Kickstarters have always been tricky. The crowdfunded projects have been known to go on to be great commercial and critical successes like Hollow Knight, Divinity: Original Sin and even Shovel Knight. But tragically they’re usually the exceptions and not the status quo for these kinds of projects, with Mighty No. 9 and Yooka Laylee being the most infamous stinkers of the bunch. So does Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night into the former or the latter category of Kickstarter products?
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is led by Koji Igarashi, the mind behind the all-time classic, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night which basically kick-started the Metroidvania genre that’s so popular today and Bloodstained wears its inspirations on its sleeve. Fans and even Igarashi had been clamoring for a true Castlevania game since 2008’s (excellent) Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, however, Konami felt like the series as it was didn’t resonate enough with the wider gaming audience anymore and rebooted the franchise after firing Igarashi then later put it to rest.
Bloodstained while not being a Castlevania game officially, is every bit the Castlevania you remember. It’s a giant Halloween party where you storm into a castle full of monsters guns (swords?) blazing and explore the vast area full of secrets and unlockables along with all the Castlevania gimmicks you love.
You play as Miriam, an orphaned girl who was taken in by an alchemist who experimented on her and scarred her with a curse that allows her to absorb the powers of the monsters you encounter but slowly kills her in the process if she takes in too much. She’s tasked with taking down her old friend Gebel who summoned a castle (much like how characters in Castlevania summon Dracula’s Castle) that’s full of demons that threaten humanity.
What’s easily apparent about the game, even only a few minutes in is that it isn’t trying to be dishonest about its identity. It is in all but name, Castlevania and Koji’s beautiful rose-goth aesthetic still shines in the 2.5D style. Although you do have to wonder why they decided to make the game 2.5D rather than in 2D sprites like the classic games it strives to be a spiritual successor to.
The overall effect of it is that at times it looks really pretty but the lack of polish is very clear in a lot of places. Miriam herself and half the monsters you encounter all look good enough but the NPCs, side characters and some of the backgrounds suffer because of it. The 2.5D look does take away from the charm that the 2D sprites the Playstation and DS Igavania games had but it’s still a decent looking game albeit a little outdated considering the competition.
That’s not to say the gameplay is anything less than what you’d expect from a Koji Igarashi directed Metroidvania. In the first 2 hours alone you’ll have at least 10 different weapon types to choose from with several unique abilities that you unlock by beating the demons as you progress through the castle. And it is an absolute delight to go on and explore the huge Castle as Miriam with its diverse collection of unique monsters and areas that keep you on your toes and urge you on to keep exploring.
To fans of Symphony of the Night, the game design philosophy is easily recognizable. It’s a combat based action RPG side-scroller with a huge emphasis on exploration and unlocking new abilities that helps you with both exploration and combat. And it’s incredibly generous on the account that you’ll end up switching your playstyle almost regularly every few hours as new abilities and new weapons make sure monster-slaying rarely feels less than fresh. Although it doesn’t do much to add to the depth of the combat since it still involves you wildly spamming the attack button and occasionally back-dashing and using the magic skills you acquire from enemies. You do unlock several weapon-specific combos but they’re rarely useful and a hassle to input not to mention that they use up your MP. You’ll always want to save your MP bar to execute high damage skills to whittle away at the health of the bosses you encounter.
The difficulty curve is a little confusing as the game does start out on a slightly challenging note where you may or may not struggle at the first 2-3 bosses. However, as you unlock more weapons, skills and get better equipment you’re basically invincible by the 4-hour point and you’ll be mowing down bosses on your first or second try (provided you know how to pick your weapons/skills). It is a little disappointing how a lot of these epic looking creatures are pushovers that are giant damage sponges that get destroyed in under a minute of tactically spamming the attack button. Although the enemy placement in the areas preceding the boss fights are actually very well placed and arguably one of the best moments of the game involves you out-maneuvering a room full of strong enemies, taking them out one by one or a group at once while everything in the room is trying to kill you.
One thing that caught me off guard a bit was the fact that the game surprisingly has a lot of humor sprinkled into the overall experience. The last Igavania game, Order of Ecclesia had a really dark and moody story set in a dark world that’s been devoid of life and optimism for a long time. Bloodstained on the other hand while not forgetting its campy horror roots, double down on the campy fun that made Symphony of the Night so damn charming. The colors scheme is bright and colorful, the side characters are adorably cheesy and are way too committed to their tropes (with David Hayter’s Zangetsu stealing every scene he’s in) and the castle itself feels it’s been decorated for a Goth Halloween party.
One feature that is sure to help keep things fresh visually is the fact the game allows you to change Miriam’s looks constantly throughout the game, whether it be through equipment you find along the way (You can give her Cat ears and Sunglasses early on and god does it make the experience better) or with the help of a lovable demon barber who’s been cursed to cut hair and is willing to let you change hairstyles and dress color free of charge. It’s a little feature that helps give the game a fresh look and has you looking out for equipment and hairstyle scrolls and get you a nice reward for your troubles.
The game is brimming with personality, in the way it looks, in the way it plays and the way it sounds. The music is a loving tribute to the original SoTN to the point where it almost slaves to it. However, while the music itself sounds pretty good it’s nothing you haven’t heard before. There just aren’t many memorable songs that aren’t just homages to the other Igavania games. Which is a shame honestly?
The music is only a symptom of the bigger problem that plagues Bloodstained, and may even be the biggest issue it faces. It tries a little too hard to give the fans exactly what they want; a spiritual successor to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. The problem with that approach is that the game fails to surprise you at any point. It’s a great Igavania game but ironically feels out of touch with the Metroidvania genre as it exists right now.
If it came out in 2015 I’m sure it would be one of the best of the genre at the time however it has to share a room with other amazing Metroidvania like Hollow Knight, Dead Cells, The Messenger, Ori and The Blind Forest, Iconoclasts.etc all of which boast much more innovative gameplay mechanics, presentation and storytelling that at times makes Bloodstained feel like an out of touch dad trying to reconnect with his son long after his interests have evolved.
It might be a little unfair to bash Igarashi for making Bloodstained exactly the way fans wanted. It might not be the most original game ever made but it’s still a bloody good time. If you’ve played a Castlevania game before and didn’t enjoy it, this probably won’t change your mind.
For anyone looking to have their Igavania fix or to see what a good Castlevania game feels like, Bloodstained: Ritual of The Night is definitely worth your money.