How Metroidvania is it? High Fit. Portrait of Ruin has a slightly unusual level structure compared to previous entries. The large complex honeycomb map of the castle has been reduced to fit in multiple side paths to explore.
Primary Challenge: Melee Combat, Exploration Focus
Time to beat: ~9 hours
Review Info: This game was played on the Nintendo 3DS using an original North American Release DS Cartridge
Buy Castlevania Portrait of Ruin if you like…
- Character Switching Mechanics
- The Belmont Whip
- A Visual Variety of Locations
- Castlevania Lore
- Anime Art Style
▼ Review continues below ▼
When I first played Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin over ten years ago, I was lukewarm to it. I remembered a lot of its weaknesses – ones that I’ll still be mentioning in this review – but what surprised me this time was the amount of depth there was to the character options. Thus this recent playthrough has left me with much more positive feelings. Portrait of Ruin in many ways represents the pinnacle of the player choice and variety that RPG systems can offer in a Metroidvania – at least as far as the Castlevania series is concerned. Sadly it does all this while also removing a lot of the depth to the castle itself – which has previously been the biggest strength to the Igavania games.
As the title’s namesake suggests, the big castle gimmick in Portrait of Ruin is that you can enter paintings and explore magical worlds hidden within them. This is a very cool idea, both thematically and for visual variety. Most Castlevania games will have your gothic cathedral, clock tower, underground cave, but this is the first Castlevania that lets you explore an Egyptian Pyramid, a Twisted Carnival, and… uh, two other castle-like locations. Ultimately exploring non-Castlevania locations could have just as easily been handled by letting you travel around outside the castle, but the idea of entering haunted paintings is probably more fun.
The trouble with the paintings is that the design team decided to go with quantity over quality. Instead of providing interesting mini-metroidvania style experiences, the level design is broad and often consisting of the long boring hallways I so often mention when describing poorly laid out Metroidvanias. There’s still a decent level of quality, especially in the game’s “town” painting areas, but some of the other paintings feel like they were trying to draw a picture with the map screen without any real intentionality behind the smaller scale experience. Having a bunch of mostly linear pathways in these separated sections isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it could have been a throwback to the much harder classic-vania games. But so many hallways feel like they just threw a bunch of monsters together to fill the space. I still think the idea is great, but I would have preferred to see mini-castles with a movement upgrade hidden within them that allows you to progress to the end – sort of like a Zelda dungeon. Instead movement upgrades are given at the end of the painting levels, only to be used in the more Igavania-traditional (and excellent) main castle. I do want to emphasize that the level design is never straight up bad, just overall disappointing.
The boredom that might have been inherent with the hordes of samey enemy challenges is mitigated quite a bit by the sheer number of options the player has to change things up. The other primary gimmick of Portrait of Ruin is that you play as two characters instead of one – taking inspiration from Julius mode in Dawn of Sorrow. You have Johnathon Morris, who is a semi-Belmont bloodline character representing your typical Belmont loadout – except this time with all the weapon options that Soma and Alucard had in addition to his whip. Then there’s Charlotte Aulin, a prodigy magician with numerous situational spells. You can switch between the two characters instantly, and while one character is active the second character can be summoned for a single attack or for persistent support at the risk of losing MP if they get hit in the process. Functionally this is sort of like if the Doppleganger system that Soma enjoyed in the previous Nintendo DS title only allowed Soma to equip certain abilities on his second moveset. Forcing the player to use only certain types of abilities with the second equipment set might seem like a step backward, and if you decide that’s the case I think that’s a valid opinion. On the other hand though, two wildly different characters made me think of strategy in ways I might not have thought of.
Johnathon is the more straight forward character, so I think many players will just stick to him and leave Charlotte on the sidelines only to cast the occasional buff spell. However, similar to Robot Master Weapons in the Classic Mega Man games, a little experimentation can reveal Charlotte is very much the best choice for active character in so many situations – assuming you haven’t already leveled up to a point where it doesn’t matter. The main advantage of using the magician girl is that once you get a new spell, it’s already at its maximum power, thus making its usefulness all about positioning and advantage rather than simply about timing and dexterity.
Even if you do ignore the second character though, Johnathon still has a wide variety of toys to play with. They’ve dumped the grindy weapon crafting that they introduced in Dawn of Sorrow, so you can once again enjoy switching to whatever weapon you find lying around on your journey. I felt like I was using a new weapon every 10-15 minutes, and so many of the weapons have unique movesets that are fun to experiment with. The one gripe I have with Johnathon is that his sub-weapons each have to be “mastered” in order to get their full benefit, sort of encouraging you to use one sub-weapon for a majority of the game, or requiring you to intentionally grind which is something I wasn’t going to do. Johnathon’s subweapon mastery just gave me more reason to experiment with Charlotte, making her a sort of escape route away from the grind for players that want to avoid it, which may have been the intention behind the design.
If you tell yourself to “screw the rules because I haven’t the time”, and avoid all grindy aspects of Portrait of Ruin, you’re in for a very difficult game – and if you’re into that sort of thing it’s also a very rewarding one. Going based off my memory of my first playthrough, this time I skipped any part of the castle I knew wasn’t necessary, and when I arrived at the final boss my level was low enough that I was being killed in two or three hits. The final boss of Portrait of Ruin is probably the best the Igavania series has had up to this point in general, but facing it the way I did really highlighted just how well-designed it really was. There was a certain point during trying that I wondered if I should level myself a bit higher than level 35 and come back. But the motivating forces that got me through Hollow Knight and Environmental Station Alpha were already triggered, and I was deeply satisfied by the time I finally defeated that god-forsaken – wonderful – menace of the night. Ultimately my point is that Portrait of Ruin can be accessible and enjoyed by all types of players – veteran and newbie alike. What’s awesome about my capricious low level run is the game provides a few difficulty modes that set a level cap if there are those of you who would prefer the game forced you to abide by the rule.
Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin may not have the most interesting characters or the best castle, but I feel it makes up for that with the sheer variety of its gameplay. At this point it’s hard for me to say whether I like it more than Dawn of Sorrow or not, just because there are so many aspects I like about both. I think it’s perfectly reasonable for a person to say that this is their favorite Igavania, and at least for me it’s definitely one I’ll be coming back to in future years.
Follows the same standard that Aria of Sorrow set with the twist of two very different characters to switch between
The same functional platforming as all of the other Igavanias, nothing spectacular, but not detrimental
Some of the side-castles are relatively bland, but rewards are instant and plentiful
Utilizes the basic puzzle platforming of any Metroidvania, not really a focus
The story is pretty basic, but the characters are likeable and it adds some interesting elements to the Castlevania universe
The Pixel Art is as good as ever, with some of the characters having some very impressive animations
Music is always a prime attraction in Castlevania games and Portrait of Ruin is no exception
The castle is maybe a little too large to replay a ton, but there are a lot of ways you can build your character