Castlevania: Portrait of Belated Awesome

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FROM JASON’S SMUDGED-UP DS — As a budget gamer (read “cheap-ass”), I’m coming a bit late to the Castlevania:Portrait of Ruin party.

Fine, it’s a little more than mere tardiness; it borders on truancy. The cake’s been eaten, there’s no foam left in the keg, the stripper is passed out under the table, and the police are outside just waiting for someone stupid enough to stumble through the door and get behind the wheel.

Released in December 2006, Portrait of Ruin originally had a hefty $39.99 price tag. I got a 50 percent price cut by waiting almost a year, which is my typically rule of thumb (with some notable exceptions: I bought Pokemon Diamond new for $45 and Guitar Hero III for $95. Those had social play appeal, though).

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: POR is basically a re-skin of its DS predecessor, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow. Sure, it trades the dampire main character for a more traditional whip-wielder (Jonathan Morris, not Belmont) and his mage sidekick. It’s the same basic mechanics, though — trading various skills, weapons, armor, and accessories and leveling up the character in order to wend further through what the Japanese game title calls Akumajō Dracula Gallery of Labyrinth.

Where it got seriously impressive, however, was level design.

Everything starts out the same, right down to lowering and crossing the drawbridge. But at various points inside, you can enter paintings hanging in the castle, transporting you to (in astonishingly Mario 64-ish fashion, now that I think of it) various themed levels.

The most impressive implementation of this is the Nation of Fools, which is designed in a loop-de-loop environment. As you progress through the level, the floors and ceiling gradually re-orient in 90-degree increments so that at points you are walking on the walls, then the ceiling. It gets trippy when monsters are walking in one degree of freedom — completely unaffected by gravity — while you are walking in another.

Jumping into another portrait, Sandy Grave, allows you to finally ditch the all-too-used blue, black, and gray color pallet we’ve been seeing in Drac’s abode for years and enter an Egyptian-themed dungeon. It works quite well, and the designers managed to keep the evil-incarnate feel while working warm yellows, reds, and browns into the game. There are mummies and even a Pharoah-ish boss to fight, but none of it slides into cartoon territory.

Sandy Grave and a couple of other levels — like the excellent Forest of Doom — even let you go outside and escape the brick and mortar confines of the castle. It’s still night outside, so presumably the ol’ Batman can still hunt you and the undead continue to teem, but there’s the benefit of running and jumping against the background of a big, bright moon.

Those outside bits are generally sans-platforms, too, and have a definite ActRaiser quality (that game was released on the Virtual Console in May. I’m still Wii-less, though, and hoping developers hear my cries for a DS port or remake).

Some of the monsters do feel recycled, but others deviate from what we’ve seen before. There are the staple bats, skeletons, harpies, mimics, slimes, and such. Then there are more innovating baddies, like hulking sand mummies, an enormous dog-like creature with leathery wings, towering rock golems, a creepy dragon zombie, a double-headed snake/woman, Big Trouble In Little China-esque flying eyeballs, and man-tall beehives.

The highlight of the monster design, though, is Legion, a boss comprised of thousands of human bodies mangled together. The more you hit Legion, the more zombified bodies fall off and rush forward to suck your blood. It’s actually quite easy — and incredibly gruesome — to defeat this one, but that’s not the point.

All said, Portrait of Ruin delivers, even if it doesn’t use the stylus or touch screen at all. There are few other titles on the DS that impress me as much. It’s well worth the $18 for a used copy at your local game store.

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