Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin is the second game in the series to appear on the Nintendo DS, following up on Dawn of Sorrow. Whereas Dawn of Sorrow stuck very close to the Castlevania template and only added a few trivial touch-screen features, Portrait of Ruin instead forgoes the control gimmicks in favor of some interesting, though only slightly less trivial, gameplay tweaks. But despite the lack of any significant evolutionary progress, Portrait of Ruin is still a great action adventure game because it remains true to the hallmarks of the Castlevania series of games, with a consistently great style and level of detail; a lengthy quest with a large, interesting world to explore; and plenty of great enemies to battle, weapons to master, and secrets to discover. Portrait of Ruin isn't without flaws, but overall it's another great Castlevania game that shouldn't be missed.
Portrait of Ruin takes place in 1944, during the second World War. With the world in turmoil, there are a lot of tortured souls floating around and wailing, or whatever it is that souls do. All of this agony and despair make the world an appealing place for the old lord of darkness himself, Dracula. So Dracula's magic castle appears, and it's up to you to defeat the old bat and send him on his way. You take control of not one but two vampire hunters. Jonathan Morris is a distant relative of the Belmont family, who have played a major role in the previous Castlevania games. Jonathan wields a special whip known as the Vampire Killer, which he inherited from his father, who was also a vampire hunter. Jonathan is joined by his friend, a young female magic user named Charlotte Aulin. It's a complementary duo--Jonathan weakens evil beings with his trusty whip and Charlotte finishes them off with her powerful magic.
The game does require you to use the unique abilities of each character at times, but it's only absolutely essential in a handful of situations. So even though you have two characters, you'll probably end up using Jonathan about 90 percent of the time. You can switch characters at any time by pressing the X button, and you can also call your character using the A button to help you do battle, push an object, or stand on a switch. The game makes very little use of the DS touch screen, but you can touch the screen to direct your partner to a specific area when you summon him or her. When the other character is active, he or she will stay close to you and only attack when enemies come very close. You don't have to worry too much about your partner becoming a liability, because you can simply tell him or her to go away at any time. If your partner does take damage, you won't lose health but will lose magic power.
Each character has unique special skills that can often be quite useful. Jonathan can equip and use classic alternate weapons like throwing axes and daggers, as well as special melee moves and stances to enhance his offensive or defensive capabilities. Charlotte can equip magic spells such as fire, lightning, heal, monster summons, and so on. You can use your special skill by pressing up and Y, and if you want your partner to use his or her special ability, you just have to tap the R button. There are also combo attacks that inflict major damage and typically have a much wider area of effect than the standard or special attacks.
The partner mechanic works well, and it's remarkably easy and intuitive to control two characters at once. The only problem is that the game isn't always designed to take advantage of the team dynamic. You'll find a couple doors where one person has to stand on a switch while the other runs through, and some large blocks that require two people to push, but for the most part, you'll very rarely need to switch characters. Despite Charlotte being a powerful magic user, she only has a couple essential spells, and even those will likely remain unused for most of the game. Of course, if you want to control Charlotte instead of Jonathan, that's fine; she's quite capable of holding her own in combat when properly equipped.
Both characters gain experience as you fight enemies, and when you get enough experience you'll level up, which will increase your stats in parameters like strength, intelligence, attack, and defense. The enemies in the game always remain the same, so if you go back to an early part of the game after you've spent a significant amount of time leveling up your characters, you'll be able to wade through scores of enemies without any trouble at all. It does take a bit of the challenge out of the game, but it also provides an appreciable sense of progress as your characters get stronger.
Jonathan can equip a wide variety of weapons that you'll find throughout the game, including swords, maces, whips, and spears. There's even a special magic chain that homes in on enemy targets and has a very long range, making it one of the best weapons in the game. Charlotte can't equip weapons; instead, she'll equip magic books. Depending on the book she's using, Charlotte will conjure attacks. Using the Tome of Arms, for example, will cause an array of sharp weapons to stab out from her book as she attacks. In addition to the weapons, each character can equip armor, shoes, and head gear, as well as accessories such as rings. All of these items give essential boosts to your stats, meaning that it's usually worth your while to go out of your way to explore every nook and cranny of the castle or stage you're in.
You'll take your two characters through Dracula's castle, exploring corridors, breaking walls to reveal secret rooms, hopping on precarious platforms, breaking lighting fixtures, and killing all kinds of monsters. In true Castlevania style, you'll start out relatively weak, but you'll collect power-ups such as a double-jump that will permit you to access previously off-limits areas within the castle.