The word actually started as a derogatory term used by old school Castlevania fans complaining about the direction the franchise took starting with Symphony of the Night. Rather than the more straight forward arcade inspired approach that most (but not all) of the previous titles offered, later releases more closely emulated the 2D games of the Metroid franchise. Despite the criticisms of some fans, many players (myself very much included) found this direction to be exactly what the series needed. By the time the hugely influential indie surprise hit Cave Story was released, the term "metroidvania" had become a badge of honor for fans of the genre. Luckily for us, Konami stuck with the style and released a number of handheld Castlevania titles further defining this new genre, including Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin.
The first couple Castlevanias were about a vampire hunter named Simon Belmont. Later titles expanded to the entire Belmont family, and eventually branched out into a larger variety of lead characters. Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin introduces two new slayers of the undead, Jonathan and Charlotte. Each has their own unique advantages and the player can not only switch between them at any time, but can have the other character play along via AI. There are simple commands to have your companion stay put or follow along, and some special attacks that require teaming up.
Having an ally is obviously an advantage in battle, but it also plays a large part in solving the castle's many puzzles. There are objects that require the strength of two to move, or the weight of two to activate, as well as situations where one character needs to wait in position while the other moves an object into place. The 2nd character can also help out with giving your jumps a bit of a boost which is a big deal early in the game before you've had a chance to load up on powerups.
As is the core of the metroidvania genre, Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin is full of roadblocks and dead ends which open up to you later in the game once a new ability or piece of gear has been acquired. This style acts as a sort of tutorial allowing the player to master each new technique before gaining access to the next, yet it also allows for an overall game design that feels very open world while still providing a polished linear experience. Powerups here include the standards such as the abilities to double jump, slide through small spaces, and break barriers, and while none of the powerups are really ground breaking, they do still manage to put their own Castlevania twist on them.
One of the most defining characteristics of Castlevania titles is the setting. Most of the 2D games in the series center around a single large castle that must be explored fully. While some of the earlier games experimented with having multiple smaller castles connected by outdoor areas and even towns to give more of an RPG feel, those releases tended not to be as well regarded. For Portrait of Ruin, Konami took a cue from Mario 64 and placed several magical paintings throughout the castle. These paintings can be entered, allowing for much more variety of location without ever technically leaving the castle. This is sort of the opposite of the classic Zelda formula as the interior of the castle becomes the overworld, and areas such as a sprawling desert or Victorian city are treated as the games dungeon zones.
Another aspect of Portrait of Ruin that sets it apart from other Castlevania titles is the central plot. with most of the series there is a simple formula: Dracula woke up and somebody has to get through his castle and hit him with a whip, all wrapped up in a unique combination of classic horror movies and Catholic mythology. This time there's a new vampire named Brauner who is trying to resurrect Dracula in order to stir up trouble. Along the way are some memorable characters such as the vampire sisters and the helpful ghost, each with thoughtfully written back stories. And as always, there's the usual money grubbing priest/merchant who is always happy to help you defeat evil, for the right price that is.
Pushing the narrative boundaries a bit more, Portrait of Ruin features multiple endings depending on what choices you make and how you go about accomplishing your task. As usual, there's a happier ending if you make the right choices, the "good ending", and several more that can be considered "bad endings". Luckily, the less desirable outcomes always involve actions taken after your last game save, so you can always keep trying for a more complete victory without fear.
While Castlevania started out with a more arcade action style, it has slowly been incorporating more RPG mechanics through the years. As with the other DS and GBA releases of the series, Portrait of Ruin features random loot drops to buff up the weapons and armor for both of your characters, as well as stock up on the usual items such as health potions, which are handy since unlike the Metroid series, Castlevania enemies generally don't drop health refills. Defeating enemies also raises your XP allowing you to level up your character. I generally find that this makes the constant backtracking seem like less of a chore, since it means I can grind XP along the way while keeping an eye out for missed secrets so the additional time doesn't feel wasted.
Castlevania games have long featured some of my favorite gaming soundtracks, and this one maintains the tradition of gothic and baroque themes interspersed with jazz, latin. and hard rock influences to create the magic blend we've come to expect. The general sound effects are pretty standard, but I was surprised by the amount of spoken dialog included in the game. Neither 2D metroidvania titles or DS games usually feature voice acting, so this little bonus gave the game an extra level of polish.
Graphically, Portrait of Ruin didn't immediately strike me as being too different from the GBA offerings, but over time I started to notice a few things.The additional storage available in the DS cartridges allowed for more detailed sprites and greater variety with smoother animations. The DS's graphics processor also lets some pretty cool effects happen against the sprites. Finally, a number of 3D polygonal objects and creatures show up from time to time to add a bit of depth to the visual style. So, while the overall art direction deviates little from what was available on the previous generation, what can be done with that style has certainly improved to offer a pleasing, if not wowing, graphical style that suits the game well.
For the multiplayer fans out there, I should probably also mention the Boss Rush mode. This two player cooperative mode allows one player to control Jonathan and the other Charlotte. As the name suggests, this mode allows you to take on all of the game's bosses one after another. I have to admit that I didn't personally try this mode out, but it could be a selling point for some, so it's worth bringing up.
So, if you're a fan of later 2D Castlevania games, or just the metroidvania genre overall, this is a solid game that delivers a quality adventure with a high degree of polish. It changes up the formula enough to feel fresh, while not enough to lose the feel of the genre. On the other hand, if the thought of backtracking and wondering aimlessly on a quest for yet another powerup makes you cringe, you should probably pass on this one. For me, I had a great time with Castlevania Portrait of Ruin, and I'll be keeping an eye out for some of the other Castlevania titles that I haven't had a chance to play through yet.