Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is the latest in a long line nostalgia-driven Kickstarter project to collide with reality. Pillars of Eternity. Mighty No 9. Broken Age. The list goes on.
However, where other lesser revivals have stumbled, Bloodstained feels like a fresh and confident return to form for Castlevania-creator Koji Igarashi. Though oft-amalgamated into the term ‘Metroidvania’, it’s almost-indisputable that the current era of gaming owes a lot to Igarashi’s earlier series.
Side-scrolling efforts like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night are fondly remembered and the series’ tendency to blur the lines between the action and roleplaying game genres feels like a forerunner to the current status quo. It’s easy to draw a line between the 2D Castlevania games of the past and Souls-like games of the present like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and Aurora44’s Ashen.
In a way, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night feels like a homecoming for Igarashi. He may have invented the genre but it’s been a long time since his last addition to it. Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia was released back in 2008 and, over a decade later, Bloodstained mechanically and thematically picks up where that game left off.
However, perhaps the most exciting thing about it isn’t what Bloodstained has in common with its ancestors but the ways in which it tries to push the boundaries they rested against. This game feels like it could have been more radical and not all of these ventures pay off, but where it could have just settled for a rose-tinted review of the Castlevania series’ greatest hits, Bloodstained tries to forge a path of its own - and that’s honestly thrilling.
Staring into the Abyss
Unsurprisingly, the setup here feels right out of the Castlevania style-guide. You play as Miriam, an orphan scarred by magical experiments gone awry that allow her to absorb and use the powers of demons. A mysterious and sprawling castle appeared to unleash a tide of monsters upon the land.
Miriam is tasked with fighting her way to the heart of this bastion and confronting the childhood-friend-turned-dark-lord awaiting her. Along the way, you’ll slay monsters, unlock new abilities, solve puzzles, fight your way through variety of fearsome boss encounters and recruit allies like the exorcist Dominique and the demon hunter Zengatsu. There’s even a demon barber willing to cut your hair.
As with the Nintendo DS-era Castlevania games, Bloodstained is extremely goth anime. When it comes to the tone and aesthetic here, nothing short of the terms 'textbook goth Catholicism' suffice. Unfortunately, Bloodstained doesn't seem like a game interested in delivering the most clean, polished or respectable version of this idea. Even by the standards set by earlier Castlevania games, the writing in Bloodstained comes across as pretty trashy and playful. It's almost like the character here know they're in a Castlevania game.
And it doesn’t help that the game opens with a ton of lore dumps. As I played through Bloodstained I had a decent idea of what the big picture storyline was about but I wouldn’t say I was that invested in the setting and characters as I was with the characters and settings of Aria of Sorrow, Dawn of Sorrow and Portrait of Ruin.
The Devils In The Details
Still, it’s hard to complain too much when the gameplay loop is as clean as it is.
At times, Bloodstained plays like a greatest hits collection of the genre. There’s a good amount of enemy variety (though the game largely reserves its most malicious antagonists for the final few hours), a good mix of environs to explore and a comprehensive arsenal of weapons to experiment with.
Akin to games like Dark Souls or Monster Hunter, it feels like you could play through Bloodstained using pretty much any one of the weapon types available and get an equally compelling experience. Some fights will be easier. Others will be harder. There’s plenty of room for you to improvise and make the experience your own and replay value besides.
As you slay enemies, you’ll accrue experience, items and - ever so often - shards. Similar to the soul-collection mechanics found in Aria of Sorrow and Dawn of Sorrow, slain enemies will sometimes drop these shards - which then violently embed themselves into Miriam’s body.
Once equipped, each shard bestows a different ability. Some shards are activatable effects like new attacks of defensive maneuvers. Others give more passive bonuses like a double jump or extra health. There’s tons of room to customize Miriam’s loadout and each of these shards can be upgraded to maximise their impact and value.
If the weapons system gives you a dozen ways to play through Bloodstained, the shard system multiplies this replayability manifold. It adds another dimension to the arithmetic of problem solving that goes through your mind whenever you find yourself stuck on a particularly gnarly boss fight.
The last piece of the puzzle here is the art style, and this is the one part of Bloodstained that never quite sticks the landing. Where the GBA and DS-era Castlevania games were gorgeous 2D adventures that pushed the limits of just how good a 2D game of its breed could look, Miriam’s debut outing feels decidedly rough.
The level of detail on textures and models is very inconsistent and the quality of animations varies widely. It’s clear that developer ArtPlay are trying to transplant the Castlevania look & feel over into pseudo-3D in the way that something like New Super Mario Bros does but the execution never quite comes together. If anything, it reminds me of the first time that Mortal Kombat made the jump to 3D.
It’s cool as hell to have a Castlevania game with full-on cutscenes but the trade-off here isn’t worth it. Moment-to-moment, Bloodstained doesn’t always look as good as it feels - or at least feels like it should. I like that they tried but the final results are messy to behold.
The Bottom Line
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is an uneven experience. It suffers in some aspects but character isn’t one of them.
If you’re after in-jokes and callbacks to Igarashi’s previous works, you don’t have to venture far to find them. There are plenty of easter eggs and lore-dumps to collect and, as a fan of the genre, it felt like Bloodstained was a game engaged in a constant dialogue with its past.
In contrast to this, the one thing that Bloodstained doesn’t have is a sense of finality. It feels like the best is yet to come and it feels like an introduction to this world and these characters. It left me wanting more.
And for as much as Ritual of the Night invokes the legacy of arch-classics like Symphony of the Night, it’s not what you’d call a perfect Metroidvania game. Hell, it’s probably not even in the top three when it comes to the last five years. Still, the notion that Igarashi is building something new here can’t help but excite the imagination.
Though meticulously designed and devilishly fun to play through but the thing that sticks with me about Bloodstained isn’t the nods to what’s come before. It’s the ideas it invokes about what could come next. Bloodstained isn’t just a memorial to the Castlevania games of days past, it feels like a foundation for the series’ future.