusters and rough, tough bosses account for its challenge-level
 

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