As one of the last bastions of classic, side-scrolling gaming, the Castlevania series has to accomplish two things with every new release. First, it has to strike a perfect balance of old and new, offering fans just enough of the recycled, explorative gameplay they crave while also giving them fresh reasons to send Dracula back to the grave. Second, and perhaps more importantly, each 2D entry in the series has to prove that old fashioned sprites and animation are better, in some instances, than massive 3D worlds. Luckily, the past five old-school Castlevanias have aced these goals, and the latest, Portrait of Ruin, continues the trend.
The blood 'n' guts of the game are identical to last year's Dawn of Sorrow - take your hero through Drac's oversized castle in search of items, power-ups and clues on how to adequately vanquish the Lord of Darkness. The Sorrow games were all about gaining new abilities by consuming monsters' souls, but here you'll be swapping back and forth between whip-crackin' Jonathan Morris and magician-in-training Charlotte Orlean. John's on deck for the meatier creatures, while Charlotte's spells are crucial when dealing with enchanted enemies.
Even though the series is heavy on exploration and backtracking, there's a ton of action and Portrait's one button, hero-swapping gameplay keeps things fast and fresh for hours. Any area you visit, any boss you face, you'll have to constantly balance the two vampire hunters. Neither character truly dominates, though late in the game John's tremendous power starts to diminish the need for his magical partner's skills.