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Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin (DS)
Pub: Konami/Dev: Konami
Rating: T/Players: 1 - 2/Wi-Fi - Yes
W- The Castlevania series has been in a bit of a rut lately, if you read what the press or the fansites have to say.  The same formula that was first seen in Symphony of the Night has been prominent ever since, albeit with a few alterations to the design and mechanics.  The latest, Portrait of Ruin, doesn't stray too far from the trails the series has previously traveled, but manages to be one of the freshest entries in the series in a while thanks to its dual character system, new environments to explore and the best overall soundtrack for a handheld Castlevania yet.
Let it be said that I love Aria of Sorrow and (initially) its sequel.  With that in mind, I had pretty high expectations for this one.  Does it live up to the greatness of those titles?  For the most part, yes.  PoR takes the core Metroid-vania gameplay that's been fueling the series as of late and injects it with some fresh air by letting you choose between two characters in the main game (a concept first introduced way back in Castlevania 3: Dracula's Curse and most recently in Julius Mode in Dawn of Sorrow).  Konami stepped it up a peg from those titles here, letting you have Jonathan (your typical weapon user) and Charlotte (your magic user) both be on-screen at once.  The AI is pretty sharp for your partner, which is a major plus.  If they fall off a platform or get stuck, they magically warp next to you when they disappear out of view.  The switching is instantaneous, and you can pull your ally in or out of a conflict very quickly with a simple button press.  Another great idea is that your partner drains your magic meter if they're hit (not your life meter, which could have added up to major frustration and a busted gameplay system), which offers you more incentive to have both Jonathan and Charlotte fighting instead of going at it alone.  
The reviews I've read tend to give Jonathan an edge in playtime, which is unfortunate, because personally I think Charlotte's more fun to control.  Her spells require charging to fully unleash their potential, which adds a sense of urgency to playing as her, which I like.  She's also more unique with her weaponry books, but I wish there were more to choose from.  Jonathan gets a gigantic amount of weapons to pick from, but Charlotte only gets 8-10 books?  Her spell count equals that of Jonathan's subweapons, too, so her weapon options are a little lacking.  She may be weak at first, but give her time.  She'll slaughter enemies as efficiently as Jonathan with her magic soon enough.  Konami put together a fantastic layout for the game's control schemes and made your partner flow almost as well as the one you're controlling, and both Jonathan and Charlotte are fun and easy to control.  That takes a lot of talent to pull off, and Konami rose to the challenge rather well, despite a few minor flubs.
The game's soundtrack sets a new standard for future titles to follow.  Since the game takes place in some new places previously unknown to the series (like London, Egypt and a circus, to name a few), some new scores have been added in, which are a nice change of pace and are a delight to the ears.  The castle themes are also excellent.  The game introduces English dialogue to the characters, which thankfully aren't too bad.  For those who would prefer the original Japanese, just hold the L button on the title when you select an option and the Japanese vocals will slide in instead (although Charlotte's name sounds quite bizarre this way).  In my opinion, this is the best sounding Castlevania on any handheld.  Aria and Dawn had some good tracks, don't get me wrong.  It's just that PoR has a lot more.
One nitpick I do have is the somewhat drab backgrounds.  There's some rather uneventful stretches of hallway (the Great Stairway comes to mind) that repeat like a background in a Hanna-Barbara cartoon that occur a little too often.  There's some really pretty work in most of the game that make these stand out like a sore thumb.  The spritework is top notch, as usual, and the game's recycled sprites from previous games fit in pretty well, but the series is screaming out for new enemy sprites.  51 out of 151 foes are plucked from Dawn of Sorrow, and some are even pulled from SotN, which came out on the PS1 8 years ago! O_O The game's 3D backgrounds are looking a tad sharper than DoS, and the game is no slouch in its visuals.  It's a few pegs above DoS in overall quality, but a lot of the enemies need a fresh coat of pixels.
The game also steps up the difficulty with some challenging boss fights and even some tough enemies (fear the gold skeletons)!  Prepare to level up considerably (which is cool by me...) and to be buying potions and tonics by the barrelful.  This is welcome, though, as DoS wasn't really that hard to get through (outside of Gergoth and arguably Death).  The dual character mechanic also helps make boss fights a lot more fun, especially once you find a solid way to utilize both characters to dish out high amounts of damage.  One area the dual character system could have been improved upon though is the game's puzzles.  A few pop up that require the player to switch back and forth to ride on bikes and such, but these are rather boring.  It's a shame that they couldn't have done something more with having two characters around, like using one as a stepladder to lift someone into a crevice or have one stand on a switch to keep the lights on while the other braves a tough battle would seem that IGA and his crew had grander plans than what panned out, what with the small gaps that Jonathan could seemingly have lifted Charlotte into (and I remember reading about that!), but I guess that they ran out of time and instead gave Charlotte a toad spell to squeeze through them.  *shrugs*
DoS suffered due to the Magic Seal system and the limited function of Balore's soul to break ice blocks, but Konami wisely scrapped those ideas and decided to make it more of a player's option rather than a requirement to use the touch screen.  Charlotte and Jonathan do not use it at all in their quest unless you want to direct your partner somewhere (which is adequate, but could have been done better) or leading Charlotte's familiar spells to a target.  The handy map/stat switch  on the top screen returns, which is almost reason enough to make the game a DS title.  Having a map right there is so wonderful when you're searching around for hidden rooms.  There is a hidden mode after beating the game's good ending that opens up a new set of characters that do use the touch screen to attack, which is pretty fun and could make for a unique Castlevania title all by itself next time around.
Overall, Portrait of Ruin is a fantastic entry into the franchise.  It has brought in a ton of new facets while keeping the same great gameplay previous titles held.  In my eyes, it's almost as excellent as AoS and tops DoS (and also pointed out its faults...).  It's fairly lengthy (if you do everything the game has to offer), has tons of things to find and unlock, it's challenging, and outside of a few missed opportunities its dual character mechanic is fantastically implemented.  I just think that the yearly development crunch sucked away some of the awesome potential controlling two characters could have offered.
Oh, by the way, the art direction is certainly better than DoS.  The much ballyhooed anime style is a little better, but check out Mr. P's Castlevania Realm for some really cool art Konami's cranked out for it.  I love Jonathan and Charlotte's designs, as well. ^_^  The cameo factor is also quite prominent too, which is pretty cool.  Tons upon tons of retro goodness to be had!