The second of three Castlevania games released on the Nintendo DS, Portrait of Ruin is well worth your time.

Castlevania.  The word causes nostalgia to take over the heart and mind of any gamer.  Rarely will you find a gamer that hasn’t played at least ONE entry in the series, even if they didn’t finish it.  While most entries stick to the same gothic horror theme, Portrait of Ruin breaks free of the typical settings of its series-mates by taking place during the ’40s.   Scattered about the kind of castle you would expect in a Castlevania game are a series of paintings, which you step through to prevent the Vampire Artist Brauner from bringing ruin to the world.   These paintings take you to varied locations, ranging from a pyramid to a tripped-out carnival.  The reason they are present in the castle is well explained: the story is intriguing, if not simplistic.  I feel that this works to its advantage: rather than being some unnecessarily convoluted sequence of events, plot points remain straightforward. 

At any given time, the player has the ability to switch back and forth between two characters.  You can also have both characters on-screen at the same time, with one of them controlled by the decent computer AI.  This is sometimes necessary, as certain puzzles and items require you to work with both Jonathan and Charlotte.  In an example of fantastic pacing, you will tend to switch back and forth between which character is your “primary”, determined by which one you’ve found the best equipment for.  This seems to happen in turns, with each character afforded an equal amount of play time thanks to the well-spread out weapons, gear, and magic spells.  The idea of a dual-character game seemed tedious to me at first, but I quickly grew accustomed to it.  Its implementation is top notch here, and I hope other developers who intend to go about making a similar style system take careful notes on what was achieved; there isn’t much about it I’d change, save for having both characters converse with each other when they are on-screen at the same time.

I could be imagining things, but I believe this is one of the easier titles in the series.  This line of thinking can be applied to nearly every aspect: pathfinding, discovering items/spells/weapons, save point/teleporter location, enemy types and how much damage they take…anything you can think of.  That’s not to say it’s a walk in the park, because it isn’t; you will die while playing through this game.  You just won’t ever feel particularly frustrated by anything.  The bosses have been granted excellent visuals, but suffer from the dreaded “learn their pattern, and you’ll win every time” style of design.  Still, the bosses are interesting and unique enough to make the “rinse, repeat” nature of the fights seem to take a backseat.  Portrait of Ruin is more about letting the player experience the game, rather than trying to beat them over the head with it.  While I usually prefer a tough challenge in any game I play, being granted the option of a relatively easy Castlevania game was a nice change.

Portrait of Ruin may not be the best in the series, but it’s a damn fine title, one that should be considered when trying to get people into the series.  The controls are tight, the enemies and bosses are (mostly) forgiving, and the overall design is excellent.  If you have a DS, I highly recommend you check it out!