Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Castlevania - Portrait of Ruin - Early Impressions

The new Castlevania arrived today, so I rushed down to the store and picked one up. I was telling myself to save the money stored on my EB Games card (earned from returning some DS games) towards the Wii, but that didn't last for long. I've always been a Castlevania fan, so there's no way I'm going to miss the latest 2D installment.

We'll just forget about all the 3D versions of Castlevania, m'kay?

Anyhoo, if you're familiar with the last several installments of Castlevania on Gameboy Advance and DS, you're pretty well situated with this newest episode. Each of the previous four versions were updated variations on Symphony of the Night, and it culminated with Dawn of Sorrow last year. I think that was the best version of the whole lot; Dawn may even be better than the hallowed Symphony itself, or at least it represented the perfection of the formula.

Portrait of Ruin marks the first real break from the formula. Yes, I know, the soul collecting from Dawn of Sorrow (and its predecessor, Aria of Sorrow) was the first true innovation to the long-standing formula, but now we're seeing the new turf. The game is constructed a little like Super Mario 64, with Dracula's Castle serving as a central hub, and a number of game worlds stretching outward.

I think Koji Igarashi, the father of Castlevania, wanted to make a game that connected Symphony with the earlier, action-oriented installments. Those are the real classics of Castlevania, the ones that the older gamers pull out whenever they become board with the latest easy-going round of Castle-Metroid. These newer games are great, of course, but they're embarrasingly easy. Cakewalks. The original Castlevania, Simon Quest, Dracula's Curse - those games are brutally hard.

So, now, finally, we have the latest version which tries to fuse that classic gameplay with the Symphony exploration style. Whether or not you decide the idea is a success depends, I suppose, on how much you loved those old games. Needless to say, I'm having a great time.

I'm getting tired of waltzing through the same castle over and over, so it's a thrill to finally see some new environments. I'm currently stuck on an Egyptian world, with desert sands and haunted pyramids. It's one of those things that instantly feels right at home. I can't believe that Igarashi didn't do this earlier. I can't tell you how nice it is to actually be outdoors again. Dawn had some outdoor segments, but not nearly enough. There's also a world set in working-class England which is really cool.

More cool bits. Your two main characters can team up for super-charged attacks. You can walk around solo, or with your partner following around - you can use the stylus to direct the other person where to go. Secondary weapons, things like axes and knives, and whatnot, can be powered up through experience. Each weapon becomes stronger with use, on the road to mastery. It's this game's answer to soul collecting.

Also, smashing lights and candles will produce money if your special-weapon meter is full; otherwise, they will produce hearts. That's a clever design decision. Now you have to choose between building up your weapons, and saving up for more items, spells, and accessories. It's a very simple balance, and really one of the standouts for me.

Do I have any beefs with Portrait of Ruin yet? Only one so far, and it's the same one I always have - the game is far too easy. These exploration games always become a cakewalk once your heroes are properly powered-up enough. It's the modern Castlevania plague. Even Dawn of Sorrow was too damned easy, but thankfully, its hard mode was genuinely, honestly hard. This new game better have a hard mode that's really hard.

I'll pass along more impressions on Castlevania whenever the mood hits. So far, though, it's a great game.

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