Nihon Falcom’s Ys: The Vanished Omens was originally released on a variety of Japanese home computers in 1987, and is the first entry in the long-running and still active, action-RPG series. The Sega Master System version served as the North American debut, and it came courtesy of Sega, in 1988. Although I’ve been interested in the games since discovering them many years ago, completing this version marked the first time I’ve actually played an entry, and I enjoyed the heck out of it! Narrative was light, and it proved to be a succinct and straightforward adventure, despite copious amounts of backtracking. Similarly, grinding was prevalent but it didn’t bog down the simplistic action-RPG combat. The combat was buoyed by light strategic elements and a series of fun boss fights. Now having firsthand experience with an entry, it’s easy to see why the series has stuck around.
When I talked about Fallout Shelter last week, I began by considering it in a vacuum. Without partners playing too, it grew to resemble a chore more than an enjoyable escape. I feel like taking the same approach with Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin but for a different reason. In a vacuum, this game is practically the pinnacle of the 2D action-adventure genre. The addictive blend of action, exploration, and role-playing elements that the series is known for, still make up the core experience of this game and pair well with new additions. Level design remains fresh throughout, in part due to the top-notch audio/visual qualities and varied surroundings. The reasons to continue playing after completion are immense as well, but, this is like the fifth Castlevaniaof this style I’ve played, and while they’re individually superb, they elicit less exhilaration after each completion.
When it was released for the Nintendo DS in late 2006, Portrait of Ruin was joining an already extensive collection of similar Castlevania titles that had released relatively recently. Koji Igarashi and his crew at Konami differentiated this game in a few ways, most notably, by focusing on two characters instead of one. The plot centers on Jonathan Morris’ quest to quell Dracula’s uprising amidst a war-torn Europe circa 1944 with his partner Charlotte Audin. He resembles the typical Castlevania protagonist in many ways while she is a spell caster with a growing repertoire of spells, another series staple.
I could freely switch between the two at all times and this allowed me to dabble with both combat styles – weapons with him and magic with her. These two styles were vastly different in execution and perhaps because of my familiarity with previous entries, I stuck with Jonathan. When not actively controlled, the partner was still useful. They would automatically attack on-screen enemies, albeit with little intelligence. This was beneficial in dealing with enemies but it proved most worthwhile in drawing enemy aggression towards the partner, allowing me to attack from behind. Outside of combat, the duo was put to use in progressing past a few (generally half-assed) puzzles. The most memorable of these had both characters riding motorcycles and tasked me with switching between them in order to make sure neither was knocked off by various obstacles. It was a fast-paced puzzle that made me stop and think of a viable solution, unlike most others.
Additionally, the game was distinguished by the variety of locales Jonathan and Charlotte traversed. Now, the primary setting was Dracula’s Castle (naturally) but much of the duo’s time was spent exploring the paintings strewn about, a la Super Mario 64. In keeping with the series, these maintained a gothic design. They transported the pair to the streets of a bombed-out European city, a nightmarish circus, and many more unique backdrops that would’ve seemed out of place as disparate areas of the abominable abode. The series has always attempted to segregate Dracula’s Castle with diverse milieus but this is the best example I’ve seen.
Although Jonathan’s quest was to banish Dracula’s Castle, that vile vampire wasn’t an issue until late in the game. While the castle had arisen because of the agony and hatred within humanity during this period, another vampire took advantage of the castle’s powers for his own agenda and prevented Dracula from reviving. That vampire, Brauner, ultimately worked towards the same end goal of humanity’s destruction, but did so out of the hatred he felt for losing his daughters during the First World War. Brauner was able to harness the power of Dracula’s Castle through his paintings. With assistance from newfound friends and through the evolution of a subplot or two, Jonathan and Charlotte were successful in cleansing the castle of Brauner’s influence and ultimately dealing with Dracula and his ilk.
There were plenty of reasons to keep going once the story was finished too. Exploration and the mapping of Dracula’s Castle has been a core component of the series since Symphony of the Night, and this game doesn’t disappoint with its 1,000% MAP COMPLETION RATE! That number is perhaps artificially high because of the multitude of paintings, but there is a lot to explore nonetheless. Moreover, there were many collections to complete such as obtaining all items or filling out the bestiary and mastering each sub-weapon, powering them up in the process. These are customary features for the series but also available were sidequests from one of the duo’s associates. I believe this was a first for the series and I had completed maybe 15% at game’s end after passively trying, so there’s much to do on that front.
Two more sets of playable characters could also be unlocked and both changed gameplay dramatically. The environment remained the same with both but the equipment and magic customization was backpedaled completely and a story was basically nonexistent. One pair of characters was a throwback to the classic days of the series with a focus on sub-weapons and the legendary whip, Vampire Killer. This duo was overpowered and playing with them felt like I was in “God mode.” The other duo utilized the touch-screen exclusively. The touch-screen was integrated into the game elsewhere but I literally never used it. The execution with these two was actually very intriguing and their individual means of attacking required different touch-based actions. A Boss Rush mode was also available after completion as well as a co-operative mode (multi-card only).
Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin has all the staples I’ve come to expect from the series as well as a few differentiating features. The core of these, a focus on two characters, helped to freshen the formula but it was probably the variety of settings that kept me most entertained. Not to mention the accoutrement found in the various collections to complete, sidequests to beat, and unlockables to try out after the plot had wrapped up. The more modern backdrop and the twist on the classic premise were appreciated as well. I think this is probably the most complete Castlevania I’ve played of this style, but I don’t think it tops Aria of Sorrow for me. That was my first foray into the series and each one I’ve played since has been chasing that experience. They’ve all been outstanding, but like the saying goes, I’ll never forget my first, and I’ll forever be comparing successive entries to it.