As one of the last bastions of classic, side-scrolling gaming, the Castlevania series has to accomplish two things with every new release. First, it has to strike a perfect balance of old and new, offering fans just enough of the recycled, explorative gameplay they crave while also giving them fresh reasons to send Dracula back to the grave. Second, and perhaps more importantly, each 2D entry in the series has to prove that old fashioned sprites and animation are better, in some instances, than massive 3D worlds. Luckily, the past five old-school Castlevanias have aced these goals, and the latest, Portrait of Ruin, continues the trend.
The blood 'n' guts of the game are identical to last year's Dawn of Sorrow - take your hero through Drac's oversized castle in search of items, power-ups and clues on how to adequately vanquish the Lord of Darkness. The Sorrow games were all about gaining new abilities by consuming monsters' souls, but here you'll be swapping back and forth between whip-crackin' Jonathan Morris and magician-in-training Charlotte Orlean. John's on deck for the meatier creatures, while Charlotte's spells are crucial when dealing with enchanted enemies.
Even though the series is heavy on exploration and backtracking, there's a ton of action and Portrait's one button, hero-swapping gameplay keeps things fast and fresh for hours. Any area you visit, any boss you face, you'll have to constantly balance the two vampire hunters. Neither character truly dominates, though late in the game John's tremendous power starts to diminish the need for his magical partner's skills.
The incessant backtracking necessary in Castlevania has always been a huge divider for gamers. Some love having to constantly revisit areas just to see if a newly acquired power will give you access to another part of the castle, yet others just want to press forward and keep killing monsters. Portrait delivers a little bit of both by slapping huge, linear levels inside the labyrinthine castle. Each world is actually a living painting packed with creatures and items, but getting to the poison-spewing boss at the end is less about puzzle solving and more focused on slashing through the bloody masses. The worlds you'll visit through these demonic paintings are filled with minute details that nail the intended atmosphere. Currents of sand will seep through the cracks of an animated statue, or books will fall off shelves as you stomp around the place, for example.
Getting around the castle and its haunted artwork is graciously made easy by ample transport spots and save points. Still, even with quick ways to get around, Portrait doesn't offer the constant rewards that the two Sorrow games showered down. In those games, every enemy had a soul to steal and ability to learn, so any time spent wandering could double as a soul harvesting adventure. Here, the monsters are just in the way, occasionally dropping a piece of armor or some other random item. Many can be summoned as Charlotte's undead attack dogs, but it's not quite the same.
The more John uses his spears, axes, boomerangs or whatever items are found, the stronger they become (Charlotte's spells gain strength in a similar way as she levels up). Some skills are passed on by Wind, a friendly ghost that holds a bevy of side missions for Jonathan and Charlotte. Few are crucial to finish the game, but completists will want to find them all just to see what's next.
The whole method of powering up the duo feels drastically different from Sorrow, and that's an immeasurably good trait to have. These games all play so similarly, it's wondrous that simple tweaks like having two playable characters can make such a huge difference. Their different traits and dual-attack skills add layers to boss battles that none of the previous Castlevanias had, making Portrait a refined experience despite borrowing so many weapons, enemies and ideas from the earlier games.
The only thing to really rag on Portrait for is its length. Seven-ish hours is pretty short, no matter how you slice it. But, as with all the other Castlevania games, there are so many bizarre things to do once Drac's down that they totally make up for the main quest's length. Finding all the weapons is one admirable goal (cream pies? Aw yeah), but there are also three unlockable ways to play through the game again, one being a touch screen-heavy adventure with two vamp sisters. An online boss rush mode and item shop (with or without Friend Codes) ad even more replay incentives to the mix, making this one of the best DS games of the year. We'd expect nothing less from the series.