Pretty Fucking Aptly Named (Damn, that wasn’t even funny when this game first came out)

by

Hi. I’m BZ. I contribute. You might be wondering where I fit in on the “good cop/bad cop” nonsense that Mora and Magus have been spreading. If so, you’re a fucking idiot. I’m not a cop. I’m an asshole. Professionally.

Portrait of Ruin is a hideous abortion of a Castlevania game. It suffers from a critical lack of attention to detail: tiles and monsters are recycled unchanged from previous titles, levels and monsters accomplish almost nothing in providing gameplay, and protagonists have their names misspelled in the menu screen. It’s the kind of game that could’ve used another year in development, perhaps with a producer who wasn’t fresh out of ideas. Barring that, it’s the kind of game that could’ve benefited from just a little bit of love: it’s obvious through and through that no one at Konami cared about the product they were creating.

Slash slash slash blargh

Portrait of Ruin is billed as a game which brings new life to the Castlevania formula, and on paper, it does just that. For the first time since the Metroidvania evolution, the game features two playable characters, swappable on the fly. Charlotte Aulin (or Charrotte, as the in-game menu refers to her) focuses largely on magic, while Jonathan Morris fills the role of the typical whips-and-swords warrior the series has long thrived on.

Two equally useless characters to choose from!!1

This is an interesting idea in theory, but in execution, it amounts to almost nothing. With Charlotte handling magic and Jonathan handling weaponry, the player is able to accomplish little more than they were with the singular heroes of the past few games, albeit with an additional button press to swap characters first. The game tries its hand at throwing a few double-character puzzles at the player, but beyond using the second character as a platform early in the game, there’s very little of interest here. Even then, this concept is quickly thrown out the window when the player acquires the double-jump ability mere minutes later.

This level will be outdoors for exactly one more room.

The game also deviates from formula in featuring several levels outside of the main castle. This is a welcome addition, and in some ways, it adds interest. Why, then, are the levels themselves still overwhelmingly indoors, and why don’t they try to accomplish anything that couldn’t be done inside the castle proper? Visually, the majority of the levels could very easily be just another wing in the castle; mechanically, they’re the same empty, featureless rectangles that the series has lately relied on. Worse yet, the last four levels of the game are palette-swaps of the first four, compounding on the lazy designs by making the player traverse them twice.

The level design bears further discussion, because frankly, it’s a large part of what made the series stand out in the first place. The original Castlevanias had piss-poor controls and almost none of the features we’ve come to associate with the later entries, and yet they remained engaging thanks to carefully designed levels. Enemies were carefully placed to accommodate new challenges, power-ups were strategically located, and the levels themselves bore all kinds of hazards: the grapple rings in Castlevania IV, the upside-down castle or rising water chase in Bloodlines, or the falling block puzzles of Castlevania III come to mind. The series has been moving further and further away from this type of design since Symphony of the Night was released, and Portrait of Ruin takes it to new lows. While often large in size, most levels are devoid of any environmental interaction, relying instead on row after row of bland monster encounters. There’s little in the way of diversity, and even the few interesting concepts- a level where you walk on the walls, for example- are executed with complete lack of attention. Even the intensity of platforming is negated thanks to the double-jump and the general lack of punishment if the player falls. Furthermore, save points and healing items are so liberal that there’s rarely any reason to play skillfully, even in the harder rooms.

Jonathan and Charrotte battle Death!

As has been a series norm as of late, the game contains dozens upon dozens of unique monsters, items, and abilities, but all of this amounts to exactly jack shit when the game refuses to take advantage of them. The majority of monsters can be defeated using the exact same strategies, and most of the items and equipment are generic stat-boosting rehashes. The player is given dozens of abilities, half of which serve the exact same purpose: do I want the flying dagger or the flying knife, which serves a near-identical function? Does it matter?

This is an important point of focus: very few of the choices you make in Portrait of Ruin will matter. It rarely matters whether you use Charlotte or Jonathan, or what you equip them with, so long as the equipment is current. It rarely matters what magic or subweapons you use, because the majority of it serves the exact same purpose. It rarely matters whether you jump, duck, or backdash, because hell, you can just heal yourself anyway. It rarely matters what enemy you’re fighting, because your tactics won’t change. And aside from giving you something different to gawk at, it rarely matters what level you’re playing on, because they’re all the fucking same.

The game isn’t all bad; some of the boss battles give the game a certain spice it usually lacks, and the controls are as fluid as ever. With the exception of a few recycled tiles and an ugly-as-sin menu, the graphics are usually pretty good, and the soundtrack is typical Castlevania, which is a plus, as far as I’m concerned. Most importantly, the game still manages to be enjoyable on an obsessive-compulsive level: rounding out the bestiary, collecting all the items, and exploring the entirety of the map are as addicting as ever.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Portrait of Ruin isn’t entirely sure of what it’s doing. It tries to diversify level design by featuring areas outside the castle and fails because it refuses to acknowledge that level design is more about content than about background imagery. It tries to add flavor to the formula by adding a second character while failing to use this dynamic for anything that couldn’t already be accomplished with just one. It even fails as a barebones imitator to Symphony of the Night because of its lazy gameplay designs.

As a generic 2D action game on DS, Portrait of Ruin is probably about average. As a Castlevania game, it’s a writhing miscarriage with a minimal understanding of the underlying mechanics that make the series tick. Much like taking beloved characters and starring them in an uninspired story, Portrait of Ruin is a Castlevania entry that falls horribly flat.

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6 Responses to “Pretty Fucking Aptly Named (Damn, that wasn’t even funny when this game first came out)”

  1. sirtmagus Says:

    Great rant. Portrait of Ruin started out nice but once I realized it was a step back from the …of Sorrow games I just wanted to get it over with. PoR’s gameplay was just so boring. Collecting and upgrading weapons? Oh boy, like that compares to gathering MONSTER SOULS? What a miscalculation, Konami. And repeating the levels at the end?! FUCK YOU, GAME. Konami pulled the same shit in Silent Hill 4.

    And the presentation, Christ, I know Nintendo can’t shake off its kiddie image but cutesy anime drawings and writing should go nowhere NEAR Castlevania. The designs were just god awful. The witch sisters? Holy shit. What a stupid story. And thank you for pointing out the typos, I never noticed Charlotte was spelled “Charote.” I guess the ugly bright pink menu distracted me. What a travesty.

    This reminds me, I suppose here would be a good spot to mention it… Jeremy Parish over at 1Up.com has an awesome indictment of the Castlevania/Mega Man guys for their lack of innovation, while pointing at Odin Sphere as the shining beacon of hope. Take a look!
    http://www.1up.com/do/blogEntry?bId=8100261&publicUserId=5379721

  2. Loki Says:

    Hey, nice to see you in the Factory, BZ! I agree with just about every point made in this rant, but something seems amiss. This isn’t up to your useal level of writing. Did the game make you so angry that your writting skills suffered? I can’t place it what’s wrong but I almost didn’t know if this was my good friend BZ or some other guy who shared his intials. It wasn’t until I saw your name at the end that I knew for sure it was you.

  3. btothefuckingz Says:

    Yeah, this is definitely not my best work by any stretch. I’m in the middle of finals and working on three major websites for clients as well as my own personal portfolio, so I’ve been pretty stretched for time. Also, I’m pretty rusty- I haven’t really been writing a lot as of late.

    Damn, man, I need to see you on AIM. It’s been five months.

  4. Loki Says:

    I’m embarresed to go on because I never did that character design you asked for.

  5. btothefuckingz Says:

    Come on anyway. I need to talk to you.

  6. sirtmagus Says:

    Shucks, I knew this place would be good for SOMEthing.

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