Review: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
It’s been a pretty depressing ride thus far when it comes to these “creators return to abandoned IP via Kickstarter” games. Kickstarter has had some really amazing games come out of it, from Shovel Knight to Darkest Dungeon. Some of the best indie titles these days started as little more than a dream on Kickstarter, but the other side of the coin includes the handful of high-profile titles hoping to rekindle a favorite series. Original developers from Banjo Kazooie raised over $2,000,000 for Yooka-Laylee, a spiritual successor, to middling to poor reviews. Mega Man director Keiji Inafune, frustrated with Capcom’s disinterest in revitalizing Mega Man, raised over $3,000,000 for Mighty No. 9 — which was so awful it made Mega Man fans cry like they’d spent millions of dollars on prom night. Those two aren’t representative of Kickstarter as a whole, but they do paint a really bad picture for this type of “leaving home” kind of game. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, however, rises above these as if it still really is a Castlevania game through and through.
From Castlevania guru Koji Igarashi along with several other Konami escapees (directed by Shutaro Iida, and music by Michiru Yamane) Bloodstained launched on Kickstarter back in 2015 and immediately hit its goal within four hours of going live. In fact, it went on to surpass its original goal (of $500,000) by $5,000,000 — so yeah, the demand was there and then some. I’ve been eagerly awaiting its release since, as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is one of my favorite PS1 games ever, and Konami’s Konami-ness with the property ensured that this was the only and best way to ever get that high again. I had my reservations, especially knowing that Ben Judd of “it’s better than nothing” fame was involved, but just… wow. Bloodstained delivers on its promise and then some. It’s impossible to like Castlevania and not like Bloodstained in my opinion, as they are wholly one and the same — just without the name.
From the word go, playing Bloodstained oozes Castlevania charm and design, in a way that cements an “oh, we know what you like” attitude. Animations immediately feel familiar, old muscle memory kept me slashing through enemies (and secret crumbly walls) while backstepping out of harm’s way, and very similar level up fanfare lulled me into a sense that I was just playing Symphony of the Night 2. In fact, it jarred me a little bit when things didn’t make the same sound effects, as goofy as that seems. This isn’t to say that it’s clinging on to the older, more clunky aspects of those classic Metroidvania games; where there’s room for improvement, Bloodstained takes it. Movement is more fluid as using the analog stick as opposed to the D-pad no longer feels like a gamble, some tweaks to timing leave more room for error while not taking away from the challenge, as well as clearer item and ability descriptions remove some of the trial and error. It’s role as a spiritual successor quickly takes a back seat to definitive vision as you find game design elements truly improve upon the game design elements of the original Castlevania titles.
Bloodstained‘s level progression and map exploration systems lean into why this genre is great. Hints at what’s to come visually planted just out of your reach, leave you tantalized as to not just what could lay beyond but how the hell you get to it, fostering a compulsion of “well just a little longer, I gotta know” burning in your mind. Seeing weird metal panels set up between too-narrow to traverse pathways, a hallway full of spikes on the top and bottom, or an iron maiden in your path that snaps you up for a sizable chunk of health — all these have solutions with a proper ability typically unlocked after the defeat of a boss. The game’s robust modifiers, abilities, familiars, and magical attacks are acquired via “shards,” giant Dark Crystal spikes that uncomfortably skewer Miriam (an alchemized human weapon called a Shardbinder). It can get a bit tiresome as the drops for shards are randomized and happen constantly, and the long, drawn-out animation of the shards piercing her comes off a bit eye-rollingly sexual. At least the animation doesn’t stop gameplay when getting duplicates, but it’s one of the few aspects to the game design itself that wears a bit thin.
Bosses are a ton of fun to figure out and defeat, and every one of them is unique and offers a game-changing shard teased by whatever the bosses’ methods are. Not all of them are required for completion, but it’s exciting to see one of their special iron-gated doors in a new area; not knowing whether the beast inside holds the key to entering some previously untraversable area or a new and devastating attack to try out on a future boss is part of the thrilling gamble. A fun and robust gallery of foes makes beefing up for these challenges rarely feel like grinding, even if that is what it is. There are a few reskins, but they usually have changes in their attacks or weaponry that still make them feel special (although, some endgame enemies are disappointingly just really big versions of early enemies). A few of the enemies faced in Bloodstained which are Kickstarter bonuses are a lovely touch of fan service as well. Each one presents a challenge to defeat, and even if you’re a higher level than the creature you’re facing off against, their attack pattern and a menagerie of other shit flying at you can overwhelm you quickly. On top of this, again, many are recognizably Castlevania beasts, even if tweaked just enough to avoid Konami giving perhaps just enough of a shit to lift one crusty legal claw.
That’s something that should definitely be mentioned — while this game absolutely stands on its own as just a brilliantly executed master-class in this genre, the Konami alumni clearly have a certain amount of spite that I’ll gleefully relish in. Multiple, obvious jabs at their former employer litter the game, as well as a few loving touches that bring back old favorite voice actors Konami threw away. David Hayter, Metal Gear Solid‘s Solid Snake, reprises Snake’s voice (with just a little less hhnnggghhh at the end of sentences) as Zangetsu, a master samurai swordsman guy out for revenge — although he pails in comparison to one, in particular reprisal. I discovered him about a quarter into the game in the library, and I won’t spoil, but you’ll know him the second you hear him if you’re a Castlevania fan. All of this is wrapped up in a beautiful bow with Michiru Yamane’s score, which is simply beautiful (and noticeably gives shout-outs to her previous work on Symphony of the Night in a few places, to my glee). It really does bring the entire experience together in a way that can’t be understated. Music is so important to capturing a certain kind of mood/experience, and Bloodstained nails it.
That isn’t to say every single thing here is top tier perfection. The story is sloppy anime guff that I had trouble ever really connecting with (and yes, I played Curse of the Moon beforehand for context), and the voice acting is kind of all over the place. The visuals perhaps have the biggest drop in quality, though. While that Poop vs New trailer regarding upgrading the visuals was very cute and funny, and they obviously did put a lot of work in, it’s very surface level. Especially in the one-on-one voiced conversations, the character models are mostly awful looking, with 3DS-esque modeling and extremely rough textures. The small animations these characters have are also super awkward looking, especially the weird hip sway that Miriam does. I don’t really know why these aren’t 2D sprites like… pretty much any other game out there that does this kind of thing. Sprites would have looked so much better, especially as it would give them more options to emote with. As it is, the grand majority of the dialogue is delivered by stiff, idle-animation feeling robots. The worst one is at about the game’s midpoint where Miriam’s voice actor is delivering sobbing, screaming desperation over the events unfolding in front of her, in the exact same pose as above. It’s jarring and slapdash looking.
This does sadly lead me to the one major issue with Bloodstained. It nails every single last thing it needs to in design and presentation and tone — and misses the mark by a mile when it comes to stability. While I’ve heard that the Switch version is very rough, my experience on Xbox One has been tumultuous at best. I literally haven’t had a single play session that didn’t have some sort of bug — whether it be an abilitiy causing the game to freak out or falling through solid objects, or worse. While I can at least say that only one forced a restart (I fazed through a wall and couldn’t get out), most have either been frustrating or just bizarre. The opening logos on bootup often won’t get all the way through, I’ve been attacked by dead enemies, and my familiar of choice (a spooky floating book that increases my strength every minute or so) will cause the game to come to a sudden halt no matter what I’m doing when it boosts me and I just have to wait a few beats while the game catches up. The worst of these issues though has to be the framerate, which is so unstable it fell into single digits during one of the boss fights. Several areas begin to stutter horribly, and I’m not even sure why. I would have assumed that it was tied to enemies on screen, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. The area it’s the worst in is a room that has only two enemies, and for the life of me, I don’t know what the game is having trouble with. It’s heartbreaking because everything else is so damn good, and Bloodstained doesn’t deserve to be dragged down by something as stupid as tech issues.
Technical issues aside, which will hopefully be addressed as the game is updated (alongside its rather robust roadmap of free content, no less), Bloodstained is absolutely, inarguably worth your dollar. The level of care and love poured into this experience outshines even the games that it’s attempting to emulate, and I haven’t discovered everything in it yet. Filled with eye-winking kisses blown from Iga, new versions of old mechanics, delightful recreations of things Konami has no interest in, and quite frankly a damn good game regardless of your history with Castlevania — Bloodstained has everything I wanted and more. You owe it to yourself to play this. It’s a wonderful, wonderful night for a curse.
(8.5 / 10)
Xbox One version purchased for review.