Review: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

To say Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is one of the year’s most anticipated titles may be an understatement. When its Kickstarter campaign launched in 2015, Castlevania fans were naturally excited. Castlevania legend Koji Igarashi was at the helm of a new IP that was a spiritual successor to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. In actuality, many fans have been waiting for a follow up to Symphony of the Night that wasn’t limited to a handheld platform long before Bloodstained was announced. Let’s just get the elephant in the room out of the way: Bloodstained is a new IP with new characters and lore, but what everyone wants is another Symphony of the Night. Any coverage over the past couple years indicates that this is shaping up to be the Castlevania game we’ve all been waiting for, even if by a different name. After four years of waiting, the game is finally out and now is the time to see how well this game lives up to the expectations.

Just to get it out of the way and potentially sum up the review in one sentence, calling Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night another Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is an oversimplification but not entirely inaccurate. If you love SotN and just want more of that, Bloodstained is exactly what you ordered. It was basically what was promised on the 2015 Kickstarter campaign and it is what was delivered, with some elements of other Castlevania games such as a Shard system that is essentially the souls from Aria of Sorrow and villagers with quests like Order of Ecclesia, giving Bloodstained almost an Igavania Greatest Hits type of quality. Now that Bloodstained is finally out, the question is how well does it stand on its own merits and what all does it do the modernize formula that made one of the all time great games back in 1997.

The protagonist of Bloodstained is an orphan named Miriam who was taken in by the Alchemists’ Guild. The Guild conducted experiments on her, turning into a Shardbinder. This condition allows her to absorb crystal shards that are infused with demonic power, granting her the ability to wield their power but they will eventually crystallize her body as they sap the humanity from her. She was not the only Shardbinder, and fearing that the Industrial Revolution would render them obsolete, the Alchemists’ Guild uses the Shardbinders to open a portal to Hell as a scare tactic. Miriam does not take part in this ritual, as she has conveniently fallen into a deep slumber. The ritual goes about as well as one would expect. A Shardbinder named Gebel is the sole survivor of the ritual as all others were sacrificed in the process, and what was meant to be a scare tactic unleashed the unbridled forces and fury of Hell.

Ten years have passed and Miriam finally awakens from her slumber. Gebel has killed off the other guild members and commands the army of demons. He has holed himself up in in a demonic castle called Hellhold which he created. After taking in the events of the past decade, Miriam travels by boat with former alchemist Johannes to a village that has been virtually destroyed and overrun by demons not far from Hellhold. Johannes introduces Miriam to his friend Dominique, an exorcist who can assist Miriam by selling her goods through the church and disposing of excess shards. This area serves as a hub for Miriam to take on side quests from villagers, craft equipment, prepare food or get hints about her next objective in Hellhold.

Leaving the safe haven and venturing toward Hellhold, Bloodstained is exactly what fans were hoping for. The massive labyrinthine map is filled with demonic horrors and platforming action. As the player progresses through each area it becomes visibly apparent that many locations in the castle are inaccessible until later, which may be after a switch is activated or a new traversal ability has been acquired. This is in line with the Igavania formula, explore an area, kill a boss, unlock a new area or ability and do some backtracking to see what was inaccessible before. The boss designs are varied between deadly human opponents, monstrously-sized dragons and other horrific abominations. Most of these battles are challenging, but never unbeatable, especially if the player is well prepared with a good supply of food. None of the bosses felt excessively cheap and even the more difficult ones were taken down after a couple attempts. The challenge could have been balanced a little better, as there are some high difficulty spikes at odd points in the game with the later portions or bosses being much easier than their predecessors, but overall the difficulty level feels about right where the player is going to have to work for victory but won’t end up throwing their controller through their TV.

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
plays just like any of the 2D Castlevania titles from Symphony of the Night onward. The castle is designed for nonlinear exploration, though it is set up where in order to complete the game story objectives will be completed in a linear order. Miriam has a variety of weapons and abilities at her disposal as she explores the castle, along with RPG elements where she gains experience levels to grow stronger and use different equipment to further alter her stats. The enemies she kills have a random chance of giving her their shard, and those who have played Aria will know this is the soul system with a different name. There are different colors for shards that designate which how the player will use them. Some summon familiars, some are offensive tactics and others serve as passive stat boosters. The variety of shards are fun to play with and check out, but most players will likely stick to a few main ones they like and use them for the bulk of the game.

For people who wanted a Symphony style 2D Castlevania, Bloodstained is a dream come true. The castle and its various areas a joy to explore, even if some of layout is a little strange with some things such as an underground desert. The sense of exploration and searching for secrets is able to recreate the same magic of the dead horse we continue to beat the 1997 title that this is the spiritual successor to. Searching for recipe ingredients, customizing Miriam’s appearance and trying to cover every nook and cranny of the castle makes this a title that you will want to stay up all night playing, even if Johannes is a judgmental jerk who calls you out on that.

The homage to previous Castlevania titles is one of Bloodstained’s greatest features, but this is also the main reason for criticism. It does combine some of the best features of the previous Castlevania games into a new adventure and does a great job of it, but at the same time really doesn’t do anything to take the genre forward. Despite being a new IP, it plays like the development team was trying to take the best features from the Iga Castlevania titles and make a game that plays it safe by milking nostalgia for all its worth. There are several Easter eggs and nods to previous games, such as an interesting take on the concept of inversion, but relying too much on the familiar isn’t going to advance the formula at all. As to be expected in this type of game, there’s a lot of backtracking involved, and in this particular case a little too much with not enough worthwhile rewards to justify all the time spent retreading the same ground. This is especially true for people who want to complete the item list, since there is a ridiculously high amount of items, many of which have an extremely low chance of dropping. There were a few instances where the next place to go isn’t entirely clear and progressing to a certain area requires a random shard drop from a specific aquatic enemy that can be easy to miss.

Technically speaking, there isn’t much to complain about here. The soundtrack feels natural and was composed by Michiru Yamane who is no stranger to Castlevania music. The controls are smooth and responsive, making it difficult to blame repeated deaths on bad controls. The control setup also led to juggling the different types of souls and regular attacks in an intuitive manner. The art design is naturally reminiscent of another game series about killing vampire that may have been referenced earlier. For the most part this is one of the appealing factors, but the cel-shaded character designs sometimes clash with the 3D-modeled backgrounds. This also leads to an occasional glitch when in certain parts of the game the background tries to do a 3D illusion and random enemy dropped items are lost in the fake 3D world. Exploring the castle for every secret without any guides and getting all three endings took roughly fifteen hours during the review, which in subsequent playthroughs could easily be trimmed down to ten hours or less since all the secrets are now known.

Closing Comments:

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is everything Castlevania fans could possibly want and is a great 2D action platformer in its own right. Played by someone without no familiarity with Castlevania, this is a great game that does everything one would hope from the genre, but this really is a nostalgia goody bag for Castlevania fans and because of that it’s so far my personal favorite 2019 title. The developers did play it safe with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night and drew heavily from previous Castlevanias instead of introducing some new ideas and concepts. The result is an excellent game and it would be great to see Bloodstained grow as a franchise, adding more innovations to help balance out the heavy-handed sprinkling of nostalgia.