Having reviewed Portrait of Ruin, I’d been playing it for a couple of months before its fall release. So it wasn’t really a Christmas game per se. It’s just that Portrait of Ruin happened to land right at the thickest froth of my Castlevania/metroidvania obsession, so I played it, well, obsessively.
I played and replayed Portrait several times after its launch, basically maxing out the save files on my cartridge — mastering all the sub-weapons, defeating the arena, completing the game in various forms. Despite it being probably the weakest of the DS Castlevania games. Ah, what a wonder it was to have free time back in those days.
But it was only over Christmas break, when I decided to play the Sisters Mode, that I discovered the secret best thing about Portrait of Ruin: Zombie-slaying for distance. See, all the Igarashi Castlevania games offered some sort of bonus unlockable mode upon completion (or completion under certain conditions), usually allowing players to control alternate characters. Richter in Symphony of the Night, Maxim in Harmony of Dissonance, the rad Castlevania III riff in Dawn of Sorrow… never quite as polished and balanced as the main game, but always a fun alternate approach.
Portrait of Ruin doubled the pleasure. Or… quintupled it, I guess? Sextupled? I don’t know how to count. The entire premise of the game mechanics had to do with swapping instantly between two different characters, and that carried over into the bonus modes. The hilariously misspelled “Richiter” mode let you play as both Richter Belmont and Maria Renard (young version; I am pretty sure, after seeing his look of distaste when we had him play the Saturn version, that the adult Maria sprites added to that version have been permanently stricken from the planet by IGA’s own hand), which was pretty fun. The real treasure, however, wasn’t knowledge; it was “Sisters” mode, in which you could play as the recently de-vampirized “daughters” of the villain, Brauner.
Sisters mode was basically IGA’s apology for making us draw seals in order to beat bosses in Dawn of Sorrow. The sisters controlled entirely with the stylus, but get this: It was bonkers fun. The stylus not only controlled their movements, it also directed their skills. One sister played like a shoot-em-up, wherein the contact point of your stylus determined your target, but the other was where the fun began. Her attacks were input through swipes of the stylus, and in a nice little touch, certain elements had physics attached to them that responded to the direction of your swipes.
This wasn’t a new feature in the Castlevania games; certain enemies came apart in Dawn of Sorrow based on the direction and force of your actions. Zombies in particular: Depending on the sword Soma destroyed them with, they’d crumble to pieces in different ways. That carried over into Portrait, and into Sisters mode, which meant that depending on how you hit a zombie with your stylus, you could send its head flying for distance.
For some idiotic reason, this became my favorite thing about the game, and I spent entirely too many hours of my Christmas break cruising around the zombie-heavy areas trying to see how far I could send a zombie head. There was no point to it, no way to track performance, and no rewards on offer for a skill slice. It was just fun. And really, that should be plenty of reason to do a dumb thing in a video game.